Also, Cather's "immigrant girls:" Willa Cather's My Antonia describes the experiences of immigrant families in the Nebraska of the 1880s (and beyond).
She focuses on the girls and women within these immigrant families. These families often, though not always, encounter the distancing, disregard and disdain experienced by newcomers at all times in all parts of the world.
Part of the greatness of Cather's book lies in the unembarrassed way it describes conventional female beauty. It manages to does this without engaging in leering.
Meanwhile, how odd, given the modern American context! Some of the immigrant girls described in the book are among the "whitest" people found anywhere on the face of the earth.
The immigrants in this book are often extremely "white." In this passage from My Antonia, Cather's narrator describes "the Danish laundry girls:"
The four Danish girls lived with the laundryman and his wife in their house behind the laundry, with a big garden where the clothes were hung out to dry. The laundryman was a kind, wise old fellow, who paid his girls well, looked out for them, and gave them a good home...His girls never looked so pretty at the dances as they did standing by the ironing-board, or over the tubs, washing the fine pieces, their white arms and throats bare, their cheeks bright as the brightest wild roses, their gold hair moist with the steam or the heat and curling in little damp spirals about their ears. They had not learned much English, and were not so ambitious as [Antonia] or Lena; but they were kind, simple girls and they were always happy.Cather seems to have been a woman who loved other women. She reinvented herself as a man in the person of her narrator, Jim Burden—a male narrator who is mysteriously able to describe the physical beauty of the immigrant girls without tilting toward the more conventional "locker room talk."
Earlier, Burden has described the Danish girls in the manner shown below. In this passage, he describes the threat the vibrant immigrant girls, Scandinavian and Bohemian alike, presented to the existing order in their small Nebraska town:
The country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background...The four Danish girls were immigrant girls, but along with "Norwegian Anna" and Tiny Soderball (a Swede), they were extremely "white," not "brown."
Our young man of position was like the son of a royal house; the boy who swept out his office or drove his delivery wagon might frolic with the jolly country girls, but he himself must sit all evening in a plush parlour where conversation dragged so perceptibly that the father often came in and made blundering efforts to warm up the atmosphere. On his way home from his dull call, he would perhaps meet [Antonia] and Lena, coming along the sidewalk whispering to each other, or the three Bohemian Marys in their long plush coats and caps, comporting themselves with a dignity that only made their eventful histories the more piquant. If he went to the hotel to see a travelling man on business, there was Tiny, arching her shoulders at him like a kitten. If he went into the laundry to get his collars, there were the four Danish girls, smiling up from their ironing-boards, with their white throats and their pink cheeks.
The four Danish girls were "white!" Despite this somewhat nebulous fact, they were sometimes viewed by their native-born neighbors in the way Burden describes in this passage:
I thought the attitude of the town people toward these girls very stupid. If I told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard’s grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn’t speak English. There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Antonia’s father. Yet people saw no difference between her and the three Marys; they were all Bohemians, all ‘hired girls.’Burden goes on to exult at the ultimate success of these immigrant girls and their families. "I always knew I should live long enough to see my country girls come into their own, and I have," he says. "To-day the best that a harassed Black Hawk merchant can hope for is to sell provisions and farm machinery and automobiles to the rich farms where that first crop of stalwart Bohemian and Scandinavian girls are now the mistresses."
It's the oldest girls in these immigrant families whom Burden most admires. In this passage, he describes the challenging circumstance which gave them their moral greatness:
Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Antonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.The older girls had assumed the burden of helping their families emerge from crushing debt. In Burden's eyes, they stood apart from their younger, more advantaged siblings because they had learned so much "from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers."
I can remember a score of these country girls who were in service in Black Hawk during the few years I lived there, and I can remember something unusual and engaging about each of them. Physically they were almost a race apart, and out-of-door work had given them a vigour which, when they got over their first shyness on coming to town, developed into a positive carriage and freedom of movement, and made them conspicuous among Black Hawk women.
"Physically they were almost a race apart," Burden says. Later, he describes Antonia Shimerda Cuzak, the eldest girl in a Bohemian immigrant family, as "a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races."
We've thought of these passages as we've watched an 11-year-old girl in Jackson, Mississippi crying bitter tears in the past day or two, in this case for her mother and her father.
English seems to be her second language; this makes her eloquence much more apparent. It's easy to see her heart and mind struggling to give voice to her soul as she assures us, among many other things, that her father isn't a criminal:
"Government, please put your heart—let my parents be free with everybody else, please...My dad didn't do nothing. He's not a criminal."
"The Hispanic people aren't doing nothing bad," this apparent immigrant girl says at another point. "They aren't stealing nothing. The immigrants just want jobs inside the company."
For fairly extensive videotape, you can just click here.
This immigrant girl is extremely eloquent in her second language. Just for the record, her family is here because both major parties have wanted them here, as have major business interests. Her parents were hired, and have now been arrested, as part of an ongoing upper-end scam.
"Purity of heart is to will one thing?" As with Black Hawk's oldest immigrant girls, so too here. The nation had a lot to gain from the purity of heart Cather described. So too from the "conspicuous" purity of heart on display as that young girl speaks.
Jackson, Mississippi is full of great kids! We "liberals" might make out better in life if we try to help people understand that important human fact, as opposed to doing what we instinctively prefer—as opposed to casting about for new, improved ways to call The Others names:
Deplorables? Racists? White supremacists? According to major top anthropologists, the instinct to disdain and insult the other tribe is deeply bred in the bone.
We humans are strongly inclined to regard others with disdain. Some will call Hispanics names. We liberals are wired to do the same with those people, the Trump voters.
Are we like the racists, or do we differ? Like President Johnson way back when, we can "teach it flat or round."