INTRODUCTION by Elaine Showalter
Halfway through O Pioneers!
the prosperous Nebraska farm-owner Alexandra Bergson receives a visit from her old friend, the wandering artist Carl Linstrum. When Alexandra expresses envy of Carl’s freedom, he passionately replies that it is overrated: ‘‘Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him . . . We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.’’ But surprisingly, Alexandra disagrees. ‘‘We grow hard and heavy here. We don’t move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. 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...’’
Willa Cather has been cherished by many readers as a great regional artist and a devoted believer in America the Beautiful. Throughout her career, however, the conflict between her love for the world of the Nebraska cornfield and her need to escape its imaginative and intellectual limitations resonated in her work. This self-division is one of the qualities that makes her work so complex and memorable. O Pioneers!
(1913) is generally acclaimed as Willa Cather’s great pastoral novel, her loving celebration of Nebraska and its immigrant people at the turn of the twentieth century. Cather herself regarded the book as the beginning of her authentic and original voice as an American writer, and compared the elegiac tone of her story to Antonin Dvorak’s ‘‘New World’’ Symphony (1893), finished after Dvorak had spent several weeks in the Midwest.
But just as O Pioneers!
is set in the high plain between two rivers called the Nebraska Divide, it reflects the imaginative
divide in Cather’s work: a belief in social rootedness and a longing for artistic freedom. In O Pioneers!,
as in her other
fiction, we can read both her devotion to the heroic pioneer past, and her fear of being trapped by the cultural emptiness, monotony, and maddening isolation of the provincial life. But in O Pioneers!,
her second novel, Cather also found an authorial perspective and a double narrative – of the triumphant farmer Alexandra and the romantic illicit lovers, Marie and Emil, that allowed her both to honor her homeland and to suggest the tragic depths that could lie beneath the peaceful and fertile plain.
Cather had first crossed her own psychological divide in childhood. In 1883, when Willa was nine years old, her family
moved from Virginia’s lush Shenandoah Valley to the vast exposed plains of Nebraska, where they first lived for eighteen months on her grandparents’ isolated farm. In an interview she gave for the Philadelphia Record in August 1913, Cather described her feelings about this new landscape, which she initially found ugly, barren, and inhuman. ‘‘I shall never forget my introduction to it. We drove out from Red Cloud to my grandfather’s homestead one April. I was sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding on to the side of the wagon box to steady myself – the roads were mostly faint trails over the bunch grass in those days. The land was open range and there was almost no fencing. As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything – it was a kind of erasure of personality.’’ Initially she thought she would die of homesickness. In her third novel My Antonia, Cather gave her feelings of culture shock to her narrator Jim Burden, who remembers
his childhood journey from Virginia to Nebraska as a trip beyond the known world: ‘‘We had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction . . . I felt erased, blotted out.’’
‘‘Erasure’’ meant that she felt insignificant personally and historically in a landscape that bore no signs of history and
cultivation, that seemed to negate individual identity. But gradually Cather came to love the prairie country, and to take advantage of its many opportunities for a young girl to run free and explore. She became attached to its very diverse immigrant population, families who were also displaced from their native land and brought with them a sense of the Old World. ‘‘We had very few American neighbors,’’ she recalled in the same interview. ‘‘They were mostly Swedes and Danes, Norwegians and Bohemians. I liked them from the first and they made up for what I missed in the country. I particularly liked the old women, they understood my homesickness and were kind to me. I had met ‘traveled’ people in Virginia and Washington, but these old women on the farms were the first people who ever gave me the real feeling of an older world across the sea. Even when they spoke very little English, the old women somehow managed to tell me a great many stories about the old country. They talk more freely to a child than to grown people, and I always felt as if every word they said to me counted for twenty.’’ Through her encounters with these women, Cather found a new identity as a storyteller herself.
When the Cather family moved to the small town of Red Cloud, Willa met intellectuals as well as farm people – neighbors like Will Ducker, a shopkeeper who taught her Latin and Greek; the Wieners, who introduced her to European art, languages, and music; the local doctors, who took her with them on their calls. In the division between these different influences – the feminine tradition of tales, the more masculine tradition of intellect and science – she first chose the masculine. Cather did not want to dress like a girl, to read books by women writers, or to be limited to feminine roles.
When she went off to the University of Nebraska, Cather planned to become a doctor, but she wrote slashing theater
reviews and confident essays for the Nebraska State Journal and with the support of managing editor Will Owen Jones, decided to become a newswoman. After her graduation in 1895, she spent a brief period back in Red Cloud – which she called ‘‘Siberia’’ – and then escaped to Pittsburgh, where she spent ten years as a journalist and editor. She was also learning how to write fiction, but the short stories she produced during those years were remote from her own experience, stylistically and thematically imitating the cosmopolitan novelist Henry James. As Cather told the interviewer Eva Mahoney in 1921,‘‘I wanted to write after the best style of Henry James – the foremost mind that ever applied itself to literature in America.’’
