“The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”
I have to admit to being woefully behind in my reading of classic American literature. I read several of the traditional high school stand-bys in eleventh grade—volumes by Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Steinbeck—but I never loved any of them. I can appreciate the “art” value in them, but my heart has always been with British literature. I can’t even define what it is that I haven’t liked about American literature, except to say that a lot of it seems to be really depressing. But I am trying to fill this gap in my reading experience and I made myself read O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.
Cather was a path-breaking female journalist of the early twentieth century, serving most notably as an editor for McClure’s Magazine. Her foray into fiction led her to be one of the formative authors of modern American literature. She found her niche in portraying regional America, particularly the prairies of Nebraska where she spent a great part of her childhood.
O Pioneers!, published in 1913, is the saga of the Bergson family, with the eldest sister Alexandra at its center. Children of Swedish immigrants, Alexandra and her three brothers inherit their father’s farm on the Nebraska prairie (circa 1880s). Their father knew nothing but struggle and failure on the harsh, unyielding land, but Alexandra determines that that will not be the case with her generation. She makes several daring, cutting-edge moves and, in less than twenty years’ time, her family is one of the most prosperous in the area.
In the novel, two things are going on, one being that the land itself is a powerful presence and yields only to the one that loves it. The O Pioneers! title is an ode to the men and women who work and love the land and earn their reward: “For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face [Alexandra’s] was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”
But the success or failure to thrive on the land is not the only focus of the novel; the other is the fatalistic drama in the hearts of the people on the land. Cather sets up a Greek-like tragedy that, without giving out too many spoilers, just cannot end well. And while she’s at it, she paints a dark picture of what it was to be a pioneer and a woman at the turn of the twentieth century. Alexandra, having made the crucial decisions that led to her family’s prosperity, struggles to escape her brothers’ condescension toward her as a single female. She is a plain, sensible girl—“Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. . . . She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries.” She always knew what had to be done and did it, very rarely letting her “self” have a say. Yet now in her middle age, she becomes a victim of how her middle brothers (and by implication, society) view women. Her desire to marry Carl Lindstrom, a penniless childhood friend, in order to find companionship in her loneliness is met with the response that she has no sense. Alexandra’s neighbor and friend, Marie Shabata, is trapped as well. She is hopelessly in love with Alexandra’s youngest brother Emil, the brother Alexandra raised to enjoy the freedom to choose between a life on the land and a life pursuing a career away from the prairie. But Marie and Emil have no freedom while Marie is married to a violent, insensitive man.
Although my impression that American literature can be depressing continues to hold true, in the end, my reading of O Pioneers! surprised me. It was certainly easier to read than I had thought it would be (sometimes I feel like the American classics can be cryptic). The prose is really pared back and is yet so immediate and realistic. Cather’s prose says exactly what it should say, almost as if there were no better way of saying it. In the introduction to my edition of the book, Cather’s work is called “cinematic,” and maybe that is the best way to describe how she shows us everything, all while saying very little. She makes evoking a certain time, place, and curious mixture of pioneer cultures look quite easy. There is a lot for a would-be writer to emulate in the way she crafted the book. Despite the tragedy, Cather’s writing is warm and welcoming and has inspired me to read her other novels, especially My Antonia.
★ ★ ★ ★ /5
“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. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.”
“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
“People have to snatch at happiness when they can, in this world. It is always easier to lose than to find.”
“Down under the frozen crusts, at the roots of the trees, the secret of life was still safe, warm as the blood in one’s heart; and the spring would come again!”