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Willa Cather: Poetess of the Prairie

In my last post I criticized the all too common practice among readers of skipping passages that describe landscapes.  This “sin of the impatient reader” is especially harmful in the case of Willa Cather (1873-1947), certainly one of America’s premier novelists and probably the finest example of Great Plains regionalism.  Cather advised writers, “Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.”  She certainly followed that advice.  Her passages describing the landscape of late nineteenth-century American prairies are not only sheer verbal delights but also are an essential character in her stories. In all three novels of her “Prairie Trilogy,” O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918), the place is the major character that interacts with the chief human characters.  In this essay I shall focus on O Pioneers! and its heroine Alexandra Bergson.

The setting of O Pioneers is the Nebraska Divide in the late nineteenth century.  Alexandra Bergson is a young Swedish girl whom her father chooses over her less capable brothers to inherit and manage the family farm upon his death.  Cather’s story describes her maturation and success.  The importance of the land to Alexandra’s character is shown by the titles of the five parts of the novel.  The first four, “The Wild Land,” “Neighboring Fields,” “Winter Memories,” and “The White Mulberry Tree,” center on the land.  The last part is titled “Alexandra,” as if to say that you cannot understand her apart from the land in which she lived.

The land is wild and hard on humans.  Many farmers fail.  Human civilization, whether the towns or the farms, appears to have a very precarious existence.  The opening of the novel tells us that “the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away” (Part I, Chap I).  Alexandra’s father believes that he has failed.  Cather poignantly describes the superficiality of man’s imprint on the land after so much effort.

Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening.  The houses on the Divide were small and were usually tucked away in low places; you did not see them until you came directly upon them.  Most of them were built of the sod itself, and were only the unescapable ground in another form.  The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable.  The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the marking of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings (Part I, Chap II).

Alexandra loves the land.  Cather paints one of her romantic scenes of the prairie with Alexandra seated at the kitchen doorstep after supper.

It was a still, deep-breathing summer night, full of the smell of the hay fields.  Sounds of laughter and splashing came up from the pasture, and when the moon rose rapidly above the bare rim of the prairie, the pond glittered like polished metal, and she could see the flash of white bodies as the boys ran about the edge, or jumped into the water (Part I, Chap III).

Yet Cather’s Alexandra is no pie-eyed romantic.  The next sentence tells us, “Alexandra watched the shimmering pool dreamily, but eventually her eyes went back to the sorghum patch south of the barn, where she was planning to make her new pig corral” (Ibid.).  This leads to one of the most famous sentences in Cather’s writing.  “A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves” (Part I, Chap IV).  In contrast to her brothers who were not real pioneers but only followers who wanted to enjoy the fruits of human labor without the love of labor, Alexandra is a visionary and entrepreneur.  She sees the potential of the land and wants to develop it.

The land begins to cooperate with human striving, and Cather’s love of farmland results in another paean to her homeland.

The rich soil yields heavy harvests; the dry bracing climate and the smoothness of the land make labor easy for men and beasts.  There are few scenes more gratifying than a spring plowing in that country, where the furrows of a single field often lie a mile in length, and the brown earth, with such a strong, clean smell, and such a power of growth and fertility in it, yields itself eagerly to the plow; rolls away from the shear, not even dimming the brightness of the metal, with a soft, deep sigh of happiness.  The wheat-cutting sometimes goes on all night as well as all day, and in good seasons there are scarcely men and horses enough to do the harvesting.  The grain is so heavy that it bends toward the blade and cuts like velvet (Part II, Chap I).

Alexandra too loves the developed land.  She does not just want to use it. “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do. I feel as if this tree knows everything I ever think of when I sit here. When I come back to it, I never have to remind it of anything; I begin just where I left off” (Part II, Chap VIII).

Yet the trees’ resignation “to the way they have to live” is in contrast to humans who often strive against it. “The White Mulberry Tree” ends with the tragedy of two human lovers upon whom “sin and death” had fallen (Part IV, Chap VIII).  This tragedy deepens Alexandra’s character as she realizes her limitations and finds the strength to forgive.

In the final part “Alexandra,” we see the matured and successful woman who has united with the land, which bears fruit in her soul and causes the land to blossom.  The novel concludes, “Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth” (Part V, Chap III).  The wild land and the pioneer no longer struggle with one another but are united and fertile in that union.

Not only does Cather show in O Pioneers! her ability to write landscape passages of beautiful prose, she also reminds us the humans are not disembodied spirits or mere thinking machines.  We are people who live in a place, which shapes us and, if we love it, will be shaped well by us.  I highly recommend Cather’s “Prairie Trilogy” for its artistic value, its understanding of the human person, and its development of strong female characters and models for young women.

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