Spring 2001

Mowers Tree logo


We Possessed Together the Communicable Past: Articulating the Connections among Cather, Omaha, Rural Nebraska, and my Family History

By Darcie Rives Image of The Landwehrkamps, Back row: (l-r) Heine, Minnie (grandmother), Fritz, and John. Center: Grace (great-aunt)Front: (l-r) Katherine and Henry (great-grandparents)The Landwehrkamps, Back row: (l-r) Heine, Minnie (grandmother), Fritz, and John. Center: Grace (great-aunt)Front: (l-r) Katherine and Henry (great-grandparents)

Throughout my relationship with the novels of Willa Cather, I have had a great emotional investment in how I read these stories. As a third-generation Omahan, I at first felt proud of Cather's celebration of Nebraska and its inhabitants, and yet estranged from her Nebraska-centered writings because it initially seemed to me that she ignored the place of Omaha and its urban immigrants in the state's history. Cather's focus on the stories of immigrants living in rural Nebraska during the late 19th and early 20th centuries distanced me from her texts because I believed that the experience of urban immigrants in Omaha, like that of my mother's German family, the Landwehrkamps, had been silenced by her version of the European settlement of the state.

But as I continued to study her work, I discovered that Cather's depictions of immigrant life in rural Nebraska so mirror many of the trials, tribulations, and successes of my family's own immigrant experience in the city, that what I perceived to be unforgiving dichotomies between rural and urban Nebraska in Cather's oeuvre collapsed on closer examination. I found instead that Cather is a writer whose stories reveal, rather than conceal, for the reader connections to places and people (such as Omaha and its immigrants) which do not appear directly in her texts. As Susan Rosowski writes, "Cather . . . diminishes the author's role and empowers readers. . . . [She] empowers readers not into fragmentation and discontinuity, but into the infinite possibilities of relationships and continuities" (15).

At first glance, in her Nebraska stories Cather describes what is seemingly a rich, idyllic life for immigrants in the state's rural areas. Ántonia Cuzak's farm life, for instance, appears paradisiacal: "There was deepest peace in that orchard. . . . The hedges were so tall that we could see nothing but the blue sky above them, neither the barn roof nor the windmill. The afternoon sun poured down on us through the drying grape leaves. The orchard seemed full of sun, like a cup, and we could smell the ripe apples on the trees" (My Ántonia 331). Likewise, in "Neighbour Rosicky," Cather presents Anton Rosicky's farm and the graveyard near it as comprising a gentle Arcadia:
Over yonder on the hill he could see his own house, crouching low, with the clump of orchard behind and the windmill before, and all down the gentle hill-slope the rows of pale gold cornstalks stood out against the white field. . . . The graveyard . . . was all overgrown with long red grass. The fine snow, settling into this red grass and upon the few little evergreens and the headstones, looked very pretty. (19)


And in O Pioneers!, the Nebraska land is for Alexandra Bergson also a bucolic wonder: "She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun" (69).

Of course, this pastoral representation of rural Nebraska was in part inspired by Cather's reminiscence of her childhood spent in Webster County. According to David Stouck, pastoralism is more than just a genre which contrasts the beauty of rural life with the decrepitude of the city; it is also "a Wordsworthian vision of the good life that derives from childhood. . . . Pastoral is the mode of art based on memory and the desire to recover that place and time when life was ordered and secure" (53). Cather herself acknowledges the role memory played in her construction of Nebraska and, consequently, in her success as a writer: "Life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember" (qtd. in Howard 47).

But the author did not always portray the state so lovingly. In her early stories, such as "Peter," she constructs Nebraska as an extraordinarily harsh and bleak environment. Indeed, as an immigrant herself to the state from Virginia, Cather was repulsed and frightened by the landscape: "I felt a good deal as if we [the Cather family] had come to the end of everything'it was a kind of erasure of personality" (Bohlke, 10). It was only when she reached middle-age and began to recall the past that she began to construct pastoral visions of Nebraska.

Then in her later fiction, Cather questions her own construction of the joyful immigrant experience in rural Nebraska. In "Neighbor Rosicky," Anton does not wish his son and daughter-in-law to move to Omaha because he fears they would have no community, in particular no Czech community, in which to live. They would be isolated, with no compassion shown to them: "But in the city, all the foulness and misery and brutality of your neighbors was part of your life. . . . There were mean people everywhere, to be sure. . . . But they weren't tempered, hardened, sharpened like the treacherous people in the cities who live by grinding or cheating or poisoning their fellow-men" (51).

