Saturday, May 16, 2015

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

“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.”

Cather means this in multiple ways. First, there is the story of O Pioneers! itself. Sibling rivalry, unrequited love, a tragic crime of passion and its aftermath--the plot itself is as elemental as the human stories she cites, familiar to all except the characters living them.

Then there are the stories that frame the real lives of real people living in the real world. This meaning is, naturally, more ephemeral, less clearly present in the words of the novel, but there nonetheless. It is there in the way Carl describes his failure in the city.

“You see,” he went on calmly, “measured by your standards here, I’m a failure. I couldn’t buy even one of your cornfields. I’ve enjoyed a great many things, but I’ve got nothing to show for it all.”

“But you show for it yourself, Carl. I’d rather have had your freedom than my land.”

Freedom and land. Two stories that bind different people to different lives. Read on.

Carl shook his head mournfully. “Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. 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 tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the 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 theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.”

The down side of freedom. Nothing to ground you. Closer to the wonder, perhaps, but nothing to bind you to it. And lost in a sea of others just like you. Read on.

Alexandra was silent. She sat looking at the silver spot the moon made on the surface of the pond down in the pasture. He knew that she understood what he meant. At last she said slowly, “And yet I would rather have Emil grow up like that than like his two brothers. We pay a high rent, too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don’t move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I wouldn’t feel that it was much worth while to work. No, I would rather have Emil like you than like them. I felt that as soon as you came.”

The down side of land. Diligence and repetition. The chance to build something unique, perhaps, but at the expense of losing your ability to appreciate it. Read on.

“I wonder why you feel like that?” Carl mused.

“I don’t know. Perhaps I am like Carrie Jensen, the sister of one of my hired men. She had never been out of the cornfields, and a few years ago she got despondent and said life was just the same thing over and over, and she didn’t see the use of it. After she had tried to kill herself once or twice, her folks got worried and sent her over to Iowa to visit some relations. Ever since she’s come back she’s been perfectly cheerful, and she says she’s contented to live and work in a world that’s so big and interesting. She said anything as big as the bridges over the Platte and the Missouri reconciled her. And it’s what goes on in the world that reconciles me.

But there is a way to have both--to be grounded in one and aware of the other--and both Carrie Jensen and Alexandra Bergson have discovered it. And Alexandra, even more, I think, than Antonia Shimerdas, is Cather’s primordial creation of this loam-bound archetype. Cather describes her this way:

Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. Not many people would have cared to read it; only a happy few. She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times.

She is of the land. She has more success with it than her father or any of her brothers. And even her simple fantasies are bound up in it.

There was one fancy indeed, which persisted through her girlhood. It most often came to her on Sunday mornings, the one day in the week when she lay late abed listening to the familiar morning sounds; the windmill singing in the brisk breeze, Emil whistling as he blacked his boots down by the kitchen door. Sometimes, as she lay thus luxuriously idle, her eyes closed, she used to have an illusion of being lifted up bodily and carried lightly by some one very strong. It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew; he was much larger and stronger and swifter, and he carried her as easily as if she were a sheaf of wheat. She never saw him, but, with eyes closed, she could feel that he was yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him. She could feel him approach, bend over her and lift her, and then she could feel herself being carried swiftly off across the fields.

He is, of course, the land, and only he has the power to support and sustain her.

As she grew older, this fancy more often came to her when she was tired than when she was fresh and strong. Sometimes, after she had been in the open all day, overseeing the branding of the cattle or the loading of the pigs, she would come in chilled, take a concoction of spices and warm home-made wine, and go to bed with her body actually aching with fatigue. Then, just before she went to sleep, she had the old sensation of being lifted and carried by a strong being who took from her all her bodily weariness.

Her tie to the land is this strong. That even after working on it all day, it had the power to rejuvenate her both in body and spirit.

But if the novel is anything it is a lesson that things cannot work in reverse. Contentment can be found when one is grounded in the land and aware of the larger freedom of the world, but not when one tries to ground themselves in the freedom. That’s almost an oxymoron. Freedom has nothing for one to ground themselves in, and all the characters who cut themselves away from the land and seek freedom--Carl certainly, but, of course, Emil, most tragically--find no contentment at all.

And here is where the story of the novel merges with the universal stories of mankind. Emil is drawn to a woman of the land like his sister, but Marie Tovesky marries Frank Shabata, and Emil flees, first to University, then to Mexico, but the tie that Marie has around his heart keeps drawing him back.

“Are you sorry for me?” he [Emil] persisted.

“No, I’m not,” [Marie said]. “If I were big and free like you, I wouldn’t let anything make me unhappy. As old Napoleon Brunot said at the fair, I wouldn’t go lovering after no woman. I’d take the first train and go off and have all the fun there is.”

“I tried that, but it didn’t do any good. Everything reminded me. The nicer the place was, the more I wanted you.”

And when tragedy strikes, when they are drawn together and murdered by Marie’s husband, the good people of the land have trouble understanding it. Even Alexandra, who knows more than anyone else in the novel how important it is to be grounded, and about the different kinds of rent that people of different stories have to pay, feels a betrayal of an almost personal nature.

“Can you understand it, Carl?” Alexandra murmured. “I have had nobody but Ivar and Signa to talk to. Do talk to me. Can you understand it? Could you have believed that of Marie Tovesky? I would have been cut to pieces, little by little, before I would have betrayed her trust in me!”

Carl looked at the shining spot of water before them. “Maybe she was cut to pieces, too, Alexandra. I am sure she tried hard; they both did.”

Because, in the end, it is only Carl who can explain it to her. Carl, who himself had been ejected from the land by the fears of Alexandra’s brothers, who had spent years wandering aimlessly around the planet looking for something to fill the hole Alexandra had left in his heart. He can uniquely understand the pieces that people like Marie Tovesky and Emil Bergson can cut themselves into when they try to live lives that aren’t true to who and what the land has allowed them to be.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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