Wednesday, January 8, 2014

It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature - the surface of O Pioneers!

Novels about Scandinavian immigrants to the United States are common enough to form their own little genre.  Karl Moberg’s Emigrants series (1951-61), for example, or Ole Rølvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1924-5).  I have almost run out of examples, aside from the one I read recently, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913), in which some Norwegian immigrants have trouble making a go of it as farmers in south central Nebraska, then do pretty well but have other troubles.

I do not know Cather well, having read nothing but her 1905 short story collection The Troll Garden.  I thought O Pioneers! was a bit on the simple side, told in plain language, plainer than most of The Troll Garden, perhaps meant to fit the plain people, or the Great Plains, with motives and behavior clearly explained and any symbolic material clearly foregrounded so that no one can miss it.  Cather famously opposed the use of her novels as school texts, and now I see why – O Pioneers! is perfect for the job.  Maybe a little too perfect.

It puzzles me why it was not used in my Great Plains school, not so far from Cather’s home town of Red Cloud, Nebraska.  We were only assigned boy’s books, and O Pioneers! is certainly not one of those.  Its heroine, Alexandra Bergson, is the strongest of strong female characters who knows her own mind, follows her own heart, saves the farm, respects difference, and is in tune with the earth:

Alexandra drew her shawl closer about her and stood leaning against the frame of the mill, looking at the stars which glittered so keenly through the frosty autumn air.  She always loved to watch them, to think of their vastness and distance, and of their ordered march.  It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security.  That night she had a new consciousness of the country, felt almost a new relation to it…  She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun.  Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.  (I, 5)

I hope it is evident enough what I mean by plainness, here mixed with some vague gesturing at meaning.

When I say the symbolism is foregrounded, I mean something like the use of this wild duck:

In this little bay a single wild duck was swimming and diving and preening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade.  They sat for a long time, watching the solitary bird take its pleasure.  No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that wild duck.  Emil must have felt about it as she did, for afterward, when they were at home, he used sometimes to say, "Sister, you know our duck down there--"  Alexandra remembered that day as one of the happiest in her life. Years afterward she thought of the duck as still there, swimming and diving all by herself in the sunlight, a kind of enchanted bird that did not know age or change.  (III, 2)

More earth mothery, but ducks are also used to pull a couple more characters together , linking Alexandra to the bird-loving Crazy Ivar, symbolic representation of the Old Country and its Authentic Ways, and linking brother Emil to the restless, all too tempting Marie.  “He snatched the ducks out of her apron” and so on, in Part II, Chapter 5, just after Ivar is mentioned making a pleasing, artful referential loop with the  duck theme.

The novel is certainly worth reading and easy to enjoy – for adults, I mean, not poor bored high school students.  But I am not convinced that there is that much more to it.  Well, there is at least one more thing.  I will save the Greek myths for tomorrow.


  1. Oh, you must read some more Cather, especially Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Professor's House, and A Lost Lady. These are among my favorite novels of all times.

  2. Which do you think is most finely written? O Pioneers! was in a plain style, plainer than most of the stories in The Troll Garden. Is there a novel where Cather really cuts loose? Or is she the kind of writer who is always trimming back?

  3. My vote goes to Death Comes for the Archbishop. People I respect would vote for The Professor's House. I am not sure what you mean by "cuts loose." I would respond, though, by saying Cather is always in control, and her prose is crisp, clear, and unpretentious. However, beneath the seemingly plain surface are complex, carefully nuanced issues. Superficial readers will read one novel. Deeper readers will read something else. In this sense, then, she is a very democratic novelist and short-story writer. Example: students in my classes have read "Paul's Case" in different ways; some "get it" but some others simply enjoy the surface-tale. The bottom line is this: Enjoy Cather!

  4. Cuts loose = allows some excess. Gets a little baroque. Tries out some unusual adjectives. Writes elaborate sentences, not plain ones. Tells jokes. Shows off - look what I can do!

    Nabokov is always in control (and is typically crisp and clear, too), but he sure ain't plain. " Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring" is not especially crisp, and is in no way clear. A character's vague impulse is described vaguely.

    Is the surface of O Pioneers! only "seemingly" plain, so I am missing what is elaborate even on the surface? Now that is the possibility that worries me. Or is the surface actually plain, with the more complex stuff underneath?

    What would be an example of a non-democratic work, I wonder, one where superficial and deep readers come to the same conclusion.

    No, no, the bottom line at Wuthering Expectations is Understand Cather. No need to dumb me down, R. T.

  5. Damn me! I hope I said nothing that was either off-putting or patronizing. That was not my intent. Tone in comments is hard to communicate correctly. If I said anything that offended, there was no intent. I apologize.

  6. No offense whatsoever. I'm just saying that "Enjoy Cather," that is easy. All I have to do is the read the book. Now I am moving on to the harder task.

    I suspect there is only one way for me to solve the puzzle - read more Cather, especially the books you suggest and the other two Nebraska books, then see how they change O Pioneers!.