James was another emblem of her rejection of the Midwest and of femininity. As a fashionable expatriate in London, and as the greatest literary ‘‘master’’ in an era that revered the master, James was a tough model for American women writers. He reviewed many of their books sternly and unfavorably, and took precedence over even older women writers, who resented his air of superiority. When William Dean Howells asked Elizabeth Stuart Phelps to cut down one of her pieces in the Atlantic to make more room for a story by James, she tartly refused: ‘‘The very fact that there is so much of Mr. James makes it more important to me that my story should have its fair artistic effect.’’
In early 1903, Will Owen Jones recommended Cather’s short stories to the New York publisher S. S. McClure, who published her first book, The Troll Garden
(1905). Nebraska readers were not happy with this collection, which included such wrenching tales of provincial life as ‘‘A Wagner Matinee.’’ Aunt Georgiana, a weather-beaten farmwife from ‘‘a little Nebraska village’’ with ‘‘ill-fitting false teeth’’ and leathery yellowed skin, goes to Boston to visit her nephew and is taken to hear the Symphony play Wagner. A former piano-teacher and music-lover who has been worn down by her Nebraska exile, Aunt Georgiana breaks down when she hears great music, and cries to her nephew: ‘‘I don’t want to go!’’ As he reflects, ‘‘for her, just outside the door of the concert hall lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs’’ and ‘‘the tall, unpainted house . . . naked as a tower . . . the gaunt, molting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.’’ This bleak and despairing view of the pioneer country outraged Nebraska book reviewers. Even her friend Jones complained that ‘‘if the writers who use western Nebraska as material would look up now and then and not keep their eyes and noses in the cattle yards, they might be more agreeable company.’’
Yet on Jones’s life-changing recommendation, Cather had been hired as a reporter by McClure’s Magazine, and moved to New York. On an assignment for McClure’s in Boston, she also met the classic American writer Sarah Orne Jewett, who advised Cather to leave her job and to find her own place, voice, subject, and style. In reading manuscripts for McClure’s, and seeing how derivative most of them were, Cather herself had realized that ‘‘I had been trying to sing a song that did not lie in my own voice.’’ That voice, she decided, must come from her home, her childhood and her primary experience where her deepest feelings were rooted.
Cather wrote her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge
, in 1910–11. With its male protagonist, sophisticated milieu, and Jamesian style, it was far from authentic, as she realized, by the time it was published in 1912. ‘‘In Alexander’s Bridge
,’’ she told Latrobe Carroll from The Bookman in 1921, ‘‘I was still more preoccupied with trying to write well than anything else. It takes a lot of experience to become natural. People grow in honesty as they grow in anything else. A painter or writer must learn to distinguish what is his own from that which he admires.’’ In spring 1912, she left New York, first for a momentous journey to the Southwest, and then for five summer weeks during the wheat harvest in Red Cloud. In August she began to write some short stories which mythologized her Nebraska past, and as she wrote, she realized that the stories were connected, and that she was actually writing a novel.
Cather knew right away that O Pioneers!
was different from her other fiction. ‘‘Here,’’ she said, ‘‘there was no arranging or ‘inventing’; everything was spontaneous and took its own place.’’ Writing the book ‘‘was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way.’’ As she told The Bookman, ‘‘From the first chapter, I decided not to write’ at all – simply to give myself up to the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I had believed forgotten. This was what my friend Sarah Orne Jewett had advised me to do. She said to me that if my life had lain in a part of the world that was without a literature, I would have to make a kind of writing that would tell it, no matter what I lost in the process.’’ Cather dedicated O Pioneers! to Jewett’s memory, and titled it with a phrase from Walt Whitman – as opposite to Henry James as any male American writer could be.
In her comments on the novel, Cather made her writing process sound more artless and the style sound more primitive than it is; indeed, the book is tightly constructed, in five sections, and precisely crafted. But she had made drastic changes in her literary persona and self-image to compose it. Not only had she abandoned the urbane Jamesian tone, she had embraced a feminine creative vision through her Amazonian heroine, called ‘‘Alexandra’’ as if to emphasize the transformation from her first book. In her androgynous strength, her seeming indifference to romance or sexuality, her shrewd business sense, her fascination with scientific methods of agriculture, Alexandra Bergson is no ordinary heroine; she is one of the heralds of the future late-nineteenth American women writers had foreseen as ‘‘the coming woman,’’ who offered a fuller vision of what a free woman might become.
Copyright © 2011 by Elaine Showalter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.