Thursday, June 28, 2018

Immigrants to the Prairie

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, 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
Antonia's family, the Shimerdas, were Bohemian.  A relative of Mrs. Shimerda had a cousin in Nebraska who sold the Shimerdas his homestead, and although they trusted this fellow countryman, he charged them more for the land than it was worth.  His cheating of the Shimerdas continued after they arrived, selling them his old stove for more than it was worth and telling them whatever he wanted them to believe.  When Jim and his grandmother called on the Shimerdas, Antonia's father gave Jim a book with both the English and the Bohemian alphabets.  "He placed this book in my grandmother's hands, looked at her entreatingly, and said, with an earnestness which I shall never forget, 'Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my An-tonia!"

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."
Antonia Welsch, the daughter of well-remembered CBS Sunday Morning show humorist, Roger Welsch, with his  "Notes from Nebraska," acquired her name from My Antonia, because her father loves the book.  She and Nina were members of a panel discussing "The Modern Global Midwest."  Speaking of today's immigrants, Antonia said, "...they are the Antonias today.  They are not Bohemian; they came from other places, but they are like her.  But, their stories are not being told."  As a member of that panel Nina McConigley shared more personal comments, telling about being taunted with 'You should go back to where you came from,' when Wyoming has been her home since early childhood.  In fact, she admitted, "I have a huge covered wagon tatou on my back--much to my Mother's chagrin."  Adding, "We all are 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.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Pavelka Family as Inspiration to Cather

One of the things that made the centennial celebration of the publication of My Antonia so special was the presence of descendants of Anna Pavelka.  A sign at the Pavelka home greets visitors with a picture of the Pavelka family, as shown at left.  

That Pavelka family has been extremely helpful and generous to the Cather Foundation in telling the story of My Antonia,  which is based on their family.  Each year at the spring conferences, family members are present, but the 2018 conference was particularly special because of the number of descendants that attended.  At the close of the tour, the descendants gathered for a group portrait, pictured below.

Among those family members is 98-year-old Antonette Willa Skupa Turner, the granddaughter of Anna Pavelka.  I believe she has attended every conference since we began attending  nine years ago, and although she has grown a bit stooped and moves more slowly since we first met her, her enthusiasm has not waned.  She will proudly tell you about the red beads her grandmother Anna gave to her. Recently she has established two scholarships for students from among those submitting essays about  My Antonia or Neighbour Rosicky, a Cather short story first published in 1930 and republished in a collection titled Obscure Destinies. Her essay competition is open to both male and female seniors in high school, they may be planning to major in either English or History, and one of the scholarships is open to students living outside of Nebraska.

Scholarships are an important part of the Cather Foundation's mission.  The first scholarship program was established by Norma Ross Walter, for Nebraska female seniors planning to major in English.  The young recipients of that scholarship over the years have gone on to become leaders in their diverse fields--truly an impressive group of women.  A new scholarship awarded this year for the first time is the Educators' Scholarship, open to English teachers across the nation.  One of the recipients (from California) was unable to attend the conference, but Cynthia Adams, from Clarence High School in New York, exhibited the enthusiasm and passion to ignite a love for reading in students.  How lucky her students are, and how exciting to have a teacher sharing her passion for Willa Cather with another generation of students.

I must add this postscript:  Teachers from California and New York are enthusiastically sharing Willa Cather with their students, introducing this great American author to them, at the same time most schools in Nebraska and Kansas no longer teach Cather.  This accomplished author of the Great Plains should not be ignored in the very region about which she writes.

(Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Because today is Flag Day...

Because today is Flag Day, I am adding a bonus post, in addition to my continuing series about "My Antonia."  When my Mother was a little girl, her father teased her about all of the flags flying on her June 14th birthday.  He told her the flags were for her.  I'm not sure she ever really doubted that they were!

In a way, those flags do fly for all of us, and so I post this special Flag Day blog with some wisdom from past Presidents, and one from the United States Supreme Court, to remind us why we honor that glorious symbol of our nation.

The way to secure liberty is to place it in the people's hands, that is, to give them the power at all times to defend it in the legislature and in the courts of justice.  John Adams

A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government.  In a republic what species of knowledge can be equally important?  And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be future guardians of the liberties of the country?  George Washington

We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.  United States Supreme Court, Texas v. Johnson

America will never be destroyed from the outside.  If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.  Abraham Lincoln

No government is perfect.  One of the chief virtues of a democracy, however, is that its defects are always visible and under democratic processes can be pointed out and corrected.  Harry S. Truman

America has never been united by blood or birth or soil.  We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens.  George W. Bush

May the wisdom of those words inspire all of us, and long may our flag fly.

The "Real" Antonia's Home

On one of our early visits to Red Cloud, Nebraska, we drove north of town to visit the Pavelka farm home in which Annie Sadilek Pavelka and her husband had raised their large family.  Of course, if you read last week's blog you know that Annie was the inspiration for Willa Cather's fictionalized Antonia in My Antonia.

