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O, Pioneers!
by Willa Cather

ForumId UserId Subject PostDate TimesRead Anonymous Body 14 133 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 06/15/1999 5:38:14 PM 111 0 "O Pioneers! is the book for the July discussion on Classics Corner. This is the third Cather book that we have discussed here. The other two were My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Both were popular selections. The novel is only a little over 200 pages. I hope many of you will join us.

Following is a review from

O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather's first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier -- and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather's heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra's devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself.

At once a sophisticated pastoral and a prototype for later feminist novels, O Pioneers! is a work in which triumph is inextricably enmeshed with tragedy, a story of people who do not claim a land so much as they submit to it and, in the process, become greater than they were.

" 14 133 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 06/29/1999 7:13:43 PM 112 0 "Edd,
I'm glad you liked O Pioneers!. I started it last night after work, intending to spread it out over the next few nights. I couldn't put it down and ended up finishing it last night before I went to bed. I felt compelled to read on, even though I have seen this work dramatized and retained in my faulty memory the bare bones of the plot. Cather is a wonderful story teller, and I think this will prove one of our most popular CC selections this year--that and Austen's PERSUASION, which is coming up in August and which I absolutely loved.

I'm sure there must be many other novels about the land and the people who struggled to subdue it. The only one that comes to mind right now is Cather's My ANTONIA. From what I have read, Cather originally started out trying to imitate the writing of Henry James and Edith Wharton. She found her own voice only when she wrote about the immigrant settlers of her childhood in Nebraska in this book. Apparently, it was very unusual at the time to write so enthusiastically about the Midwest --heck, hardly anyone does that even today. The popular novelists of her day also wrote about ""society"" and Cather's choice of poor immigrant farmers as heroes made her story unique.

I really enjoyed Dancing at the Rascal Fair too. Reading books like this really give you an appreciation for the courage of these immigrants, doesn't it? Cather emphasizes the loneliness, which must have been horrible at times. Alexandra says she has only had two friends in her life. Cather also points out that most of these settlers were craftsmen or tradesmen in their own countries and had little knowledge of farming, which made their lives even tougher. She does make this area of Nebraska sound like a rural paradise by the time Alexandra is done whipping things into shape, which frankly surprised me. I guess I need to check out Webster County, Nebraska the next time I am in the vicinity.

What did you think of Alexandra as a literary character? My copy of O Pioneers! was published by the University of Nebraska and edited by Rosowski, Mignon, and Danker. The Historical Essay by David Stouk in this edition says that by the end of the book ""she becomes a larger-than-life figure of myth, a corn goddess."" (This reference to a corn goddess, in a book published a university whose team name is the Cornhuskers, may not surprise everyone).

I personally felt that the most original and truest character was Frank.

What did you think of Alexandra's visit to Frank at the end of the book? Why was she so willing to forgive Frank and condemn Marie?

What kind of odds would you give on Alexandra and Carl living happily ever after?

" 14 286 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 06/29/1999 8:15:38 PM 110 0 "I also finished this book quickly and it held my attention all the way through. It was the first thing I have read by Cather who I have always meant to pick up. To my disappointment I was underwhelmed by O Pioneers! I was spellbound by the first quarter of the book and the beautiful haunting descriptions of the country and the hardships of pioneer farm life. I'm afraid I became unconvinced when the more ""modern"" part started and the plot thickened.

I agree that Frank was perhaps the most believable character.


Frankly, the visit of Alexandra to the prison was mystifying to me. I either missed the development of her motivation or there wasn't any. Alexandra certainly didn't seem to be a spokeswoman for conventional morality earlier in the book yet she seemed to condemn the (at least to me) understandable sad attraction of the two young victims.

" 14 22 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 06/30/1999 8:44:49 PM 110 0 "Bea,
I had a similar reaction to yours. I loved the first part of the book, but then I was a little surprised when sixteen years passed by with the flip of a page and presto chango the land has completely changed. I would have liked to have seen some of that change take place. I was surprised by Alexandra's reaction to Frank, too. I thought Cather did an excellent job portraying him, but I can't abide that kind of man. He needs to be the center of attention, he needs to be the smartest, know the most. I couldn't emphasize with his resentment of Marie's being happy. He seemed to cause his own problems, and wanted other people to cater to him. How Alexandra could understand his reaction is puzzling to me. Maybe she needed to have someone weaker to take care of. I was unsatisfied with the ending.
In answer to someone's question about whether the marriage of Carl and Alexandra would last: I think it would. They certainly didn't seem to be hindered with outrageous expectations.
I loved the writing, though. There are several passages I marked, but I don't have the book with me right now. Later I will post some of my favorites.
" 14 133 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 06/30/1999 10:23:46 PM 112 0 "WARNING PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW

I thought that Frank was the perfect picture of a depressive personality. This sentence below describes his problem:

""His unhappy temperament was like a cage; he could never get out of it; and he felt that other people, his wife in particular, must have put him there."" (p. 234, chapter 6)

Frank feels unhappy. He assumes there must be a reason; therefore he looks for someone to blame. Of course, one could argue that he could just as well have turned the anger back on himself, as many do. Others do not, however, and I recognize Frank's type all too well.

Alexandra views him as the victim of circumstances, and more particularly of his ""bad"" wife Marie. Emil is her brother, but she is so much older that he really functions more as her son, an even closer relationship. She can't find it in her heart to blame Emil, so she has to focus her anger on Marie, her former friend. She says Marie is one of only two friends she has had in her entire life. The sense of betrayal must have been horrible. Since the tragedy is basically Marie's fault, she also sees Frank as a victim.

