Majesty, beauty, ferocity, personality—all these traits typify the settings Willa Cather employs in her writings. More lush and alive than I could have imagined, these fullest of descriptions drew me to her work. When I first read O Pioneers!, I wanted to be there in Hanover, Nebraska. I wanted to work the hard land, to experience the seasons, to walk the rich valleys, to simply live there, not merely see it. Cather’s love of this land is genuine. It’s much more than a trite sense of place.
As she explores the life and land of her heroine Alexandra Bergson, Willa Cather creates an aura and mystique about the Nebraskan land itself in O Pioneers!. The land alone is fierce, ugly, sombre, even magical, but most significantly, it is dynamically alive. The land, however, can never be separated from Cather’s characters because it comes to life and is experienced through them.
At first, Cather constructs a setting where the land appears as a separate woebegone entity: “The land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.” In its singularity, the land has doubtless endured without man. Cather describes it as a fact in itself “which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes.” By personification, its wildness and darkness manifest as unpredictable and enigmatic. Specifically, Cather relates how Alexandra’s father, “John Bergson 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.” Yet the hardness of this pioneering life, the hardness of the land itself, did not overcome John Bergson. Emil asks his sister Alexandra, “Father had a hard fight here, didn’t he? And she responded, Yes, and he died in a dark time. Still, he had hope. He believed in the land.”
This persistent belief and interaction distinguishes the land even further. As Alexandra and others engage and hope in the land, it responds in kind: “For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious.“ The land affects Alexandra’s heart and spirit, and Cather alludes to the influence of God the creator, “the Genius of the Divide,“ who is part of this burgeoning relationship. Cather clearly portrays Alexandra’s connection: “She had never known before how much the country meant to her… She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there [in the Divide].” And then, as Cather depicts Alexandra’s vast and fruitful property, she reveals that it is “in the soil she expresses herself best.”
Although Alexandra recognizes her tie to the land, she ironically doesn’t want her brother Emil to share the same connection. She is not jealous though. She clearly expresses her demand, that he must never buy land or work the land, so that he could pursue life in freedom, in choice, unlike herself.
Both Emil and the country had become what she had hoped. Out of her father’s children there was one who was fit to cope with the world, who had not been tied to the plow, and who had a personality apart from the soil. And that, she reflected, was what she had worked for. She felt well satisfied with her life.
Perhaps Alexandra feels that her tie to the land is more than an anchor, that it instead is a trap. She fees confined to her farm and the land, as do her older brothers. More than ever, the land tends to reflect not only the mood, but now the waning hopes of Alexandra. She is no longer young, and the land too is simply no longer a place of goodness and freedom.
As time passes, Alexandra expresses a fatalism about the land, partly due to her daydream and partly due to her experiences. Within her Sunday daydream, her mystery lover is like no man she knew, certainly not one of the “little men” like her brothers or Carl. This illusion felt “yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him… who took her from all her bodily weariness.” Is this daydream a blend of life on the land with an ideal? Is it the comforting land itself? We only see a partial answer after Emil and Marie are murdered. Alexandra grieves for months and becomes weary of life. Here returns her “old illusion of her girlhood, of being lifted and carried lightly by some one very strong… she knew at last for whom it was she had waited, and where he could carry her.” By description and inference, her lover appears to be the land in human form, for that is where she will be returned in death when he carries her away “one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom.”
Once Carl returns and pledges himself in marriage, Alexandra confirms he is not her mighty lover and resignedly declares that “it will never come true, now, in the way I thought it might.” In a sense, her commitment to Carl lessens her tie to the land. In the same fatalistic manner, Alexandra and Carl speak of how the land has taken the best of them with the deaths of Emil and Marie. Carl states that he felt “my blood go quicker… an acceleration of life” when he had been with them. Maybe the land was jealous of their lives, of how others felt alive around them, for they remember an account about the graveyard, about “the old story writing itself over. Only it is we who write it, with the best we have.” Both Carl and Alexandra appear reconciled with the outcome, as if the land is fed with the death of their best, a brutal but somehow fitting certainty.
Regardless of her grief and even change in circumstances, Alexandra is yet united with the land: “‘There is great peace here…and freedom,’ she tells Carl. ‘You belong to the land,’ Carl murmured, ‘as you have always said. Now more than ever.’” Like a human character, the land is always present. Its relationship with Alexandra is quite real, and she remains a stalwart reflection of the land as it becomes part of her: “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.”
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