restricted access Displacing Homosexuality: The Use of Ethnicity in Willa Cather's My Ántonia
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Displacing Homosexuality:
The Use of Ethnicity in Willa Cather's My Ántonia

In the opening pages of Willa Cather's My Ántonia, Jim Burden points out that "The Shimerdas were the first Bohemian family to come to this part of the country" (15), and the novel goes on to record the process whereby Antonia Shimerda, a female immigrant, is transformed into a productive member of American society. The narrator, Jim Burden, is the immediate agent of this transformation. His is a double coercion, as he not only attempts to shape Antonia's behavior but also narrates her story and thus controls her representation. The foreign, dark, Catholic Ántonia is presented to us through Jim's white, middle-class, Protestant, male eyes, which to a large extent are those of his community. The tension between Jim's desire to mold Ántonia in a certain fashion and her intermittent rejection of that attempt provides the motivating force for the book.

Cather is not merely interested, however, in presenting us with an interpersonal conflict. As Abdul JanMohamed has pointed out, "discursive practices [do] to the symbolic, linguistic presence of the native what the material practices [do] to his physical presence" (64). The discursive construction of Antonia is inseparable from her economic exploitation, and Cather repeatedly gestures to the economic imperatives behind the community's hegemonizing impulse. The conflict that ensues from Jim and, by extension, the community's attempt to construct Ántonia differently, and her resistance to that coercion, is exemplified in the title—My Ántonia —that Jim gives his account. The "My" points to the process of [End Page 91] appropriation, the narrator's construction of the other, while the "Antonia" points both to the heroine's residue of foreignness and her transgressive femininity which resists both Jim and the community. Thus, of her name, Jim comments: "Ántonia—they accented her name thus, strongly, when they spoke to her" (17). Cather appreciated the power of inflection in a name as symbol of resistance. In her youth, she styled herself "William" Cather as part of her rejection of the dominant culture's circumscription of her as female.1

Why should Cather, in a novel that has been characterized as a paean to the beauty of the plains and to the innocence of childhood, deal with the plight of East-European immigrants? I believe that Cather's concern to point out the ethnocentric assumptions of this midwest community stems from an attempt to displace and hence work through a series of splits within herself, splits arising from her role as female author within what she saw as a predominantly male profession, and her position as lesbian within a heterosexual society. The problem of ethnicity displaces that of homosexuality.

Ellen Moers has pointed out that with Cather's childhood move to Red Cloud, Nebraska, from Virginia, Cather was positioned ambivalently among a series of discourses concerning ethnic roles:

As she [Cather] was very well aware, she herself came from "old" people, that is, good, solid, Eastern-seaboard Virginian stock. And the "new" people she encountered were crude, poor, not well spoken, servant people who had illegitimate children and were dirty people. . . . I think this is very much in the books as much as there is the sense that the cultivated world is the European world.


Here a web of conflicting discourses emerges: Europeans as cultured, yet unclean: Europeans as providing the vital imaginative input to America, yet positioned by that culture as alien. If, in this context, Cather is nearer to Jim in being of "solid" white stock, surely a sense of her subordinate status as woman and her "monstrous" position as lesbian allowed her to appreciate a similar exclusion operating at the expense of ethnically marginal groups. By displacing themes of "deviant" sexuality onto those of gender and ethnic marginality, Cather is able to include in her art, despite societal and psychological strictures, "the socially forbidden—and hence unnameable—desires and emotions"; she is enabled both to "express and repress, disclose and conceal" (O'Brien 6). The figure of Ántonia as outsider allows Cather—as we shall see—to gesture toward themes of homosexuality because, as Sharon O'Brien puts...