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I have enjoyed at least a half dozen of Willa Cather’s novels, as well as her letters, but somehow missed O Pioneers! until now This is the first novel in which Cather celebrates the land and the people who came to it as pioneers.
In its central figure, Alexandra, Cather also recognizes a different kind of pioneer. When Alexandra’s father dies, he leaves her to be responsible for her younger brothers and to develop the land. She greets this not as a burden but an opportunity, and succeeds, acquiring more land and farming it profitably. She never marries and, in her middle years, she appraises her situation differently as she talks with an old friend who has returned for a visit.
“You see,” he went on calmly, “measured by your standards here, I’m a failure. I couldn’t buy even one of your cornfields. I’ve enjoyed a great many things, but I’ve got nothing to show for it all.”
“But you show for it yourself, Carl. I’d rather have had your freedom than my land.”
The succeeding incident got my attention. Her brothers have married, and she has divided the land with them. They farm the land they received themselves, while Alexandra continues to develop her share with hired help. Seeing the affection between Alexandra and Carl, her brothers confront her with their concern that her share of the land may go to Carl.
“I don’t know about the homestead,” said Alexandra quietly. “I know you and Oscar have always expected that it would be left to your children, and I’m not sure but what you’re right. But I’ll do exactly as I please with the rest of my land, boys.”
It is her decision and she will make it. Her brothers deny her claim.
“Everything you’ve made has come out of the original land that us boys worked for, hasn’t it? The farms and all that comes out of them belongs to us as a family.”
They are the family, not their sister. She has power only if they choose to give it.
Lou turned to his brother. “This is what comes of letting a woman meddle in business,” he said bitterly. “We ought to have taken things into our own hands years ago. But she liked to run things, and we humored her. We thought you had good sense, Alexandra. We never thought you’d do anything foolish.”
Oscar knows that it is the men who are the family:
Oscar spoke up solemnly. “The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title.”
His brother sees it the same way; she only has the rights they grant her:
“We were willing you should hold the land and have the good of it, but you have no right to part with any of it.”
And Oscar again,
“The property of a family belongs to the men of the family, because they are held responsible, and because they do the work.”
Men’s work is real work; what women do is something else.
“We realize you were a great deal of help to us. There’s no woman anywhere that knows as much about business as you do, and we’ve always been proud of that, and thought you were pretty smart. But, of course, the real work always fell on us.”
Alexandra reminds them of how, during hard times, they had wanted to sell the land for very little and that it was her decisions that led to successful crops. That doesn’t matter. They are the men of the family; they get to decide. Her past success happened because they humored her, gave in to her whims.
“You’ve always had your own way.”
Alexandra points out the law to them and suggests they take legal advice. She closes with,
“I think I would rather not have lived to find out what I have today.”
Alexandra has, quite sensibly, learned that her relationship with Carl means more to her than property and wealth. At the same time, because of that relationship, she must defend her claims to her property. More than that, she is defending her very right to be a person who counts, who makes her own decisions in her own interest — a pioneer.
It’s one of the oldest stories ever told, The Marriage Plot. Girl loves boy or boy loves girl or they love each other and don’t know it. After some dancing around, advancing toward each other, moving apart, whirling with others, they come together in a final embrace. Henry Fielding didn’t invent the Plot in The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749) but he certainly knew what to do with it.
First, he knows that marriage is important. When the pregnant and unmarried Molly is scolded by her mother,
”You need not upbraid me with that, mother,” cries Molly; “you yourself was brought-to-bed of sister there, within a week after you was married.” “Yes, hussy,” answered the enraged mother, “so I was, and what was the mighty matter of that? I was made an honest woman then; and if you was to be made an honest woman, I should not be angry; but you must have to doing with a gentleman, you nasty slut; you will have a bastard, hussy, you will; and that I defy any one to say of me.”
One a girl loses her virtue, that is, has sex with anyone, she becomes attractive to those whose intentions are not honorable.
But when the philosopher heard, a day or two afterwards, that the fortress of virtue had already been subdued, he began to give a larger scope to his desires. His appetite was not of that squeamish kind which cannot feed on a dainty because another hath tasted it. In short, he liked the girl the better for the want of that chastity, which, if she had possessed it, must have been a bar to his pleasures; he pursued and obtained her.
But marriage is more than legitimate sex, much more. The heroine Sophia’s aunt makes that very clear, with a lecture on the subject of matrimony,
…which she treated not as a romantic scheme of happiness arising from love, as it hath been described by the poets; nor did she mention any of those purposes for which we are taught by divines to regard it as instituted by sacred authority; she considered it rather as a fund in which prudent women deposit their fortunes to the best advantage, in order to receive a larger interest for them than they could have elsewhere.