End of amateur psychoanalysis. That's the only way I can begin to explain to myself her visit to the prison at the end. Cather tries to turn her heroine into some kind of saint, and it doesn't ring true. I liked her better, when she was young, inexperienced, and uncertain.

I felt that the characters Emil and Marie were well drawn. I would have preferred to see them ride off into the sunset together, leaving Frank to make some other poor soul miserable. Maybe Cather was afraid a book like that wouldn't sell. Maybe her own moral sensibilities wouldn't let her contemplate such an ending.

What did you all think of the older brothers?

" 14 64 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 07/01/1999 8:22:47 AM 115 0 "Alexandra's reaction to Frank, Emil, & Marie is related to the whole sense of community theme which I find is very strong in Cather. Emil & Marie did one of the most disruptive things you could do to a community, and Alexandra reaches out to Frank in an attempt to bring him back into the community.

There's a lot of stoicism in Alexandra where you endure what can't be cured and never break up the community. I'm not sure that Cather is holding this up as an ideal, but she does seem to see it as a norm in pioneer communities.
" 14 224 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 07/01/1999 8:52:49 AM 117 0 "Reading O Pioneers! right after Therese Raquin was quite a contrast. It's hard to imagine more different environments than the claustrophobic Paris of Zola and the endless open spaces of Cather's Nebraska.

Yet, every time I read about the two older brothers, Oscar and Lou, I kept getting the impression that they would have fit in perfectly playing dominos every Thursday night at the Raquins.

Cather is celebrating the pioneer spirt, the soul of the adventurer willing to take risks and seek new experiences. While the land does inspire Alexandria to be a pioneer, not everyone living in the land becomes a pioneer. Individuals in O Pioneers! can choose to grow beyond their everyday situation, something the characters in Therese Raquin can never do.


" 14 286 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 07/01/1999 9:25:51 AM 119 0 "David -

Your description of the two older brothers fitting right into Mme Raquin's domino party was spot on! I can see them now.

" 14 268 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 07/01/1999 10:45:13 AM 119 0 "Hi! I've been lurking for a couple of months and looking forward to joining in on a discussion. I am so happy to find a bunch of people who, like me, are crazy about reading!

After studying a little bit about Cather's works, I think Cather believes that the immigrants were successful in settling the wild west not because they conquered the land but because they submitted to it. I think Cather would argue that the idea of the American Dream is more mythical than factual and that many of the immigrants' successes came at a price.

Alexandra is a perfect example of one who submits to both her heritage and to the land.
She prospers because she honors her father's wishes and respects the land. This success does not always make her happy. In the end of chapter IV, part II she expresses her dissatisfaction with the hard work and states it would not be worth it if in the end she could not give Emil the freedom to live any life he chooses. The irony of this is, of course, Emil, with his freedom of choice and freedom from responsibility, is desperately unhappy, has no purpose, and wants what he can't have.

Marie is one of the wild creatures so often mentioned in this book. She is connected to the land by her wild, passionate, expressive nature. Notice how often she is outside. Alexandra calls her ""a little brown rabbit"" and Carl calls her ""a charming creature.""

The scene where Emil and Marie are duck hunting foreshadows their ill-fated relationship. Having been spoiled by his upbringing, Emil does not respect nature and shoots the wild duck. Marie immediately regrets that they have harmed a wild creature but he has no remorse. It is this same attitude that allows him to believe he has a right to Marie.

I believe Alexandra readily forgives Frank because she has a spiritual revelation in which she ""knew at once it was the arms of the mightiest of all lovers"" which supports her. It is after this dream that she resolves to visit Frank.

My question for you is: Who do you think Alexandra blames the most for the deaths? Do you think she blames herself at all?
" 14 133 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 07/02/1999 8:36:10 AM 106 0 "Laura,
Welcome to Classics Corner! I really enjoyed your perceptive note. You have definitely found the right place.

Can you tell us a little about your reading tastes? Are you especially interested in the classics? If so, I hope you have checked out our reading list for the rest of the year. In December of every year I compile a list of readers' suggestions of books to read for the coming year and then we vote on them. So if there are any classics out there (and sometimes we stretch the definition a little - g-) that you would like to read and discuss, please keep that in mind.

I agree with you that Cather thinks the characters must submit to, rather than conquer the land. She tends to personify ""the land"" and makes it one of the main protagonists in her story. It is more true to say that the land ""owns"" Alexandra than the opposite. In speaking of her brothers' desire that she will her land to their children she says:

Suppose I do will my land to their children, what difference will it make? The land belongs to the future, Carl; that's the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk's plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brothers' children.

Alexandra is one of those old fashioned people who do their duty and sacrifice their own freedom for others. Do you think there are many like her around today? That sense of community that Jim spoke about could also be seen as a cultural constraint on behavior that has broken down in our own day. Maybe we have more freedom as a result, maybe not. I think it is interesting that Alexandra equates freedom with loneliness. She says to Emil, ""freedom so often means that one isn't needed anywhere.""

One of the disadvantages of this close knit community, of course, is its tendency to reject anyone who is different. The subplot of Ivar, whom Aexandra's brothers wanted to lock up in the state asylum because he was strange, shows this. That social cohesion sounds comforting, but sometimes you have to give up too much for it.

