O Pioneers (1913)

By Willa Cather

Willa Cather was nearly 40 years old in 1913 when she published O Pioneers!, her second novel. It’s difficult, then, to overlook the obvious similarities between her own life and that of her heroine, Alexandra Bergson. At this point, both women had devoted their lives to a single pursuit, sacrificing personal relationships — or, at least those of a romantic nature — for the cause. As she left no autobiography, no memoir, and few letters, we can only speculate about Cather’s personal life. Some have postulated that she was a closeted lesbian, but, as with all such claims, it is only that: speculation. What we do know is that she never married or had children, and that she devoted the majority of her energies during her adult life to writing and to seeing those writings published. It was quite a feat: she left a legacy of 13 novels and more than 60 short stories, which have helped to secure her place now in the company of her more famous contemporaries: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner.

O Pioneers! is a wonderful novel and one that, I must admit, I have put off reading for years simply because its title has always reminded me of those sentimental prairie novels that twelve year old girls seem so fond of. That excuse, as unforgivably lame as it sounds, is not completely unjustified. Like much of Cather’s work, O Pioneers! is inspired by the years that she and her family spent in Nebraska, where she lived among Scandinavian, French, and Bohemain immigrants and where she witnessed first hand the back-breaking work of plains farming. What separates this novel from the pack, though, is Cather’s remarkable blend of lyricism and honest insight. O Pioneers! is an interesting transition piece, a novel caught between the Midwest naturalism of Hamlin Garland and the epistemological experiments of the modernists. While the fate of many of Cather’s characters are determined by forces beyond their control, the novelist holds on to some hope — a hope for real personal happiness and a more perfect future.

The Bergsons are typical of the immigrant families Cather had known in Red Cloud, Nebraska. The mother and father are first-generation Americans who settled with the hope of owning land and of securing better lives for their children. John Bergson dies young, too soon to experience the fruits of his labors, but soon enough, for “he would not have had it again if he could, not he! He knew the end too well to wish to begin again. He knew where it all went to, what it all became.” His children, however, personify the American Dream. Alexandra, through hard work and ingenuity, breaks the land and watches it flourish. Lou and Oscar enjoy their wealth, marry well, and find success in business and politics. The youngest, Emil, graduates from college, sees the world, and welcomes opportunity and freedom, the dreams of every immigrant.

Their lives, however, do not completely escape the suffering and alienation that so preoccupied artists at the turn of the century. Like Cather, Alexandra chooses to sacrifice her own love and happiness to a single-minded pursuit, in her case the education and unrealized potential of her brother, Emil. It is a “choice,” Cather argues, that many women are forced to make. She captures this plight in a beautiful image of Marie, the Berson’s young neighbor, whose loveless marriage and hopeless pining for Emil slowly destroys her vitality. The passage is typical of Cather’s preoccupation with the connection between her characters and the land they work:

The years seemed to stretch before her like the land; spring, summer, autumn, winter, spring; always the same patient fields, the patient little trees, the patient lives; always the same yearning, the same pulling at the chain, until the instinct to live had torn itself and bled and weakened for the last time, until the chain secured a dead woman, who might cautiously be released.

It’s an ominous passage that prepares us for the tragic end to Emil’s and Marie’s love. Separated by the laws of their land and their churches, they die too soon, killed by Marie’s jealous husband. Cather describes their deaths in brutal detail, but refuses to cast blame. Here, Alexandra becomes a naturalist heroine and Cather’s surrogate: “Being what he was, she felt, [Marie’s husband] could not have acted otherwise.”

But despite the novel’s tragedy, Cather distinguishes herself from Norris, Dreiser, and Crane by painting the conclusion of O Pioneers! with a tint of optimism. Broken and beaten by Emil’s death, whose fate seems to make her life’s efforts futile, Alexandra is restored by the return of Carl, the man she has loved since childhood. What I find most interesting about this turn is that their saving relationship is built on selfless love, a conceit that her more cynical and disillusioned contemporaries would have likely scoffed as a romantic fiction. It works here, though, saving the novel from the reductive determinism of so much naturalist fiction.