What we read on our summer vacation!


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...

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.
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.

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..."


  1. "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."

    Somerby sticks to stories about immigrant families who are white, from Northern or Eastern Europe, the kind of immigrants Trump approves of -- Norwegians maybe, or Germans. We all know that those are the good kind of immigrants, no matter how people felt about them at the time.

    Why doesn't Somerby read novels about (or written by) immigrants who resemble today's newcomers? There are many stories about Chinese, Vietnamese, Central American immigrants. They are very different than the people who settled Nebraska, all of whom were immigrants to a land previously inhabited by Indians. Today's immigrants come to an already settled urban environment, or become part of the stream of migrant farmworkers. They may have relatives here, or become part of communities inhabited by others from their village or neighborhood back home. They may have contacts, jobs waiting, or they may be fleeing circumstances that make an impromptu emigration necessary. But they are not much like Antonia, much less Jim Burden.

    Today's immigrants deserve to be recognized and valued for their own qualities, not because Willa Cather wrote about white people on a train.

    Jake was an ignorant 10 year old repeating something he heard adults around him say. But there were people who came to the US with diseases, just as we Americans carried the "Spanish" flu from Fort Hood to the European war theater in 1918 causing a pandemic that returned to the US with soldiers and caused a literal decimation of our population. It is entirely possible for immigrants to carry diseases, just as the explorers and traders carried plague to Europe from the Far East, just as syphillis was carried from place to place, and small pox, and today, measles.

    But one shouldn't assume that immigrants are always the ones with the diseases. And no, a 10 year old boy is not a racist until he grows to be a less malleable fully formed adult with the same prejudices. Because boys can change whereas adults generally do not.

    But why would anyone loathe a person with disease? They are sick, it isn't their fault and they should be cared for with compassion. In fact, compassion is the liberal stance toward all immigrants and refugees. It seems to be entirely lacking in conservatives.

    But Somerby today wants to remind white people that they were once immigrants. Who needs to be told this? White supremacists understand the dangers of immigration already. The question isn't whether there are dangers from immigrants, but whether we as a society are willing to accept and cope with those dangers, large or small, because it is part of our heritage to do so. But Somerby doesn't discuss heritage -- he discusses diseases. And he wants us to say that fear of disease isn't racist, so that people who assume all members of a group must be similarly diseased are vindicated in their prejudice. Sorry, Somerby, that isn't the way this works.

    1. As someone once said to me, "Man, you an idiot!"

  2. Bob, I understand that you spent the last week in the wilds of Maine (no internet).
    So FYI: over the weekend one of Trump's acolytes murdered 22 people in El Paso.
    But as you know, Trump is nuts.
    The murder victims were paying twice as much for health care as anyone else in the world.
    The good news is that now health care doesn't cost them a dime.

  3. Presumably, immigrants have to pass a medical exam, before they're issued their immigrant visas.

    See how simple it is, dear Bob?

    1. Mao,
      When (and where) are you planning to murder non-white folks?
      Inquiring minds want to know.

  4. Most of us have read My Antonia too. It has been on the high school syllabus forever because it helps teens understand their own heritage.

    The attitude toward the immigrant girls was that they were fine to have a good time with, but one did not marry them, no matter how attractive they were. This attitude comes from a time period when parents had a say in who their kids married. It comes from a time when kids didn't marry outside their religion, didn't marry anyone who didn't come from good stock, a good family, the right income and status in the community. It comes from a time when everyone knew everyone else and people were taught to stay with their own kind, when it came to marriage. It comes from a time when kids continued to live with their parents, worked in the family business, were communal in most aspects of their lives. Those days disappeared a long time ago.

    The attitude that girls who are from a different race or socio-economic status are for fooling around, but boys pick someone similar to themselves when they "settle down" was common until the 1960s. It is at the heart of the movie Love Story (remember Al Gore's role in that?). Although they don't say it explicitly, Ali MacGraw's character is Italian or perhaps Portuguese (as people were along the fishing communities of the MA bay), too immigrant to be acceptable to Ryan O'Neal's WASP family. And she was Catholic! As Somerby says, The Horror! Today that all seems quaint because kids marry who they love, people love outside their family heritage, they can survive estranged from family (which undermines the leverage of parents), and they can live anonymously in cities where no one knows or cares who they are. So things changed and conservatives have never been the same.