While Sophia is keeping her value by remaining pure, Tom Jones, her would-be lover, has relations with at least three different women by my count. Still, Fielding knows that there are different kinds of love. Sexual desire – “hunger” – is only part of the story, if it is added to respect and affection.
And, lastly, that this love, when it operates towards one of a different sex, is very apt, towards its complete gratification, to call in the aid of that hunger which I have mentioned above; and which it is so far from abating, that it heightens all its delights to a degree scarce imaginable by those who have never been susceptible of any other emotions than what have proceeded from appetite alone.
Some aspiring husbands do not share Tom’s priorities.
For my own part, I confess, I made no doubt but that his designs were strictly honourable, as the phrase is; that is, to rob a lady of her fortune by way of marriage. My aunt was, I conceived, neither young enough nor handsome enough to attract much wicked inclination; but she had matrimonial charms in great abundance.
After more than 250 years, it is hardly a spoiler to reveal and Tom and Sophia do marry. Fielding had already commented,
There are a set of religious, or rather moral writers, who teach that virtue is the certain road to happiness, and vice to misery, in this world. A very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true.
Sophia has a great deal of virtue and Tom’s portion improves, under her careful management. Despite Fielding’s doubts, their experience of the marriage plot is one of great happiness.
In 1917, when Oneida added the Adam pattern to its Community line of high-quality silverplate, the industry was beginning to offer fewer and less elaborate pieces in each pattern. Adam’s oval and ribbon motif, named in honor of British designer Robert Adam, was compatible with the growing interest in colonial revival furniture and housewares. Still, in this pattern, Oneida offered not only the usual knives, forks and spoons, but a cheese scoop, pie forks, lemon forks, and six sizes of ladles.
In my silver booklet Adam 1917, I have documented all the pieces I can find in the pattern, including flatware and china made only for the English market. Click here for a listing of all the booklets now available. Click here to order your copy of Adam 1917.
Some reviewers – and maybe some readers, but not me – had serious heartburn over the publication of this book. The Introduction by editors Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout says:
Before Willa Cather died, she did what she could to prevent this book from ever existing. She made a will that clearly forbade all publication of her letters, in full or in part. And now we flagrantly defy Cather’s will in the belief that her decision… is outweighed by the value of making these letters available to readers all over the world.
Thank you, editors, for giving me the pleasure of these letters and the joy of knowing Willa Cather, both the woman and the writer. Cather, by the way, acknowledged the sad results of destroying letters, even as she asked recipients to destroy hers.
Cather was ambitious. Taking a job in Pittsburgh,
Of course it’s a little hard for me to write gentle home and fireside stuff, but I simply will do it.
What did she prefer to write? As first she thought she knew; then, as her skills developed, she knew she knew. Meanwhile, as an editor, she gave excellent advice to would-be contributors.
I can’t make you out. Why are you afraid to touch the poetic aspect of things when you all the time want to. Take that story “Mortmain”. If you’d thrown away what smelt of slang and Kipling and kept what was really your own story – which happens to be like Loti’s own – I don’t see why it might not have been a very perfect thing.
And to another writer:
This story, my dear Zoe is written to be smart. You can’t make me believe it was written for anything else…. Seems to me you are talking to hear yourself here – through your hat.
Cather was not gentle with others, but not with herself either, although she loved it when she felt she had got it right by doing it her own way, direct, with no pretensions. About her first great success, My Antonia,
A man in the Nation writes that “it exists in an atmosphere of its own—an atmosphere of pure beauty.” Nonsense, it’s the atmosphere of my grandmother’s kitchen, and nothing else. Booth Tarkington writes that it is as “simple as a country prayer meeting or a Greek temple and as beautiful.” There [are] lots of these people who can’t write anything true themselves who yet recognize it when they see it. And whatever is really true is true for all people.
She also said,
My aim has never changed, but in the early twenties one simply does not know enough about life to make real people; one feels them, but one has neither calm insight nor a practiced ease of hand. As one grows older one cares less about clever writing and more about a simple and faithful presentation.
She makes it sound simple: keep saying what you mean to say and, as you mature, you will get better at it. She also recognized a certain mystery to the process. About a successful book,
I tried just awfully hard. But that’s the fascinating thing about art, anyhow; that good intentions and praiseworthy industry don’t count a damn.
I deeply appreciate and efforts of Jewell and Stout. They tried just awfully hard and their intentions were good and they have given us a wonderful book.
They knew each other, those 19th and early 20th century writing women. Harriet Beecher Stowe knew Annie Fields. Annie Fields knew Louisa May Alcott and Sarah Orne Jewett. Willa Cather knew Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields.
