Analysis Pages

Historical Context in My Ántonia

Homestead Acts and Frontier Life: The Homestead Act of 1862 was passed during the American Civil War (1861–1865) in an attempt to prevent the westward expansion of slavery. The Homestead Acts offered 160-acre parcels of land for a small filing fee if the settlers, called Homesteaders, agreed to work the land for a minimum of five years. This was an attractive option, especially for the working poor who sought an escape from the more rigid socioeconomic hierarchy of the coastal cities. It was also attractive for immigrants, like the Shimerdas, who hoped it would help them pursue the “American Dream” of becoming wealthy. However, most Homesteaders had no background in farming and had little money to buy the necessary tools to work the land. Resources were limited and socioeconomic hierarchies developed quickly, with immigrants‚many unable to read or speak fluent English—at the bottom.

Women in the 19th-Century American Frontier: During the 19th century, economic options for women were limited. If a family had the resources to send one of their children to school or to an apprenticeship in a town, it was typically the oldest son. Girls were expected to help with farm work, care for their younger siblings, and eventually get married. Financial independence was not something available to most girls, so marriage was the only option they would have to improve their situations. By the end of My Antonia, Cather subverts a lot of these narrative expectations surrounding gender through the stories of the Black Hawk working girls. Tiny Soderball, Lena Lingard, and Antonia all defy expectations and come to embody their own versions of success.

Historical Context Examples in My Ántonia:

Book I - Chapter I

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"Black Hawk, Nebraska...."   (Book I - Chapter I)

The fictional city of Black Hawk is likely patterned after Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska. Much like Jim, Cather’s family moved to Nebraska from Virginia when she was nine. This analogue suggests that My Ántonia is semi-autobiographical. The relationship between Jim and Ántonia also mirrors the relationship between Cather and a girl she knew growing up named Annie Sadilek. Sadilek was left, pregnant, by a fiancé but later found happiness with a faithful partner and had many children.

" Egyptian obelisk..."   (Book I - Chapter I)

An obelisk is a rectangular stone pillar with a tapered top forming a pyramidion, or pyramid-shaped capstone. Egyptian obelisks were erected to honor pharaohs and the gods. They were often inscribed with hieroglyphics, recording histories and religious stories which flaunted the power and prestige of the pharaoh who had commissioned them—much like the passenger conductor’s badges and buttons.

"hieroglyphics..."   (Book I - Chapter I)

Hieroglyphics were the written symbols used by ancient Egyptians. Jim notices the hieroglyphics on the cufflinks of the passenger conductor and further describes the man’s gaudy display of his membership badges and buttons. This impresses the young, inexperienced Jim, highlighting his relative youth and fascination with anything “exotic” or outside of his realm of knowledge.

"sod houses and dugouts..."   (Book I - Chapter II)

Common building materials like wood and stone were in limited supply on the frontier, so pioneers had to make do when building shelters. Sod houses were made by stacking squares of sod, thickly packed soil held together by dense prairie grass roots, up into walls, which were then often covered with tarps or wood panels. They were incredibly cheap but also required routine maintenance since they were not water resistant. Dugouts were an older and even cheaper form of dwelling, made by digging a hole in the ground and covering it with a makeshift roof. The fact that the Burdens live in a wooden house, rather than a sod house or a dugout, indicates that they are relatively wealthy.

"Bohemian family..."   (Book I - Chapter II)

“Bohemian” refers to immigrants from a region of Central Europe now known as the Czech Republic. My Ántonia was set during the height of “Manifest Destiny,” an idea popularized throughout the 19th century which encouraged westward expansion in the name of American values. The US Government had passed the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered cheap land to anyone willing to move west and cultivate it. This legislation attracted not only Americans but also a large number of European immigrants, like the fictional Shimerdas. Cather’s experiences with immigrant families during her time in the west are credited as a reason for her nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of people who were often scorned or ignored by the literature of the day.

"child with croup..."   (Book I - Chapter VIII)

The disease croup affects a breathing because of congestion in the lungs and is most common in infants and young children. It is possibly an older name for whooping cough, a disease that killed many young children in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Pavel’s rage leaves him, he is left weak and childlike, barely able to draw breath. His decision to tell the story of the wolves and the wedding in this moment indicates that he knows he is going to die and wants to confess to someone before doing so.