This year, in celebration of the Centennial year of My Antonia's publication in 1918, the Willa Cather Foundation focused on that novel for its annual spring conference.  One of the events available to those scholars and Cather fans attending the conference was a pilgrimage to the Pavelka Farmstead.

 Last week's blog shared a picture of the young Anna.  The image at left shows Anna later in her life, still with eyes "big and warm and full of light, like the sun shining on brown pools in the wood," but with the sunken cheeks about which Antonia told Jim Burden, "I haven't got many [teeth] left.  But I feel just as young as I used to, and I can do as much work."

Having recently acquired the farmstead, the Cather Foundation has plans to make needed repairs to the house, which has declined in recent years since the time the above photograph of the house was taken.  In addition, the Foundation plans to plant the orchard that was once part of the farm.

"At some distance behind the house were an ash grove and two orchards:  a cherry orchard, with gooseberry and currant bushes between the rows, and an apple orchard, sheltered by a high hedge from the hot winds."  

During the visit to the farm we were able to tour the interior of the farmhouse, and as I saw the sinks in the kitchen, I could only think of Antonia's daughter Anna telling her mother, "Now, mother, sit down and talk to Mr. Burden.  We'll finish the dishes quietly and not disturb you."

I climbed the stairs to the second level, imagining Antonia/Anna's large family living in this house.  My imagination was further stimulated as I watched one of Anna Pavelka's great grandsons looking with curiosity into the attic.  

Although the plantings are no longer the same as they were when Anna Pavelka and her family lived in the house, as I wandered off by myself I discovered beautiful peony bushes in bloom and captured my own image reflected in the glass of a window for a photographic remembrance of myself visiting the farmhouse.

I was also lucky to capture a photograph of four of Anna Pavelka's great granddaughters walking together along one side of the house.  It was easy for me to imagine Antonia's daughters walking by the house instead.

I cannot help but look forward to future visits to the Pavelka farm when the orchards and the "grape arbor, with seats built along the sides and a warped plank table" where Antonia and Jim paused to visit have been recreated for future visitors to the farm.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

My Antonia Belongs to Many of Us

Anna Pavelka
My Antonia was first published in 1918, and this is the year of its centennial.  As I often have done after our return from the annual Cather Conference in Red Cloud, Nebraska, I share some of our experiences on my blog.  This year is no exception, especially because it is the centennial year of many people's favorite Cather book.

Those of you familiar with Willa Cather know that many of her characters are based on real people, and the settings for many of her stories are actually Red Cloud, Nebraska given different names.  Antonia Shimerda was inspired by a real person named Anna Pavelka, who is pictured at right.  Cather's admiration and respect for Anna is obvious from the quote accompanying the photograph, for she describes the character she plans to create from Anna as being "like a rare object in the middle of a table which one may examine from all sides."  (Image from display in the Red Cloud Opera House, Cather Foundation.)

I first read My Antonia one summer when I would have been about the same age Antonia was when she arrived in Red Cloud with her family, immigrants from Bohemia.  My older brother had read My Antonia in a college class and had brought the book home with him when he retuned for the summer.  Willa Cather became one of my favorite authors that summer and remains so today.

I recall that I struggled with the idea that when Jim Burden returned to Red Cloud and visited Antonia at the close of the novel, she was the mother of a large family, "a stalwart, brown woman, flat-chested, her curly brown hair a little grizzled," lacking most of her teeth.  I wanted her to be the pretty girl Jim had loved as a boy, but Jim taught me a lesson about beauty.  "I know so many women who have kept all the things that she had lost, but whose inner glow has faded.  Whatever else was gone, Antonia had not lost the fire of life."  As he lay awake that night, sleeping in the haymow with two of Antonia's boys sleeping nearby, Jim realized, "She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things.  ...All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions."

How amazing that this fictional character that had so impressed me when I was such a young girl was so closely based upon a real person.

Willa Cather, born on December 7, 1873 arrived in Webster County, Nebraska in 1883, a ten-year-old from the South adjusting to life on the prairie, just as the fictional Jim Burden arrives in the novel from the South as a ten year old.  Most of the Cathers' neighbors are European immigrants, just as Jim Burden's neighbors were.  When Cather enrolls in Red Cloud High School in 1884, she meets Annie Sadilek Pavelka, the girl that she transforms into the fictional Antonia.  In 1915, while on a visit to her old hometown of Red Cloud, Cather visits her childhood friend, Annie Pavelka, and in 1917 she writes My Antonia.

When I read a fine novel, the characters often come alive for me, and in the case of My Antonia, Cather truly placed her childhood friend, "a rare object," at the heart of her novel for us to appreciate "from all sides."