The Harsh But Forgiving Prairie in O Pioneers!

I recently detoured from reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels in order to venture into the harsh but pleasantly forgiving fields of Willa Cather’s prairie pioneers.

“Wasatch Mountains and Great Plains in distance, Nebraska” by Albert Bierstadt in 1877

When Willa Cather was thirty-nine years old she wrote her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, which was published as a serial collection in McClure’s Magazine in 1912. It was a tragic story about a bridge failing in Canada, while a group of oblivious oligarchs drank tea and engaged in various affairs with one another. The novel was ultimately a dud, and Cather knew it from the moment it was published. Like other writers of the day, she had tried to copy the style of Henry James or Edith Wharton by writing about refined people in London and New York, while her heart remained on the Nebraska prairie. After the book was published, she went on a trip through the American desert to gather herself. Shortly thereafter she took heed of the great maxim: “write about about what you know” and she quickly produced her second, and far superior novel: O Pioneers!

The novel is an extraordinarily beautiful, yet heart-wrenchingly tragic romance of a lone woman and her family as they make their livelihood on the remote Nebraska prairie. Many of the characters are based on Willa Cather’s friends and neighbors from her time growing up in Nebraska. Cather’s poetry of the golden rolling fields has no analog in the pantheon of great American literature, and the novel reads like a series of memories from Willa Cather’s personal life. It is told in five parts: Part I: “The Wild Land” Part II: “Neighboring Fields” Part III: “Winter Memories” Part IV: “The White Mulberry Tree” and Part V: “Alexandra”.

The novel opens with a young but confident Alexandra Bergson, and her crying little brother Emil, who go to town in Hanover, Nebraska (a fictional town). They are Swedish immigrants (“Bohemians”) making a westward living for themselves under the Homestead Act. While in town, Emil’s cat crawls away, and gets stuck up a telegraph pole, only to be rescued by Alexandra’s paramour, Carl Linstrum (foreshadowing future events in the novel). Meanwhile, Emil plays with Marie Tovesky in the general store. The Bergson father, the family patriarch, is at home dying in bed. He has bequeathed management of their family farm to Alexandra, and he has asked his two other sons, Lou and Oscar, to work the fields, steward of their land, and honor Alexandra’s business-minded leadership .

We are introduced to Ivar, a quirky but devout man who lives on his own acreage. He is an outsider who lives in harmony with his land. He never wears shoes, he sleeps in a hammock, and he does not believe in harming any living creature whatsoever. As a harsh winter comes and John Bergson dies, many neighbors begin selling off their Nebraska farms, including the Linstrums, and thus Carl leaves. Alexandra decides to keep her family’s farm while buying up the adjacent properties, against her brothers’s wishes. Ivar comes to live with Alexandra as his farm goes under.

Then, in Part II, it is sixteen years later. Emil comes home from college to find the farm prospering but his young love interest has been married in a hurry to a foreigner, Frank Shabata. She is now Marie Shabata. Also Carl Linstrum unexpectedly arrives after being away for thirteen years and stays with the Bergsons. This causes a rift between Alexandra’s brothers who worry that Carl is trying to steal the heart of their sister, and therefore their property and their childrens’ inheritance, as well. Carl sees the political reality and he leaves for a new business venture in Alaska. Alexandra’s brothers also leave and they never speak to her again. Then Emil, deeply troubled by Marie’s marriage, also leaves for Mexico. Alexandra is left alone and sorrowful on the prairie again. She befriends Marie Shabata, runs her farm, and goes to church, while drawing inward, hoping for a savior but unwilling to leave her farm.

