"My Ántonia" - Founding Mother of the American West

Women immigrants and Myths of the Frontier

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

22 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Western: Genre and Gender
2.1 ThePioneerNovel

3 Women Immigrants on the Frontier - My Antonia

4 On the move: Frontier and American society

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The identity of America as a nation is an issue not only amply discussed by politicians and sociologists past and present, it has been a topic of America's writers and artists long since the country's foundation. In quest of an American identity which was emancipated from its European models 19th century writers were among the first to explore the myth of the American West. Paradoxically, however, writing about the American West was not a truly accepted expression of American art in the early days ofbuilding an autonomous American literary canon.

Especially in the early nineteenth century, writers were strongly orientated towards Europe and European writing styles as many young American authors seemingly did not believe their country capable yet of constructing an autonomous literary canon that would reflect a credible literary voice of the young nation. Travelling to Europe was long considered an essential part of upper class education and writers could hardly claim to be distinctly “American” in their way of writing. The problem ofhaving no literary home and roots can be copiously observed in the works ofHerman Melville, many ofhis novels and pieces of short fiction featuring the individual's homelessness and the experience ofbeing lost in space and time. As part of a nation of immigrants who settled on the continent, always moving on, with no collective identity or idea of nation, Melville wrote about themes which would eventually resurface in the writings of Modernist poets and writers of the 1920s. Lack of identity and shattered roots being such a predominant theme in Modernist fiction and poetry, it is no small wonder that Melville's works were re-discovered in this time and finally given the recognition they more than deserved.[1]

Even though one of Modernism's predominant themes was the lost individual cut off from its roots, Willa Cather was accused ofbeing a reactionary because she placed setting her masterpiece My Antonia in the rural American Midwest. My Antonia however shows that what many Modernist writers seemed unable to see: the Frontier was not simply a cheesy myth of dime novels but the perfect symbol of America as a nation comprised of the rootless who had no sense ofhome and for whom moving on was the only solution to this dilemma. In My Antonia Willa Cather works with many elements of what would later be considered “typical” of the American West. Readers become aware ofhow much of the Frontier myth was initiated by people who then were not part of a shared “American” identity in terms of language, culture and religion. Cather also emphasizes the role of women on the Frontier, which sets her apart from most of previous Frontier writers.

If there ever was an idea of creating an American nation, the Frontier certainly is and was the strongest image of it. In people's collective conscience of the Frontier, there are no immigrants, however; immigrants being defined in this instance as non-English speakers and culturally different to the mainstream pioneer image. The Frontier is the focal theme of the Western: “The myth of the frontier - the wide-open American landscape seen as the opportunity for any strong, self-reliant individual to make the best out of what is offered - is noticeable in all Western films. [...] They form the myth and they are necessary ingredients without which films of this genre would lose its right to be called a Western.”[2]

It might be useful at this point to establish what or where exactly the Frontier is or was and who determined it. The Frontier was the imaginary line between the 'wild' west and civilization or between the parts of the country which were already under US legislation, and the parts that were still inhabited by the Native Americans. Frederick Jackson Turner declared the Frontier to be closed in the year 1890 in his thesis The Significance of the Frontier in American History[3], but there still exists an ideological frontier today, the frontier myth is still alive. “By definition, all things are possible on the frontier. It is a place that exists primarily in relation to the future. [...] In the twentieth century, frontier stories move around the globe and even into outer space”.[4]

To understand the Modernist writers' general opposition to the Frontier theme and in order to fully comprehend Cather's contribution to Modernism, one needs gains insight into various aspects ofFrontier literature, namely the Western and the Pioneer Novel. The works chosen for this portrayal are Owen Wister's The Virginian and Hank's Woman and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie because of their contrast to My Antonia regarding the portrayal of women, immigrants and the Frontier Myth.

