O Pioneers! is pretty good as novelistic sociology – the mix of immigrant groups in late 19th century Nebraska, their speech patterns, their habits. But Cather is also up to something else. She is myth-making.
The protagonist is a kind of earth goddess, for example, in tune with the land, prophetic about the weather. She is visited in recurring dreams by some sort of male corn god (“he was yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him”). After the dreams, “angry with herself,” she gives her “gleaming white body” a good scrub with “cold well-water” (III, 2 for all of this). Hmm. Maybe this is why I was not assigned the novel in high school – too was sex.
The minor character Crazy Ivar speaks only Norwegian, goes barefoot, knows the language of the birds, and, to top it off, lives in a hole in the ground (“Ivar had lived for three years in the clay bank”) in a part of the country where the “wild flowers disappeared,” (I, 3) Yesterday I called him a symbolic link to the Old Country, but he also appears to be a genuine troll, one of many who will appear at Wuthering Expectations this year.
Long ago I took a course in Greek and Roman mythology. The professor at one point described his admiration for Willa Cather, based in part on her deep love of myth. For example, he said, in one of her novels she borrows the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid (Book IV of Metamorphoses), in which two nitwit lovers kill themselves for no good reason, in the process staining a mulberry bush with their blood:
With that, his body on his sword he threw:
Which, from the reaking wound, he dying drew.
Now, on his back, vp-spun the blood in smoke:
As when a Spring-conducting pipe is broke,
The waters at a little breach breake out,
And hissing, through the aëry Region spout.
The Mulberryes their former white forsake;
And from his sprinkling blood their crimson take. (from the great George Sandys translation, 1632)
The great Ovidian touch here is the ridiculous and sublime comparison of the jet of blood to the broken pipe. And here it was, in O Pioneers!.
Cather borrows not the story, exactly, or only does so with a lot of distance, but the mulberries, and the blood:
While Ivar was hurrying across the fields, the first long rays of the sun were reaching down between the orchard boughs to those two dew-drenched figures. The story of what had happened was written plainly on the orchard grass, and on the white mulberries that had fallen in the night and were covered with dark stain. (IV, 8)
In the next paragraph, the stained berries are mentioned again. The slain lovers have been transformed:
two white butterflies from Frank's alfalfa-field were fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadows; diving and soaring, now close together, now far apart; and in the long grass by the fence the last wild roses of the year opened their pink hearts to die.
Those roses may go a bit too far. This is what I meant by the foregrounding of symbolism. How can you miss the interlaced shadows and pink hearts? You are not meant to miss them.
Yet Cather merely brushes against Ovid’s mulberries. No arrow points at them – “classical reference here.” There is no need at all for the reader to recognize the story, and no hint that it is there. None of the characters have any idea of it. It is not worked in to the novel but just there, in a few lines.
What else did Cather hide?