Last week, Never Trump pundit Bret Stephens used his New York Times column to urge his readers to seek out Willa Cather’s novel “My Antonia,” a book that celebrates the American immigrant experience. He called it “the perfect antidote to our president.”
To read ‘My Antonia’ more than a century after its publication, is a reminder of the timelessness of America’s bigotries, whose loudest champion sits in the White House.
But, more powerfully, Cather’s novel is a story of a country that can overcome prejudice … 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.
It seemed like an essay that might have been written by one of the Times’ most liberal columnists, such as Paul Krugman or Charles M. Blow. I found it commonsensical and difficult to argue with. Alas, many NYT readers found much to complain about. Their comments offer a fascinating—and amusing—look into the leftist literary mindset.
JA in Iowa wrote: “[D]on’t forget that the endless land Cather describes was seized after displacing indigenous people. Cather says almost nothing about that.”
Chad in California wrote: “‘My Antonia’ is a powerful story that requires the reader to completely ignore the genocidal predicate.”
Noah Drummer of Eureka wrote:
Many of Cather’s writings demonstrated the anti-Semitism of the era, and the immigrant family in ‘My Antonia’ were white Christians from Europe. So I am a bit at a loss as to what Brett Stephens is trying to convey here, at a time when non-Christian and brown-skinned people are demonized by Trump supporters. There are many fine pieces of American immigrant literature that might have been more accurate ‘antidotes’ to Trump that Stephens could have chosen … But focusing on idealized stories such as ‘My Antonia’ the current immigration debate places Mr. Stephens squarely in the camp of many Trump supporters, who want to take this country back [to] when the vast majority of our citizens were both white and Christian. The selection of My ‘Antonia’ as his exemplar here is, in effect, a backhand slap to those immigrants who are neither white nor Christian. As if the family’s experience in ‘My Antonia’ in any way accurately reflects the experiences of our immigrant ancestors who were neither Christian nor white. Sadly, Mr. Stephens had a wonderful opportunity to choose a much better ‘antidote’ to Trump here, and for reasons only he knows, chose not to.
Dozens of leftist readers wrote to accuse Cather of anti-Semitism, nativist bias, white-washing Indian genocide, praising an environmentally disastrous westward expansion, secretly preferring New York City to Nebraska, and other crimes against humanity.
Stop Slamming Pioneers For Not Coming As Far As You
Cather was born in 1873, a full 47 years before American women won the power to vote nationwide (some states and jurisdictions had allowed it since the Founding Era). Consequently, she had no direct say in government decisions until she was well into middle age.
Cather was also raised in an America where the structural barriers to professional success for women were often insurmountable. She used her gifts of intellect and imagination to pursue a career in one of the toughest professions: the production of serious literary works.
What’s more, some evidence suggests she was not only a lesbian but played a pioneering role in subverting gender norms. To retroactively hold her accountable for things she had no hand in (such as Indian removal or westward expansion) or for holding mildly anti-Semitic views—fairly commonplace in 19th-century America—is to posthumously burden an extraordinary American woman with additional handicaps to those she already overcame during her life.
I’m not too worried about Cather. Her place in the American literary canon is as secure as it can be. Long after JA in Iowa, Chad in California, and Noah Drummer are gone and forgotten, Cather’s books will still be read and admired by lovers of literature the world over.
I am worried, however, about the damage that might be done to immigrants and first-generation Americans if they are encouraged by the likes of Drummer to read only books by and about non-white, non-Christian authors. Cather won’t be hurt by that kind of mindset, but thousands of new Americans might be.
Race Shouldn’t Affect What Books People Read
Drummer and other self-proclaimed “champions” of non-white immigrants seem to have a low opinion of the people they purport to be defending. They appear to believe that browner-skinned people are incapable of appreciating a novel like “My Antonia” because it was written by a paler-skinned woman and features mainly white characters.
Yet history is replete with paler-skinned people proving themselves capable of appreciating books about people who look somewhat different and come from other lands. Novels such as “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “Beloved,” and “The Color Purple” have been top sellers throughout the Western world for decades. If white people are deemed capable of such leaps of imagination, why shouldn’t brown people be allowed to attempt those leaps also?