Yet, as Sally Allen McNall points out, Cather herself undercuts the happiness that the immigrant is supposed to discover in rural Nebraska. McNall states that through her depiction of the Black Hawk dances in My Ántonia, Cather shows she was quite aware of the prejudice immigrants faced even in rural areas from native-born citizens (25). In Black Hawk, for instance, the town's "attitudes are polarized by the dances along the lines of 'old' and 'new' immigrant stereotypes'the Danish laundry girls contrasted with the dangerous Bohemian Marys, and Antonia's success at the tent is the first step toward her downfall" (McNall 25). During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America became increasingly xenophobic as new waves of immigrants arrived, primarily from Eastern Europe. In this context, Ántonia's sexuality, which she freely expresses at the dances as she mingles and flirts with boys from "established" Black Hawk families, "threatens both the 'racial purity' and the respectability of old Black Hawk residents" (McNall 25). Cather, in her essay "Nebraska: The End of the Cycle," recognizes and disparages this prejudice which the older citizens of Nebraska held against new immigrants: "Unfortunately, their [the immigrants'] American neighbors were seldom open-minded enough to understand the Europeans, or to profit by their older traditions" (5).

This xenophobia, in turn, lead to the isolation of the rural immigrant. Ántonia, for example, becomes someone who "must do without the support of extended family and tradition, who must rely on herself alone to make her marital arrangements, and who at first fails disastrously. In the Old World, she would have lived, as virtually all Czechs had, in a village community and would have been courted by someone like Cuzak to begin with" (McNall 26). Indeed, it is such ethnic isolation which causes Mr. Shimerda's suicide. And although Cather often makes it seem as if rural Nebraska was brimming with immigrant communities'she, for instance, claims that "I have walked about the streets of Wilbur, the county seat of Saline County, for a whole day without hearing a word of English spoken" ("Nebraska" 4)'in reality, the immigrant communities in Cather's real-life home of Webster County were not necessarily large (McNall 26).

Uncovering Cather's deconstruction of the rural immigrant life in her stories in turn encouraged me as a reader to discover what the Omaha immigrant experience might have been like. Thirty years ago, sociologists studying immigrants living in the city from 1880 to 1900 expressed Anton Rosicky's point of view that Omaha lacked any kind of ethnic communities which would give immigrants a sense of place. In his 1972 study, for example, Howard Chudacoff maintains that "although immigrants comprised one-third of Omaha's population in 1880, there were virtually no neighborhoods which could be identified with any particular nationality" (65). Later historians, however, questioned this assessment of the city's immigrant population. Kathleen L. Fimple, in a 1989 study, criticizes Chudacoff for examining only ward-level data. She asserts that in order to understand truly the nature of communities in Omaha at the time, one must look at the composition of the city's population street by street. In so doing, Fimple concluded that "ethnic enclaves did exist in the study area when data were analyzed at a detailed level" (x).

The real surprise for me in reading Fimple's study was her discovery of the existence, in 1880 and in 1900, of major German enclaves in Omaha. In all my years of hearing stories about my family's early days in the city, no one had ever mentioned that they might have possibly lived in a German enclave. Indeed, I had simply assumed that my family had resided amongst native-born Omahans. But I was shocked to discover that this was not the case at all.

In 1880, the most numerous ethnic group in Omaha was the Germans, and the "heart of the German settlement was in the large concentration between 10th and 13th streets. Here one could purchase food from several German merchants, including Volkmier's meat market, Schmid's grocery, and the Schube Haus (bakery). . . . The Emmel House (hotel) and Hottenroth and Bauer boarding house were also located in this core" (Fimple 66). In fact, 13th street was the very area in which the Landwehrkamps lived during the 1880s. I realized that it made perfect sense for my family to have lived in this enclave, especially considering, according to Fimple, that a German boarding house was located in this area. While I cannot substantiate it (since no one in the present generation of my family can remember the name of the boarding house where my great-grandmother, Katherine, worked), I feel sure that the Hottenroth and Bauer house must have been Katherine's place of employment, since it was precisely within the neighborhood my family occupied at that time.

