Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia was highly regarded as one of the first books to bring the story of early American immigrants to the Midwest to life. In considering that the depiction of immigrants in 1918 describing the 1880s, and the 130 years that have passed since that time, it is interesting to see both the similarities and differences to the way that immigrants are regarded today. There are similarities in that there continues to be an American dream, immigrants are expected to take jobs that no one else wants, and there continues to be discrimination towards non-Americans who settle in the country; however today there is also a deep distrust of immigrants, a fear that immigrants are stealing jobs from Americans and concern about the security of the American people in the presence of foreigners. While immigration was accepted as part of the fabric of America, this is relegated to a past over a century ago, and new standards of values in society see America growing and developing through walls which isolate and protect from foreign influences and people.

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Immigration Stereotypes Today and in Cather’s My Antonia

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Jim Burden is the narrator of Cather’s story, and he represents the ideal American who has worked hard and earns the classic material rewards (Tellefsen, 229). He was an orphan who loved trains, growing up on his grandparents Nebraska farm. It was here that he meets the Shimerdas, his new Bohemian immigrant neighbors who had a profound and positive effect on him. In fact, My Antonia is a story that is really about his life, and not about Antonia Shimerda’s life but rather how her life was viewed by Jim Burden. As the representative of the all-American boy who now lives the American dream, he is also very touched and impressed by Antonia and how she impacted on his childhood. Here, Cather is providing us with insight into what we may be missing in America because we no longer invite immigrants to join us, work hard, and to share in the American dream. Burden sees Antonia, as a young immigrant girl who becomes a strong American woman to be the embodiment of America and its romantic myths of coming into being (Tellefsen, 229). This is a perspective of immigrants that is no longer shared by Americans, who have come to have a very negative view of immigrants, their success, and immigration policies which allow immigration to have at all.

President Trump represents a fundamental difference between the context for immigrants in America in the 1880s and the situations that they face today. Immigrants have faced discrimination and racism before, but with leaders such as Trump encouraging racism, and the institution of new discriminatory policies and the termination of programs such as the Dream Act and DACA, Trump has indicated a new kind of hatred towards not only the immigrant, but the potential immigrant. When Trump was first elected in November 2016, he indicated that as soon as he was in power he would deport three million undocumented immigrants and refugees (Garcia, n.p.). This is interesting considering some of the justifications which are given for these beliefs, which have at their root the idea that immigrants are not good for the economy, and they take good jobs away from hardworking Americans. Over the course of Cather’s story, the Antonia of the title becomes the hardworking American mother and farmer who would today represent to a descendent proof of their American roots. That same American might point out that through hard work Antonia was able to master life in America, become a farm owner, and help to make American great. Immigrants today do not have this sort of chance, like Antonia Shimerda and countless like her, because they are never given a chance to work hard to benefit themselves. Constant discrimination in immigration laws can leave immigrants feeling uncertain about the future. The frontier today is not unbroken farmland but rather sciences, engineering and technology, as well as the jobs that Americans do not want to do. To be an immigrant to America one must either have skills that are hard to find in the American population, or they must be capable and willing to do the jobs that would otherwise go vacant due to poor conditions and pay (Prchal, 3). While it is true in Cather’s story, as told by Jim Burden, that the hired girls did jobs that were labor intensive and not prized by Americans, they were stepping stones to something better. While capable immigrants may be able to get jobs, they face extensive discrimination in achieving promotions or a better life because they are in a society that does not want them there. The differences between Cather’s 1880 Nebraska and today is the low status and position of immigrants, which in the past was relative to the jobs they are offered and take, is today replaced by a deeper and more hate-filled perspective on the work intentions of immigrants, and a belief that they are undermining, rather than providing a workforce for, building a great America. Where is the past they worked hard to achieve the American dream, today it is believed that they take the American dream away from Americans with their cheap labor, and undermine American culture by bringing in their own.

Mexicans also played a great part in late 19th century American history, and many helped to settle the American Midwest. In the remarks of President Trump, they are positioned as outsiders and criminals. Trump said: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (Reilly, n.p.). In fact, by looking at literature about My Antonia and the image of the Czech immigrants that were held by Americans at the time, it becomes clear that perhaps the late 19th century was not a kinder and gentler period towards immigrants at all. Instead, Cather, through the voice of Jim Burden, is attempting to make the case for why we as Americans should not hate immigrants who come to help make America great. Her point is deepened by the passage of time and the realization that the very immigrant that she was defending then has become in our eyes today one of the stellar American citizens and builders of early America.

The pioneer spirit of immigrants and non-immigrants alike in the 1880s is the opposite of the fear of Mexicans, Muslims and other foreigners. Back then, immigrants were an important and positive part of American history, while today they are simply the villains for the problems faced by America, from unemployment to crime. While the settling of the Western frontier is a mythical part of the development of America and an important part of history, this concept has fall away into history. The distrust and discrimination towards immigrants at that time continues today, however it is not Bohemians who are distrusted, but rather Latin Americans, Mexicans, and Muslims from a variety of countries but North Africa and the Middle East. We as Americans will miss out on their potential contribution, innovation or even taking on the necessary roles that Americans were not willing to do because the fears have now hardened into a change in policy that effectively closes the immigration gates. According to Cather, it is our loss, just as never meeting Antonia would have been a loss for Jim Burden.

  • Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Vol. 228. Everyman’s Library, 1996 (originally published in 1918).
  • Garcia, Feliks. “Donald Trump says he’s going to deport up to three million undocumented immigrants immediately”. The Independent. November 13, 2016. Accessed December 9, 2017. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-deport-immigrants-immediately-when-mexico-wall-a7415116.html
  • Prchal, Tim. “The Bohemian Paradox:” My Ántonia” and Popular Images of Czech Immigrants.” Melus (2004): 3-25.
  • Reilly, Katie. “Here Are All the Times Donald Trump Insulted Mexico”. Time. August 31, 2016. Accessed December 9, 2017. Available from: http://time.com/4473972/donald-trump-mexico-meeting-insult/
  • Tellefsen, Blythe. “Blood in the Wheat: Willa Cather’s My Antonia.” Studies in American Fiction 27.2 (1999): 229-244.