"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." (Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers!) How complex is the relationship between people and the American landscape in Willa Cather's novel as a whole?
'For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of the geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning'
This quotation cuts straight to the heart of Willa Cather's whole argument throughout O Pioneers!, which is that it is Alexandra Bergson's will to survive and continually adapt which makes her successful —the facts that her neighbours are unwilling to take up new ideas and technologies, they are unwilling to gamble, and, worse, unwilling to listen to those whose relationship with the landscape is harmonious and respectful (such as that of Ivar), mark them down as part of the legacy of ignorant, unadventurous past. Alexandra is not content with a position such as Ivar's, though; she does not seek to subsume herself into nature, but to respectfully co-exist with it until she can in a greater development tame it. Whereas Ivar merely wishes to leave no mark, she has more controversial ideas. It is this which marks her out as something special; she was born with the fiery imagination of the true pioneer, born to prosper in "the struggle in which [she] was destined to succeed while so many men broke their hearts and died" (page 46). If she is so destined to succeed, she must similary be destined to make her mark on society of the time, on its established traditions, and sweep them aside in order for a brighter world vision to take their place.
There is overwhelming evidence presented by Cather for the inability of American society to coexist harmoniously with the individualist immigrant; they can accept only those who are willing to subscribe to the conformist doctrine prevalent in society at the time, particularly in the non-urban setting of the Great Divide. As Ivar perceptively notes, "Here if a man is different in his feet or in his head, they put him in the asylum" (page 53.) Though her reply is mock serious and with sympathy for Ivar, Alexandra responds to his concerns: "Like as not they wil be wanting to take me to Hastings [the asylum] because I have built a silo" (page 54.) It is a widely noted and understood fact of life and a continual factor in considering one's actions; where progressive (rather, diversely continuing) measures are embraced, they are embraced wholesale. Any difference or deviation is frowned upon in the most serious manner. Mrs Lee's comment about hot water baths is that she cannot clean herself, cannot "make a strong suds" (page 54), so she pretends to conform. There is no tolerance for the traditional ways or for non-conformists. This disharmony within society is a greater division for Cather; it is a division between those who can only think within the constraints of the past and the present; there is no evidence of a hunger for progress, only for the rapid accumulation of wealth (as demonstrated by Lou's eagerness to sell out to Charlie Fuller.) Randall quotes Cather herself in this: "A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves." Only this second category of people are those who 'own' the land. Cather is making a case in this novel (and subsequently in the similarly themed My Antonia that the former sort of people are unworthy of the privilege of working the land (in this content, mis-working), that they are predestined to failure by their obstinate inability to behave flexibly; "[She] shows something of the wild vitality of the land as passing into [her] heroines, who in turn use it to conquer the land. They are able to respond to the landscape in an active way."
Alexandra is not merely a forward-thinker: she also occupies the rather unusual position of a woman farmer in an overwhelmingly male-dominated rural society. Because of this she is naturally a conspicuous local figure, made more so by her forward-thinking adaptive approach to the business of farming. As a reader, we are left in no doubt that, were her prosperity ever to fail, she would be treated harsher than a conformist farmer (the rest of whom are obviously male); some in the novel would even seem to want her 'progressivism' to fail (her brother Lou believing that feed out of a silo would "give the stock the bloat" (page 52).) Research writer John Randall notes that "One must remember the peculiar light in which [Willa Cather] viewed the fact of human conflict and struggle. For her, struggle had to lead to the absolute triumph of the will ... and the putting down of all opposition." This 'triumph of the will' seems to require the 'absolute' focus Cather suggests; Alexandra has no time for finding a partner as all of her energies are directed towards making the farm a success; she is unlike all of the other female characters depicted in the course of the narrative—in particular lacking Marie's emotional spontaneity, and the Swedish helping-hands' need to settle quickly and raise a family. The land requires dedication and unswerving loyalty to become fruitful; one could use the metaphor that Alexandra is married to the land, that it (and no other) is her lover. This is a complex reading of the relationship between people (in particular, one person—one woman), but an convincing one made reinforced with the use of direct metaphor by the author: Randall makes the statement "we have an implicit but unequivocal statement from Willa Cather herself that Alexandra Bergson's relation to the land is a sexual one", supported by a clear image of penetration "the brown earth ... yields itself eagerly to the plow; ... with a soft, deep sigh of happiness" p45. In this context, though, Alexandra assumes a masculine role; the land is anthropomorphically represented as being female, welcoming the genuine attempts by another to stimulate and seed it. It is perhaps too much to read into Cather's work a loving appreciation of female/female relationships because Alexandra's sexuality is only timidly described; one feels that the author intended the Bergson sister as being more androgynous a character than lesbian.