Good point about the irony of Alexandra giving up her own freedom so that Emil could have choices, which did not make him happy.

Who did I think that Alexandra blamed most for the deaths? Emil, who is the repository of her hopes and dreams for the future, escapes blame. As for Frank, ""Being what he was, she felt, Frank could not have acted otherwise. She could understand his behavior more easily than she could understand Marie's."" She feels very strongly that Marie has betrayed her. (""I would have been cut to pieces, little by little, before I would have betrayed her trust in me!"") However, being the saintly person that she is, she accepts a share of the blame herself because she was oblivious to their attraction and threw them together so much.

Laura, I take it that you interpret that strong character in her dreams as God. Is that correct? I think you could be right. When I read it, however, I interpreted it as death.

And David, you have described the social gathering from hell -- Thursday evenings at the Raquins with the Lou and Oscar thrown in for good measure. The atmosphere of THERESE RAQUIN and O PIONEERS is totally different, but they share a theme -- the wages of sin are death.


" 14 39 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 07/02/1999 6:11:22 PM 103 0 "I'm a bit behind on this book right now, so I'm avoiding the notes till I finish (which would be sooner if I didn't spend so much time here at CR!) But I read the acknowledgment last night, which pays tribute to Sarah Orne Jewitt, and I wondered if any of you have read her ""Country of the Pointed Firs"" yet? I got that out of the library when I was 12, and my mother grabbed it first and fell in love with it. I recently found it at the bookstore but haven't reread it. I'm bound to squeeze it in after O!Pioneers!

" 14 109 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 07/03/1999 1:27:30 AM 103 0 "I read the book last night. I'd read it before, but so long ago, this was almost like a first reading. I enjoyed it, but two things are bothering me. Well, three, if you consider the ending.

First of all, I found Alexandra to be strangely passive in everything save the farm. For one painted as such a strong character, she seemed oddly content with her lot in life, and unwilling to reach out for what she wanted (other than land).

Also, if the land itself is the central character in the novel, as many of you have pointed out, and as it well could be, then I find the 16 year gap between Alexandra's decision to acquire more land, and her success to be a central gap in the story. Why, if the land, and the difficulty of discovering how to farm it, what it wanted, so to speak, are so central to the novel, are we left in the dark about the whole process?

Books are cheaper than wallpaper
" 14 268 JULY DISCUSSION: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 07/03/1999 2:09:17 AM 109 0 "Hi Anne, thanks for the warm welcome! I am drawn to the classics more than contemporary works; however, if I can ever get on the same page as those of you in Constant Reader, I will join a discussion.

In my previous comment I asked who Alexandra blamed for the deaths--but, I think I'm more puzzled about what Cather's perspective is. Alexandra apparently blames Emil and Marie more than Frank, and Marie more than Emil. Yet, I don't think Cather has created Marie to be culpable. Cather continually shows a connection between Marie and the wild landscape; her involvement with Emil is the nothing more than the result of her following her own nature.

So what's Cather's perspective? Is it Alexandra who is truly at fault for the lovers' deaths? She directs Lou and Oscar to accept their heritage and stay on the land, and, despite their flaws, they prosper too. On the other hand, Alexandra gives Emil the freedom of choice and the freedom from responsibility and look what happens.

Anne, I guess the reason I thought Alexandra dreams about God is because her dream reminds me of the poem ""Footprints in the Sand."" Now, I can see how you interpreted the figure as Death. Whatever the case, the significance of the dream seems to change for Alexandra; she tells Carl, ""I had a dream before I went to Lincoln....It will never come true, now, in the way I thought it might."" I wish I understood this. Like Ruth and others, I am discontent with the ending.

" 14 80 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 06/15/1999 8:51:08 PM 91 0 "Well, I think this is a sign that I need to give Willa Cather another try. I read Death Comes to the Archbishop in college, and I think my hostility for my professor projected itself onto Cather's novel. I just didn't like it.

But I have a few gray hairs now and the dreaded professor is a distant memory, so I'll give Willa Cather another go.

" 14 80 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 06/18/1999 12:32:50 PM 99 0 "I must say I'm feeling very penitent now and I'm glad I hopped into Cather again.

I won't discuss until the appropriate time, but after my last posting I just had to announce that I gobbled up O Pioneers in 2 days and I loved it.

" 14 133 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 06/18/1999 5:04:58 PM 99 0 "I'm glad to hear it, Elaine. Personally, I liked MY ANTONIA much more than DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP, although I did think the latter book had some breathtaking descriptions of the landscape. So maybe it wasn't entirely the teacher's fault that you didn't like it.

I'm looking forward to O, PIONEERS. Cather is pretty much an icon here in Nebraska. She spent her early childhood in Virginia and left Nebraska as an adult, but she did graduate from the University of Nebraska and based much of her work on this area of the country.


" 14 125 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 06/19/1999 9:10:54 AM 99 0 "Cather should be an icon in Nebraska. She makes the state sound just a little short of paradise even while people are committing suicide in dirt caves.

Do you ever feel that there might be more than a faint trace of Cather in Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone? Perhaps the whole midwest owes her a debt.
" 14 25 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 06/19/1999 11:57:25 AM 103 0 "I will definitely be here for O Pioneers though maybe a few days late because of vacation plans. I nominated this one and became a permanent Cather fan after reading My Antonia. After reading a biography of Cather, I decided that she's a pretty fascinating woman, as well, with all the imperfections I've come to expect.