"hartshorn bottle...."   (Book I - Chapter IX)

The term “hart’s horns” used to refer to a deer’s antlers. In the 19th century, the antlers were crushed up to create smelling salts and were a ubiquitous medicine. Some uses included the treatment of diarrhea, fever, sunstroke, insect bites, and snake bites. Hartshorn was also used as a source of ammonia and has been noted for its strong stench. Jim refers to that here as he compares breathing in the cold winter air to breathing in foul smelling hartshorn, which could “burn” the back of the throat.

"Protestantizing..."   (Book I - Chapter XII)

To “Protestantize” something is to make something more aligned with Protestant beliefs. The Shimerdas are Catholic, whereas the Burdens are Protestant. Catholicism and Protestantism have a torrid history and served as a point of continuous conflict and cultural distance between different immigrant communities.

"deferred..."   (Book I - Chapter XIII)

The verb “to defer” means to submit or accept another’s will or authority. Traditionally, the oldest male in a household was seen as the leader of the family. Eldest sons were typically given the best opportunities and were privileged above other siblings. Ambrosch, as the oldest son and the reason the Shimerdas moved to America, is thus deferred to by the other siblings and his mother.

"“it will be a matter of years to pray his soul out of Purgatory, and right now he's in torment.”..."   (Book I - Chapter XIV)

In Catholicism, it is believed that the soul goes to an in-between place of torment called purgatory before it reaches heaven. The duration of the soul’s stay in purgatory is based on the weight of its sins, since purgatory exists in order to purify the soul so that it can enter heaven—a concept explored in Dante’s Purgatory. The deceased’s family and friends can shorten their duration in purgatory by offering prayers, attending masses, and burning candles. For Catholics, suicide is considered a mortal sin, so Mr. Shimerda’s family will need to pray for “a matter of years” before his soul will be free from purgatory.

"inquisitions..."   (Book I - Chapter XV)

An “inquisition” is similar to a trial, in which an interrogator examines a suspect through a series of severe question. The most infamous inquisition is the Spanish Inquisition, and this is an allusion to that event, which took place in Europe from the Middle Ages until it was officially ended by decree in 1834. During the Inquisition, many people, specifically religious minorities, were tortured and killed because of supposed heresy. The fact that the Norwegians refuse to allow Mr. Shimerda to be buried on their land because of his Catholicism and his suicide showcases the religious conflicts that took place between the different groups in the West. Mrs. Burden alludes to the inquisition as a way of condemning the exclusionary treatment and plans to open a more “liberal-minded” plot in the future.

"Sacrament to dying men,..."   (Book I - Chapter XV)

In Catholicism, there are seven acknowledged sacraments, separated into three categories: initiation, healing, and service. The one that Jelinek refers to is the second sacrament of healing, the Anointing of the Sick, in which a priest blesses the sick and dying in order to prepare them for their journey to the afterlife.

"cholera..."   (Book I - Chapter XV)

Cholera is a highly infectious disease that spreads through water and food that has been contaminated by bacteria. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, cholera was very deadly and could greatly reduce entire populations in short amounts of time. During the 19th century, especially out on the frontier where there were fewer doctors and restricted access to medicine, cholera was a major concern.

"We believe that Christ is our only intercessor.”..."   (Book I - Chapter XV)

Protestants believe that Christ can mediate between a person and God, whereas Catholics believe that priests serve as liaisons between the two. Since Mr. Burden is unable to find a priest for Mr. Shimerda’s funeral, there is no one but his family to pray for him or intercede with God on his behalf.

"colic..."   (Book I - Chapter XVIII)

Colic is a disease that affects a horse's intestinal tract, causing difficulty in breathing. It was an extremely dangerous disease during the 19th century and could have resulted in the Shimerdas’ losing their horse.

