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When O Pioneers! was published in 1913, reviewers praised Willa Cather for having created “a totally new kind of story.” Its “characters were new in American fiction,” they wrote, its heroine “a new and interesting type”; Cather had mined “a new vein of material,” “broken new ground.” If breaking new ground is the act of a pioneer, then Cather herself was being cast in the role she had created for her heroine, Alexandra Bergson. For like Alexandra, Cather was forming “a new relation” with the Nebraska prairies that O Pioneers! described as a vast somber waste, a wintry land resistant to human efforts, unfriendly and “wild.” Just as Alexandra transformed this wild land into orderly fields of wheat and corn, orchards of fruit trees “knee-deep in timothy grass,” into pasture ponds planted with willows, and gardens, so Cather transformed it, a seemingly uncultivable literary territory, into art. These transformations reflected an inner change that Cather transposed from herself to her character as both developed, in the novel’s words, “a new consciousness of the country.”
Praising this new consciousness, reviewers resorted to old metaphors of conquest and warfare. Pioneers, they said, are “men and women who . . . left their own country to wage war against Nature in virgin lands.” Pioneering meant “taming” and “conquering” the intractable prairie. Metaphors that likened pioneering to conquest implied that O Pioneers! was in essence a war novel, its adversaries humankind and nature, its issue victory or defeat. Reviewers criticized the novel for eliding the “story of how Alexandra fought her battle and won”; they wanted the details of battle and singled out for praise “one big moment” of violence that entailed gunshots and death. Violence, guns, struggle, victory and defeat, death—these elements of the generic war novel are woven into the plot of O Pioneers!, and yet readers today do not see war as its salient theme. Rather, they define O Pioneers! as a pastoral, an epic, or a creation myth. If we go to the “heart” of the novel—to use its own language of sentiment—we might call it a love story, or rather, a collection of love stories that have been involuted within each other and told with a simplicity achieved only by great art. On this account we can agree with early reviewers: as a work of art O Pioneers! is compelling, poetic, empathetic, and “touched with genius.”*
Like other Cather novels, O Pioneers! reflects upon itself in ways that shape the reader’s response. For example, a much-quoted sentence instructs us to see the love affair between Alexandra Bergson and the prairie as unprecedented: “For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning.” This hyperbolic sentence is appropriately self-doubting; its interpolated “perhaps” introduces the possibility of its own exaggeration or mistake. But Alexandra’s love cannot be exaggerated, we soon see, for it is the empowering force that enables her to take possession of the land: to own it and to appropriate it, preternaturally, into her being. Cather’s strained metaphor for appropriation translates seeing into a drinking in of space and subsequent blindness: “Her eyes drank in the breadth of it [the land], until her tears blinded her.” The sight of Alexandra irradiated with yearning and blindly weeping with love subdues “the great, free spirit” of the Divide; its Genius, for centuries “unfriendly to man,” yields to a woman, bending “lower than it had ever bent to a human will before.” In a complex relationship, love and will become indistinguishable from each other and from aesthetic sensitivity. The land submits to Alexandra’s love as though it were a coercive will, while Alexandra experiences love as a will-less response to the beauty inherent in the prairie’s breadth: “It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious.”
Clearly, the qualities Alexandra attributes to the landscape belong to Alexandra Bergson as a pioneer woman. She has amazonian beauty and strength; she produces riches; and through her efforts, she brings a prosperous country into being. Her love is thus creative, an originative historical force, as we are told outright in a famous statement in the text: “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.” If this is the novel’s truism, then we can understand why history in O Pioneers! assumes the form of a love story, or more accurately, of many love stories as the novel rebounds different kinds of love against each other and against Cather’s imagined past.