I'm also close to finishing Therese Racquin, believe it or not. Sorry I've been so absent lately. I'm hoping to make up for it in late July and August.

Barb " 14 133 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 06/19/1999 7:30:47 PM 100 0 "Well, paradise could be stretching it just a tad (-G-), but Nebraska has its good points. Cather was able to see great beauty in a landscape that many consider boringly monotonous. When I came back from Japan in 1975, I was totally overwhelmed by those wide open spaces of the Midwest myself.

Hmm, the only connections I see between Lake Woebegone and Cather country are the salt of the earth inhabitants (just ask us) and the nostalgic, slightly wistful air used to describe both places. Of course, Cather, high tailed it out of Nebraska as a young woman. Maybe absence made the heart grow fonder.

" 14 63 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 06/19/1999 10:44:49 PM 104 0 "ANN

Isn't Warren Buffet one of your ""salt-of-the-earth"" guys? Say hello for me next time you run into him.

" 14 148 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 06/20/1999 2:06:02 AM 107 0 "I checked this book out of the library this afternoon, and read half of it in a couple of hours. Cather is a wonder at deft description - I can really ""see"" each of her characters, as well as the landscape they live in.

I read Death Comes for the Archbishop before CR (like BC/AD - BCR/PCR maybe?) and loved it. I do think Death Comes . . . is the more accomplished novel - it is like a complicated, multi=layered fugue, while O Pioneers is a lovely, well-wrought melody.

I did note the mention of the mile long plough furrows, straight as an arrow. Well, we know where all that wonderful top soil is going to end up, don't we?

" 14 133 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 06/20/1999 9:51:15 AM 111 0 "Edd,
I'll be sure and say ""hi"" the next time I see Warren. So far, I've only run into him once, at the Nebraska Furniture Mart (largest furniture store under one roof in the world -- or is that the United States?) which his company owns. He lives pretty simply in a nice house in an older neighborhood -- far more modest than you would ever expect. We do have ""mansions"" here, but Warren doesn't live in one. He sent his children to the same public high school my kids attend, and he is a big supporter of public education. Every year he gives $10,000 grants to about 15 outstanding teachers in the public schools. He came out publicly for the big bond issue which Omaha passed this spring to end busing for integration and provide very large sums to renovate the schools in the older parts of the city and set up more magnet schools.

I could kick myself every time I remember that my husband wanted to invest in his company when the shares were only $17,000 each. That would have taken almost our entire savings and I thought it was too ""risky."" Yes, and I will be happy to give free financial advice to anyone who asks.

Theresa, I guess all that good top soil blew over into Iowa during the dust storms of the thirties, because there's none left. I am constantly adding amendments to the gluey clay we have here in eastern Nebraska. Western Nebraska has the sand hills, so it's no better. Landscape descriptions are usually not my thing, but I did appreciate the wonderful images Cather conjured up in DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP, which I read WCC (with Classics Corner). The plot and characters seemed too simplistic, however. Maybe I've grown cynical over the years.


" 14 63 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 06/29/1999 3:09:54 AM 114 0 "ANN

I finished O PIONEERS! and am most suitably impressed. When I finished, I knew that I had just finished a great piece of writing. And a slice of history, now mostly forgotten and most likely not appreciated.

Also, I was thinking of books written about settling the land in the same period. DANCING AT THE RASCAL FAIR by Ivan Doig, that we reviewed a while ago. And another is THE OCTOPUS by Frank Norris. In all, it was the land that was all important, not to mention the weather. There must be lost of others. Anybody?

" 14 130 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/04/1999 11:02:07 PM 68 0 "greetings to all in CLASSIC CORNER..
happen to be passing by...
i don't get aroundmuch anymore...sounds like a song:-)) however in one of the NEW YORKERS last year.. there was a lengthy article on WILLA CATHER... wow...what a DAME!!

i remember cutting it out... and keeping it amongst my important papers...OKAY BIG MOUNTAINS OF CLUTTER!!!

if you remember or get a chance to go to the library.. i am sure you can obtain the issue.. it truly is worth the time!!
gail...a passionate reader who was blown away when i read her life story...

" 14 64 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/05/1999 11:08:42 AM 71 0 "The one good Cather article from The New Yorker is preserved in The Best American Essays of 1996 .

As far as the gaps in Cather's narrative, this seems to me to be the message. Everyday life on a farm is just too mundane to merit comment, sort of like the marriage to Carl. It was something Alexandra decided that she might as well do, not the pinnacle of her life.

I don't know that Cather sees Alexandra as necessarily a model human being. To me she is just trying to show what the pioneer women were like.
" 14 107 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/05/1999 11:16:35 PM 71 0 "I have a Villa Cather collection and expected to include the O Pioneer story. Well, I was wrong but was able to get the correct book at the library. I will sure try to get some of the biographical material that you people mentioned. I am surprised that Death Comes to the Archbishop got a number of negative comments since I considered it a fine piece of work and a bit different from most of her other writing. My impression was that it was broader based than some of her other books.

The other day at a 4th July party I got to talking to a foreign lady who had degrees in world literature and asked her if V.C was known in Germany. She thought for a while and said that she could not remember ever having heard the name. Well that is not too unexpected.

