The Bohemian Paradox: My Antonia and Popular Images of Czech Immigrants

By Prchal, Tim | MELUS, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The Bohemian Paradox: My Antonia and Popular Images of Czech Immigrants


Prchal, Tim, MELUS


In 1893, a letter written by Charles H. Slama of Madison, Wisconsin, appeared in The Bohemian Voice, a newspaper serving mostly Czech immigrant and Czech American readers across the nation. Regarding other newspapers' disparaging portrayals of Czechs (then usually called Bohemians), Slama writes, "The number of people who can really form any judgment as to the comparative merits of Bohemia and Bohemian people might be counted on one's fingers. On the other hand, the number of people who make the most confident assertions about us, and who fancy they are especially qualified to speak, is almost unascertainable" (14). Judgments and assertions about Czechs, especially Czech immigrants in the US, continued to be made by the American popular press well into the first decades of the twentieth century. By 1918, when Willa Cather added her voice to this subject with her novel My Antonia, specific stereotypes of Czech immigrants had developed. When placed within its historical and rhetorical context, and approached as part of this body of discourse, My Antonia can be seen as Cather's response to and reshaping of the popular image of Czech immigrants.

Czech immigrants appear to have had special appeal for Cather since characters identified with this group appear regularly in her fiction about the plains: along with those in My Antonia are the title characters of "Peter" (1892), her first published story; "The Bohemian Girl" (1912); and "Neighbor Rosicky" (1930). While O Pioneers (1913) focuses on the Swedish Bergsons, their Czech neighbors are given prominence, too. No doubt, Cather's interest in such characters stems from her familiarity with the actual Czech immigrants she encountered during her years in Nebraska. Annie Sadilek, for instance, is regularly named as the author's model for Antonia Shimerda. This familiarity might have spurred her to revise the images drawn by other writers and to create one that accorded with her personal understanding of this group.

Furthermore, the traits ascribed to Czech immigrants in popular discourse included a determined resistance to assimilation, and this characteristic fits well with Cather's vision of the United States as a nation rich in cultural diversity. In a 1924 interview, she says that immigrants "have come here to live in the sense that they lived in the Old World, and if they were let alone their lives might turn into the beautiful ways of their homeland." However, the agents of assimilation doggedly turn them into "stupid replicas of smug American citizens. This passion for Americanizing everything and everybody is a deadly disease with us" (Feld 71-72). The Cuzaks in My Antonia exhibit the "beautiful ways" that result from preserving cultural distinctiveness. Critics already have shown how Cather's novels positively portray a culturally heterogeneous nation created by the preservation of ethnic distinctiveness, a vision that opposes the homogeneous nation that would result from assimilation to the Anglo-American culture or amalgamation within the "melting pot." Ann Moseley, for instance, argues that the cultural pluralist rhetoric in My Antonia becomes clear when it is compared to the social theory of Horace M. Kallen, a contemporary of Cather "who maintained that each ethnic group has an inherent worth and dignity which, if retained, will strengthen and enrich American civilization" (8). (See also Harvey 35-36.) In a similar way, positioning Cather with other writers who contributed to the popular image of Czech immigrants reveals that she did not outright contradict this image so much as mold it into a favorable form. By presenting Czechs and their efforts to resist assimilation in a positive light, Cather made the idea of cultural pluralism more palatable to her original readers, many of whom would have been hostile to such a stance.

The particulars of how Cather reshapes traits commonly ascribed to Czechs might easily be missed by readers nearly a century after the first appearance of My Antonia. …

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