Ask me what’s the greatest book ever written about life on the plains, and I have to say, My Antonia, by Willa Cather. With its lyric invocation of the prairie, its hearty affection for immigrant settlers, and its compelling portrayal of female characters, My Antonia is just perfect.
Maybe a little too perfect, which is why I appreciate O Pioneers! so much. This earlier book by Cather is not the work of genius that My Antonia is. On the other hand, without O Pioneers!, I could not fully appreciate My Antonia.
Reading O Pioneers! is reading Cather with her guard down. This is the work where she gives herself up to Nebraska. You have to understand that respectable writers of her era (the book was published in 1913) were not supposed to write about, let alone express affection for, places like Nebraska.
Moreover, the literary style of the day was realism, as exemplified by Henry James. Maybe you read something by him in high school or college. Like it? Probably not. Cather kept the penchant for realistic, sometimes gloomy description, but O Pioneers! is infused with the irresistible romanticism that flows from the prairie landscape.
What a pleasure to reread this work, in the scholarly edition offered by University of Nebraska Press. I did so because I’m preparing to lead a discussion of it in a prairie town, and now my enthusiasm for the book is greater than ever.
After Cather finished O Pioneers!, she wrote to an old friend that the book came from her “home pasture” and that she had discovered she “was Yance Sorgensen [a Norwegian farmer back home] and not Henry James.”
This does not mean Cather was a primitive, scribbling recollections without literary consciousness. The scholarly edition contains a historical essay by David Stouck, who points out that Cather was a heavy reader of the Russian novelist Tolstoy, from whom she learned how to write about vast places peopled by sturdy peasants.
Moreover, Cather didn’t really write about Nebraska. She wrote about the memory of Nebraska-about the things from her girlhood that, as her friend Sarah Orne Jewett said, “haunt the mind.” If you are of a certain age, then likely you agree with me that the memory of a place can be far deeper and richer than the place itself.
O Pioneers! is a story of tragic love, family conflict, and pioneering progress inhabited by wonderfully vivid characters. It is, too, a sensuous work full of colors, scents, textures, and emotions. Highly recommended for your autumn reading. Then maybe My Antonia for winter.