Having experienced the US and especially the Midwest as a foreign immigrant in my teens I was especially impressed by Cather's feel and description of the countryside and the people who worked so hard to maintain themselves and their family. Also her descriptions of a Cech farm family really touched me. Well Villa will hold your interest, has something to say and knows the people she grew up with. I see her as a true rural American quite different from Dreiser who knew his Cities and the people who lived there.
Hey, did CC ever look at Dreiser, American Tragedy or Sister Carry?
Sorry I have not been more active with CC lately, too many things going on at the same time. But, as before I shall try harder to contribute.
" 14 148 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/06/1999 2:11:17 AM 80 0 "Welcome, Laura. Your comments were very interesting, I hope you will join us for other selections.

Ernie, I agree with you about Death Comes for the Archbishop. It is surface-simple, but really a very complex book.

I was not as surprised as the rest of you that Alexandra visited Frank (?) in prison. I think it was a natural thing for someone of her personality and experience. I think she saw all three (Marie, Emil and Frank) as co-participants in a tragedy, that she felt some responsiblity for that tragedy, and reached out to the only one left alive to reach out to.

" 14 76 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/08/1999 3:23:47 PM 70 0 "My musing about O, Pioneers this morning, before I started reading this thread, concerned Alexandra's inability to experience or even understand passion. It seemed to me that the emotion that the lovers felt for each other was very foreign to her and because she couldn't understand it, (yet she could understand Frank's response to them) it was easy for her to forgive Frank and blame Marie. When you don't understand something, but do have doctrine that suggests the ""correct attitiude"" to have toward that concept it is then easy to accept the doctrine. Alexandra seemed to see the passion that burned in Marie and to be pulled into it, but at the end she recognizes it as Marie's undoing -- ""Was there, then, something wrong in being warm-hearted and impulsive like that?"" -- Notice that it is the couple who was pulled together solely by friendship and knows no passion that remains at the end.

I reread the part about the the man who carries Alexandra. My initial reaction was that it was God who she would meet when she died, but after rereading it I think that it probably is Death. Her father seemed to welcome the peace that Death offered in the beginning. There are four death's discussed in the book, John's, Amedee's, Emil's and Marie's. (The death of the mother was ignored).

I read this last night, and am still going back over some of the parts I hazed over. I liked her simple forward style, but I'm still confused as to what Cather wanted us to learn from her tale. Dawn
" 14 109 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/08/1999 8:16:17 PM 68 0 "Dawn,I agree that Cather's central theme seems a bit muddled. Especially in regards to the dream Alexandra has about a man who carries her. Can anybody tell me what that added to the book? For the life of me, I don't think the book would have been any different without it.

Books are cheaper than wallpaper
" 14 25 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/09/1999 12:49:11 PM 69 0 "I read O Pioneers! in about 24 hours after returning home from Europe and keeping my husband company in his food poisoning misery (see note on the Salon). As I was reading it, it struck me that Cather is a ""comfort author"" for me, as we discussed on a Constant Reader thread. I don't naturally ponder her themes, symbolism, connections, etc. a great deal. Instead, I tend to just let it wash over me, leaving a very peaceful feeling.

A few years ago, I read a memoir regarding Cather written by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant who was a long-time companion of Cather's. If I remember correctly, Sarah Orne Jewett was the author who inspired Cather to stop imitating James and Wharton and write about the things she really knew, such as the mid-west. I've read that Jewett's writing is somewhat tedious and that Cather far surpassed her. However, I may read her eventually, simply out of curiosity regarding that connection. I know that Cather had infinite respect for her and it seems to me that they became friends.

My father and mother both grew up in Nebraska so reading Cather is always a bit like coming home. And, I probably see it with some of the same gloss since my memories involve the fable-like stories my parents told and visits I made as a child and adult. The initial Wild Land section brought instant memories of my father's stories. His family were extremely poor farmers who moved there from Kentucky around the turn of the century. It was hard to get him to talk about those days until he got older. I think he was somewhat ashamed of his poor beginnings and would rather talk about my mother's relatively affluent family. However, when I read about struggling farm families, his stories come back with extraordinary clarity. If I understood Cather's dates, the initial period coincides with his boyhood. And, the second section coincides with the period when my grandfather finally began to have a little money, as my father was leaving. On his visits to me in Michigan, we always went through Henry Ford Museum which includes a huge section of farm implements. He stood looking at the technology that evolved in the 30's and said ""You know, I probably would never have left the farm if this had been available was I was growing up"" and would then show me some of the back-breaking implements they used when he was a boy. He also told me a number of times that he felt strongly that his mother (who was a diabetic and died relatively young) ""worked herself to death"" because of the hours she spent working in the fields and the house. My mother's family began with more money, but struggled and prospered as well and remind me a great deal of Alexandra. All of this may explain why it's particularly a comfort book for me.

" 14 25 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/09/1999 3:25:40 PM 66 0 "After my previous somewhat self-indulgent note, I wanted to add a few more specifics. One of my impressions of Cather's writing has been that she excels at descriptive writing, both of places and of people. However, she doesn't excel at describing relationships or at writing dialogue. However, I enjoy her doing the former enormously and she's not really awful at doing the latter so it's ""all good"" as my youngest son says.

I thought her description of Frank's personality and character, particularly his relationship with Marie was absolutely masterful. And, I thought this was one time that Cather had enormous insight into a relationship. Also, I don't think that Cather, herself, wanted to assign blame to anyone in Frank/Marie/Emil tragedy. It was simply one of the human stories that emerges and reflects the differing effects of living where they did. I also thought, as someone else earlier posted, that Alexandra resolved to help Frank because he was the only one left, the only one that she could help.

