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  • The Ideal Observer Meets The Ideal Consumer:Realism, Domestic Science, and Immigrant Foodways in Willa Cather's My Ántonia (1918)
  • Stephanie Tsank (bio)

I have never found any intellectual excitement any more intense than I used to feel when I spent a morning with one of those old [immigrant] women at her baking or butter making…. I always felt as if they told me so much more than they said—as if I had actually got inside another person's skin

Willa Cather, Philadelphia Record1

In Cather's 1913 interview—the first full-length interview of her literary career—she cites what was for her the inspiration for much of her early fiction: immigrants and their distinct ethnic, cultural, and culinary identities. Yet she also reveals a potentially problematic desire to own and consume the immigrant body and experience. Cather, who grew up in Nebraska in the 1880s and befriended nearby immigrants from Bohemia and Scandinavia, wrote them into her Great Plains trilogy, beginning with O Pioneers! in 1913 and ending with My Ántonia in 1918—a coming-of-age tale for white, native-born narrator Jim Burden and an exploration of his relationship with Ántonia Shimerda, his Bohemian immigrant neighbor. Cather's quotation is notable: it celebrates immigrants in the act of culinary creation, especially during a time when anxieties about mass immigration had reached their peak in the United States. At the same time, Cather's position in this scenario—she is, after all, white, middle class, and "native"—is one of authority and perhaps even possessiveness, especially [End Page 39] given her stated desire to inhabit the bodies of immigrants. When Cather reports that immigrant women reveal much more than they say, how does she know? How does observing immigrant women cook stimulate Cather intellectually? Does Cather's appreciation of immigrant culture and culinary aesthetics, in fact, tenuously cross over into an act of ownership?

These questions gesture toward the larger sociocultural atmosphere of the turn of the century to which Cather's work inevitably responded and was shaped. More specifically, reading food in My Ántonia helps illuminate the parallel traditions of literary realism and domestic science, two movements that enforced ethnographic containment and monitored consumption under the guise of promoting democratic principles and national unification. In this article, I will show how My Ántonia responds to and encapsulates these overlapping ideologies in two ways through its representation of immigrant foodways and scenes of eating. First, I argue, Cather supports the construction of the ideal observer by fixating on "foreign" foods through Jim Burden's narration and characterizes immigrants for the benefit of a white middle-class readership, both of which subtly perpetuate nativist ideologies. Second, food scenes in the narrative push against the concept of the ideal consumer by offering up more expansive ways to conceptualize identity through one's culinary practices and relationship to consumption.

Literary realism and domestic science, both of which emerged in the 1870s, defined themselves by an emphasis on accuracy through an adherence to verisimilitude in the former and to scientific principles in the latter. While realism participated in the trend of describing immigrants, or the lower classes, for a primarily white, middle-class readership and frequently relied on detached observation as a narrative method, the domestic scientists emphasized pragmatism and culinary homogeneity through the promotion of a carefully proscribed diet and advocated for a utilitarian, nutrition-centered approach to the act of consumption. Both movements sought to demarcate the boundaries of what should constitute the ideal American citizen and in doing so enforced a hierarchy of belonging and difference. Tracing the trajectory of literary realism alongside the ideological imperatives of the domestic scientists reveals both movements' participation in the construction of nationalism and nativism and, by proxy, highlights overlapping preoccupations about narrative and biological consumption. In other words, reading both movements together reveals an ongoing and interwoven anxiety about both what and how people read and ate. These anxieties helped shape what defined the ideal citizen and how that citizen functioned in society to ensure a carefully cultivated homogeneity that could then feed into a fixed and powerful national identity. Together, these two movements—both of which had lasting...


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pp. 39-56
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