2. The Western - genre and gender

Some thoughts about the Frontier myth in Western genre might be useful at this point. As a genre, most people of the Western world are quite familiar with the Western through the medium film. As shall be explored in some detail, this has its reason: movies are probably the best medium there is to capture the Western genre as we know it today. There has been Western literature in the USA as early as the 1830s, the most notable and influential novel was James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. Stories about the American West were not always about authenticity. Cooper is the best example for this lack of authenticity as he himself had never been to the west. Authors like Owen Wister who wrote in the 1890s complained about the difficulties to paint a realistic picture of the American West against all the romanticized ideas of the earlier years. With the closing of the Frontier, these writers wanted to preserve the “true” West in their stories, before it vanished completely. It can be argued if these writers were able to create a more “realistic” picture of the American West than the writers of popular dime novels that prevailed in the 19th century and played a major role in the creation of the romanticized West, which even then was an anachronism.

While Owen Wister did travel in the West, his 1902 novel The Virginian is not an entirely convincing affair when it comes to painting a realistic picture of the time. The novel's hero, the Virginian, remains a rather stereotypical character throughout the novel, in spite ofWister's visible efforts to give the character some depth. The Virginian is a man of action and few words, a true cowboy. Writers like Wister have tried to recapture or “master”[5] the American West before its ultimate end and subsequent civilization. This effort of preservation becomes obvious in Wister's use of vernacular speech. The Virginian speaks his Southern vernacular throughout the novel, as do other characters; actually it is quite difficult at times to read if one is not familiar with Southern dialects. Whether Wister's attempts of rendering vernacular speech can be considered successful and authentic is highly arguable. It can be said that that Wister's view of the West is a nostalgic and even reactionary one considering the fact that he wrote during the era of American Realism.

Clearly, Wister was influenced by Realism. For example, he depicts a very detailed image of some of the people and the landscape, but often his novel seems to be caught in the traps of Frontier clichés.

This becomes particularly obvious regarding the role of women in The Virginian. Most important among them is Molly, the woman who falls in love with the Virginian and is loved by him because she does not neatly fall into the classical categories of wives, mothers and whores which prevail in the standard Western.

But Miss Mary Stark Wood was not a usual young lady for two reasons.

First, there was her descent. Had she so wished, she could have belonged to any number of those patriotic societies of which our American ears have grown accustomed to hear so much.[...] The second reason why she was not a usual girl was her character. This character was the result of pride and family pluck battling with family hardship.[6]

She moves to the West to become a schoolteacher and therefore she is a bringer of civilization. The Virginian admires her knowledge about civilization:

Camped on the Sunk Creek trail, the Virginian was telling himself in his blankets: "I ain't too old for education. Maybe she will lend me books. And I'll watch her ways and learn...stand still, Monte. I can learn a lot more than the kids on that. There's Monte...you pie-biter, stop He has ate up your book, ma'am, but I'll get yu'..."[7]

Despite his respect for her learning, Molly has no true power within the Virginian's world. She cannot stop the Virginian from using violence: he kills a man to bring justice, and not only does she fail to prevent him from doing this, she becomes convinced by his “better” arguments.[8] After having threatened the Virginian that she will not marry him ifhe kills Trampas, “Wister has her marry the Virginian anyway after the fatal shoot-out, not only because the man must master the woman, but because the Virginians of the world must kill the Steves and Trampases”.[9] In spite of appearances, close reading reveals Molly to be a rather weak character that never truly transcends gender stereotypes. There are no cowgirls in Owen Wister's stories, women are no essential part of his world of fiction.

A certain exception to this is his story Hank's Woman. The first significant difference is the fact that the story's protagonist is actually a woman, even if she is usuallyjust termed Hank's Woman - her real name is Willomene. Hank's Woman is a title that indicates her status as Hank's wife, in a way she has no own identity and is completely isolated on account ofher being an Austrian and unable to communicate with others. Without being Hank's woman, she would have no part in this narrative. The story develops around this unlikely pair, a black cowboy and Austrian immigrant.