"Negro minstrel troupes..."   (Book II - Chapter III)

“Negro minstrel troupes” were groups of traveling singers and dancers that became popular in the mid-to-late 1800s. They were made up of all black performers, including women, and typically put on performances with themes related to plantation life or slavery in order to appeal to the predominantly white audiences’ sense of curiosity and social expectations. It was a dangerous profession, especially in the South, but some troupes went on to become quite famous. They helped spread songs and musical styles that would have been largely unfamiliar to white audiences.

"an age when she should still have been in pinafores...."   (Book II - Chapter IV)

Pinafores are aprons worn over dresses in order to keep them clean while working or playing. Since Lena was one of the older children in her family, she had to do farm work from a young age and was often out in the fields working in tattered clothes. Ole Benson takes notice of her at an age when she should “still have been in pinafores,” leading to the rumor that she seduced him despite her youth. Lena laughs off the incident and seems largely indifferent towards the opinions of the townspeople, who are quick to blame her for the indiscretions of grown men.

"creche..."   (Book II - Chapter VI)

A “creche” is manger scene celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in the Christian tradition. Though nativity scenes were present in most Christian cultures, the lands of both Czechoslovakia and Bohemia, now the modern-day Czech Republic, have a special relationship with them. Due to a ban on church-sponsored creches in 1782 by Emperor Joseph II, people began making their own creches for use at home. Ever since then, it has been a popular art form and cultural staple during the winter holidays.

"Laplander's..."   (Book II - Chapter VI)

“Laplander,” sometimes shortened to “Lapp,” is a derogatory term for the Sami people, a largely nomadic group indigenous to northern Europe. The Sami have a long history of being discriminated against by their neighbors in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. As northern Europeans began immigrating to North America, they brought their prejudice towards the Sami with them. Many Sami families who came to the United States hid their heritage in order to avoid this discrimination, but the negative stereotypes surrounding them persisted, as evidenced by Jim’s unflattering depictions. On top of class divisions between wealthier americans and immigrants, national origin provided a further source of division between different immigrant communities.

" go into service. ..."   (Book II - Chapter IX)

Rather than allowing slavery to migrate west after the American Civil War, northerners devised the Homestead Acts of the 1860s, which offered free land to people willing to move to the West and farm. Many of those who took advantage of the Homestead Acts were poor and saw this as an opportunity to improve their circumstances. However, most had no farming experience and found the lands difficult to work. This led to the practice of sending daughters “into service” in nearby towns to become cooks, maids, and nannies for wealthier families so they could send money home. Jim’s ability to attend school and pursue college provides a contrast to the lives of Antonia, Lena, and the other working girls, emphasizing their very different socioeconomic circumstances.

"schottische..."   (Book II - Chapter XII)

A “schottische” is a type of dance done in the round with hops at certain intervals. Dances like the ones Jim starts going to with Antonia and the other working girls at the Firehouse were seen as “improper” for respectable young people. Jim, who comes from a wealthy family, is looked down on for associating with the immigrant girls rather than socializing with other wealthy americans.

"Virgil..."   (Book II - Chapter XIV)

Virgil (70–19 BCE) is considered one of the greatest Roman poets, and his most famous work, The Aeneid, is a cornerstone of the western literary canon. At the end of the 19th century, The Aeneid would have been required reading for anyone hoping to go to college. Memorizing the text, as Jim does, was a common practice and seen as a mark of intellect and educational distinction.

"poulticing me, and rubbing me with arnica...."   (Book II - Chapter XV)

A poultice is a soft, paste-like mixture of plants and herbs that have been mashed together. Many herbs and plants have medicinal properties, like pain relief, and were applied to the bodies of people who were injured or ill. Arnica is a specific type of plant known for its pain-relieving qualities. It is poisonous if consumed in large quantities but remains a common home remedy. Especially in the often poor and rural western territories, doctors were scarce and expensive, so people had to depend on home remedies like poultices for minor injuries.

"Tragic Theater at Pompeii,..."   (Book III - Chapter I)

The Tragic Theatre of Pompeii is a famous Roman structure buried by the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. The excavation of the site began in 1748 and has continued intermittently over the years. Roman culture and history has always occupied a significant space within academia. Jim’s new lodgings and his friendship with Gaston Cleric represent a shift in his social situation. He is no longer running around with immigrant children in the West but has instead entered “proper” society as his family has been hoping he would.

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