Stephens recommends trip to Nebraska!

MONDAY, JULY 22, 2019

We recommend it too:
In Saturday morning's New York Times, Bret Stephens recommended a trip to Nebraska—more specifically, to the Nebraska of the 1880s, the initial setting for Willa Cather's autobiographical novel, My Antonia.

We'll recommend it too. We aren't sufficiently well-read to have a serious claim to a favorite novel. But if we did have a favorite novel, it would be the book Stephens calls "the perfect antidote to our [current] president."

For ourselves, we'd also call it the perfect antidote to our current cable news. That said, here's a taste of Stephens' viewpoint:
STEPHENS (7/20/19): Cather’s novel is a story of a country that can overcome prejudice. The narrator’s grandfather offers succor to the destitute Shimerdas, forgives them their debts, puts petty quarrels aside, and consoles them in their grief. After Ántonia’s father commits suicide, he prays “that if any man there had been remiss toward the stranger come to a far country, God would forgive him and soften his heart.”

It’s in such moments that “My Ántonia” becomes an education in what it means to be American:
to have come from elsewhere, with very little; to be mindful, amid every trapping of prosperity, of how little we once had, and were; to protect and nurture those newly arrived, wherever from, as if they were our own immigrant ancestors—equally scared, equally humble, and equally determined.
We'd substitute "human" for "American," then agree with every word.

An any rate, trust us! You wouldn't want to have lived in the unforgiving Nebraska of the 1880s as a Czech ("Bohemian") immigrant. The suicide to which Stephens refers is only one of the proofs.

First above all, we love My Antonia for the ardor of its advocacy on behalf of those immigrants, but especially for the "immigrant girls" Cather respects and admires—for "the Danish girls," for Antonia herself, for "the three Bohemian Marys."

In fact, My Antonia is so profoundly autobiographical that its fidelity to actual events takes it beyond the realm of memoir into the land of journalism. The Antonia Shimerda of the book was, in reality, Antonie Sadilkova, later Antonie Sadilkova Pavelkova, with whom Cather shared part of a childhood "in a far country," in a vast empty land.

There are several things we love about the book in question. Chief among them, as already noted, is the ardor of Cather's advocacy for the immigrant families among whom she grew up, but most especially for the "immigrant girls," whose vibrant physical beauty she describes without embarrassment, leering or shame.

Also, their personal and moral greatness and goodness. Cather once wrote, of Antonie Sadilkova: "She was one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains."

Cather went on to be classified as a literal (world renowned) "artist." Antonie Sadilkova remained on the Nebraska farm, where she raised ten children. Cather's book is an antidote in the way it can instruct us about the possibility of the deepest respect for The Other—for the stranger in a far land, for the person who isn't exactly like one's own self.

My Antonia is a deeply ardent testimony concerning those who weren't exactly like Cather. David Murphy discussed Cather's "empathy" in a fascinating 1994 essay for The Great Plains Quarterly:
MURPHY (Spring 1994): Just as their farm was the setting, Jan Pavelka and Antonie Sadilkova Pavelkova were prototypes for the Czech immigrants in [My Antonia]...Cather's empathy with Czech culture was broad and deep; her allusion to it was informed, not merely exotic. As a result, many Czechs and Czech Americans ultimately saw Antonia as jejich Antonie, or "their Antonia."


Cather's accuracy seems to have come not from familial or cultural predilection but instead from keen observation. Born in 1873 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Cather came west with her family at the age of nine in 1883. They lived initially on the "Divide," the high plain between the Big Blue and Republican Rivers in northern Webster County, near her uncle and grandparents...

The prairie and its startling contrast to the Valley of Virginia exerted tremendous influence on Cather. By her own account the country "was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand .... So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake." The experiences gained her the two most important themes in her writing, identity with the land and empathy with the foreign immigrants.
"Empathy with the foreign immigrants"—with the strangers who had to struggle so hard, to the point of self-inflicted death, in a new, unforgiving land.

We most love the contempt Cather's narrator expresses at one point for Nebraska's native-born boys of that time, who all saw the beauty of the immigrant girls but couldn't bring themselves to defy convention and marry them. This brings us to the "murder mystery" element of the book:

Jim Burden, Cather's narrator, is plainly Cather herself, but he is a boy and then a man, while Cather was a girl and then a woman. It seems that Cather was a girl and then a woman who loved girls and women, not boys and men. This apparently produced a gender switch in her narrator which introduces an element of complication and confusion to the book.

