My first impression of O Pioneers! (named for the Walt Whitman poem of the same name), admittedly one of the seminal works in the American literary tradition, was simply: Oh, fantastic, it’s Little House on the Prairie for adults! As flippant as that may sound, keep in mind that a.) Laura Ingalls Wilder is very well-respected and b.) it pretty much sums up what I took away from My Ántonia, the first Willa Cather life-in-the-Nebraska-countryside novel I read back in December. But everything My Ántonia lacked—most notably, a dramatic arc—O Pioneers! has in droves, and the novel was a “page-turner,” a rich character study and a deeply moving paean to the West all rolled into one.
The novel is set in Cather’s home state of Nebraska (Hanover stands in for Red Cloud) and follows the travails of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish immigrants chasing the Great White Hope of land ownership and prosperity. The 1962 Homestead Act, signed into law by President Lincoln, was intended to spur settlement and development in the American West by granting immigrant families the chance to obtain ownership rights to land they were able to cultivate. Only 40 percent of grant recipients were able to make it through the five year “trial period” and actually legally acquire the land, but those who did manage to tough it out were often very prosperous, and their success stories served as proof that the American Dream was indeed attainable, albeit through work harder than the modern mind can even fathom.
When Book One opens, John, the Bergson family patriarch, is on his deathbed; he appoints his eldest daughter, Alexandra, to run the family farm in his place. Alexandra’s best friend Carl Linstrum’s family has decided to abandon their land and move to Chicago; despite her melancholy at Carl’s departure, Alexandra resolves not to give up on the land her father worked so hard for. Despite the protestations of her older brothers, Oscar and Lou—two of the most petty, put-upon and puerile men in the literary tradition—Alexandra decides to mortgage her family’s farm to buy additional land and, when the second book opens sixteen years later, we see her gamble has paid off mightily. The farm’s prosperity has allowed Alexandra to send her youngest brother, Emil, to college, and—perhaps because, at forty, she has never married and has no children of her own—she is determined that Emil’s future will become the true legacy of her and her father’s hard work.
I don’t want to give away too much, but essentially, the bulk of the book follows the oblique love stories of both Alexandra and Carl and Emil and Bergson-neighbor Marie Tovesky, unhappily married to a man she once madly loved but one that has since devolved into a curmudgeon (isn’t that always the way?) The plot points are very clearly anchored in a time (the turn of the twentieth century) and culture in which marital infidelity was basically unthinkable, and the puritanical streak in this regard is somewhat surprising since, in Alexandra, Cather has created a refreshingly strong, clear-headed and “modern” female protagonist. Alexandra firmly believes in marrying for love, and she puts her money where her mouth is by remaining single into her forties simply because she hasn’t found a partner she wants to share her life with; she doesn’t depend on a man for financial security and only craves companionship. She stands up to her older brothers, both of whom are portrayed as fatuous, unreconstructed sexists who believe not only that they are entitled to more than they’ve earned, but that they’ve earned far more than they have. She takes in an eccentric neighbour, a kind of Nebraskan Dr. Dolittle, despite her neighbors’ petty gossip. Her wits and intelligence win her father’s trust and respect, and she defies her by-the-book siblings to take the necessary risks that engender the family’s eventual prosperity.
Alexandra’s story elucidates one of the inherent contradictions of pre-feminist-revolution life for women: Their actual roles and responsibilities were in outsized proportion to what the law recognized. When Alexandra Bergson came of age, she was not allowed to cast a vote for President, and yet she pretty much single-handedly managed her family’s homestead and made all the significant financial decisions despite her brothers’ protests. Now, granted, she was endowed with most of her responsibilities because of her father, but ultimately, the family owed its good fortune to her. This disparity between Alexandra’s de jure and de facto rights makes it all the more puzzling why a woman so ahead-of-her-time in most respects would be unable or unwilling to understand why Emil and Marie were drawn to each other. This isn’t so much about male-versus-female, since Alexandra certainly condemns the man who “goes after” a married woman as much as she does the woman who strays. The point is that Alexandra’s “feminism” (if you can call it that; maybe “modernity” is a better word?) doesn’t discredit her faith in traditional institutions, but reinforces it. Because she didn’t need marriage for security, she views the legal union of two people as perhaps more sacred than she should. And, in a way, while Alexandra’s reverence for marriage seems at first glance kind of inexplicable, it mirrors the way I think many women of my generation feel about traditions: Because they don’t personally feel enslaved by them, they forget that others have been, and that “traditions” don’t exist in a vacuum—they are cultivated by the very people who stand to benefit from them.
Not to let all this detract from the fact that O Pioneers! is just an all-around great story. I understand the dull-and-desultory stereotypes that sometimes surround Willa Cather novels—I indulged in them myself while reading My Antonia—but this book has the dramatic heft necessary to make the book more than just a collection of beautiful back-to-the-land ruminations. O Pioneers!, dare I say it, is an epic. And, given the fact that it was published in 1913 and can still entrance a twenty-first-century woman who’s never really lived outside huge cities, it’s clearly an enduring one.