Thursday, February 14, 2013

10 Things I Love About Willa Cather's O Pioneers

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Pioneer-blogging, essay 8 on
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Ten Reasons to Embrace This Book...
A Top 10 List (in no particular order)

1.  Alexandra gets the farm!  How cool is that?  (This deathbed decision by Alexandra’s father is extremely unusual for its time.  John Bergson is a wise man.)

John Bergson says:  “Alexandra is the oldest, and she knows my wishes.  She will do the best she can.  If she makes mistakes, she will not make so many as I have made…  And you will be guided by your sister, boys…”
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Part I, Chapter II

2.  But Alexandra remains humble despite her success, crediting all she has achieved to the Genius of the land.

Alexandra says:  “We hadn’t any of us much to do with it, Carl.  The land did it.  It had its little joke.  It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right; and then, all at once, it worked itself.  It woke up out of its sleep and stretched itself, and it was so big, so rich, that we suddenly found we were rich, just from sitting still.”
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Part II, Chapter IV

3.  Beneath her no-nonsense attitude, there’s passion inside Alexandra.  (Note:  This is my favorite sentence in the book.)

Alexandra says to Carl:  “People have to snatch at happiness when they can, in this world.”
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Part II, Chapter XI

4.  Willa Cather takes the O Pioneers! title from a Walt Whitman poem and then closes her novel with a beautiful paraphrase of a key verse from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:  “…what do you think has become of the women and children? / They are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprout shows there is really no death …”  (Whitman).

“Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!”
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Part V, Chapter III

5.  Cather loves her literary allusions.  In the book, Marie’s orchard sparkles with references to the Bower of Bliss in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, the mulberry tree in the Pyramus and Thisbee legend, and the Garden of Eden in Genesis.

Marie says to Emil:  “I’ll call you if I see a snake.”
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Part II, Chapter VIII

6.  And Cather can get down-and-dirty raunchy, too.  I think Cather was entirely aware of the implications behind her word choices when she wrote the following:

Marie says:  “I wish I had an athlete to mow my orchard.  I get wet to my knees when I go down to pick cherries.”
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Part II, Chapter I

7.  When horror enters this world, Cather doesn’t flinch.  (Cather’s one scene of horror reminds me of a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966) where Hitch intentionally went to lengths to show how hard it can be to kill someone.  Death is horrifically painful in O Pioneers!)

 “… in a white patch of light, where the moon shone through the branches, a man’s hand was plucking spasmodically at the grass.”
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Part IV, Chapter VII

8.  Okay, let’s lighten up.  Food is important, too, with the ethnic groups maintaining some of their old traditions.

“Marie took out a pan of delicate little rolls, stuffed with stewed apricots, and began to dust them over with powdered sugar… ‘The Bohemians,’ said Alexandra, as they drew up to the table, ‘certainly know how to make more kinds of bread than any other people in the world. Old Mrs. Hiller told me once at the church supper that she could make seven kinds of fancy bread, but Marie could make a dozen.’ ”
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Part III, Chapter I

9.  The old ways are respected, allowing for glimpses into the rapidly disappearing Old World traditions of various immigrant communities.

Concerning Mrs. Bergson:  “She knew long portions of the ‘Frithjof Saga’ by heart, and, like most Swedes who read at all, she was fond of Longfellow’s verse…  To-day she sat in the wooden rocking-chair with the Swedish Bible open on her knees, but she was not reading.”
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Part II, Chapter IV

and concerning the Bohemians:  “Three big Bohemians were drinking raw alcohol, tinctured with oil of cinnamon.  This was said to fortify one effectually against the cold, and they smacked their lips after each pull at the flask.”
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Part I, Chapter I

10.  And the melancholy sense that even as Alexandra and the surrounding community succeed in harnessing the land’s power, something spiritual is being lost in the process of assimilation.  It’s the passing of an age.

Ivar says:  “At home, in the old country, there were many like me, who had been touched by God, or who had seen things in the graveyard at night and were different afterward.  We thought nothing of it, and let them alone.  But here, if a man is different in his feet or in his head, they put him in an asylum.”
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Part II, Chapter II

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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