As a nation consisting of multiple races, the relationship between people from different national origins is always a major issue of the American society. In Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia, she discusses 19th century Americans’ attitudes toward foreigners. In the 19th century, a great number of immigrants from Europe came to America. Since it was such a huge flood of immigration, there is no way that Americans were not influenced by the new-comers. Therefore, original American citizens started to have different ideas toward foreigners. Through the mostly open attitude to foreigners and the negative stereotypes minorities had toward immigrants, Cather, in her novel My Antonia, portrays the 19th century attitudes toward foreigners in a historically accurate manner.
In Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia, Americans’ attitudes toward foreigners in the 19th century is one of the major theme. According to Willa Cather’s novel, most of the Americans in the 19th century are friendly and approachable toward foreigners. When the Shimerda family first comes to Nebraska, the Burdens soon go over to “make the acquaintance” (Cather 15) with their new neighbors and are even “taking them some provisions” (15) as the Shimerdas may have problems with their land. The Burdens are showing the Shimerdas that they are welcomed in the new land. Another example is that on weekends “the country boys come in from farms eight and ten miles away” (126) to dance with the immigrant girls. Immigrant girls are attractive to the boys as well and some boys like Jim even prefer immigrant girls. However, some Americans do not understand foreigners’ culture and have negative stereotypes toward them. Mrs. Burden sees Mrs. Shimerda’s treasurable mushrooms as trash and just “throws the package into the stove” (52) without looking at it. She believes that the Shimerdas’ gift is worthless just because it come from a foreigner. She does not understand their cultures. Also, after fighting with Ambrosch, Jake and Jim Burden comment that all the foreigners are not “the same” (84) and are not “to be trusted” (84). Only because of their experience with a foreign individual, they see the whole foreign group negatively. These portrayals by Willa Cather in My Antonia expressly suggests a variety of 19th century attitudes toward foreigners.
In her novel My Antonia, Willa Cather's depiction that most of the Americans in 19th century were open to the immigrants is accurate. Foreigners were “fairly” (Gilded) welcomed “for most of the 19th century” (Gilded) because Americans thought they would contribute to the country economically either as farmers or cheap labors. According to The American Vision, “in 1862 the government encouraged settlement on the Great Plains by passing the Homestead Act. For a $10 registration fee, an individual could file for a homestead - a tract of public land available for settlement. A homesteader could claim up to 160 acres of land and could receive title to that land after living there for five years. Later government legislation increased the size of the tracts available” (Appleby 167). Not only the Homestead Act was passed by the Congress to support the immigrant farmers, various states established different policies that were appealing to the foreign farmers as well. For instance, Texas announced on newspapers that they had “an abundance of small farms” (Galveston) with “comfortable houses for families” (Galveston). “Farming implements” (Galveston) and “also provisions” (Galveston) were provided for any farmers that were willing to come. The Nebraska Immigration Association also advertised “Land for the Landless! Homes for the Homeless!” (Horn 195). Foreigners were welcomed as cheaper labors as well. The critics suggested that “immigrants worked hard” (Danver) and the American industrial system boomed partially “because of the low cost of immigrant labors” (Danver). Sometimes these labors were well treated by their bosses. A Chinese labor who could not understand English when he first came to America was showed by his employer herself “how to cook, wash, iron, weep, dust, make beds, wash dishes, clean windows, paint and brass, and polish the knives and forks” (Appleby 221). He furthermore stated that his employers “were very good” (221) to him. This Chinese labor’s experience was similar to the Shimerdas since they both received generous assistance from the local people. Moreover, there were Americans in the 19th century fighting for the rights of the immigrants. They remarked that “the immigrant has as much right here as any American” (Sacramento). Powerfully, newspaper writers claimed that “it matters not where one finds his way into this “breathing world” if he is a man and a good citizen” (Sacramento) and they were “always ready to him the right hand of fellowship” (Sacramento). Similarly, a Milwaukee newspaper argued in 1873 that the government should provide foreigners “a decent reception” (Milwaukee) and “guard them from the assaults of pestilent thieves” (Milwaukee). On the other hand, one immigrant even advised “everybody in Norway who lives under unhappy and straitened circumstances to come to Minnesota” (Horn 195). His words perfectly reflected how immigrants were being welcomed at the time. In short, Americans were generally open to foreigners in the 19th century.
In the novel, Cather also depicts how some of the Americans do not understand foreign cultures and have a negative stereotype toward immigrants. It is historically accurate as well. Similar to the content in the novel when Mrs. Burden saw Mrs. Shimerda’s treasurable mushrooms as trash, Americans did not always understand the foreign cultures. When immigrants came to the United States, “groups of specific ethnic or racial backgrounds settled together in small clusters” (Holt 40). The culture differences between the new-comers and the natives made them separate themselves and further cause the lack of understanding. As more and more foreigners came, “numerous newspapers” (Holt 26) had to “take particular pains to explain” (26) the cultures of immigrants. Just as Jake and Jim’s comments toward Ambrosch indicated, “not all Americans welcomed immigrants” (Appleby 91) and “some had feelings of nativism” (91). According to history researchers, “anti-immigration hysteria reached fever points during periods of massive influxes of foreigners” (Immigration) as they brought “different cultures as well as different religious traditions” (Danver). Like Cather’s novel indicated, sometimes foreigners were “considered culturally inferior” (Danver) and their poverty was the “result of laziness, superstition, and ignorance” (Appleby 218). One sociologist at the time even described immigrants as “hirsute, low-browed, big-faced persons of obviously low mentality” (Gilded). Repeatedly, foreigners had to face nativism in a variety of places. The fact that they lived in ethnic communities reflects they could not find “affordable quality housing” (Danver) outside their neighborhood since they were “facing discrimination” (Danver). In school, some of the Bohemian children in Nebraska “were harassed by nonimmigrant classmates” (Holt). Politically, Americans founded The Know Nothings, which was a party who had “strong nativist reaction to the influx” (Danver) of immigrants. They saw the “new immigrants as corrupting to the American body politic, as they believed their actions and especially their votes would be controlled by the pope” (Danver). Therefore, they tried to keep foreigners out of office. When immigrants were looking for jobs, they could not find jobs “except for the most degrading and low-paying positions” (Immigration). At the same time, many labor unions opposed immigration as they argued that “that immigrants undermined American workers because they would work for low wages and accept jobs as strikebreakers” (Appleby 217). As the result, some shops put up signs like NINA, “which stood for No Irish Need Apply” (Gilded). In some area, this nativism attitude was so influential that even if a person “got along wonderfully well” (Holt 27) with an immigrant, he “had to pretend that he didn’t like” (27) the foreigner “when some of the town boys were looking” (27). Interestingly enough, even the Pledge of Allegiance was first introduced “as a means of reinforcing traditional American values in the face of overwhelming immigration” (Immigration). In a word, nativism emerged in the 19th century among some of the Americans since they did not like the coming foreigners.
In conclusion, Willa Cather’s descriptions of the 19th century attitudes toward foreigners in My Antonia are historically accurate. The discussion about the attitudes toward foreigners is still a major topic in current society. Even though hundreds of years has passed, many countries still have a large immigrant population. Not only immigrants, many people also debate over their countries’ attitudes toward refugees often. Besides that, with the development of transportation, more and more people go abroad to travel or study. They occasionally face discrimination as well. Therefore, natives’ attitudes toward foreigners have become more and more important over the years. If everybody in this world has a proper attitude toward foreigners, this world will have less conflicts.