In 1893, the young historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced to a Chicago academic symposium what the 1890 Census had already noted: the Western frontier had been closed. In the census' words, "Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line." Beginning with the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, the United States embarked upon a massive westward expansion that more than tripled the country's size and greatly shaped the nation's self-conception, with its romantic emphasis on the rugged individual. But by 1890, as the Census Bureau declared, and as Turner ratified with the authority of the academy, there was no longer a true frontier in the contiguous United States. The American West remained largely untamed (the Census Report describes only "isolated bodies of settlement"), but the irreversible processes of populating and cultivating it had begun. In America, a land that had always held the promise of a better life, first for Europeans, then for inhabitants of the eastern states, there was nowhere new to go.
It is possible to argue that the great American urge to settle and farm the western prairies gained its greatest momentum in the years immediately following the Civil War. It was during these years that Walt Whitman was writing poems such as "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" dedicated to America's "youthful, sinewy races," "Western youths" drawn to the wide prairies (Whitman, "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" 7-9). Against this backdrop, an author was born who would write some of America's first great chronicles of the westward settlement, shortening the name of Whitman's poem to take as the title of her own breakthrough novel.
Willa Cather was born in Virginia, in 1873, but ten years later her family moved from the thickly settled east coast to Nebraska, where homesteads and farms were beginning to rise against the unruly, windswept emptiness of the prairies. In 1884, Cather got her first sense of small-town Nebraska life when her family moved to Red Cloud, the settlement which would appear in O Pioneers! as Hanover. Her novels grew out of her experiences in these formative years, her familiarity with the communities of settlers, her conversations with the immigrant farmers from Sweden, France, Bohemia, and other places, and the visceral power of the prairie itself.
In 1890, Cather moved to Lincoln to attend the state university. In Lincoln, the growing capital of the still sparsely-populated state, she began to write, as an editor of the student newspaper and a columnist for the state newspaper. After graduating, she moved back to the eastern states, never to live again in the West for any extended period. But her childhood experiences proved indelible; in 1913, after years of editing and writing short stories and poems, she wrote, and became deservedly famous for, her novel about the West, O Pioneers!.
O Pioneers! was released to great acclaim: it was hailed as a new kind of writing, a particularly American response to the American experience. The frontier had been declared closed in 1890, and America still lacked artistic voices to respond to frontier experiences, to the settlers, and to the vastness of the country. The rest of the world viewed America as an unprecedented, increasingly successful experiment. As Ralph Waldo Emerson had observed more than half a century earlier, a distinctly American voice, freed from the European mind-set, was needed to chronicle this exceptional experiment. Willa Cather captured the essence of late nineteenth-century America, testifying from firsthand experience to the settling of the West, to the power of the land itself, to the flow of history through remarkable individuals and through impersonal forces, and to the trials and travails of pioneer life.
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