Finally, Emil returns from Mexico with wild stories, and all the women of the church are fascinated with Emil. The church kids play a game where they turn out the lights and kiss in the dark, Emil kisses Marie for the first time. They awkwardly confess their love but Marie says it can never happen because of her loveless marriage to the drunkard, Frank Shabata. Emil then decides to leave for Michigan for law school, but one of his friends dies and the town holds a funeral. Emil goes to Marie one last time and finds her in the Shabata orchard alone. He crawls up to her and they embrace until Frank Shabata, drunk, comes home to find Emil’s horse at his house. He goes out to the orchard and before he can realize what he has done, he kills both Emil and his wife Marie in a rage. He then flees to Omaha before he can be caught and tried in court.

Let us pause for a moment and consider the masterful way in which Willa Cather explains this scene and its palpable tension:

“When Frank Shabata got home that night, he found Emil’s mare in his stable…Since noon he had been drinking too much, and he was in a bad temper…He went into his bedroom and took his murderous 405 Winchester from the closet. When Frank took up his gun and walked out of the house, he had not the faintest purpose of doing anything with it… Frank went slowly to the orchard gate… In the warm breathless night air he heard a murmuring sound, perfectly inarticulate, as low as the sound of water coming from a spring, where there is no fall, and where there are no stones to fret it… Resting the butt of his gun on the ground, he parted mulberry leaves softly with his fingers and peered through the hedge at the dark figures on the grass, in the shadow of the mulberry tree… He began to act, just as a man who falls into the fire begins to act. The gun sprang to his shoulder, he sighted mechanically and fired three times without stopping, stopped without knowing why…He peered again through the hedge, at the two dark figures under the tree. They had fallen a little apart from each other, and were perfectly still – No, not quite; in a white patch of light, where the moon shone through the branches, a man’s hand was plucking spasmodically at the grass. Suddenly the woman stirred and uttered a cry, then another, and another…She was dragging herself toward the hedge! Frank dropped his gun and ran back along the path, shaking, stumbling, gasping. He had never imagined such a horror” (Part IV: “The White Mulberry Tree”, Chapter VII, pp.144-145).

Distraught, Alexandra travels to Omaha to visit Frank, now imprisoned, with the hope of reconciliation. She quietly returns to her family farm without her lover, her son, or her brothers. Far away, Carl gets word and he returns to Nebraska one final time for Alexandra. When he arrives, Carl and Alexandra embrace. They decide to get married and remain together on the Bergson farm in Nebraska.

Thoughts on the Novel
Part of the national myth of the United States is the celebration of the rugged pioneer, the westward cowboy, the rural “self-reliant” individual. In O Pioneers! Willa Cather continues this due celebration, with a nuanced exploration of the Bohemian prairie. Remotely, out on the harsh but beckoning “Divide,” no one can escape the demands of the civilized world. Concerns of inheritance, education, stability, and family still remain as they would in the city. On Willa Cather’s prairie, she accepts Aristotle’s claim that ‘man is a political animal’ as in the case of Alexandra and her complicated web of alliances, balancing her resentful brothers with her own love for Carl Linstrum; or also in the case of Emil who is torn between his love for Marie and the political reality of her marriage to Frank Shabata. Though people come and go from Hanover, Nebraska, some never vanish. Some remain anchored to the land.

In the novel, the land plays an important character, informing the decisions of the characters who dwell upon it. The climate and the hills of Nebraska are personified -the harsh winters bring death and loneliness for Alexandra, while the golden summers bring fond memories of love and friendship. The seasons are important to the pioneers. They are a complex group of adventurers and traditional farmers.

Today, O Pioneers! is considered the first book in Willa Cather’s “Great Plains” trilogy, followed by the Song of the Lark (1915), which takes place largely away from the great plains, and My Ántonia (1918), which is her most celebrated novel of the heartland.

Here are some of my favorite passages from the novel -a series of impressions of life on the prairie:

“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” (Opening lines of the novel).

“‘Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years'” (Part II: “Neighboring Fields”, Chapter IV, pp.67 -Carl speaking to Alexandra after he has returned to the Bergson farm).