At any rate, Cather apparently loved the stranger more than the more familiar. Murphy discusses this further:
MURPHY: For Cather, the literary theme moved beyond empathy. Ultimately she favored foreign over Anglo-American ways, and developed a strong distaste for Anglo-centrism. In a 1921 interview she attacked the prevailing xenophobic mood:

"They 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. But they are not let alone ....

"It wasn't so years ago. When I was a child, all our neighbors were foreigners .... We let them alone. . . . They finished their houses as they had in the countries from which they came. Beauty was there and charm ... nobody interfered with them."

She lamented the loss of creativity, observing that the "Americanization worker who persuades an old Bohemian housewife that it is better for her to feed her family out of tin cans instead of cooking them a steaming goose for dinner is committing a crime against art."
Cather saw art in that woman's steaming goose. In the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains, she saw in Antonie Sadilkova Pavelkova—a farm woman and a mother of ten—"one of the truest artists [she] ever knew."

Cather saw the beauty of the stranger who had journeyed to a far land. Will we liberals ever learn to respect the stranger too?

Stephens is thinking of current immigrants, as of course he should. That said, there are others to empathize with in our land. On cable, does anyone try?

The beauty of the stranger: It's Book II, Chapter IX that we love the most. That short chapter starts like this:
There was a curious social situation in Black Hawk. All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town to earn a living, and, in nearly every case, to help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family to go to school.

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.

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 vigor 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.
Cather continues her account of these vibrant young women, who "physically were almost a race apart" and were thereby "considered a threat to the social order."

The native-born boys all saw their vibrancy and their beauty, but they were afraid to act. Has anyone ever advocated for anyone with so much zeal?


  1. In his op-ed, even conservative Bret Stephens does two things that “liberal” Bob Somerby won’t do:

    1) He denounces “America’s bigotries, whose loudest and most dangerous champion sits in the White House.”

    2) He defends Congresswoman Omar.

    But Somerby wants liberals to view “The Others”, that mystical, undefined group of Americans, as lovingly as Cather supposedly viewed immigrants in Nebraska. The problem is that those immigrants were treated badly by the prevailing power structure in the US, who viewed them as a “threat to the social order”, and today’s “Others”, by which Somerby presumably means Republicans and/or Trump voters have put into office the very people whose bigotry Stephens denounces and who want to mistreat and exclude and view as a “threat to the social order” the immigrants that Cather might have lovingly written about were she alive today.

    Even though Stephens himself uses the term “bigotry” to describe the impulses of Trump and his followers, if one wishes to refrain from such language, one could possibly, *possibly*, call them misguided, but one cannot condone the chants of “send her back” or the treatment of immigrants on the southern border.

    1. Stephens is a Never-Trumper. He is as opposed to Trump as any Democrat.

    2. Please. Stephens is a Republican through and through. He's trying to inflate his life raft for when the whole thing goes belly-up. The media will let him, just like they did when Republicans donned tri-corner hats, claimed themselves "Tea partiers", and swore they never heard of this George W. Bush guy, the last time Republicans drove the country into a ditch.

      As for Stephens and his ilk, I'm sharpening my spear for when he tries to raft off to safety.

    3. Excerpt from a Dec., 2017 column by Bret Stephens

      Tax cuts. Deregulation. More for the military; less for the United Nations. The Islamic State crushed in its heartland. Assad hit with cruise missiles. Troops to Afghanistan. Arms for Ukraine. A tougher approach to North Korea. Jerusalem recognized as Israel’s capital. The Iran deal decertified. Title IX kangaroo courts on campus condemned. Yes to Keystone. No to Paris. Wall Street roaring and consumer confidence high.

      And, of course, Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. What, for a conservative, is there to dislike about this policy record as the Trump administration rounds out its first year in office?

      That’s the question I keep hearing from old friends on the right who voted with misgiving for Donald Trump last year and now find reasons to like him. I admit it gives me pause. I agree with every one of the policy decisions mentioned above. But I still wish Hillary Clinton were president.

      How does that make sense? Can I still call myself conservative?

  2. This entry confused me. At one point Somerby says "Will we liberals ever learn to respect the stranger too?"

    And yet liberals are just like Cather. They loved the foreigners. It is the Americans that they hate.

    And Somerby praises that part of Cather "We most love the contempt Cather's narrator expresses at one point for Nebraska's native-born boys of that time,..."

    What could be more liberal than that - to have contempt for native-born hetero white males?

    For myself, I started to read "My Antonia" was quickly bored by it, and set it aside when I got a shipment of other books. Not sure where it is now. I spent ten minutes searching and came up empty.

    1. "They loved the foreigners. It is the Americans that they hate."

