Thursday, January 3, 2013

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Pioneer-blogging, essay 1 on
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.”
Part I (The Wild Land), Chapter I
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Dover Thrift Edition of O Pioneers!
by Willa Cather, available at
Amazon and other booksellers.
The setting:  The fictional town of Hanover is located a short distance north of the Nebraska-Kansas border, about midway across the state (southwest of the city of Lincoln, Nebraska).  The time:  O Pioneers! was published in 1913, so thirty years previous places us approximately in 1883.

Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers! is all about the land on that windy tabletop setting.  There are three types of characters in this challenging landscape:  those who fight the land, those who learn to co-exist with the land, and those who leave.

At first glance, you might think Willa Cather and I have little common ground to stand on.  Her strongest characters—like Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers!—place their faith in the soil.  While her neighbors fail in their attempts to force the land into shape, Alexandra succeeds because she believes in working with the land rather than against it.  Others fight the land and fail;  Alexandra’s approach is that of a steward.

I don’t fall into either camp.  I neither fight the land (of our little suburban yard) nor steward it, resolutely immune to the joys of farming, gardening, and even basic lawn care.  To the greatest degree possible, I simply ignore our land.  That’s not an attitude you find much in Willa Cather where so much depends upon one’s relationship with the land.  You might think she’d disapprove of me.

But Willa Cather isn’t Alexandra, her land-loving heroine.  Cather was one of those who left.  If you're looking for a Cather surrogate in O Pioneers!, you might consider Carl Linstrum, the ineffectual artist who returns to the prairie but remains apart from it.  With one unsuccessful novel behind her, Cather was hardly a blazing success when she returned to her hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska to take notes in preparation for her second novel.  She was an outsider with an uncertain future.

Portrait of Willa Cather.
Photo by Carl Van Vechten.
Van Vechten Collection,
Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons
Cather naturally gravitated toward universities and cities.  She was the type of person whom Alexandra’s brothers Oscar and Lou would have detested, similar to the way they strongly disapprove of the academic pretensions of Carl Linstrum and their own brother Emil.  It’s that deep-rooted American distrust of the intellectual that still flourishes today.  Cather’s too honest not to show it.  She must have felt it herself when she returned to Nebraska, taking notes for her books.

Truthfully, I think Willa Cather and I would have gotten along just fine.  Confronted with the real-life practicality of an Alexandra Bergson, she’d probably be bored to tears.  But I could see Cather and I discussing our shared fantasies of loving the land for hours, drinking coffee in a city café far from the brutal environments that we idealize.

Reference Sources

Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress
Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice by Sharon O'Brien
Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir by Bernice Slote
O Pioneers!, the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition at the Willa Cather Archive
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2013 Lee Price

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