    But Somerby thinks My Antonia is relevant. Why? There is a hint that Jim Burden regrets not pursuing Antonia, but the author places Antonia firmly and happily in her own ethnicity and context, living as her mother and grandmother before her certainly did, back in their village in the old country. No escape for Antonia or Jim, but Somerby thinks this is a model for our times? Why?

  5. "“No one gets to choose when or where to be born, but what happens after that is what you can imagine.” — Abdi Nor Iftin, author of "Call Me American, A Memoir".

    Here are some books about the contemporary immigrant experience:


  6. I'm surprised Somerby didn't read something from his college philosophy course reading lists. He hasn't talked about Hegel yet, or Nietzsche.

  7. Pseudo-intellectualism?

  8. "I thought the attitude of the town people toward these [immigrant] girls very stupid..."

    So, rather than “racist” or “xenophobic”, the word for these people is “stupid.”

    The problem with Somerby’s formulation is that the book is focused on the immigrant Ántonia, rather than the stupid people with their anti-immigrant attitude. Somerby is asking his readers to sympathize with Jake, and presumably by extension with modern-day rank-and-file Americans, when the problem then as now was that those in charge (who were not children) during the novel’s time frame deliberately and knowingly put in place policies designed to segregate and marginalize immigrants like Ántonia, not to mention black Americans, and these policies then as now met with considerable approval from those very rank-and-file citizens who belonged to the “majority” class.

    We must never let powerful elites, such as the president, off the hook for the ways in which they deploy racism and xenophobia to cement their power.

    And Somerby twists the whole discussion towards the conservative side by asking the wrong question: “Should we loathe the modern humans who may be inclined to hold them [age-old fears]?” The question should be: “Should we loathe the age-old pernicious *ideas* such as racism and xenophobia that produce dangerous illiberal results?”

    1. Somerby is also afflicted with the Catholic teaching which says that you should hate no one, that hate (loathing) is wrong. As children, we were not allowed to say "I hate school" because the word "hate" was not permitted in our household. Somerby no doubt had the same standard Catholic upbringing.

      I had to learn that it was OK to hate things like racism and xenophobia and to hate evil people who hurt others on purpose.

      "Hatred in general is a vehement aversion entertained by one person for another, or for something more or less identified with that other. Theologians commonly mention two distinct species of this passion.

      One (odium abominationis, or loathing) is that in which the intense dislike is concentrated primarily on the qualities or attributes of a person, and only secondarily, and as it were derivatively, upon the person himself.
      The second sort (odium inimicitiae, or hostility) aims directly at the person, indulges a propensity to see what is evil and unlovable in him, feels a fierce satisfaction at anything tending to his discredit, and is keenly desirous that his lot may be an unmixedly hard one, either in general or in this or that specified way.
      This second kind of hatred, as involving a very direct and absolute violation of the precept of charity, is always sinful and may be grievously so. The first-named species of hatred, in so far as it implies the reprobation of what is actually evil, is not a sin and may even represent a virtuous temper of soul. In other words, not only may I, but I even ought to, hate what is contrary to the moral law. Furthermore one may without sin go so far in the detestation of wrongdoing as to wish that which for its perpetrator is a very well-defined evil, yet under another aspect is a much more signal good. For instance, it would be lawful to pray for the death of a perniciously active heresiarch with a view to putting a stop to his ravages among the Christian people. Of course, it is clear that this apparent zeal must not be an excuse for catering to personal spite or party rancour. Still, even when the motive of one's aversion is not impersonal, when, namely, it arises from the damage we may have sustained at the hands of others, we are not guilty of sin unless besides feeling indignation we yield to an aversion unwarranted by the hurt we have suffered. This aversion may be grievously or venially sinful in proportion to its excess over that which the injury would justify."

      From the New Advent Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07149b.htm

  9. We don't have to worry about disease with legal immigrants, as they are examined. My uncle was temporarily not allowed to enter the country with his family in 1920. He came in after he was well. OTOH we do not know the medical condition of illegal immigrants or refugees.

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  11. The internet has been a Buzzing with the news that actor Keanu Reeves was spotted wearing a suit on the set of his upcoming movie, “John Wick 3”. The photo of Reeves in a suit has been making the rounds on social media, and people are wondering why he was dressed so formally.
    It turns out that Reeves was wearing a suit because he was filming a scene in which his character, John Wick, is attending a funeral. Keanu reeves suit is a part of the costume, and it helps to create the atmosphere of the scene.

    This is just one example of how what we read on our summer vacation can be used to improve our writing. By reading about current events and news stories, we can get ideas for our own writing.