Happy Birthday, “O Pioneers!” - Willa Cather

In the old days, women writers tended to start their careers late, and I’ll bet that, on average, they still do. When I was young, people trying to encourage us held up the example of George Eliot, whose first novel, “Adam Bede,” was published when she was almost forty. Later, we learned a more amazing story, that of Penelope Fitzgerald, who started publishing fiction at the age of nearly sixty and, before dying at eighty-three, brought out nine novels and had a brilliant career. She won the Man Booker Prize.

Another member of this group was Willa Cather (1873-1947), from Red Cloud, Nebraska, the daughter of a small-time insurance agent with five children and no money. Somehow Cather managed to go to college, and to become a writer, of small things: reviews, stories. By her thirties, she had acquired a very good job, as the managing editor of McClure’s, an important New York magazine. She got to go to Europe and meet famous writers. But secretly she herself wanted to be a writer. She was sure she could not be. The most honored novelist of that time, the nineteen-tens, was Henry James: refined, complicated, urban. Cather, meanwhile, was still kicking the dust of Red Cloud off her shoes. Finally, at thirty-seven, in what must have been a wrenching act of courage, she took a leave from McClure’s and wrote a novel, “Alexander’s Bridge.” It was in the manner of James, and it was a dud, as she knew from the moment it was published.

A crucial difference, I think, between successful and unsuccessful artists is the ability to survive disappointment. Logically, after the failure of “Alexander’s Bridge,” Cather should have given up. She had always figured she couldn’t make it as a novelist. Here, apparently, was the proof. But for some reason that no one has ever been able to explain, she immediately sat down and wrote a second novel, “O Pioneers!,” which obeyed the fiction-writing-workshop dictum “Write what you know.” The subjects of “Alexander’s Bridge”—fashionable people drinking tea and committing adultery—were matters of which Cather knew nothing. She had made it all up, out of books. What she knew was European peasants, in soiled clothes, moving to the Great Plains via the Homestead Act and trying to establish farms on land covered with tall, fibrous, seemingly ineradicable prairie grass.

“O Pioneers!” concerns Swedish immigrants. We see their plight in the very first words of the novel:
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.… The dwelling houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them.
The wind blew under the houses. It’s like “The Wizard of Oz.” As the first chapter opens, a five-year-old boy, Emil Bergson, is crying his eyes out. He and his older sister—Alexandra, twenty years old—have come into town to get supplies. Alexandra dotes on Emil, and she let him bring his kitten with him. Now, a dog has chased the kitten up a telegraph pole, where she is freezing, but she won’t come down. A friend of Alexandra’s, Carl Linstrum, hikes up the pole and rescues the kitten. Other animals in “O Pioneers!” are not so lucky, nor are the human beings.

Soon after the beginning of the novel, Alexandra’s father, age forty-six, dies. His struggle with his homestead had been brutal: one year, he lost his pigs to cholera. The next year, his cattle froze to death in a blizzard. Two sons died. What remained to him were three boys and Alexandra. He wished that she, too, had been a boy, because she seemed to him the only one smart enough to save the farm. (One of the boys, Oscar, is a blockhead; another, Lou, is flighty; the third, Emil, the one with the kitten, is a child.) Alexandra does not feel up to the task. Watching her father die, she wishes in her heart that the whole family could die with him, and “let the grass grow back over everything.” But by the end of the novel, she has domesticated, and enlarged, the property. In the process, she has lost her gaiety and her femininity. Oscar and Lou resent the fact that she, a female, is the one who runs the farm, and they chide her for being unwomanly. (We should give a thought, here, to what must have been the ambivalence that Cather, a manly woman, felt about how well she managed McClure’s.) Alexandra is stung by her brothers’ remarks: “I certainly didn’t choose to be the kind of girl I was. If you take a vine and cut it back and back again, it grows hard, like a tree.”

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