I have been reading the new The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout) and find that Cather not only knew Fields and Jewett; she knew Sinclair Lewis and Robert Frost and Alfred Knopf and Yehudi Menuhin and everybody else. The links of women writers Cather knew, however, all chain back to Annie Fields, the wife and then widow of James Fields, the Fields of Ticknor and Fields, the distinguished Boston publishing house.
I myself met Annie Fields years ago in the pages of her Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe. It’s a wonderful book, a little short on scholarly apparatus, but full of the flavor of Stowe’s life. Fields quotes Stowe as she remembers her mother’s death when little brother Henry was too young to attend the funeral:
They told us at one time that she had been laid in the ground, at another that she had gone to heaven; whereupon Henry, putting the two things together, resolved to dig through the ground and go to heaven to find her; for, being discovered under sister Catherine’s window one morning digging with great zeal and earnestness, she called to him to know what he was doing and, lifting his curly head with great simplicity, he answered, ‘Why, I’m going to heaven to find ma.’
After her husband’s death, Fields and Jewett lived together for many years – a “Boston marriage” – until Jewett’s death. Fields maintained a hospitable setting in Boston for writers and their friends. Cather, who admired Jewett and later edited a book of her stories, met her there. Alcott also enjoyed the Fields’ support and sometimes stayed with her, especially when money was tight. So far as I can tell, Cather never met Stowe or Alcott, but she had opinions, especially about Alcott. In 1938, she writes to Henry Seidel Canby:
Now, another thing: I want to thank you for your review of Katherine Anthony’s book on Miss Alcott [titled Louisa May Alcott]. I see the Freud fanatics on getting on your nerves, as they are on mine. It happened that my old friend Mrs. James T. Fields, born a May, was a cousin of Louisa May Alcott. Several years before she died, Mrs. Fields asked me to destroy a number of more-or-less family letters, which she did not wish to leave among her drawers-full of correspondence. There were a great many from Miss Alcott, who used often to come for long New England visits at her cousin’s house. Anything more lively and “pleasant” and matronly you could not imagine. She was often a good deal fussed about money, because, apparently, she was practically the only earning member of the family….
If the “naked bodies” of the men she nursed in her hospital experience left any “wound,” it was certainly not perceptible to her relatives, or in her litters—or in her very jolly books, as I remember them. Catherine the Great might be called fair game for Miss Anthony’s obsession, but certainly that warm-hearted and very practical New England Spinster was not. I wish now that those letters to Mrs. Fields had not been destroyed.
I can’t comment on the Anthony book, but I have seen plenty of similar ones. When a woman writes, especially if she writes successfully and even more if she makes money doing so and, worst of all, if she wants to make money doing so, then she must be proceeding out of some personal deficiency or “wound.” They say that Elizabeth Gaskell wrote because of grief over the death of son (except that she was writing stories even before she married) and George Eliot wrote because she was homely (since pretty women don’t need to achieve anything on their own) and Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote sensationally about slavery because of her religious upbringing (except that the family was also broke and she needed to sell something). Cather knew better. She was one of the writing wounded.
If Alcott’s letters had survived they would buttress our picture of an ambitious and successful author who did not set out to write a feminist tract, but to produce a salable book at the request of her publisher. I am glad that — despite her express wishes — not all of Cather’s letters were destroyed. They also show us a woman who loved to write and enjoyed being successful, artistically and financially.
Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows. The author of Life and Fate surveys the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. He finds a long history of cruelty and slavery, but also a never-dying aspiration for freedom.
Rachel M. Brownstein, Becoming a Heroine. What makes the central figure of a woman-centered novel a heroine? Is she better than the rest of us, or just typical? Why do we care about her — and has she changed over the years? Brownstein explores these issues in classic text like Clarissa, Pride and Prejudice, Villette, Daniel Deronda. Portrait of a Lady and Mrs. Dalloway.
Ivan Doig, Bucking the Sun. It took a lot of people — many of them named Duff — to build the massive Fort Peck Dam on the upper Missouri River in Montana. This Depression era project is at the center of the novel, the people named Duff are mostly there to build it.
! I can’t remember a month when I have finished so few books. I am immersed in three long ones:
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding,
The Debacle by Emile Zola,
The Selected Letters of Willa Cather.
I have posted once about Tom Jones and will have more to say when I have finished it. I expect to have comments on the others too. See you here next month.
Marketing Oneida Silver is now available here and as an email attachment. Both versions are free.
The heirs of the Oneida Community made beautiful, high-quality silver. They also promoted it in a competitive market using a innovative techniques. This booklet has been adapted from a chapter of The Community Table (now out of print), to which I have added more images, many in color.
The booklet History of Oneida Community and Its Silver is also available.
You can download these booklets to read on screen or print out. A color printer is recommended. Please share the information with others, but do not sell it or use it for commercial purposes. For a full listing of all booklets available and planned, click on American Silver Booklets.
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