This lack of physical passion in Alexandra is an interesting factor in Cather's writing. In My Antonia, there is this same dynamic of old friends (one male and one female) who meet each other again in the end and there is this same implication that their relationship is deeper, without the complicating factor of physical passion. It may say something about Cather's own feelings on this subject. There has been much speculation that she may have been gay, but almost as much thought that she might have been somewhat asexual. Sorry to introduce this biographical speculation into the discussion but I can't resist.

Some of my favorite parts of this story concerned her descriptions of the western personality. She described Ivar (maybe my favorite character in the book) as disliking ""the litter of human dwellings"". She describes Carl as a boy as follows: ""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.""

I also liked her description of Lou and Oscar as being ""...meant to follow in paths already marked out for them, not to break trails in a new country."" She then goes on to say ""A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves."" I think this probably describes Alexandra and foreshadows how she will react to her ultimate success.

" 14 76 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/11/1999 12:18:56 PM 63 0 "Barb,
Thanks for the rumors about Cather's sexuality or lack of it. I got both of those feelings about Alexandra - sorta that she had feelings for Marie that she didn't understand and felt that she had been betrayed as much as Frank had been. It seemed to me that she felt that Marie had ""done this"" to them and became Frank's ally since they were both Marie's ""victims"" (don't take those words too strongly - all of these were small undercurrents).
Alexandra wanted Marie's life to stay stagnant, she didn't want hear about problems with the marriage either. One of the scenes that touched me the deepest was when they were talking about Alexandra's maids getting married,

Alexandra ""---- Now that I think of it most of my girls have married men they were afraid of. I believe there is a good deal of the cow in most Swedish girls. You high strung Bohemians can't understand us. We're a terribly practical people, and I guess we think a cross man is a good manager.""
Marie shrugged her shoulders and turned to pin up a lock of hair that had fallen on her neck. Somehow Alexandra had irritated her of late.

Can you imagine your best friend not recognizing that your husband was very , very cross and telling you that you weren't practical? I'm sure Marie left wondering why she bothered to smile and keep up the front at all. i don't think that Marie could continue very much longer. (For a view of where I think she was headed read TRIFLES by Susan Glaspell.)

I haven't read a lot of Cather - I guess I want her to tell me what she thinks but she only tells what happened - no one character speaking for her.


" 14 133 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/13/1999 9:29:35 PM 77 0 "I've been away on vacation, and its a pleasure to return and find all of these notes. As usual, people brought up things that didn't occur to me, which is why I so enjoy reading books with you all. For example, Alexandra does indeed seem unable to understand sexual passion, which, of course effects her whole outlook on the tragedy. Also, as Barb pointed out, Alexandra is more inclined to assign blame than her creator. Cather seems to see all of these characters as acting according to their natures, fulfilling their almost inevitable fate.

Laura, I am not familiar with the poem, ""Footprints in the Sand."" If you have a copy handy and could post it, I would be interested in reading it.

Cather's sexuality is an interesting issue. When we first read MY ANTONIA here, I did a bit of biographical research. Cather went through a period where she signed her name ""Will"" as a kid and liked to dress in boys clothes, which didn't prove much to me other than that she probably correctly determined that it would be a whole lot more exciting and liberating to be a boy than a girl in her day. However, in the book I scanned there was also a picture of her when she was a young woman with a very definite man's haircut and a dress. This did strike me as unusual.

Cather lived with women friends, but her privacy was very important to her. Nobody know what her sexual orientation was. As Barb, said , she may have been asexual. At any rate, from what I have read, she would have been appalled at lesbians openly proclaiming her one of their own, which has, of course, happened.
" 14 64 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/14/1999 8:20:33 AM 58 0 "One of the themes I get from Cather is an admiration of the dogged day-to-day-ness that it takes to accomplish things. Alexandra is no Scarlett O'Hara shaking her fist at the heavens while she vows never to be poor again. Instead she takes a trip and figures out what kind of seed she needs to plant.

Living at that low-key level has its limitations as well, and perhaps that's the point of the Frank and Marie story.
" 14 39 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/14/1999 6:07:25 PM 59 0 "I think this ""dogged day-to-dayness"" was at the core of many pioneers. Alexandra did not have the time to deal in passion and frivolities, she was too busy keeping the family afloat and keeping the farm running. certainly none of her brothers could've accomplished this. She never had the luxury of romance in her youth, and probably had less appreciation for it as an adult.

My grandmother was a pioneer, I guess you could say. Complete with a covered wagon trip from Washington to North Dakota when she was a child. She grew up in a soddy, and was familiar with the trials of prairie life. She didn't marry till age 29...very late for her generation, and I doubt there was much passion in here marriage. There became a tolerance and love over time, but she was not a passionate woman. Many pioneer women met their spouses and married them within days of that meeting, essentially having their ""honeymoon"" on the trail. A good book that chronicles this is Schlissel's ""Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey.""

That said, I admired Alexandra's determination and stoicism. And I was glad she found some companionship in her old age, though I wonder if most women of that era would have remained ""old maids.""

" 14 25 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/15/1999 12:25:37 PM 59 0 "Your points are well-taken, Jim and Anne. I definitely recognize that quality in my father. I would think that it's also present among people who have been very poor/hungry for long periods of time. Survival issues become their passion which has always explained my father's reverence for ""hard workers"" to me.

