Marpole warns about disease: On Saturday, July 27, we motored away from our sprawling campus in the heart of Maryland's 7th congressional district.
We motored away in a vehicle containing one niece; one husband to that niece; and two outstanding great nieces. The district was achieving notoriety as we departed that day. By the time of our return, Mister Trump had made it famous.
During our time away, we read and reread My Antonia. Because it's an autobiographical story about immigrant families, we were struck by certain echoes from the distant past.
The story begins in the 1880s. Its narrator, Jim Burden, starts his story like this:
I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. I travelled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the ‘hands’ on my father’s old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather. Jake’s experience of the world was not much wider than mine. He had never been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world.So the story begins. A 10-year-old is crossing over to a new land. He's tended by a mountain boy who isn't a whole lot older.
They head for Nebraska by train. Along the way, Jake offers some advice to Jim—advice which almost seems to come from the Trump-inflected present day:
We went all the way in day-coaches, becoming more sticky and grimy with each stage of the journey. Jake bought everything the newsboys offered him: candy, oranges, brass collar buttons, a watch-charm, and for me a ‘Life of Jesse James,’ which I remember as one of the most satisfactory books I have ever read...Through the person of her narrator, Willa Cather goes on to tell a highly autobiographical story. It's built around the life of that immigrant girl, who in real life turned out to be the "greatest artist" Cather ever knew.
Once when [the conductor] sat down to chat, he told us that in the immigrant car ahead there was a family from ‘across the water’ whose destination was the same as ours.
‘They can’t any of them speak English, except one little girl, and all she can say is “We go Black Hawk, Nebraska.” She’s not much older than you, twelve or thirteen, maybe, and she’s as bright as a new dollar. Don’t you want to go ahead and see her, Jimmy? She’s got the pretty brown eyes, too!’
This last remark made me bashful, and I shook my head and settled down to ‘Jesse James.’ Jake nodded at me approvingly and said you were likely to get diseases from foreigners.
As it turned out, Burden, and Cather, contracted no diseases from that immigrant family. As part of today's study guide, we offer these questions:
What should we think about Jake Marpole, who offered that instant warning? Should we think of him as a xenophobe? Was Jake Marpole a racist?
Above, you've seen the first five paragraphs of Cather's famous book. Right there in paragraph 5, we modern readers receive the first blast from the present day.
The book appeared in 1918. It emerges from a basic part of world-wide human experience, and from basic human wiring.
Further study questions:
What should we think about the ways some age-old fears may remain with us today? Should we loathe the modern humans who may be inclined to hold them?
Still coming: "I thought the attitude of the town people toward these [immigrant] girls very stupid..."