“A pioneer should have imagination,” Cather notes in her novel, attributing to Alexandra her own conceptualizing faculty as a writer. Alexandra imagines the future, and Cather the past. This simple antithesis places us in a convoluted time scheme as the novel represents Alexandra’s future as Cather’s imagined historical past. Past, present, and future thus coalesce in our reading, as though time as we ordinarily conceive it, as a succession of separate moments, has been transcended or somehow transmuted into timelessness. As an artist, Cather idealized timelessness, equating it with permanence or immutable values, with beauty and truth, with art. As a realistic writer, however, she recognized that life, unlike art, was subject to laws of mutability: its essence was change. O Pioneers!dramatizes change—but not without great tension as it seeks simultaneously to describe timeless values and the vicissitudes of time. This thematic tension helps explain the novel’s disjunct form: its structural dissolution into five discrete parts; its startling elision of the sixteen years that have elapsed between Part I and Part II, crucial years of historic change; its disparate plots, one ending in death and the other unending as the country’s “bosom” receives and resurrects Alexandra’s “heart.” Two hearts thus beat as one at the end of O Pioneers!, a common conclusion to sentimental love stories that Cather makes uncommon. For she takes the ultimate consummation of Alexandra’s love outside of the novel’s past, present, or future, and places it in another dimension of time accessible only to the mythic imagination.
Love is the perennial theme of realistic novels and of romance, but love consummated in a death that renews life belongs to the archetypal myth of eternal return. This all-embracing myth universalizes Cather’s novel, making its careful specifications of time, place, and plot incidental to its elemental pattern of rebirth. Alexandra’s story thus becomes one of the “two or three human stories” that, as Carl Linstrum says, “go on repeating themselves”—or, as Alexandra corrects him, that “we” write. Alexandra’s correction suggests that characters can choose their fate, while Carl defines their possible fates as limited to a few eternally repeated patterns. Two of these are re-created in O Pioneers!, both concerned with love. Emil and Marie’s story describes the deeply felt personal passion of young star-crossed lovers; Alexandra’s story centers about an almost undescribable impersonal passion of a mythic goddess for the earth. The real “hero” of Alexandra’s story, as Cather herself said, was a land that endured forever: “We come and go, but the land is always there.” As Alexandra becomes identified with this land, she shares its destiny of eternal renewal. For once her heart is buried in the earth’s bosom, it will live forever “in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!” Alexandra has grown older in the novel, from a girl to a mature woman, but the earth promises to give her back the eyes of youth through which she first looked at the rustling yellow fields she loves.
Critics disagree about the nature of this love, whether it is sexual, sublimated, somehow supernal, or displaced from its real object, a woman, to a socially acceptable man. All these possibilities, relevant to O Pioneers! as a realistic novel, become inconsequential to a creation myth in which love gives life to the land. Through Alexandra’s love, the prairie becomes a living, fertile being with a “joyous . . . open face”; it is capable of emotion, of deliberate movement, of mating. It seems motivated to sustain life, “yield[ing] itself eagerly to the plow . . . with a soft, deep sigh of happiness”; rising “to meet the sun,” the source of life; and “mating” with the air so that earth and atmosphere share the same breath and the “same strength and resoluteness.” In the end, Alexandra herself will mate with the earth, whose qualities of strength and resoluteness she has always shared. These are her foremost qualities when she first appears on Hanover’s windy, wintry street, “a tall, strong girl” who walks “rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going.” To a little boy on the street, red with cold and crying, she seems a warming “ray of hope,” and to a shabby little man, a sudden splendiferous vision, her shining mass of hair a golden halo. Later on, Alexandra appears with the dawn, or more precisely, as Dawn personified, “as if she had walked straight out of the morning itself.” Light surrounds her as she is associated with the rising sun, which in its inevitable course—rising, setting, and rising again—traces a pattern of eternal return.
As elemental as sun and earth, the seasons of the year reinscribe this pattern of life, death, and rebirth as they move through their timeless cycle. Part I of O Pioneers! begins in winter, a season of death: the Bergson cattle have died in a winter blizzard, and now John Bergson, Alexandra’s father, lies dying. The father’s death, however, allows the daughter to exercise her powers as a life force. Part II, set in spring and summer, describes the effect of these powers, which have transformed the blank lead-colored miles of nothingness that lay before Mr. Bergson into the richest, most fertile, most beautiful farm on the Divide. The Divide itself is alive and animate. We see its tremendous vitality from an extraordinary perspective, however, for the panoramic description of the Divide’s rich, resolute life radiates from the graveyard.
