Revisiting O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

In 1913, a young woman from Nebraska published a novel that endorsed the American Dream. The novel promoted the idea that hard work and maintaining good order can produce abundant food from the ground and money in your pocket. What sets this depiction of the American Dream apart from others is that the creator of this wealth is a woman – Alexandra Bergson.

O Pioneers! is the second novel by Willa Cather and it draws on her experience of settling in the prairies of Nebraska. It was my choice in the Decades Project featuring fiction by women, this one for the decade 1910-1919. This is a revision of the original post.

O Pioneers!

O Pioneers! is set in Nebraska and celebrates the moment when the westward settlement of the North American interior reached the prairies. Willa Cather’s own family had travelled from Virginia to Nebraska to build their lives there as farmers.

In O Pioneers! the Bergsons do not have money. They have come from Sweden to Nebraska and the land they cultivate has never been worked before. Alexandra is a capable young woman, and her father recognises her ability to manage the farm before his early death. She continues his work, caring for her three brothers, and establishing the farm. After an initial struggle she does very well, through a combinations of research, investment and experimentation. She is able to provide the two oldest boys with their own farms, a university education to the youngest boy and a home and employment to an assortment of other people. She is well regarded in their community.

Alexandra hardly considers marriage, and certainly does not see it as a necessity for a young woman or as her destiny.

She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times. (112)

One of the most poignant scenes involves the two older brothers, Oscar and Lou, who warn Alexandra against marrying Carl, a childhood friend who has returned to stay with her. By this time Alexandra has built up a large and thriving ranch, employing several people. She has provided two brothers with a livelihood but Oscar says, ‘people have begun to talk’. Lou tells her,

‘You ought to think a little about your family. You’re making us all ridiculous.’

‘How am I?’

‘People are beginning to say you want to marry the fellow.’ …

Oscar rose. ‘Yes,’ he broke in, ‘everybody’s laughing to see you get took in; at your age, too. Everybody knows he’s nearly five years younger than you, and is after your money. Why, Alexandra, you are forty years old!’ (91-2)

Alexandra stands up for herself, refuses to bow to her brothers’ fear of social embarrassment. She has nothing more to do with her brothers after this. It’s refreshing to read a novel from 100 years ago suggesting that a women’s marriage is not the business of the male members of her family. She does eventually marry Carl, on her own terms.

Other features of O Pioneers!

The novel includes a double murder of a pair of lovers. A strange aspect of the plot is that Alexandra visits the murderer in prison, and vows to use her influence to get him pardoned. The introduction to my edition suggests that Alexandra has a ‘rage for order’ and the lovers had disrupted the order of the community. The text suggests an additional reason for her response: she likes to do things, make things better. She loved both the victims, but she cannot do anything for them. She pities the wronged husband and believes she can do something for him.

The characters in the novel are sharply drawn. Alexandra herself comes across as a vivid and energetic pioneer. She is a contrast to Marie, the Bohemian (that is she came from Bohemia – provenance is important to pioneers) who is attractive, lively and always cheerful. Alexandra’s brothers are cautious, resentful, not models of the pioneer spirit.

One character, Ivar, suffers fits of some kind, and keeps himself away from the community, living in an adapted cave and reading the Bible. He has a particular ability with horses. Ivar comes to live with Alexandra when he gets too old to look after himself, an indication of her generous spirit.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather in 1912 via WikiCommons

I have indicated that this novel draws on Willa Cather’s own experience. In 1931 using a rural analogy she described the writing of her second novel:

I began to write a book entirely for myself, a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbours of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old. … Here there was no arranging or ‘inventing’; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. (170: from My First Novels)

Born in 1873, Willa Cather adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. She had an active life as a journalist, writing novels, including My Antonia  (also reviewed on this blog which you can readat this link here), editing magazines, and traveling in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, for example.

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. First published in 1913. Edition used in this review is by Oxford World Classics. 179 pp

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