The American Frontier

The United States has a history that is rich and colorful. It is riddled with events that have shaped the nation’s current landscape. In literature, this eventful history has provided a rich mantle upon which an equally diverse set of literary works were juxtaposed. Across different eras and across the nation, writers have captured these facets of the so-called greatest country in the world. For instance, the landscape and atmosphere of New England were vividly painted by the works of John Irving. American literature is also brimming with novels about and from the Deep South. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind are among the most renowned.

Equally rich but not as equally prominent are the novels about the American Frontier, or the Old West, more popularly called the Wild West. Among the prominent works capturing the story of this part of the country are Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and David McCullough’s The Pioneers. In the first half of the 20th century, another writer captured the spirit and the stories of the American frontier through her works: Wilella Sibert Cather, more popularly known as Willa Cather. Cather was born in Virginia to parents with Welsh blood before they moved to Red Cloud in the Nebraskan frontier when she was just nine years old. In the frontier, the young Cather grew up in the company of European immigrants, including Swedes, Germans, Russians, and Bohemians. This diverse life that existed on the American Great Plains would eventually be the heart of several of Cather’s novels.

Among Cather’s works that captured life on the Great Plains is O Pioneers! Originally published in 1913, the novel was set in the fictional farming community of Hanover, Nebraska, at the turn of the century. The focal point of the story was Alexandra Bergson. Alex, as she was fondly addressed, was the only daughter of Swedish immigrants who settled in Hanover. Described in the opening pages as a “tall, strong girl, and she walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next,” the readers first meet Alexandra when she was sixteen years old. She had two older brothers, Oscar and Lou, and a younger brother named Emil who was five at the start of the novel. “She had a serious, thoughtful face, and her clear, deep blue eyes were fixed intently on the distance, without seeming to see anything, as if she were in trouble.”

“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. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever took we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, that exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theaters. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.”

~ Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

Like most members of the community, the Bergson family relied on farming as their primary source of sustenance. However, the land of the Nebraskan prairie was barely productive. This was exacerbated by the extreme weather conditions which made the place not conducive to farming. Nevertheless, the family patriarch John persisted but, unfortunately, his persistence was not paying off. It did not help that his wife had little knowledge about farming while his two eldest sons were unwilling to involve themselves in formwork. These challenges finally took a toll on John’s body and when we first meet him, he was already in the throes of death. But even with death knocking on the doors, John’s main concern was the family land. Recognizing his daughter’s smarts and grit, mirroring that of his own, John bequeathed the care of the land to Alexandra. For her part, Alex promised her father, on his deathbed, that she will cultivate the land to its full glory.

The novel was divided into five parts: The Wild Land, Neighboring Fields, Winter Memories, The White Mulberry Tree, and Alexandra. These parts chronicled the story of Alexandra from the time the realization of the unconscionable responsibilities left on her shoulders hit her to how she slowly embraced the challenge. The promise she left her dying father has converged with her dreams. Slowly but surely, she managed to successfully transform a once hostile land into a flourishing homestead worthy of everyone’s awe. This was on top of her role of being a mother to her younger brother. Upon the death of their father, succeeded by the demise of their mother, the care of Emil was left on the shoulders of Alex. There was a lot on Alex’s plate but with persistence and hard work, she was able to make good on her promise.

For sure, Alex loomed large in the story. Taking her promise to heart, she propelled the story forward. Not only was she her family’s final hope, but she was also the novel’s backbone. While the typical person would have already given up on the repeated failure of their farming enterprise, Alex remained steadfast. She was not your typical individual, as she was made of sterner stuff. With her strong will and her quick-wittedness, she pulled off the seemingly impossible, she made the Bergson land flourish. She was not always equipped with knowledge of farming and everything it required but she took the extra mile and took her new role and responsibilities to heart. For aspects of farming she barely had knowledge of, she acquired the knowledge from other farmers in their community.

She knew the realities she had to deal with but Alex was unfazed. She had a vision and it was this vision, complemented by her tenacity, that made her transform the land that was once deemed untameable into a lucrative enterprise. It would take years, building it brick by brick, but it would eventually start yielding pecuniary returns. Sixteen years following the death of their father – and also the time between the end of the first part and the start of the second part – Alex was able to fulfill her promise. The Bergson land has slowly turned into a farming empire. Alex’s acumen enabled her to acquire more lands while prices were low. Her neighbors selling out their land after years of unproductive farming was also key to her extending her property inch by inch.

“But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.”

~ Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

O Pioneers! was as much a novel about the land as it was about Alex. The land’s role in their lives was seminal because, first and foremost, it was their primary means of supporting themselves and their family. Through Cather’s astute writing, the land was seen from different perspectives. John, for instance, “had the Old-World belief that land, in itself, is desirable. But this land was an enigma. It was like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces. He had an idea that no one understood how to farm it properly, and this he often discussed with Alexandra.” Meanwhile, for his daughter, the land was an object that cannot be fully acquired for “it belongs to the future.” She further elucidated that “We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it – for a little while.” In both instances, the father and daughter showed remarkable respect for the land.