Graveyards on the flat prairie make death visible and close, a familiar feature of the landscape. Before he dies, Mr. Bergson feels himself willing to merge with this landscape, “to go deep down under [the] fields” he knew intimately, “every ridge and draw and gully.” Death offers him rest, and ends his story as a struggling pioneer; but his death makes possible Alexandra’s unique life. For Mr. Bergson does not bequeath his land to his sons, as we might expect. Instead, he places it in his daughter’s strong hands. He realizes that Alexandra has more than youth, “strength of will,” and “intelligence”: she possesses an inexplicable and transcendental quality revealed by the ambience of light in which she moves. She knows the future, though she “can’t explain” how; and what she knows turns out prophetically true. In essence, she is the future, or, as her father expresses it, the future lies in her hands.
To Alexandra, however, the land is the future; she knows this intuitively, feeling “in her own body the [soil’s] joyous germination.” Alexandra’s sense of oneness with the “flat, fallow world about her” makes her seem pregnant with life; but (re)union with the earth is also the essence of death. This aporia emerges at the end of Part I, which adumbrates the final ending of O Pioneers! In both conclusions, Alexandra’s heart lies underground. In Part I, it hides deep down in the prairie’s long grass, beside the hiding quail, plover, and the “wild things that crooned . . . in the sun.” Under the grass, Alexandra feels “the future stirring.” At this early point in the novel, the future demands Alexandra’s energy and resoluteness; in the end it will take her heart. Thus Alexandra’s death and life belong within an eternal pattern of return described by nature, by its sun and seasons, and by myth. It is the pattern described also by a great American poet to whom O Pioneers! explicitly declares indebtedness: Walt Whitman.
As various critics have pointed out, the endings of O Pioneers! and Whitman’s “Song of Myself” are similar in their refusal to recognize death as finality. Both describe a continuity of life as human forms become translated through death into elements of nature. Air, sun, the “scud of day,” dusk, dirt, grass—the “I” of “Song of Myself” is effused into all these and into the blood of the reading “You.” In O Pioneers!, Alexandra’s buried heart will also burst the bounds of space, time, and identity, though it will not be unrestricted; wheat and corn belong to a more specific geographic region than Whitman’s grass, and youth to a more specific human time than blood. Nevertheless, O Pioneers! aspires to the expansive vision of “Song of Myself,” and its conclusion resonates to the Whitmanesque couplet that describes the self, bequeathed to earth, growing from the grass it loves. In the novel, as in the poem, “the beautiful uncut hair of graves,” to use Whitman’s phrase, reveals that “there is really no death”: “All goes onward and outward.”
Abstracted from a particular place or time, movement “onward and outward” suggests eternality, the dimension of cyclical myths of return which formally frame O Pioneers! Movement becomes a matter of history, of human progress, when it is identified with a particular geographic place, a specified time, and a chosen people. Whitman became specific and historical in his poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!,” from which, obviously, Cather took her title, and much more. Whitman addresses his poem to the country’s “youthful, sinewy races,” its “Western youths,” marshalling them to a great historic destiny in Colorado, Arkansas, Missouri, and in Nebraska, in the prairies that Cather had deliberately excluded from her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge. For, as she would later say in an essay on O Pioneers!, she knew that struggling immigrants in the sod huts of Nebraska’s prairies were “distinctly déclassé,” not recognized as literary material by contemporary American writers she admired, like Henry James. Cather had shown her admiration for James by imitating him in her first novel; in her second, O Pioneers!, written when she was almost forty years old, she freed herself from the Master’s influence and, in the words of Edith Lewis, found “at last . . . the path she wanted to travel”—a path that led to the prairies of her childhood, to the fields as well as the kitchens of immigrant families she had known, and to her innermost self. With O Pioneers!, Cather discovered her authentic voice as she rediscovered the prairie. Effectively, she answered Whitman’s call to “Minstrels latent in the prairies,” pioneer poets he urged “to rise and tramp amid us.” In O Pioneers!, Cather not only eulogized the forward-marching youth who were creating the future: she joined their ranks.
