Saturday, July 20, 2019

Cather vs. Trump

Writing in The New York Times, Bret Stephens suggests Willa Cather’s My Ántonia as “the perfect antidote” to Donald Trump. Stephens calls the novel “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.

That’s the “real America” that today’s immigrant-bashers, starting with the president, pretend to venerate and constantly traduce.
Stephens doesn’t take into account those who were brought to this country against their will. Nor does Cather, really. But there’s still an antidote of some effectiveness to be found in her work.

Related reading
All OCA Willa Cather posts (Pinboard)

[“Really”: Cather’s final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, makes things more complicated. But it’s still fair to say that Cather’s “America” is made of little more than Native peoples and people of European descent.]

comments: 4

Anonymous said...

This is a complicated question, and I wonder if Cather is the right choice for Stephens's argument. I love Cather's work, but I believe that she was rather firmly conservative in her political outlook. Conservative of course does not necessarily mean racist and anti-immigrant, but, much as I admire her writing, she has depictions of Jewish and Hispanic characters that make me wince. And yet, she was a devoted artist, that is to say, a serious person, and I believe that a flim-flam man like Trump would have sickened her. But then there's that quote from Antonia: "People who don't like this country ought to stay home." Antonia is young and not terribly well-educated when she says this. She may be trying to pander to her American neighbors, but she may also just not understand that many immigrants, such as her own father, haven't solved their existential and economic problems simply by coming to America. A return to their country of origin may also be impossible, so they are trapped in regret, alienation, and misery.

Michael Leddy said...

Cather was deeply conservative in her politics, and somewhat reactionary in her pronouncements on art and literature (despite her own tendencies toward modernism). There are ethnic types in her fiction that make me cringe, though there’s also Louie Marsellus, sometimes thought to be a gesture of atonement for earlier anti-Semitism in her fiction. What interested me is that a conservative columnist (with whose thinking I have little in common) is turning to a conservative writer (whose work I revere) to make a case for America as a place that welcomes the poor wayfaring stranger.

By the way, I gotta point out: it’s Jim Burden who says “People who don’t like this country ought to stay at home.” Ántonia is well aware of the anguish that can come with a new world. The story “Neighbour Rosicky” has something of that too.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, my mistake for attributing the quote to Antonia (and misreading both Cather and Mr. Stephens!). It makes all the difference that it was said by Jim! Shame on me. Apologies to all.

Michael Leddy said...

No shame!