      Yes. But I'd prefer a more nuanced view: their zombie cult is a political force, sponsored by globalist finance. It started around mid-1980s, with the DLC, the 'Third Way' and all that.

      What their globalist sponsors don't like about Americans is that Americans are in a position to demand, fight for - and receive - high wages and working conditions.

      Thus, the two-pronged solution: exporting American industries abroad, and, where it can't be exported, weakening American workers by importing cheap, powerless replacement (equivalent of the scabs of the past) from abroad.

      Plus, obviously, stirring up bullshit grievances between various 'identities', to destroy worker solidarity.

      That's all. Liberals will looove Americans when their wages are reduced below those in Mexico and Bangladesh.

    2. It's no wonder that these pretend liberals you just made up off the top of your head LOVE Donald the Magnificent so much. They probably want Trump to be President for life, after he gave his Establishment Elite friends (who were sitting on piles of cash) a massive tax cut, and then proposed tossing more than 3 million poor folks off the food stamp program.

  3. My educated, beautiful mother never did out-of-door work and most people would identify her as one of the most dynamic people they had ever met. She wouldn't have cared whether Willa Cather was impressed by her bearing.

    Willa Cather probably didn't observe any such thing she claimed. She had an agenda obvious in these short passages. We see that sort of thing cropping up in news media and modern feminist literature. If only you narrate it, it will become true and eventually men, especially white ones can be written entirely out of the picture.

    1. She had an agenda? She wrote a work of fiction. She was not a journalist and not a "feminist" (yes, they did exist in that time period). She was a writer and she wrote fiction. Using another author's work for your own purposes, thereby distorting their own vision, voice and artistry, is wrong, whether Stephens does it or Somerby or some professor.

      I liked this book and I never felt that the narrator was actually a woman or had a woman's perspective or a lesbian view. I thought the narrator was craven because he didn't himself act upon his own feelings about Antonia, and those feelings are obviously being projected onto the other boys described in the book (and by Somerby). The book is about coming of age and honesty and bravery in relationships.

      This book has been on the high school syllabus forever because (1) young people will identify with the main characters, (2) it promotes empathy for those coming from all kinds of backgrounds, and (3) it promotes those values that will be helpful to young people in their own sexual awakening and romantic quests. Who doesn't have an Antonia (or Antonio) in their own past? The book is universal.

      Somerby has to pervert it for his own purposes. He does that with lots of cultural experience, often making it unrecognizable in the process. Look at what he has done to Aristotle!

    2. Let’s see if I have this straight.

      Writers of fiction don’t have agendas. They just write stories. And you liked My Antonia before you heard about all that icky lesbian stuff. Nobody should interpret an author’s work for their own purposes; everyone should stick to your interpretation. In this case, about “coming of age and honesty and bravery in relationships.” ‘Cause, you know, it’s universal. Which is to say, it isn’t perverted.

      This made me chuckle. Thanks.

      TDH hasn’t done anything to Aristotle. He’s just somehow gotten into his head that Aristotle wrote something that, it turns out, Aristotle didn’t write. But some “cultural experience” TDH gets right. For instance, Harari actually spouts the bilge that TDH claims he does.

    3. If only you narrate it, it will become true and eventually men, especially white ones can be written entirely out of the picture.

      That's so scary it actually gives the shivers. Take some comfort in the fact that we still own everything.

    4. Deadrat, writers of fiction have their own agenda. Imposing one's own agenda on an author who most likely intends something else strikes me as a misuse of literature. That's all I meant. I didn't say lesbians are icky or any of that other stuff.

      The author wrote a book with a male narrator. It is about his sexual awakening. Whether the author is male or female, lesbian or straight, doesn't affect the author's intention to portray that main character as male and straight. You can certainly read it differently, and critical analysis does that, but you shouldn't lose track of whose opinions are whose.

      I would argue that love and sexual coming of age and negotiating relationships are universal across sexual orientation and gender identities, because there is the need to navigate these milestones for all, even if their are different specifics and challenges.

      I'm glad you find things amusing but you need to be careful about what comes from you and what is mine. You have no idea what my own sexual orientation and identity might be and it is pretty offensive to make the assumptions you made @11:42.

    5. That's so scary it actually gives the shivers. Take some comfort in the fact that we still own everything.

      We own most things and everyone has an opportunity to own things. Movie studios, large companies, anything.

      What the braindead perpetually angry leftist elites of the news and entertainment media and politics affect are the social conditions involving relationships between people, and they are stoking hate between male and female, black and white, poor and successful, religions. They need blacks and women to feel miserable, so that they can virtue signal and feel like moral actors.

