Willa Cather's O Pioneers! was her second published novel, although she, herself, preferred to consider it her first. She believed it was the first work in which she truly had found her own voice. The novel concerns homesteaders in Nebraska in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The protagonist is a woman, Swedish by birth, who has brought her land up to rich production and brought prosperity to her whole family. For the time the novel was written this was somewhat out of the ordinary but was beautifully done.
In order to begin with an unbiased view of the work, I read the book before reading any commentary on either it or its author. I was impressed by the way Cather set the mood in her story. Beginning with a Great Plains winter scene to backdrop what was happening in the Borgson family was perfect. The cold, the struggle just to get anywhere, the despair of knowing they were going to lose their father no matter what anyone did, is all reflected right there. This quality, this handling of the material follows all the way through the book. Cather's handling of her material is one facet I will address. The other facet will be how others look at O Pioneers! First to address how others look at her work and what they try to make it say. Also, because I have not read all her work, I will only relate my remarks to what I read, and where possible, repeat what others have said about any comparisons across the body of her work.
Though much is written about Willa Cather and her work, there is, by comparison, relatively little written specifically about O Pioneers! Much of what I have found is recent, relative to the novel which was published in 1913, and the authors appear to be trying to make the novel say things that just don't fit for its time and place. In many cases, this is especially true in the feminist commentary. An opening example: In an article from the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, the author, Marilee Lindemann uses these terms, " ... But the young gender-bender bravely continued to cross-dress, even in her first two years at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln." It makes it sound like Cather was a 1996 teen-ager who was consciously aware of what she was doing. According to Cather's biographer, Sharon O'Brein, the dressing and behaving like a male had to do with Cather's trying to sort out just what part of her heritage she wanted to identify with. She called herself William in honor of an uncle who had died in the Civil War. She was actually named after an aunt, Wilella, who died of diphtheria, but that wasn't the sort of identity this brilliant youngster wanted to be connected with. A soldier, dying bravely was more her style. She went so far as to change her name to Willa, in the family bible.
Another issue from the same article relates directly to O Pioneers! Lindemann says:
The "queerness" of Cather's texts -- if I might re-situate her term into a broader contemporary context that includes not only a range of sexual deviations (from whatever "norm" might be said to operate these days) but also a multifaceted sense of the subversive, the disruptive, the dissenting -- is manifest in at least three primary ways: first in their massive resistance to compulsory heterosexuality ... from her first novel (Alexander's Bridge, 1912) to her last (Sapphira and the Slave Girl, 1940), marriage -- the most visible sign of compulsory heterosexuality as a social institution -- is depicted in Cather's fiction as coercive and corrosive, a structure primarily to regulate desire by ensuring that it flows through "proper" channels. Marriage generally succeeds, however, not in regulating desire but in crushing it, twisting it -- or forcing it into improper channels outside of marriage. In Alexander's Bridge, O Pioneers!, and aLost Lady (1923) infidelity is the result of disappointment in marriage and in the first tow cases adultery leads directly to death.
I do not believe that a close reading of O Pioneers! supports these statements. First of all, while Cather does not in any way hide the state of the institution of marriage in her world, I don't see any particular condemnation of it. It seems obvious that she is well aware of the limitations marriage placed on a woman, and lesbian or not, to maintain the right to run her life as she saw fit, refusing to marry was the only answer. Her portrayal of the marriages of various family members and friends just are -- except of course, for Frank and Marie Shabata. However, the problems with that marriage are the problems created by an extremely selfish, self-centered, angry man who in Cather's words:
When Frank Shabata got home this night he found Emil's mare in his stable ....Like everybody else, Frank had had an exciting day. Since noon he had been drinking too much, and he was in a bad temper.
When Frank took up his gun and walked out of the house, he had not the faintest purpose of doing anything with it. He did not believe that he had any real grievance. But it gratified him to feel like a desperate man. He had got into the habit of always seeing himself in desperate straits. 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. It had never more than dimly occurred to Frank that he made his own unhappiness. (O P. 261)
Frank hears sounds in the orchard and blindly, unthinkingly fires the gun. Then he sees the two figures. He realizes almost immediately who the figures are, drops the gun and runs back toward the house, " ... where he was used to being soothed when he had worked himself into a frenzy ... " He takes Emil's horse and begins a panicked, hysterical ride to try and catch the train for Omaha. As he is riding, the thoughts going through his mind are almost entirely about how his shooting these two people is all Marie's fault.
Why had she been so careless? She knew he was like a crazy man when he was angry. She had more than once taken that gun away from him and held it when he was angry with other people ....But, when she knew him, why hadn't she been more careful?
Then for a brief spell, he stops and admits that Marie's looking elsewhere for comfort and gentleness was his fault. He admits that for three years he had been trying to break her spirit. "She had a way of making the best of things that seemed to him a sentimental affectation. He wanted his wife to resent that he was wasting his best years among these stupid unappreciative people; but she seemed to find the people quite good enough." (OP. 266)
With all due respect, none of this has anything to do with marriage as an institution. This is a spoiled, angry man who doesn't want to see any way but his own. These people are with us today. They are called rage-aholics and other diagnostic terms but it would seem that Cather's observations of the world around her gave her a clear vision, to not only describe the behavior of the type, but to define what their problem was.
James Seaton, a professor of English at Michigan State University, writes an article titled, On Politics and Literature: The Case of O Pioneers! In this article he discusses the work of three writers who are deeply committed to the idea that all great literature speaks for social change, that it is all "left-leaning liberal." He goes on to say this about O. Pioneeers!
More often, however, O Pioneers! reveals the limitations of any theory that restricts the significance of great literature to an endorsement of a political program. For example, although the novel is written by a woman and has a female protagonist whose success nettles her brothers, O Pioneers! is no unqualified indictment of patriarchy.
'Unqualified indictment" maybe not, but let's think through Seaton's quote from the book. He starts by saying, "Alexandra takes charge of the family farm because her father recognizes in her," ... The strength of will and the simple, direct way of thinking things out' that he admired in his own father. (24) On his deathbed he tells his sons, "I want you to keep the land together and be guided by your sister." (26)
In the time and place O Pioneers! was written, a father was the one with the power. A similar request from the mother of the family would have been set aside as the final weak vaporings of a woman. Alexandra was given the power to lead the family by her father and the sons followed…