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O Pioneers! | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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O Pioneers! | Context


Settling the Great Plains

The state of Nebraska where Willa Cather grew up and later used as the setting for O Pioneers! is a region called the Great Plains. Before European settlers came to homestead or settle on the land, the plains were home to quite a few indigenous tribes, including the Omaha people. When white settlers began to come in larger waves in the 1860s, much of their population was immigrants from Scandinavia, Germany, and Bohemia (modern Czech Republic and surrounding regions). Nebraska became the 37th state in 1867.

Immigrants and settlers arrived throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s in Nebraska by way of rail, wagon, and steamboat along the Missouri River. Immigrants often came in groups and would settle together in large communities with other people from the same country. They came for the promise of cheap, fertile farmland in the prairies. Some also came to work for the railways and settled in towns that had railway stations. People often emigrated to join family members or friends who had already settled in an area, thus growing the communities. In O Pioneers! many different cultures are depicted and commented on by the characters: French, German, Russian, Swedish, Bohemian, and Native American.

America at the Turn of the 20th Century

America was going through some major changes at the turn of the century when Willa Cather was just beginning to explore her writing career. The Civil War (1861–65) had ended slavery in the South but not the persecution of people of color. Many people were still alive who had lived through and even fought in the Civil War, so tension still existed in many communities. By the beginning of the 1900s, America was basically settled from coast to coast, thanks to the development of the transcontinental railway system. The native tribes were all either eradicated or forced onto reservations.

This was also a time of great technological changes. Gasoline-powered cars were in existence as early as 1893. Between 1904 and 1908, over 200 automobile manufacturing companies went into business in the United States, and Henry Ford rolled out his popular Model T in 1908. Cars were soon to be a common sight, replacing horses and wagons all over the country. However, most of the characters in O Pioneers! still ride horses as their main means of transportation. Additionally, electricity was coming to cities and towns all over the nation by the early 1900s, and telephone lines were being built across wide expanses of countryside. These technological changes that revolutionized life in the country are depicted in the novel. No longer did hearing from a loved one or sending news take huge amounts of time, even for people who lived deeply tucked away in rural areas. Farms had telephones, and a doctor was a phone call and a motor car ride away for the first time in history.

For many women during this time, there was a tremendous but slow movement toward equal rights. Women still did not have the vote, and it was not common for women to work outside the home. Throughout most of the 1800s, women could not even legally inherit property or have any control of their own money or property in marriage. Legislation was finally passed in every state by 1900 that allowed married women to have some say over their money. Only a very few women practiced law or many other professions until after the turn of the century.

Having the main character, Alexandra Bergson, be intelligent and good at business, so much so that her father leaves her in charge of the family farm, was forward thinking on the author's part for the time. The argument Alexandra has with her two brothers, Lou and Oscar, about their belief that men in a family, not women, are the rightful inheritors of land was in accord with the sentiments of men in Cather's time. It is revealing that Alexandra's brothers are happy to let her make them wealthy but angry when she considers marrying Carl Linstrum. Carl, or any of his extended family, would inherit the land if Alexandra were to die, rather than the brothers' families. This is a major conflict in the novel.

Early 20th-Century American Literature

Literature was also undergoing great changes in the early 20th century. Political upheaval, war, and revolutionary technology all influenced this shift. Many writers, including Willa Cather, moved away from the romantic trends of the previous century to more experimental and realist styles. In 1912 American editor Harriet Monroe founded Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, which published the revolutionary British poet T.S. Eliot (1888–1965) at the urging of expatriate American writer Ezra Pound (1885–1972). Both poets were leaders of the imagist movement, which focused on creating images above themes. American poets Robert Frost (1874–1963) and Wallace Stevens (1879–1955) created their own styles of poetry that mixed traditional techniques with freer approaches. Stevens was a great fan of Willa Cather's, praising her writing on multiple occasions.

As war colored much of the first half of the century, many American fiction writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) and Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) wrote out of a sense of disillusionment and frustration. The Harlem Renaissance produced many acclaimed African American writers, like Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) and Langston Hughes (1902–67), who wrote about racial identity, feminism, and injustice. Poetry and prose were brought together in the movement of lyric fictionists, who wrote with a focus on symbolic language and meaning. Cather, along with American writers Thomas Wolfe (1900–38) and Katherine Anne Porter (1890–1980), were all fiction writers who are considered pivotal to this movement.

Cather's first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912), was an effort to imitate the novels of manners made popular by American writers such as Henry James (1843–1916) and Edith Wharton 1862–1937). However, she soon moved away from characters whose main concerns were social ones and began to create characters from other cultures and experiences. As Professor Linda De Roche of Wesley College notes of Cather's work, her interest in other cultures was "distinctively modern" and offered an alternative to provincial America's smug beliefs. At the same time, Cather's presentation of those cultures was "grounded in traditional values," resulting in the tone of nostalgia that permeates works such as O Pioneers.

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