“Winter has settled down over the Divide again; the season in which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks to sleep between the fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring. The birds have gone. The teeming life that goes on down in the long grass is exterminated. The prairie-dog keeps his hole. The rabbits run shivering from one frozen garden patch to another and are hard put to it to find frost-bitten cabbage stalks. At night the coyotes roam the wintry waste, howling for food. The variegated fields are all one color now; the pastures, the stubble, the roads, the sky are the same leaden gray. The hedgegrows and trees are scarcely perceptible against the bare earth, whose slaty hue they have not taken on. The ground is frozen so hard that it bruises the foot to walk in the road or in the plowed fields. It is like an iron country, and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy. One could easily believe that in the dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever” (Part III: “Winter Memories” – opening lines, Chapter I, pp. 103).

“There were certain days in her life, outwardly uneventful, which Alexandra remembered as peculiarly happy; days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body joyous germination in the soil… There had been such a day when they were down on the river in the dry year, looking over the land… The river was clear there, and shallow, since there had been no rain, and it rain in ripples over the sparkling sand. Under the overhanging willows of the opposite bank there was an inlet where the water was deeper and flowed so slowly that it seemed to sleep in the sun. In this little bay a single wild duck was swimming and diving and peening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade. They sat for a long time, watching the solitary bird take its pleasure. No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that duck” (Part III: “Winter Memories”, Chapter II, pp. 111-112 -a memory Alexandra and her brother Emil frequently return to).

O Pioneers! O Pioneers! By Walt Whitman
The title of O Pioneers! is in reference to to the title and chorus of a Walt Whitman poem, Pioneers! O Pioneers! written in 1865 in Leaves of Grass and transcribed below. It is an ode to celebrate America’s courageous pioneers during the westward expansion of the nation.

Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

From Nebraska, from Arkansas,
Central inland race are we, from Missouri, with the continental blood intervein’d,
All the hands of comrades clasping, all the Southern, all the Northern,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O resistless restless race!
O beloved race in all! O my breast aches with tender love for all!
O I mourn and yet exult, I am rapt with love for all,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Raise the mighty mother mistress,
Waving high the delicate mistress, over all the starry mistress, (bend your heads all,)
Raise the fang’d and warlike mistress, stern, impassive, weapon’d mistress,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

See my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter,
Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

On and on the compact ranks,
With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the dead quickly fill’d,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill’d.
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the pulses of the world,
Falling in they beat for us, with the Western movement beat,
Holding single or together, steady moving to the front, all for us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Life’s involv’d and varied pageants,
All the forms and shows, all the workmen at their work,
All the seamen and the landsmen, all the masters with their slaves,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the hapless silent lovers,
All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and the wicked,
All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the dying,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way,
Through these shores amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Lo, the darting bowling orb!
Lo, the brother orbs around, all the clustering suns and planets,
All the dazzling days, all the mystic nights with dreams,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

These are of us, they are with us,
All for primal needed work, while the followers there in embryo wait behind,
We to-day’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Minstrels latent on the prairies!
(Shrouded bards of other lands, you may rest, you have done your work,)
Soon I hear you coming warbling, soon you rise and tramp amid us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Not for delectations sweet,
Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and the studious,
Not the riches safe and palling, not for us the tame enjoyment,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Do the feasters gluttonous feast?
Do the corpulent sleepers sleep? have they lock’d and bolted doors?
Still be ours the diet hard, and the blanket on the ground,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Has the night descended?
Was the road of late so toilsome? did we stop discouraged nodding on our way?
Yet a passing hour I yield you in your tracks to pause oblivious,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Till with sound of trumpet,
Far, far off the daybreak call—hark! how loud and clear I hear it wind,
Swift! to the head of the army!–swift! spring to your places,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! New York, Vintage Books a division of Random House, 1992 (reissue edition).

1 thought on “The Harsh But Forgiving Prairie in O Pioneers!

  1. Pingback: The Pioneer Spirit in One of Ours | Great Books Guy

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