On a more concrete level, My Ántonia explores the lives of immigrants on the United States frontier in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Nebraska prairie of the novel is an ethnic hodgepodge combining American-born settlers with a wide range of European immigrants, especially eastern and northern Europeans such as the Bohemian Shimerdas, the Russians Peter and Pavel, and the Norwegian Lena. The novel creates a sympathetic portrait of the many hardships that immigrants faced, including intense homesickness (a form of longing for the past), inability to speak English, and a bewildering array of cultural and religious differences that the novel’s immigrants must overcome if they wish to fit in with the often quite judgmental American settlers who make up the economic and cultural mainstream in Black Hawk. Because of the rigid (and, in Jim’s eyes, preposterous) social hierarchy of Black Hawk, simply getting by can be very difficult for the immigrants, who lack the same opportunities as the Americans—Jim goes to school, for instance, while Ántonia must help her family eke out an existence after her father’s suicide.
Still, though Cather’s portrait of the immigrant experience is sympathetic, it never quite rises to the level of advocacy: Jim is describing a vanished past, not agitating for social change, and he himself shares many of the cultural assumptions of the American-born settlers. Thus, My Ántonia has little in common with more socially inflammatory works about the hardships faced by immigrants such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which was written to bring about social change. My Ántonia is a much more personal story and is more concerned with re-creating an emotional reality than with awakening the nation to a moral outrage.
My Ántonia evokes the living conditions and mindset of the nineteenth century, as well as the simple, hardworking, homespun ethic of that era’s settlers, an ethic Cather approves of strongly even if she does not always approve of its application, for instance, the -prejudicial treatment of the hired girls in town. The novel also explores the social assumptions of the frontier people on matters such as race (in the passage about Samson d’Arnault) and gender (in the passages about the hired girls, and in Jim’s general desire to spend time with girls rather than with boys). These rigid traditional social assumptions require that Jim learn to fight and swear so that he will seem more like a boy. Nevertheless, despite their shortcomings, the settlers share values of family, community, and religion that make Black Hawk a close-knit and positive community, not unworthy of the nostalgia in which it is bathed throughout the novel.