Cather, as she has demonstrated in her previous work, has an uncanny ability for capturing the spirit of a place and time. This was also palpable in O Pioneers! and it was one of its finer facets. The Divide, as the area the novel was set in was referred to, became an integral part of the story. This was further complemented by Cather’s descriptive writing. A homage to the prairies, Cather’s second novel captured the brown earth, the barrenness of the prairie, and the transformations taking place all over it, from the harsh winters to the gentle breeze of spring. Her writing was beautiful albeit plain but it made orchards, farmlands, and trees come alive: “The brown earth, with such a strong, clean smell, and such a power of growth and fertility in it.”

Another blueprint of Cather’s works was prevalent in the novel: the quotidian life of farmers in the Great Plains. She captured their plights and also their small triumphs, which were rare and far in between. Like Alex, they were dreamers brimming with ideas of grandeur. However, only those with strong mental fortitude manage to succeed as less experienced farmers, unaccustomed to the harshness of the prairies, were forced to leave. Cather was also able to capture the melting pot that the prairie has turned into following the influx of European immigrants.

Making the Bergson homestead flourish came with a price tag. Alex had to make other sacrifices. As the story moved forward, it became apparent that the land and the promise she made to her father that has come to define her and her life. Romantic attachments and companionship were relatively foreign concepts to her. While she was a spirited young woman, the expression of her emotions was not her strongest suit; she was a single-minded young woman. This created a distance between her and the readers. Nevertheless, her focus on the task at hand and her hard work was nothing short of admirable. This, however, did not mean that the novel was without its romantic overtones. These became more palpable as the story’s focus switched from the land to Alex.

“There is something frank and joyous and young in the open face of the country. It gives itself ungrudgingly to the moods of the season, holding nothing back. Like the plains of Lombardy, it seems to rise a little to meet the sun. The air and the earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if the one were the breath of the other. You feel in the atmosphere the same tonic, puissant quality that is in the tilth, the same strength and resoluteness.”

~ Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

The story also captured how success can invite envy from other people. Success stories, like that of Alex’s, have the tendency to sow seeds of discord, especially in small communities where everyone is breathing up each other’s neck. The idyllic portrait of the countryside was riddled with small-town drama which the characters had to endure. Greed, jealousy, and diverse opinions continuously threaten to destabilize harmony, not only in the community but also within the ambit of families. Men also continue to reassert their authority but Alex never let them stymie her voice. Tragedies also abounded, with references to dark subjects such as domestic abuse, infidelities, tragic love affairs, murder, and death.

O Pioneers!, which derived its title from a poem by Walt Whitman entitled “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” from Leaves of Grass (1855), was also the first book in what would eventually be known as the Great Plains trilogy; it was succeeded by The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918). It contained the hallmarks of Cather’s prose, such as her vivid depiction of life in the Great Plains and her descriptive prose that made the setting come alive. Cather’s second novel captured the story of a small community and of the Great Plains while, at the same time, capturing the story of a young woman who was driven and tenacious. O Pioneers! was as much the story of Alexandra Bergson as it was the story of the land and of the Great Plains.

“The years seemed to stretch before her like the land; spring, summer, autumn, winter, spring; always the same patient fields, the patient little trees, the patient lives; always the same yearning, the same pulling at the chain—until the instinct to live had torn itself and bled and weakened for the last time, until the chain secured a dead woman, who might cautiously be released.”

~ Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
Rating

65%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 
18%
Writing (25%) – 
19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
8%

It was through a fellow book blogger that I first encountered Willa Cather. His review of Cather’s My Antonia piqued my interest; his goal was to read literary works that are considered classics. It left an impression on me that when I first encountered three of her books through an online seller, I did not hesitate to obtain them. I have already read one of them back in 2019, Death Comes for the Archbishop. However, in my drive to cover as much ground as possible, the other books were left to gather dust on my bookshelf. To redress this, I included O Pioneers! on both my Beat the Backlist Challenge and my 2022 Top 22 Reading List. I also made it part of my March 2022 International Women’s Month reading journey. This was also fitting as the novel’s primary character was a woman, Alexandra Bergson. It was, however, lamentable that secondary characters were not as fully fleshed out as the novel’s main heroine. The novel certainly had its bright spots. Cather’s descriptive writing was sparse and yet it managed to capture the spirit of the setting, so much so that it has become an integral part of the story. Overall, while I find it engaging in some points, I found the novel middling.

Book Specs

Author: Willa Cather
Publisher: Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc.
Publishing Date: May 1995
Number of Pages: 309
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

One of the most important American writers of the twentieth century, Willa Cather mined her childhood experiences on the Nebraska plains and her later love for the Southwest to create timeless tales of romance, tragedy, and spiritual seeking. The author of 12 novels and nearly 60 short stories, Cather won a Pulitzer Prize in 1922. In her second novel, O Pioneers!, Cather discovered the subject matter – the frontier life she knew as a young girl – and the spare but evocative style that would tap her full potential as a writer. Published in 1913, the novel tells of Alexandra Bergson, a Swedish immigrant who, in her early 20s, loses both her mother and father and is thrust into the role of surrogate parent to her three brothers. Alexandra’s success with the family farm enables her to send her brother Emil to college, but the family is challenged once more by his tragic love affair with a married woman. And as vital as any of the book’s characters are the Nebraska plains themselves as depicted by Cather – raw, unforgiving, and breathtakingly beautiful.

About the Author

To learn more about Willa Cather, click here.