As a novel that generated Cather’s career—set it, in Whitman’s metaphor, moving onward and outward—O Pioneers! is important for its place in American literary history and in Cather’s life as a writer. Articulating themes and sentiments that would characterize her work in the future, it recapitulated her past, drawing upon her memories of a Nebraska childhood. A formative time in everyone’s life, childhood had crucial and inordinate meaning to Cather. She considered it the definitive period in which a writer gathered and stored all the material available to her as an artist; nothing that happened afterwards, she believed, could significantly influence one’s art. In The Song of the Lark, Cather’s autobiographical heroine, a great artist, defines art as “a way of remembering youth”; and in My Ántonia, her narrator cherishes childhood memories as “realities” that “are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”
Willa Cather’s earliest memories trace back to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where she was born on December 7, 1873, in her maternal grandmother’s house in Back Creek Valley, a hilly country west of Winchester. She was christened Wilella; she was called Willie; she liked to say she was named after her grandfathers and a young uncle William killed in the Civil War; she invented the name Willa. Today critics see in Cather’s self-naming, particularly when as a girl she called herself Willie or Wm. Cather, M.D., an early wish for male-identified autonomy, the freedom she would later consider essential to an aspiring artist. Until she was nine, Cather lived in her paternal grandparents’ home, a large, handsome, porticoed, three-story brick house called Willowshade that she re-created with uncanny exactness in her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Drawing upon her memories as a child of five (who appears in the novel’s epilogue), she described Willowshade as a beautiful but deceptive facade. “All was orderly in front . . .,” she wrote, “Behind the house lay another world; a helter-skelter scattering. . . .” The uncontainable effects of slavery scatter through the novel and through Mill House (Willowshade), marring the South’s orderly beauty with racial tensions and ugly outbreaks of violence. If Cather’s novel, with its clear serene style, tries to redeem this violence by translating it into art, it does not erase its traces. Indeed, the novel’s title memorializes slave as well as mistress, though Cather’s biographers suggest that Cather remembered only the beauty of Virginia, as though this is all she had seen. “Virginia life was one of great richness,” we are told by Edith Lewis, “tranquil and ordered and serene . . . [giving Cather] that deep store of vitality that underlay her work.”
In 1883, this life ended abruptly when the Cather family moved to the vast empty prairies of Nebraska, a landscape that seemed alive and in motion, as if, Cather was to write in My Ántonia, “the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping. . . .” Cather would become famous for images of the prairie as a living sentient entity, involved in an intense drama of seasonal change, of growth, decay, and rebirth. To a child who had just lost her home, however, the prairie seemed an annihilating place. As she wrote in My Ántonia, there was “nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields.” One lost a sense of self in this emptiness. In 1913, the year she published O Pioneers!, Cather recalled feeling “a kind of erasure of personality” on first coming to the prairie, an initial loss of self she attributed to young Jim Burden, also “erased, blotted out” in Nebraska’s vast empty landscape. Cather’s exhilarated celebration of plenitude in novels like My Ántonia and O Pioneers! must have helped her exorcise a traumatic feeling of nothingness that remained an indelible memory of childhood.
Other memories of her Nebraska years, myriad and detailed, were full of delight at the wonders of life on the Divide, a stretch of high plains where Cather lived for eighteen months on her grandparents’ farm. This was a crucial period, for it brought Cather into the world of her immigrant neighbors, into their experiences and emotions as well as their kitchens. Wandering through the prairie on her pony, she was welcomed by the farm women; homesick themselves, they responded to the little girl’s lonesomeness with stories about their homes in Bohemia, Hungary, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden. When she began to write O Pioneers!, she tells in her essay on “My First Novel,” she remembered these immigrant women as “old neighbors, once very dear . . . [but] almost forgotten in the hurry and excitement of growing up.” Once remembered, they inspired her to create a gallery of unique and unforgettable characters—“living creatures, caught in the very behavior of living,” to borrow an appreciative phrase from A Lost Lady. Like old Mrs. Lee in O Pioneers!, Widow Steavens in My Ántonia, and many others, the women of Cather’s childhood were storytellers, and the cadences and rhythms of their speaking voices resonate in Cather’s clear lyrical style.