My surprise grew when I discovered that the Landwehrkamps must have moved in accordance with the changing position of the primary German enclave. By 1900, while the Germans in Omaha had dispersed throughout the city somewhat, "areas of concentration [were] also still in evidence. One concentration was . . . near 19th and Vinton streets. . . . The Bongardt meat market, Schmidt saloon and Muller's Hall were located in the 1700 block of Vinton. Wilg dry goods was at 1810 Vinton, Strausburgh druggist at 1822 Vinton, and the Schouboe bakery at 3130 S. 18th St." (Fimple 110-13). My family, by 1900, was living in this area, in a little house on Stamford Circle, near Vinton. I can even remember this house myself, before my great-aunt Grace finally sold it when I was five.

Further, learning about these German enclaves helped me to understand why my great-grandparents never spoke English. When I was younger, I had always considered this monolingualism rather strange, since I had assumed they would have needed to learn English in order to navigate Omaha society, even if their children (who were bilingual) could translate for them. But now I understand, given that my family always stayed within the safe, familiar confines of the German neighborhoods, that learning English was probably not necessary for my great-grandparents, since they would have been surrounded by German-speaking neighbors and businesses.

And yet, I would never have been led in this way to question the assumptions I had made about my family's immigrant life in the city, and so to discover the realities of their life in Omaha, had it not been for Cather's questioning of her own myths regarding rural and urban immigrant experiences. In "Neighbor Rosicky," for instance, while she points out the faults of city immigrant life, Cather at the same time acknowledges the presence and importance of ethnic urban enclaves. In this story, Anton, despite his assertion of the existence of cruelty, anonymity, and lack of ethnic cohesion in the cities, nonetheless reveals that both kindness and ethnic ties do endure in urban areas. In fact, he constantly reminisces about his urban existence and the kindness shown towards him by other urban immigrants. As a penniless 18-year-old in London, Rosicky is rescued and taken in by "a poor German tailor who had learned his trade in Vienna, and could speak a little Czech. This tailor, Lifschnitz, kept a repair shop in a Cheapside basement, underneath a cobbler. He didn't much need an apprentice, but he was sorry for the boy and took him in for no wages but his keep and what he could pick up" (39). Lifschnitz receives Anton even though his own family is destitute. And while life, of course, is terribly hard for Rosicky in London, the city is yet not bereft of loyalty among those of a non-Anglo ethnicity. In his desperate search for means to recover the Lifschnitz Christmas goose (which Anton, in his extreme hunger, had nearly devoured), he encounters some wealthy Czechs outside a London restaurant and begs them for enough money to buy a bird. Though these Czechs could have ignored a fellow countryman's plight, they do not. Instead, they take him into the restaurant, feed him, give him money, and later find him in order to pay for his passage to America and to a better life. In New York, too, Rosicky finds companions and makes connections with other immigrants. He befriends a fellow Czech, Zichec, a cabinet-maker, and the two share rooms on the top-floor of a furniture factory owned by an Austrian, Loeffler, who allows the friends to occupy the space. Anton is indeed happy there until he feels the need to have some land of his own, and so heads to Nebraska.

I do not mean to imply, however, that Cather constructs the city as a place where immigrants might suffer less than their rural counterparts. Indeed, her texts help illuminate the past to show that if there was prejudice against immigrants in rural Nebraska, so there was against those living in Omaha. While the late 19th and early 20th centuries were times of intolerance towards immigrants from many lands, Germans in particular suffered much discrimination during the First World War. McNall states that "Germans in America, including Nebraska, were definitely suspect; stories of their victimization can be found in almost any history of a midwestern state" (25). Indeed, "German books were destroyed. The legislature prohibited the use of foreign languages on the public streets or on the telephone and prohibited schools from using or even teaching foreign languages below the eighth grade. Wartime patriots initiated both official and vigilante action against German immigrants" (Cherny 233). Cather describes this discrimination against Germans, as it took place in rural Nebraska, in One of Ours. In that novel, both August Yoeder and Troilus Oberlies are accused of treason for making pro-German statements, and Mrs. Voigt, the restaurant owner, is terrorized by a gang of boys.

