A novel about pioneers, My Ántonia recounts stories of European immigrants who sought prosperity in Nebraska at the end of the nineteenth century, focusing on how these immigrants transformed America and how America changed them.
The title character of Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia is Bohemian immigrant Ántonia Shimerda. Narrator Jim Burden first encounters the Shimerda family as a boy traveling from Virginia to Black Hawk, Nebraska. The family is indicative of many eastern Europeans who began new lives in Nebraska. As the English tutor of the teenage Ántonia, Jim learns about the hardships endured by the Shimerdas and other neighboring families, who are subjected to discrimination from Anglo-Saxon Americans and more established immigrant families from western and northern Europe.
Often, new immigrants are exploited in business, as the Shimerdas are by the fellow countryman who sells them their farm. They are also criticized for what is perceived to be their primitive culture and superstitious religious beliefs. Nevertheless, the European cultures of the immigrant families brighten the tapestry of Great Plains life for Jim. From the Austrian stories told by Otto Fuchs, the Burdens’ hired man, to the brazen sensuality of young Norwegians such as Lena Lingard, to the raucous dance hall run by the Italian Vannis family, Jim comes to understand the rich vitality of ethnic life. Jim’s view of European immigrants imbues the novel with a message of
Prchal, Tim. “The Bohemian Paradox: My Ántonia and Popular Images of Czech Immigrants.” MELUS 29, no. 2 (2004): 4-25. Smith, Christopher, ed. Readings on “My Ántonia.” San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2001.
Czech and Slovakian immigrants