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O Pioneers!

Willa Cather

Part II, Chapters 1-4

Part I

Part II, Chapters 5-12

Summary

The narrative jumps to a time sixteen years after John Bergson's death. His wife has also died. Alexandra has become the most successful farmer on the Divide. Emil, her youngest brother, has had the luxury of attending college, and he has grown into a fine-figured young man. Now twenty-one, he is mowing the high grass around the local graveyard on a June morning. He is also flirting with Marie, the pretty and vivacious young bride of Frank Shabata, who lives on the farm vacated by Carl Linstrum's family during the drought thirteen years earlier.

Emil returns from the graveyard to dinner at Alexandra's house, where she presides over a table of workmen including Crazy Ivar, the elderly Norwegian man who now works in her stables. Alexandra owes some of her success to her enthusiasm in adopting new farming technologies of which other farmers, including her brothers Lou and Oscar, who have married and now live on nearby farms of their own, are skeptical.

There is talk in the neighborhood of sending Ivar, who is prone to unexplained fits, to an asylum, but Alexandra assures the frightened old man that she will protect him. When Alexandra's brothers bring their families to Sunday dinner, they criticize her for keeping the imbalanced old man in her house, calling it inappropriate and vulgar. Alexandra dismisses their concerns, refusing to bow to petty notions of propriety.

That same day, the Bergsons are surprised by a visit from Carl Linstrum, whom they have not seen for thirteen years. [Note: Carl says it has been sixteen years, but this is a textual error. John Bergson died sixteen years earlier, and Carl's family left during the drought that occurred three years later.] Alexandra is delighted to see him; the brothers, however, are suspicious, and treat him coolly. Now about thirty-five, Carl has not changed much: he is still withdrawn, self-conscious, and vaguely dissatisfied. He decides to stay for a few weeks, and he and Alexandra pick up their deep friendship where it left off.

Commentary

The tensions in pioneer life between the individual and the universal saturate the first four chapters of this section, entitled "Neighboring Fields." Alexandra, an iconoclast, contends with the close-minded and petty world of small-town America, represented by her brothers Lou and Oscar. To an extent, Alexandra's brothers are caricatures of rural farmers, bound to tradition, obsessed with popular opinion, and frightened by unconventional thought. Just as Lou and Oscar initially resist Alexandra's vision of the land's future and later her innovative farming techniques, so too do they scorn her impulse to treat Crazy Ivar with kindness, because Ivar is different. Paradoxically, in a land that celebrates individualism and the pioneering spirit, the pull of conventional opinion is often irresistibly strong. By defying public attitudes, Alexandra proves herself a true individualist. The nature of the American spirit, however, comes into question, since, as the novel points out, conventionalism is more common than individualism, even in the West of the pioneers.

Alexandra forges her own destiny, creating a link between individualism and agency. Ironically, however, Alexandra's assessment to Carl of the successful cultivation of the West de-emphasizes the role of humans in the shaping of history: "We hadn't any of us much to do with it...The land did it." Furthermore, Cather pokes fun at politics, and at the very notion of human influence on historical trends through political instruments. Cather's mocking depiction of Lou, the budding Populist politician, "reduces politics to quackery," in the words of critic Blanche Gelfant. Cather rejects, at times, the idea that a single human can have an impact on the vast course of history.

Cather's expression of disdain for Populism, the strain of progressive politics at the turn of the twentieth century advocating the interests of farmers and laborers, is indicative of a somewhat surprising traditionalism in O Pioneers!. Though she presents the reader with a decidedly unconventional protagonist, a woman who seems stronger and more creative than the men around her, Cather's distaste for progressive politics--William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat with heavy Populist leanings, is treated like a joke--seems to signal a conservative bent. (Though one could argue that Cather is impatient with politics in general--she is too conservative for Populism, but rather Populism is too conservative for her.) Throughout the novel, Cather exhibits a nostalgic attitude toward cultural traditions. She laments that, nowadays, "Young farmers seldom address their wives by Dame. It is always 'you' or 'she.'" Alexandra celebrates the fact that "Emil is just like an American boy, but underneath he is more Swedish than any of us," revering the fact that Emil maintains his cultural heritage in the face of assimilation.

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