Although Cather does not directly address discrimination against Germans in Omaha in One of Ours, nevertheless her text does provide a means for discussing the matter through the reader's participation in and engagement with the novel. Her frank portrayal of the discrimination which Germans and other immigrants faced in rural areas encouraged me to consider my urban family's history in terms of ethnic prejudice. It has often been discussed amongst my mother's generation how my great-grandparents became increasingly reclusive later in life. While my great-grandparents' antisocial behavior has been dismissed by my mother and my aunts as mere eccentricity, I now question (since this period of reclusiveness corresponded to the war era) if this social withdrawal might have occurred because my German great-grandparents feared reactionary violence. As I noted earlier, due in part to their residence within German enclaves, my great-grandparents spoke only German. Yet, while they were able to maintain their native language, their monolingualism considerably isolated them from the English-speaking community in Omaha. As a result, I believe that life in the German enclaves both helped and hurt my great-grandparents: on the one hand, the enclaves enabled them to sustain their German traditions and lifestyle, but on the other hand, the enclaves also marked them as "the enemy" and so cut them off from contact with the rest of the city. In this context of fear and isolation, I liken my great-grandparents to Cather's Mrs. Yoeder, who lives in daily terror as a result of her ethnic and linguistic seclusion. Mr. Wheeler describes the woman's fear to Claude:
By the way . . . don't forget to go in and see the Yoeders sometime. . . . Ask for the old grandmother. You remember she never learned any English. And now they've told her it's dangerous to talk German, she don't talk at all and hides away from everybody. If I go by early in the morning, when she's out weeding the garden, she runs and squats down in the gooseberry bushes till I'm out of sight. (One of Ours 287)

Further, Cather's articulation of both American hostility towards Germans and the fear experienced by German immigrants also helped me to understand why my great-uncles had two sets of names: in public, they went by the English names of Fred and Henry, but in private, they were called by their German names, Fritz and Heinie (indeed, in keeping with the separation between their public and private names, the headstones of my great-uncles are both inscribed with their English appellations). Cather suggests why my great-uncles needed to do so: Americans used the names "Fritz" and "Heinie" to denote enemy soldiers during the war (One of Ours 473). In this way, through Cather's portrayal of the discrimination faced by German-Americans during World War I, the urban immigrant experience of my family merges with the narratives she writes about rural immigrants in Nebraska. As a result, not only do her texts open up a means by which the dichotomy between rural and urban life collapses, her works in addition have aided me in telling the story of my own family, in guiding me toward my own "trails of imagination" (Slote 104).

To conclude, I wish to suggest that the ultimate point of convergence in Cather's texts between fact and fiction, the urban and rural Nebraska immigrant, and the personal and the public, may actually be the idyllic language she uses to describe rural Nebraska and its settlers, language which I had initially considered indicative of the schism in her stories between all the factors mentioned above. In the 1870s, Omaha leaders, in conjunction with the Union Pacific Railroad, desired to attract homesteaders to rural Nebraska in order to provide both an agricultural base for the state, and a market with which Omaha could trade (Larsen and Cottrell 69). To do so, city businessmen funded various schemes to induce people from Europe and the Eastern United States to come to Nebraska. One such scheme was the distribution of pamphlets which promoted the state (Larsen and Cottrell 69). In particular, I wish to draw attention to a promotional pamphlet entitled Nebraska as it is: A Comprehensive Summary of the Resources, Advantages and Drawbacks of the Great Prairie State, written in 1878 by L. D. Burch, a correspondent for a Chicago newspaper. In his pamphlet, Burch christens Nebraska "THE GARDEN LAND," and describes the state in the following manner:
The cultivator has few foul weeds or foul grasses to encounter and there are no roots, stumps, or stones, or other barriers to impede the progress of the joyous plowman. . . . It is no uncommon thing for one man and a medium team to plow, plant, and cultivate one hundred acres of land, and gather, thresh, and market 2,000 and 3,000 bushels of the staple grains therefrom, hiring only for harvesting and threshing. The whole South Platte country, from the slopes of Cass and Otoe counties, westward to the plains of Juniata, is veritably a farmers' paradise, whose valleys are wanting only in the enchantment of distance and glamour of history to give them the fame of the Arno. So too, I might say of the North Platte country'the land of valleys. The proud Roman could hardly blame his Cincinnatus for following the plow along the valleys of the Blue and Nemaha, or the matchless plain between Crete and Juniata. (qtd. in Larsen and Cottrell 70)

Compare Burch's rhetoric to that of Cather in the "Neighboring Fields" chapter of O Pioneers! (1913):

The Divide is now thickly populated. The rich soil yields heavy harvests; the dry, bracing climate and the smoothness of the land make labor easy for men and beasts. There are few scenes more gratifying than a spring plowing in that country, where the furrows of a single field often lie a mile in length, and the brown earth, with such a strong, clean smell, and such a power of growth and fertility in it, yields itself eagerly to the plow; rolls away from the shear, not even dimming the brightness of the metal, with a soft, deep sigh of happiness. The wheat-cutting sometimes goes on all night as well as all day, and in good seasons there are scarcely men and horses enough to do the harvesting. The grain is so heavy that it bends toward the blade and cuts like velvet.

