O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913) – a review

O Pioneers by Willa Cather

A Novel Without A Hero: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather from the original review in the New York Times, September, 1913:  The hero of the American novel very often starts on the farm, but he seldom stays there; instead he uses it as a spring-board form which to plunge into the mysteries of politics or finance.

Probably the novel reflects a national tendency. To be sure, after we have carefully separated ourselves from the soil, we are apt to talk a lot about the advantages of a return to it, but in most cases it ends there. The average American does not have any deep instinct for the land, or vital consciousness of the dignity and value of the life that may be lived upon it.

The struggle with the untamed land

O Pioneers! is filled with this instinct and this consciousness. It is a tale of the old wood-and-field worshipping races, Swedes and Bohemians, transplanted to Nebraskan uplands, of their struggle with the untamed soil, and their final conquest of it. Miss Cather has written a good story, we hasten to assure the reader who cares for good stories, but she has achieved something finer.

Through a direct, human tale of love and struggle and attainment, a tale that is American in the best sense of the word, there runs a thread of symbolism. It is practically a novel without a hero. There are men in it, but the interest centers in two women — not rivals, but friends, and more especially in the splendid blonde farm-woman, Alexandra.

o pioneers! willa cather

O Pioneers! on Amazon

The great feminine

In this new mythology, which is the old, the goddess of fertility once more subdues the barren and stubborn earth. Possibly some might call it a feminist novel, for the who heroines are stronger, cleverer, and better balanced than their husbands and brothers — but we are sure Miss Cather had nothing so inartistic in mind. It is a natural growth, feminine because it is only an expansion of the very essence of femininity.

Instead of calling O Pioneers! a novel without a hero it might be more accurate to call it a novel with three heroines — Alexandra, the harvest-goddess, Marie, poor little spirit of love and youth snatched untimely former poppy-fields, and the Earth itself, patient and bountiful source of all things.

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