Cather, as an adult, also seemed to waver between fairly conservative beliefs and a feeling that women could do far more than was generally accepted. I wonder if she saw Alexandra's lack of a romantic relationship as the price she payed for her strength and individual success. That would have fit with the popularly held beliefs of the time in which she lived (and, more than I like to think, with current thought).

" 14 133 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/15/1999 7:04:27 PM 55 0 "Anne,
I think that ""old maids"" on the frontier were rather rare, don't you?

We tend to forget how relatively new this concept of marriage based on romantic passion really is. In some parts of the world, it is still not the norm. I work with some very bright young computer contractors from India. Their parents still pick out their wives for them. One guy is going home to India to get married in December. They are picking the girl out for him. His role in this is to decide from 5 pictures of the finalists. (I don't know about you, but personally, I shudder when I think of who my parents would have picked out for me.) As far as I can tell, most of the guys seem to take this for granted, although a friend told me about one of the rare Indian women who came as contractors. She had a guy picked out on her own, but her parents nixed the engagement because he was not of the proper caste. She ended up giving in and marrying their choice after she returned to India recently.

Alexandra's marriage, based on friendship and compatibility, doesn't sound so bad, considering that she such an old maid. (Ah, to be 40 again! - G -)

Barb, I agree with you about the work ethic of people who have grown up poor or gone through hard times. My parents never forgot the Depression.

" 14 107 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/18/1999 10:13:27 PM 48 0 "Well this is my third try at posting a note on Cather's O Pioneers. Actually I have little if anything to add to what other people have posted. So I will pass on some of my own reactions. First of all I very much liked the book because Cather created a very realistic picture of what it was like to farm and live at the time. The closeness to the earth and adjusting to the situation was of major interest to me. Cather did a fine job of it.

I felt that she was better in portraying women than men. Alexandra and Marie came across very true to life. Men like Frank, Emil and Carl seem less realistic but I wonder if other readers share my opinion. We recently read Death Comes For the Bishop which I liked as well. It seems a more mature and artistic work than O Pioneer.

I liked Alexandra and her outlook on life. I feel I understand her. She is just a very capable, nice and realistic woman who needed someone like Carl for balance There was an interesting paragraph when Carl rejected his way of life in the big city where the individual disappears among the masses. Alexandra disagreed and said she would like this, anonymity. This struck me as strange but may have expressed her desire for a more balanced life.

A comparison between this book and Zola's Therese Raquin would favor Cather, as far as I am concerned. Things are less pathological and more down to earth and that is what I like in Cather.
" 14 313 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/19/1999 9:42:36 PM 46 0 "Ernie,
I'm glad you enjoyed the book and persisted in getting your note posted. I think you folks in more populated areas have more trouble staying connected than we do in Nebraska. Since I got the cable modem, getting cut off hasn't been a problem at all, but I know cable connections to the internet aren't available everywhere for a reasonable price.

I agree with you about Carl not being a very well developed character. I also think Cather did a better job with Alexandra and Marie than with Emil. However, I really felt that she had Frank's personality down pat, possibly because I have known people like him -- angry, depressed, and lacking self-control.

Cather really makes me appreciate the courage of the people who settled this country. My own grandfather emigrated from Dubrovnik when he was a teenager. He married my grandmother, who was also from his village, by proxy. They had a saloon in the mining town of Lead, South Dakota, which they gave up for a grocery store after Prohibition was passed. They both died quite young and I never met them. To me, the hardest part of being a pioneer has always seemed to be the fact that you would never see your friends and family again. Of course, since you immigrated here yourself, you know a lot more about that than I do.


" 14 25 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/20/1999 7:12:48 AM 46 0 "Ernie,
I was glad you made that comment about Alexandra's reaction to the anonymity of the big city. Both that and her desire to give Emil a choice emphasized her ambiguous feelings about her choice to stay on the farm. She seemed to love Nebraska and the process of discovering how to make the farm prosper. However, when you think about it, she had no other choice. She was the only one in that family who was going to be able to do it after her father died. I wonder if this reflects some of Cather's ambiguous feelings about the mid-west. I don't think anyone could have written so beautifully about a place they didn't love...however, she sure didn't stay there.

I don't know what I think about the male vs. female question in the drawing of characters. Some of her characters were less complete than others, but I did think that she did a good job on Frank and the two brothers. I thought that I understood Carl, but not Emil.

After reading O Pioneers!, Death Comes For the Archbishop and My Antonia, I think that My Antonia is still my favorite though I've loved all three.

" 14 64 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/20/1999 11:16:46 PM 44 0 "Barb, it sounds like you've got to go for The Song of the Lark next. Lots of midwestern color here, but our farm girl goes to Chicago and becomes a great singer.

I've been reading the Library of America Cather Volume I over the past few years and just finished My Antonia. Next up is One of Ours, a war novel which won a Pulitzer and then was promptly forgotten. From what I've read, Cather's war scenes aren't too convincing.
" 14 25 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/21/1999 8:02:33 PM 46 0 "Have you read Song of the Lark, Jim? If so, do you recommend it? That's actually the one that I thought I should read next. In something I read about it, I think they said that the first half is very, very good, but the last half is a bit weak. I'm willing to read it for the first half if that's so.

