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.