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M y A n t o n ia a n d t h e M a k i n g o f t h e G r e a t R a c e L i n d a L i z u t H e l s t e r n A s Jim Burden approaches the Cuzak farm for a reunion with his oldest childhood friend in the concluding section of My Antonia (1918), he observes two boys, both completely oblivious to him. The younger, Jim notes, has a “close-clipped, bare head,” while the older speaks “in a lan­ guage [he] had not heard for a long while” (319). This description, which defamiliarizes the familiar, makes the head notable, for it is not, it would seem, Anglo-Saxon. Indeed, this head recalls the thousands of photo­ graphs of racial others made in the course of craniometric research during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as physical anthropolo­ gists sought to correlate skull shapes and racial types. Social Darwinist race science found its application in the eugenics movement, formally organized under the auspices of the American Breeders Association in 1906, just as Willa Cather was beginning her career at McClure’s. The 1902 rediscovery of Mendelian genetics here intersected with Francis Galton’s theory linking social class and natural selection, which Galton had dubbed eugenics in 1883 (Kevles ix).1 The future of the human race, synonymous with the white race according to eugenicists, would be read, for better or for worse, in our skulls. As World War I dragged on, American eugenic reformers intensi­ fied efforts to win popular support for their race betterment ideas. They sought to encourage prolific reproduction by those with the most desir­ able racial traits (i.e., the white middle class) while actively discourag­ ing the transmission of less desirable race traits, as well as those dubbed inherited traits, including insanity, epilepsy, alcoholism, pauperism, criminality, and feeblemindedness (Kevles 46).2 Outlawing interracial maniage and restricting immigration became high priorities. Eugenicists viewed Southern and Eastern Europeans, who represented the greatest percentage of new immigrants during the first two decades of the twen­ tieth century, as a particular threat to evolutionary progress, ostensibly because they canied less desirable racial traits than Nordics, touted as the world’s preeminent racial strain. We s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e 4 2 .3 (Fa l l 2 0 0 7 ): 2 5 5 -7 4 . 2 5 6 W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e f a l l 2 0 0 7 While Cather criticized the indifference of native-born Americans to immigrants all her life, she did not ignore eugenic science in her great immigrant novel begun in the winter of 1916-1917 (Woodress 38, 285). Indeed, My Antonia may be read as a case study in eugenics, but Cather’s nuanced understanding of the subject allowed her to deploy the very principles that gave credence to increasingly vituperative antiimmigration rhetoric in support of her own pro-immigrant stance. She incorporated contemporary immigrant-related research findings and the logic of argumentation to make the point, in case after case, that inher­ ited traits transcended the boundaries of race however these were drawn. Never, though, did Cather call into question the potential for long-term damage that such traits might cause. Immigration and eugenics may have been on Willa Cather’s mind even as she journeyed west in the summer of 1916. Randolph Bourne’s “Trans-national America” appeared in the July issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and it is conceivable that she read it on the train, paying special attention for personal and intellectual reasons. Not only was Bourne a close friend of Cather intimate Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, he was one of the very few literary/cultural critics for whom Willa Cather ever pro­ fessed respect (Clayton 171; Woodress 301, 423). Spending the entire fall in Nebraska, Cather, who grew up listening to stories of the Old Country in the broken English of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 255-274
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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