What is more certain, however, is that relationships with the land are portrayed as being more fulfilling than those between people, and less likely to come to a bad end (as in the sudden death of Amedee, an event which in itself foreshadows the killing of Emil and Marie.) Relationships between people are either slanted negatively in O Pioneers!, or they are more concepts of the promise of a relationship (Alexandra's taking of Carl as a friend as a higher priority than that of a mate. Alexandra has left child-bearing so late as to not be an issue; one feels that she all the time intended simply to will her land to her bothers' children.) The threat of Alexandra as a feminist icon is almost negated both by this and because "her work may be seen as an act of loyalty to her departed father." (x) To achieve the relationship with the land which she does, Alexandra is forced to forgo the making of a personal life; though she has many close friendships within her household and the neighbouring farms, in Carl's absence she has no-one close to her who could rise to the status of confidante.
The generational slant to the practise of cultivating land emphasised in O Pioneers! highlights the fact that working on the land was for the immigrant farmers by necessity of inaptitude a hereditary practise. Cather makes the point that could John Bergson rise from his grave 16 years after he passed into it, "he would not know the country under which he has been asleep" (page 45). Equally, "in the eleven long years [he] had made but little impression upon the wild land he had come to tame. It was still a wild thing that had its ugly moods; and no one knew when they were likely to come or why." (page 17) The first generation immigrants were generally unsuccessful at crop production, because they lacked the rural background and skills of a previous generation (being by previous employment manual tradesmen themselves); there is a feeling, then, that farming in the new territory actively required a process of failure which would lead to progress through the settlers learning from their mistakes. It was neither achieved nor possible to come to an understanding of the land within a single lifetime. This maturation, personal growth and building of experience parallels human life and relationships, especially in the way that memory of hardship and loss hardens the heart against change. It effectively destroys the qualities of the pioneering spirit and the quest for that which is new, in favour of the known.
The two Bergson brothers are little better than sheep in their incessant following of trends: Lou argues at the first sign of wavering prosperity, "It's too high to farm here. All the Americans are skinning [selling] out" (page 36.) It is important to note here that Lou's concept of what an American is is not only a social conformist, but a self-proclaimed expert in the taking of financial risks. As a pair, "they did not mind hard work, but they hated experiments and could never see the use of taking pains." In particular, "Lou ... disliked to do anything different from their neighbours. He felt that it made them conspicuous and gave people a chance to talk about them." (page 30) This piece of narrative reveals that it is Lou's inherent insecurities, covered for with a bluster of macho cynicism, are what holds him back from connecting usefully with the land—he and his brother lack what Cather had defined as the pioneering spirit. It is Emil who represents "the open face of the country [rising] to meet the sun". (page 46) Randall comes to the conclusion that "the expressed view of the land is a reflection of the beholder and reveals what his relationship with the soil will be", an assessment which damns Lou's brother Oscar even further, for Oscar's love of routine "amounted to a vice. He worked like an insect, always doing the same thing over in the same way, regardless of whether it was best or no" (page 35) "He liked to begin his corn-planting at the same time every year, whether the season were backward or forward." (also page 35.) The brothers have an unfortunately typical-of-the-era male approach to the problem-solving exercise of farming; that sweat and toil alone will get them anywhere. Whilst in some situations this may arguably be true, it is Alexandra's shrewdness that has saved the family from squandering its money in crops which failed when put to the test on neighbouring farms. Their personal philosophy is a huge limiting factor in their development.
Cather makes a push to resolve her most pertinent philosophical point when the question is posed as to whether Alexandra or Lou and Oscar's way is ultimately of more value. In terms of material value, at least, she ascertains within her own mind that "the land belongs to the future ... I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother's children. We come and go, but the land is always here." What matters not to Cather, as she argues ought to be the case in any person's mind, is the accumulation of material wealth past the point required to allow financial comfort and the persual of happiness. Money does not equal happiness, although it is necessary to achieve personal freedom and responsibility for oneself. Happiness is also not to be found in the dynamism of human relationships (two couples are sundered in the course of the novel, three deaths within the common net of love.) Even Marie is certain, though in ambivalent hope, of love, "[It] won't last. It will go away." What is left then, but a self-worth propped up by a substitute form of relationship with a land which can grant an eternity of love in return for care in this life? Immortality is available, Cather argues in her concluding paragraph; "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!" (page 170) Alexandra herself is perhaps unaware of this metaphysical process; however, she is living it—and she is as unsure of the meaning of existence as the author herself. The character of Alexandra Bergson represents in no small way the author's search for this meaning, and during the course of the text comes to some important conclusions; the principal one being contained within the quotation selected for this essay title. It is intended as a Joycean epiphany; in Alexandra's face "there was that exalted serenity that sometimes came to her at moments of deep feeling." (page 170) She has 'clear eyes' (same page), with the inference being that she sees clearly now above all other times of realisation. It follows from her life and story that the land is a metaphor for nature, which is intrinsically bound up in the experience of human life.
O Pioneers, Willa Cather, Oxford University Press, 1999.
The Landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather's Search for Value, John H. Randall III, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, The Riverside Press Cambridge, 1960.
All quotes taken from the set text unless otherwise noted.
1. Back cover copy of O Pioneers!
2. Randall, page 68
3. Randall, page 291
4. Randall, page 20
5. Randall, page 72
6. Randall, page 67