There is something frank and joyous and young in the open face of the country. It gives itself ungrudgingly to the moods of the season, holding nothing back. Like the plains of Lombardy, it seems to rise a little to meet the sun. (39)

As we can see, Cather's language closely resembles that of Burch. Like Burch, Cather employs classical (particularly Roman) references as a means of situating Nebraska within the context of world history. She even duplicates Burch's use of the word "joyous." I can find no evidence that Cather read Burch's pamphlet; however, considering the uncanny similarities between the two writers, I cannot but wonder if she might have done so. I do have evidence, however, that the Cather family did possess similar literature. Mary Weddle, a Cather relative, has generously provided me with a photocopy of a railroad advertisement entitled 1880! The Great Emigration Year which originally belonged to George and Frances Cather, and which in part encouraged them to settle in Nebraska. Given this connection between the Cather family and railroad pamphlets, I suggest that perhaps Cather herself drew in part on the language used by Burch and other pamphleteers as an inspiration for the rhetoric she would later use in her fictional representations of the state. In this way, Cather's actual literary style may have been inspired by rhetoric made possible by Omaha, the city so seemingly absent from her works.

Finally, such pamphlets were also responsible for my own family's presence in Nebraska. As noted, the Omaha-funded pamphlets encouraged many settlers to come to the state, especially Europeans seeking a better life. These immigrants eventually became the Annie Pavelkas, the real-life inspirations for Cather's fictional characters without whom her Nebraska texts would never have been possible. And without these Omaha-based pamphlets, I and my family would not be Omahans either. Indeed, my great-grandfather was motivated to come to Omaha because of pamphlets, like Burch's, distributed in Germany by Union Pacific, which promised the good life in Nebraska. In these ways, the seemingly disconnected entities of Cather's texts, rural Nebraska, Omaha, and my family, through language, Cather's medium, finally and endlessly dissolve and resolve themselves into a continuity of past and present, of fiction and reality.

Darcie Rives is a Ph.D. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a focus on women's literature.

Works Cited

Bohlke, Brent, L. Willa Cather in Person. Lincoln: University of Nebraska P, 1986.
Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. Ed. James Woodress, Charles Mignon and Kari Ronning. The Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994.
——. "Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle." Roundup: A Nebraska Reader. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1957.
——. "Neighbor Rosicky." Obscure Destinies. Ed. Kari Ronning, Frederick M. Link, and Mark Kamrath. The Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1998.
——. O Pioneers!. Ed. David Stouck, Susan J. Rosowski, Charles Mignon and Kathleen Danker. The Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992.
——. One of Ours. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937.
Cherny, Robert W. "Nebraska, 1883-1925: Cather's Version and History's." Willa Cather: Family, Community, and History. Ed. John J. Murphy, Linda Hunter Adams, and Paul Rawlins. Provo: Brigham Young U. Humanities Pub. Center, 1990.
Chudacoff, Howard P. Mobile Americans: Residential and Social Mobility in Omaha, 1880-1920. New York: Oxford UP, 1972.
Fimple, Kathleen L. An Analysis of the Changing Spatial Dimensions of Ethnic Neighborhoods in Omaha, Nebraska, 1880-1900. Diss. U Nebraska-Lincoln, 1989. Department of Geography. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1989.
Howard, Maureen. "City of Words." Women, the Arts and the 1920s in Paris and New York. Ed. Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1982.
Larsen, Lawrence H. and Barbara J. Cottrell. The Gate City: A History of Omaha. Enlarged edition. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997.
McNall, Sally Allen. "Immigrant Backgrounds to My Ántonia: 'A Curious Social Situation in Black Hawk'." Approaches to Teaching Cather's My Ántonia. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. New York: MLA, 1989 (22-30).
Rosowski, Susan J. The Place of Literature and the Cultural Phenomenon of Willa Cather. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1998.
Slote, Bernice. "Willa Cather and Plains Culture." Vision and Refuge: Essays on the Literature of the Great Plains. Ed. Virginia Faulkner with Frederick C. Luebke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982.
Stouck, David. "My Ántonia as Pastoral." Approaches to Teaching Cather's My Ántonia. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. New York: MLA, 1989 (53-7).
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.