In 1884, the Cather family moved to Red Cloud, a nearby town that was to appear in Cather’s fiction as Black Hawk, Sweet Water, Moonstone, Frankfort, Haverford, and the Hanover of O Pioneers! Cather’s fictional towns are usually staid and stultifying, especially uncongenial to vivacious women like Marion Forrester in A Lost Lady and gifted girls like Thea Kronberg in The Song of the Lark. In Red Cloud, Cather startled the townspeople with a graduation speech supporting animal vivisection. Calling herself Wm. Cather, M.D., she said she intended to be a doctor, a profession considered unsuitable for her sex. Her driving curiosity drove some adults to distraction; others permitted her to listen to their private conversations (recalled long afterwards in her story “Two Friends”). Sympathetic and cultured neighbors of European background lent her books, played music for her, explained works of art, and, as she remembered in her beautiful story “Old Mrs. Harris,” encouraged her to venture into the wide world beyond Red Cloud.
She made her first move in 1890, boarding the train she would make famous in her fiction. Her destination was Lincoln, a small frontier prairie city, capital of the state and site of the university that Cather attended and remembered fondly in My Ántonia. In Lincoln, Cather found an outlet for her prodigious energy and talent. As editor for the college journal, and reviewer and columnist for the state newspaper, she was writing incessantly. She reviewed a remarkable number of books, plays, and musical performances, becoming a fearsome figure to visiting artists whom she criticized or praised with wit and merciless abandon. She wanted to understand why some artists lost their integrity while others remained creative, an issue that became central to The Song of the Lark and Lucy Gayheart. Most important in her Lincoln years, she felt the enormous satisfaction of seeing her stories in print, the earliest two, “Peter” and “Lou, the Prophet,” prairie stories that contain the germ of subplots in My Ántonia and O Pioneers! Idealizing the artist’s creative passion, a passion that already impelled her, Cather determined that someday she would enter “the kingdom of art,” in which she said “there is no God, but one God, and his service is so exacting that there are few . . . strong enough to take the vows.” Twelve years were to intervene before Cather fulfilled her vow, but she never forgot it during her interim period in Pittsburgh.
Offered the editorship of the Home Monthly, a newly created women’s magazine, Cather moved to Pittsburgh in 1896, and except for a brief interlude in Washington, D.C., she lived there for the next ten years. In these years, she published a book of poetry, April Twilights, and a collection of stories, The Troll Garden. She had, however, limited time for serious writing. To earn a living, she worked as an editor, drama critic, and high school teacher. In Pittsburgh, Cather met a beautiful young woman who was to become “the true friend” that Cather believed “every writer needs.” Biographers agree that the gracious and wealthy Isabelle McClung was the “love” of Cather’s life, but they define “love” differently, some as a special kind of female friendship, and others as a lesbian relationship. No one disputes, however, that Cather found in Isabelle McClung a friend who believed in her destiny as a writer and supported her idealistic view of art, who was the inspiring reader for whom, Cather said, she wrote.
In 1906, Cather moved to New York to join the staff of the famous muckraking magazine McClure’s, in time becoming its managing editor. In 1908, on assignment in Boston, she met Sara Orne Jewett, the author of The Country of the Pointed Firs and of stories set in a Maine landscape that Jewett knew as intimately as Cather knew Nebraska’s prairies. Jewett urged Cather to write about the country she had loved as a child and internalized as memories of the past. As she said in a letter that Cather quoted in her essay “On Writing”: “The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself down rightly on paper—whether little or great, it belongs to Literature.” Jewett’s advice accorded with Cather’s deepest desires and resonated in her mind. She came to see the novel she had published in 1912, Alexander’s Bridge, as imitative and contrived, written to satisfy literary expectations. In 1913, with O Pioneers!, Cather released the memories that had teased her mind. Writing the novel, she said, was “like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way”—and the way led to the kingdom of art.
