Religious Attitudes in Early Immigrant Autobiographies Written by Czechs in Texas

Article excerpt

The first group of ethnic Czech immigrants to Texas arrived in 1851. (1) Other groups followed, but immigration was impeded by the American Civil War, and fewer than 800 foreign-born Czechs lived in Texas in 1870 (Machann and Mendl 41). At about that time, however, a new wave of Czech immigration began, and the number of foreign-born Czechs living in Texas had climbed to more than 3,000 by 1890, and to more than 15,000 by 1910. This movement was part of a massive migration of people from the Austrian empire to the United States and other countries. By 1920, the number of "foreign white stock" identified as ethnic Czechs in Texas was nearly 50,000. (2) From both a socio-historical and a literary point of view, the most significant literature produced by the large Czech-American community in Texas during this early period consisted of numerous autobiographical accounts written by first generation Czech-Americans, nearly all of whom had settled in rural areas of the state and at the time of writing were engaged in the agricultural economy, usually as owners of small farms (Machann and Mendl 194-204).

These Czech-language autobiographical narratives (most of them in the range of 2,000 to 5,000 words) were published in Czech-American journals for a Czech-American audience. Although Texas had a Czech-language newspaper as early as 1879, the Czech-American press in that state produced only a small fraction of such publications in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and up until about the time of World War I, periodicals from the Midwest were particularly popular in Texas. The four Texas Czech autobiographies that I have chosen to examine in this essay are among those published in the Amerikdn narodni kalendar (American National Almanac) by the Chicago-based publisher August Geringer. The autobiographies are interesting for several reasons: they record the early history of the Czech settlements, express distinctive ethnic attitudes--most notably toward the American Civil War--and they document important aspects of a farming economy and way of life. The prose style of the narratives varies according to the educational background of the writers but characteristically incorporates vernacular and slang expressions into the literary Czech of the time, with only occasional Americanisms.

The Amerikan autobiographies have been reprinted through the years (both in the original Czech and in various English translations) in regional and local ethnic newspapers in Texas, and they are sometimes appended to privately published family histories. Although they are often used for genealogical purposes by descendants of the authors, they are also cited in a general way as expressions of the "pioneer spirit" and wholesome values of early Czech settlers in Texas and employed to reinforce ethnic pride in being of Czech descent. (3) However, as with the cultural expressions of many other American ethnic groups, the literature of the Texas Czechs reveals not a monolithic culture but rather a complex field of divergent and sometimes competing traditions imported from the country of origin that is stabilized only in the context of overarching versions of American identity. My purpose here is to examine one representative feature of the Amerikan autobiographies, their anti-Catholic and more generally anti-clerical bias, and suggest ways in which this feature illustrates a particularly problematic aspect of Czech-American culture, one that is closely related to its European sources. The four autobiographies, with their dates of publication in the Amerikan narodni kalendar, are "Josef L. Lesikar" (1880), "Josef Silar" (1882), "Josef Blazek" (1906), and "Jan Ustynik" (1908). (4)

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The first major, successful Reformed Christian Church had been founded in the Czech lands a century before the time of Luther. The reform-minded priest and scholar Jan Hus (1371-1415), who had been influenced by the rebellious English theologian John Wycliff, was burned at the stake after having been found guilty of heresy at the Council of Constance. …