Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Literary Ruralism (Part II): Willa Cather's O Pioneers!

I am in Nebraska for the Rural Futures Conference, and so it seems fitting to highlight the work of Willa Cather, a literary (quasi-)native daughter.  I read O Pioneers! a few months ago, and it blew me away.  It blew me away that a hundred years ago Cather wrote a female character like Alexandra Bergson.  But Cather's use of language also knocked me back on my heels, as did her apparent passion for the land, her understanding of the pioneers' commitment to it.

Here's a passage--enormously evocative for me--that reflects Alexandra's love for the land.  At this point in the story, Alexandra has been running the family farm for several years, following her father's death.  Alexander and her youngest (and favorite) brother, Emil, have been to the visit "river farms" of the sort that her two other brothers wish her to purchase.  They want Alexandra to abandon the family homestead on the Nebraska Divide where they have suffered under several years' drought.  Alexandra speaks to Emil of her impressions of the river farms:
"There's nothing in it for us down there, Emil.  There are a few fine farms, but they are owned by the rich men in town, and couldn't be bought.  Most of the land is rough and hilly.  They can always scrape along there, but they can never do anything big.  Down there they have little certainty, but up with us there is a big chance.  We must have faith in the high land, Emil.  I want to hold on harder than ever, and when you're a man you'll thank me."  She urged Brigham forward. 
When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy.  Her face was radiant that he felt shy about asking her.  For the first time, perhaps, since that land merged 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.  Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her.  Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before.  The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.  
Cather returns to this link between human (woman), land and "country" in the final sentence of the novel:
Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth. 

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