For years I have worked at a small independent bookstore located near the convergence of two upscale Sacramento neighborhoods. Every year, local schools and libraries sponsor a summer reading program for children. I’ve sold hundreds of copies of “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” “The House on Mango Street,” and “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” to white students from well-off families. These students also stock up on older classics such as “Sister Carrie,” “Main Street,” and, yes, works by Cather. No one seems to be restricting great books they can read.
Why should affluent, white, fifth-generation American children be allowed to read the full range of American literature and non-white newcomers be forced to confine their reading only to books and authors who share their race, religion, or place of origin? How is this not outright discrimination?
Why should race or religion trump all other aspects of a person’s character? Isn’t it at least possible that a young lesbian Latina might be more inspired by the life and works of Cather than by the life and works of Sherman Alexie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez?
Consider Danny Santiago’s ‘Famous All Over Town’
Some of the best books I know about Mexican immigrants probably wouldn’t pass muster with the Noah Drummers of this world. My favorite novel of the American immigrant experience is “Famous All Over Town,” written by Danny Santiago and published in 1983. It tells the story of a family of Mexican immigrants living in East Los Angeles during the 1960s. The book is funnier, more moving, and better written than “Catcher in the Rye,” and it deserves to be on every summer reading list in America.
All his life, Santiago was interested in improving the plight of the poor and underprivileged. For a while, he thought communism or socialism might be the key to fighting poverty. In the 1950s, these beliefs brought him before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Afterward, he and his wife, Lilith, spent 20 years working as volunteers in the Hispanic neighborhoods of East L.A. By the time he began to write about the Mexican immigrant experience in America, he was well steeped in the subject.
Alas, shortly after the book’s publication, Danny Santiago was revealed as a pseudonym for Daniel Lewis James. James was white; even worse, a WASP. He grew up in a well-to-do household and attended both Philips Andover Academy and Yale University.
Once his identity was revealed, all his past devotion to the immigrants of East L.A. couldn’t protect him from political correctness. Soon the self-anointed arbiters of “authenticity” began pointing their fingers at James and his book and crying “cultural appropriation.” Although James’s book remains in print, unlike Cather’s work it remains for too obscure measured against its achievement.
At the website GoodReads.com, the book has only 16 reader reviews. The pseudonym controversy still hovers over the book’s reputation. “The fact that the author’s name is fake so that an old white dude could pretend it was written by a Chicano author does, in fact, take away from the book,” writes one commenter. At Amazon.com the book has a mere 12 reader reviews.
Although the book deals with the kind of immigrants leftist critics purport to be concerned about, the ethnicity of the author is, to them, a fatal flaw that no social justice warrior could ever be expected to overlook.
Or Try the Vastly Underappreciated ‘Riders to Cibola’
Another masterpiece not likely to get its due from the woke crowd is Norman Zollinger’s “Riders to Cibola,” a book frequently cited as one of the best Western novels ever written. The novel is riveting. Set in the early part of the 20th century, it deals with the hardships of Mexican immigrants and offers insight into the toll racism takes on both its victims and its perpetrators.
The book takes the viewpoint of Ignacio Ortiz, a young Mexican orphan in desperate need of work. Luckily, he crosses paths with ranch owner Douglas MacAndrews, a man of immense integrity and free of racism. He values hard-working men who love the land as much as he does. Ignacio is one of those.
“Riders to Cibola” speaks to our current illegal immigration dilemma as well as the Me Too movement. Alas, Zollinger was a wealthy white guy born into an upper-class family, so the leftist cultural police view his entire oeuvre as an act of cultural appropriation.
Don’t Listen to the Leftist Book Critics
From John Jakes’ “The Kent Family Chronicles” to Howard Fast’s “The Immigrants” to James A. Michener’s “Centennial,” the immigrant experience in America has inspired some of the greatest fiction ever written about this country and its people.
Reading accounts like these of other immigrants from other lands and eras could help today’s immigrants feel less alone. It could show them that they’re part of a long tradition of people who left behind troubled countries and came to America only to discover that their troubles were far from over.
Unfortunately, a certain faction of the illiberal left is doing its best to discourage these narratives from reaching the people who need them most. If these leftists were seriously interested in the plight of immigrants, they would actively promote books like “My Antonia,” “Riders to Cibola,” and “Famous All Over Town.” When they actively discourage such books, it betrays that they’re more interested in signaling their “wokeness” than in helping immigrants.