By the time O Pioneers! was published, Cather was settled in New York, sharing an apartment with Edith Lewis, who would remain her companion for the rest of her life. Freed at last from a position that had usurped her time, Cather developed a regular rhythm of work and travel, leaving New York for visits home to Nebraska, to the Southwest, to Europe. At home she saw friends whom she had immortalized in her fiction, the Miners of Red Cloud, for example, who became the Harlings of Black Hawk, and the Bohemian woman Annie Pavelka who became her Ántonia. She never resolved her ambivalent feelings towards the prairies, which she loved and always wanted to escape; she feared their vastness in which as a child she had felt blotted out, erased. Paradoxically, vastness of space could be confining, as Alexandra observes cryptically in O Pioneers!: “If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I wouldn’t feel that it was much worth while to work.” Life on the prairies, Alexandra knows, could be “just the same thing over and over,” a deadening monotony if one loses sight of “what goes on in the world.”
In 1912, Cather made the first of several visits to the Southwest, where she encountered a startling desert landscape scattered with traces of a pre-Columbian art she found deeply inspiring. In The Song of the Lark, she attributes to her heroine her own sense of spiritual rededication in the desert; she has Thea Kronberg return home as she did, determined to give her life entirely to her work. Some years later, New Mexico inspired “Tom Outland’s Story” in The Professor’s House (1925), an interpolated tale that tells how young Outland discovered an abandoned stone city created by Pueblo Indians in an age long past. The story represents a consummation of Cather’s descriptive style; her language is easy, lambent, and translucently beautiful as she describes air, sun, water—the elements of life—with purity and passion. The desert landscape also inspired Death Comes for the Archbishop, a late work that some critics consider her best.
Though Cather’s novels brought fortune and fame, and her war novel, One of Ours, won the Pulitzer Prize, her critical reception has had its vicissitudes. In the 1930s, critics concerned with immediate social issues found love stories like Lucy Gayheart vapidly irrelevant, and historical novels like Shadows on the Rock inexcusably escapist. Subsequently, however, critics began to discern beneath the apparent simplicity and romanticism of Cather’s writing an art that was involuted, complex, and richly allusive, a web of mythic and literary references. Feminist critics have sought Cather’s own story as she created her identity as a woman and a writer. They have admired her strong and prevailing heroines and sympathized with her victims, not only blatant victims like the aunt in “A Wagner Matinée,” but also ostensibly privileged women like Marion Forrester and Sapphira Dodderidge, who suffer because of restrictive and yet demanding roles imposed upon them by society.
As a Romantic writer, Cather shared her characters’ longing for a lost golden time. In her fiction, that time coincides with childhood, when one lives the “realest” life as one’s “original, unmodified” self. These are the words of Godfrey St. Peter in The Professor’s House, a character at the height of his career who discovers that his real and inviolable self was the solitary boy he had been and whom he could recover through memory—or more ominously, through death. For Cather, remembering constituted a supreme creative act. She returned to the historic past and to her childhood in order to create romantic visions of what had been and had been lost. However, she often subverted her own romances by portraying the violence that had existed in the past and the dangers of fixation upon the past in characters who, like St. Peter, found the present “bloomless” and “without joy.” Perhaps her characters feared a joyless life because they had experienced happiness so deeply and completely that life lived without ecstasy seemed to them not merely dull but dismal. In a famous scene in My Ántonia, Jim Burden lies against the sun-warmed pumpkins of his grandmother’s garden and is “entirely happy”: “Perhaps we feel like it when we die and become a part of something entire. . . . At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”
This last sentence is Willa Cather’s epitaph, inscribed on her tombstone in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. She died quietly in her home in New York in 1947, having remained faithful in her art to her way of remembering.