|A sign at the Pavelka Farm|
Using My Antonia as a way to explore the immigrant experience is one of the important but perhaps overlooked reasons to read or study the novel. Antonia, the heroine of the novel, came from Bavaria with her family when she was fourteen years old. The challenges of learning a new language and new customs, the dishonesty imposed on them by people who took advantage of their unfamiliarity with the language and what was expected of them, and the isolation and loneliness they felt are all important themes in the novel and completely relevant to things today's immigrants experience.
The immigrant family pictured below came to America from England in 1882. The husband joined a brother in Marion County, Ohio, working in the steel mills. Five years later they left for Kansas, eventually becoming one of Isaac Werner's neighbors and friends. The baby on her mother's lap is my grandmother. She never returned for a visit to the country of her birth. With my great grandfather's brother already living in America, my ancestors had family to help them get settled,
and having come from England, they already spoke the language of their new home. Not all immigrants have those advantages.
According to a timeline at Preceden.com, there have been four waves of immigration in America. The 1st Wave dates from 1790 to 1820, motivated by a variety of religious, political, and economic reasons. They came by boat, and 1 in 10 would die from starvation, disease or shipwreck before reaching America. Most were from Europe.
The 2nd Wave from 1820-1860 was motivated by new opportunities, encouragement from friends and family already here, and some were agricultural workers, having been displaced by the industrial revolution. They were most likely to be British, Irish, and German
The 3rd Wave from 1880-1914 was likely seeking jobs and/or freedom of religion, and Chinese, Japanese, and other Asians were a large percentage.
The 4th Wave, 1965 to the present includes Europeans, Asians, and Hispanics. The percentage of Europeans has significantly declined, with Asians having made up about 1/3th of the immigrants in the 1980s through the early 1990s and Hispanics making up about 1/2 during that same period.
Most Americans do not have to search their genealogy very far to find their own family's history of immigration.
|An English Immigrant Family|
For many generations of immigrants, learning to speak English was essential to their success, and often a young member of the family assumed the responsibility of learning the language. Many immigrants settled in communities of their fellow countrymen because of the common language, but this slowed their assimilation into the culture of their new homes even more.
At the Cather Conference one panel titled "Modern Immigration Narratives on the Great Plains" consisted of four students from the University of Nebraska who shared their experiences of immigrating from Mexico and Central America. Their majors were Foreign Language & Literature with a minor in business; International Studies; Pre-law; and Pre-med, and they spoke of the same issues that plagued the Shimerdas--language, work, missing family and friends, and economic worries. The panelist studying neuro-science undergraduate in preparation for medical school shared that some of her friends claimed that she didn't deserve a scholarship because it was given to her because of "her ethnicity". She said, "I'm quick to tell them, 'No, it's because of my ACT scores.'"
The Key Note Speaker at the Conference was Nina McConigley, author of Cowboys and East Indians. Born in Singapore and raised in Wyoming, she has long been a Cather fan, explaining, "Cather writes with so much compassion. I just love her." Later she added, "When I read Cather, I feel seen." Her book, a collection of short stories, was the 2014 Pen Literary award winner.
|"We are all pioneers."|
An audience member added: "When we read, it lets us get into another's head, and Willa Cather is such a good head to be in." As the panel and many of those attending the conference agreed, My Antonia can be read for many reasons, but reading it to gain insight into the challenges of immigration, from both the perspective of immigrants and those already living here, is certainly one important theme.