" 14 64 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/21/1999 11:53:28 PM 45 0 "The first half is life on the farm, while the second half involves becoming a singer. If you like Cather for the country scenes, the first half is better. Actually, I thought it is was all entertaining, though not on the level of My Antonia.
" 14 25 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/22/1999 7:21:10 PM 44 0 "Thanks, Jim. Have you found anything else in your Cather reading that you would recommend other than O Pioneers, My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop?
" 14 107 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/22/1999 7:39:01 PM 45 0 "Hi Ann, Barb, Jim,
I was thinking about your comments. Has anyone read Doig's Dancing at the .... Fair? This is also about an immigrant who ended up settling in Montana. It contained an excellent description what the settlers were up against - especially during the winter. One of my neighbors and his mother come from Montana settler stock and we discussed this book at length.
I gave a lot of thought to Cather's own background and if she loved the land and the achievements of the pioneers who settled.

Ann, I sometimes wish that my initial experiences in the US would have been as settler on a piece of land. Instead my sister and I came to Chicago and my fate was factory work and night school. I tried my best to like what I had and did not permit my real feelings of disgust come to the surface. After all I was surviving and able to get my parents to come to the US. I was able to make many friends in Chicago and socially had a good time. Yet we lived a life close to poverty and then my father got ill and died within a year after he came to the US. So, when I was drafted in the army this was a step up and I enjoyed the military in spite of the phony discipline, etc.

Ann, if I got this right your grandparents came from the Dubrovnic area. I loved the little walled town when I was there perhaps 15 years ago. Everything about it was pretty , the narrow street and the houses with flowers by their doors and windows. I wonder if any of it has been destroyed during the civil war. This is a part of Europe that has been visited a great deal by Northern European especially Germans.
" 14 64 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 07/23/1999 8:35:49 AM 44 0 "Barbara, I've also read The Troll Garden which was a collection of Cather's short stories. The only one I recall was about a somewhat awkward rich woman who invited a group of artists to her home in a futile attempt to create a literary salon. Her reward was to have one of the writers go home and publish a cutting article about people like her. The others came and went without leaving a trace. My general feeling was that they were practice pieces rather than the heart of or her work.
" 14 67 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 08/08/1999 10:08:05 AM 36 0 "It has been characteristic of late for me to be reading inconstantly, a hiatus in my usual habit, due to health reasons that I won't go into. Therefore, what may have been a quick read has been drawn out over a month's time, which has afforded me an unexpected bonus: I have savored this lovely little book, dwelled upon its passages, and have nearly walked down the country roads while the book lay in my lap. O PIONEERS! hit a personal chord, creating meaning perhaps not intended by the author. But then, authorial intent is speculation, and personal meaning the right and reward of the reader.
One counterpointed melody of the story was the success of Alexandra's grounded practicality vs. the catastrophic fate of Emil and Marie's passion. It was toward the end of the book when Alexandra's bitterness tended to blame Marie, and Ivar believed that Emil was not in heaven, that my reaction was: no, no, no! Don't blame Emil and Marie. They were not wicked people. Something was wrong, but it wasn't them. Wouldn't it be more appropriate to blame the social and ecclesiastical tradition that would not let Marie and Frank Shabata admit their mistake and end their mutually destructive marriage and move on to better lives. Divorce was not an option for a Catholic couple in that setting. There was no physical or any other verifiable abuse that would merit a socially acceptable separation of the two. And yet the marriage was slowly killing them.
Emil and Marie seemed to be carefully crafted as individuals who were above reproach until they virtually gave up their lives under the mulberry tree. Their lingering under the tree was a fatalistic decision given the known volatility of Frank. I'll ruin my life since it's ruined without you anyway kind of thing.
It seems to me that the design of the novel is for the reader to be sympathetic to Emil and Marie. The vector of my outrage wants to bombard that nurturing, community embracing brick church on the hill, an impulse contradictory to the colorful and loving way it is portrayed. So, part of the meaning I derive from the novel is the ironic downside of even the sunniest of social structures.
Beyond that, and probably more important than that, was my love of Cather's prose, flowing like a breeze over the Nebraska divide.

" 14 286 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 08/08/1999 10:56:56 AM 34 0 "Great note, Robert. I think you point out a real advantage of reading slowly and inconstantly (though it's a shame that health problems were part of the cause). I was one of those that finished O Pioneers in a day and think I missed a lot as a result.

I share your feelings about Marie and Emil. I wasn't certain that their sad passion was even consummated. Emil seemed to be running away from the ""sin"" to which their love was leading. But Marie's marriage was doomed and no one was really to blame. Frank's depression and frustration just could not allow love to flourish.

You said it much better that I can. Thanks again.

" 14 313 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 08/08/1999 9:30:09 PM 30 0 "Robt,
I really enjoyed your note. The following particularly struck me:

""But then, authorial intent is speculation, and personal meaning the right and reward of the reader.""

Beautifully stated.

" 14 25 JULY DISCUSSION: O,Pioneers by Willa Cather 08/09/1999 6:28:57 AM 33 0 "That's a very insightful perspective, Robt. One of the joys of reading with all of you occurs when someone finds a key that unlocks another view of the book.

Cather tells a lot of this story through Alexandra's perspective and, when her reaction is condemnation, it's easy to assume that she speaks for the author. However, throughout the novel, she gives you so many other little hints of perspective that make that pat conclusion unsatisfactory. Your comments help me keep working on answers to the questions the story poses.

Also, I love what you said about one theme of the novel...Alexandra's grounded practicality vs. the catastrophic fate of Emil and Marie's passion...well stated.

I'm very glad you finished the book and shared your thoughts.




Willa Cather

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