      No one benefits except Democrat politicians and Planned Parenthood.

    6. 1:49,
      The Leftists are doing it all wrong. Again.
      The way to do it is keep blacks and browns from voting, like the Conservatives do. Less virtue signaling, and more shared values signaling.

    7. We own most things and everyone has an opportunity to own things. Movie studios, large companies, anything.

      That’s adorable. Really.

      But you don’t mean movie studios, do you? Don’t the jews already own all of those?

      What the braindead perpetually angry leftist elites of the news and entertainment media….

      Remember: every right-wing accusation is a confession. There’s no more brain dead and angrier “entertainment media” than Faux News, leaders of the biggest and most delicate snowflakes in the country. Who are in turn led by a braindead and angry President who tries to block people on social media if they disagree with him.

      and they are stoking hate

      Let’s see, was it angry leftists who chanted “Send her back!” to a Congresswoman who is a naturalized US citizen?

      They need blacks and women to feel miserable

      Black people and women really enjoy rightards telling them how they should feel.

      No one benefits except Democrat politicians and Planned Parenthood.

      Oops! And the forced birther pops out.

    8. I'm glad you find things amusing….

      Why do I doubt that? But you may take comfort that your life isn’t a complete waste: you’ve entertained an appreciative audience of at least one.

      you need to be careful about what comes from you and what is mine. You have no idea what my own sexual orientation and identity might be and it is pretty offensive to make the assumptions you made @11:42.

      I’m afraid you don’t like my manner, but as Philip Marlowe replied to that charge, “Yeah, I've had complaints about it, but it keeps getting worse.”

      To be fair, this is partially a fair cop. You picked up the insulting portion but pretty much missed the point. Once you fix your words in some medium, you own them in the sense of copyright. But once they’re abroad, you don’t own their interpretation. No author does.

      You’re free to talk about the author’s intentions, but as you, yourself note, you have to argue for your view of love, sex, coming of age, and the universality of experience. Hell, Willa Cather might even have agreed with you. And as you, yourself note: you can certainly read it differently. And not to worry, I have no trouble keeping your banal opinions separate from my own opinions.

      In my defense, I started my comment with a subjunctive. And really, what am I supposed to make of your rhetorical question about an author’s agenda, especially when you point out that she wasn’t a journalist? OK, you’ve corrected me. You do believe that fiction writers have agendas.

      “Misuse of literature” sounds like an opinion to me. In any case, I couldn’t find it in the United States Code.

      Lastly, I have no idea who you are, I have no idea what your sexual orientation is, and I have no idea what your “identity” is. And none of those things is of the slightest interest to me. I’ve only made a few assumptions about your words to conclude that you’re talking nonsense.

      But, of course, that’s only my interpretation.

      it is pretty offensive

      As Marlowe also said, “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them on the long winter evenings.”


    1. Warning to those will moral sensibilities and a gag reflex. This is a clip of Tucker Carlson moaning about the death of the west.

    2. Thanks for the heads-up deadrat.

  5. "Stephens is thinking of current immigrants, as of course he should."

    Far's I can tell, current immigrants in the US of A have no problem at all.

    Although, if they choose to build, say, straw huts ("as they had in the countries from which they came"), then, I presume, they might have a problem with the department of public health.

    Here, unfortunately, you, Bob, follow the standard liberal zombie way of willful obfuscation: equating legal immigrants with illegal migrants.

    1. Who are you, the last person on Earth to realize Conservatives hate immigrants from Latin America, legal or not?

    2. Troll harder, Jimmy.

  6. I read the book because of the references to it on this blog.

    I had been very marginally exposed to Wittgenstein in the distant past, and My Antonia seemed a much better bet in the reading department.

    I loved it. When I was a child, a family from Japan moved into our neighborhood and caused great excitement. They were exotic to us. Particularly the gorgeous teenage daughter of the family. She was the epitome of glamor to my ten-year-old self. With Antonia and her capable and beautiful immigrant girl friends, Cather gets all the intensity and thrill of that sort of worshipful admiration.

    Years later, I tried to convey the buzz and the energy of my interest in the girl to a male friend, and he replied that I had an inkling of the fascination that men feel in the presence of attractive women.

    I love the theme of "keeping faith" that ran thru the book, whether to family, neighbors, the care of animals. The immigrant aspect is romanticized and also dated in light of modern problems that arise with the issue, but in a world of books where conventionality runs up against the unconventional, Cather doesn't make the contrast starkly different. She doesn't play sides very rigorously. The unconventional looks pretty much like what is expected and right and also like what just is, as in the case of adult Jim and of the vanquished Mr. Shimerda.

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