She is a stranger in the American West, she is Catholic and has no idea how to cope with life on the frontier. She is completely unsuitable for it as she cannot even ride a horse - and therefore she cannot take part in a very important part of the Frontier life: she is incapable of moving around, she needs a house. Still, it is Hank who is depicted as the truly problematic character; unable to make her happy, the men's sympathy lies entirely with Willomene, in spite ofher shortcomings. They see her as true ofheart and even though they understand little of the Catholic faith, they admire her for the strength prayer seems to give her. Hank cannot bear the fact that when she is praying, he cannot reach her, mistreat and belittle her - she is beyond him. Being the villain of the piece, he consequently robs her of the only thing that gives her strength. He puts a bullet into her crucifix. Hank has to pay for his deed with death, and the general opinion is that he well deserved it. Hank's Woman commits suicide at the end. Willomene certainly is no self-assertive woman of the American West, she is a tragic and lost heroine in alien territory. Yet, the story is of interest because it is one of the few occasions that a woman plays such an important role in one of Owen Wister's texts. Usually, it is more the absence of women that is outstanding - or to put it better - their relative absence. They only appear on the margins. It is again Wister's hero the Virginian who tells the story of Hank's Woman. Yet not only has the story more depth and holds more controversy than the novel The Virginian, the popular hero telling the story also appears to be more interesting and less stereotypical than we know him from the novel.

The Virginian is considered the first real Western novel in the USA[10], as well as a novel of literary value, especially in comparison to the dime novel corner it emerged from. To the reader it becomes apparent that many Western movies of 20th century took up character traits of the novel's hero, the Virginian:

A lone rider, sitting easily in the saddle ofhis dusty horse, travels across the plains toward a small, new town with muddy streets and lively saloons. He wears a battered, wide-brimmed hat, a loose-hanging vest, a bandanna around his neck, and one gun rests naturally in a smooth, well-worn holster. Behind him, the empty plains roll gently until they end abruptly in the rocks and forests that punctuate the sudden rise of towering mountain peaks.[11]

Although this is the description of a film scene, it is very easy to see the parallels in comparison with the description ofWister's hero:

Lounging there at ease against the wall was a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures. His broad, soft hat was pushed back; a loose-knotted, dull-scarlet handkerchief sagged from his throat; and one casual thumb was hooked in the cartridge-belt that slanted across his hips. He had plainly come many miles from somewhere across the vast horizon, as the dust upon him showed. His boots were white with it.[12]

The Western is a genre that builds on its hero as a central figure and the landscape that is the hero's natural habitat. Both Western novels and movies employ the myth in their brand of showing the Western history, something that can be termed mythistory.[13]

In the Western movie, just as in most Western novels, women are of little importance. They have no active role in the image of conquering “the virgin land”, a male view of the Frontier if there ever was one, and “myth in regard to America means the occupation or even obsession with the myth of the frontier”.[14] Usually women are part of the plot - often as a plot motivator - “prompting the hero into action because ofher own actions ofby what is done to her”.[15] Often the woman is the hero's love interest, and this often means she is portrayed as the obedient girl waiting for him to come back, or she can be the “bad” girl who fools the hero who has fallen in love with her. In the latter case, she often is a prostitute or at least a woman oflow moral standards, and often she is killed at the end of the movie.[16] There are women figures such as the entrepreneur, the tomboy, the wife - usually a hard-working, faithful companion and mother.[17]


[1] Urgo, p. 11

[2] Spiegeler, p.17

[3] Hendley, p. 43

[4] Urgo, p. 43

[5] Lewis, p.117

[6] Wister, p. 85

[7] Wister, p.163

[8] Spiegeler, p. 13

[9] Hendley, p. 84

[10] Freeman

[11] Spiegeler, p. 1

[12] Wister, p. 7

[13] Spiegeler, p. 3

[14] Spiegeler, p.16

[15] Spiegeler, p. 8

[16] Spiegeler, p. 8

[17] Spiegeler, p. 7-8

Excerpt out of 22 pages


"My Ántonia" - Founding Mother of the American West
Women immigrants and Myths of the Frontier
University of Freiburg  (Seminar of North American Studies)
Female Appropriations in the Girl Western
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
471 KB
founding, mother, american, west, women, myths, frontier
Quote paper
M.A. Carmen Fuchs (Author), 2006, "My Ántonia" - Founding Mother of the American West, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/175133


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