  7. Perhaps I should say this. There is a reason O Pioneers rather than anything else by Cather is frequently assigned to high school students. O Pioneers rather bores me. I am not bored, however, by the other novels I have already cited. In fact, Death Comes for the Archbishop is one of the books I turn to every year (sometimes even more often) when I need a wonderful reading experience. It is a perfect novel!

  8. O Pioneers!, as I recall from when I read it at least two decades ago, seemed a kind of lighter companion piece to the more dramatic My Antonia (which by virtue of just a scene with wolves would win in a landslide). But I remember that both books conveyed a memorably strong atmosphere and an unusual tone of anticipation and spaciousness, of people living in a new land at the edge of a wilderness, of the encounter with wide open spaces, and in this sense they seemed to me even more "western" than most westerns. I should read them both again. My copy of O Pioneers! had a cover photo of a field of wildflowers of such riotous extravagance that I could understand why Cather could get so excited about the plains.

  9. Yeah, Cather could get excited about the Great Plains as long as she didn't have to live there!

    You and R.T. are confirming my suspicion that however useful (and good) O Pioneers! is, I am going to be more impressed with some later books. I was more impressed with "Paul's Case" and the other, earlier, stories from back when Cather was still angry at the prairie and the immigrants for having no art.

  10. Don't judge Cather on O Pioneers! it is an early book. Death Comes for the Archbishop is really good. I haven't read Professor's House yet but I know it is well thought of. I very much enjoyed Song of the Lark year before last which is about a young girl from a Swedish immigrant family trying to become an opera singer.

  11. I read Death Comes for the Archbishop recently: it was episodic, and had what I felt was an attractive simplicity. Does she cut loose? No, I didn't think so. There is certainly much to ponder in the book, but I wonder if the artlessness isn't rather a hinderance to that pondering. You can be blindsided by plainness as much as by mannered complexity.

  12. Early, I figured. Honestly, I judge texts, not authors, or that's what I try to do - it is easy to blur the distinction. And of course, O Pioneers! is a good novel.

    Leroy - well said. The episodic structure of O Pioneers! has a lot to be said for it, too. Bursts of activity and long gaps are in what feel like the right places.

    The short "Winter Interlude" section, Part III, is a good example of what I mean. I am contrasting mentally with the Trollope novel I just read, organized in twenty sections of forty pages and four chapter each, bang bang bang. Cather's structure has an appealing modern fluidity, which suits the way she is handling the flow of time and seasonal change. Not that Trollope is not an expert with the tool at hand - his use of time fits his structure.

    1. 'the flow of time and seasonal change'...that's very evident in Death Comes.. as well. Now I think of it, prompted by this discussion, there is a key memory scene in the book-a flashback-that I realise is extremely artfully placed. It retrospectively illuminates the protagonist and the central relationship of the book, but also accelerates the movement forwards towards the ultimate appointment of the title, by introducing a note of elegy and regret.

      Very nice. A hinge in the book that I'd skated right past.

  13. I have Death Comes for the Archbishop on my "America 2014" list. I see it's well "rated" (I don't like that word)

    PS: if I were a writer, I wouldn't want my books to be taught I class. What a kiss of death. I understand her position.

  14. Oh right, for your trip, sure. So you do not need any of Cather's Nebraska novels. You need something by the Willa Cather of Oklahoma, whoever that might be,

    I believe Cather got her wish during her own life - school editions - by which I mean paperbacks - were not published until after her death.

  15. Yes, for the trip.
    Btw, I wasn't blown away by the Immigrants by Moberg. I've read the first volume and wasn't interested in reading the second. Flat style, flat characters...

    PS: see how I hardly miss your posts, now that I receive the emails. :-)

  16. Flat style, flat characters, flat Scandinavians.

    There is a long, old running joke in the US about grim, taciturn Scandinavian immigrants on the northern Great Plains. A popular radio program from Minnesota tells jokes about "Norwegian bachelor farmers" every week. Perhaps you will encounter it on your car radio when you cross America. Prepare yourself for very mild amusement.

    So perhaps Moberg is just drawing his characters directly from life.

    I do not really want to read Moberg so much.

    1. I'm going to ask my friend from Minnesota first, he lives next door. Guess where I got the idea to read Moberg?

  17. Based on the wildly overrated and generally just dull Death Comes for the Archbishop, you lot can have Cather! I can't remember such a well-loved book with such an inept handling of characterization since I started blogging.

  18. All right, a strong opinion!

    Characters, who needs 'em - see the new post. Maybe Cather is busy with something else.

  19. The Professor's House.
    Let me know if you shortlist it.
    Read it once a few years back and thought it very good.
    Anything next on Cather.
    Richard's crazy.
    That is all.

  20. More Cather - probably not anytime too soon. How do her other novels relate to The Golden Bough? Do any of them feature trolls? I am still thinking of the post I just wrote.

    But yes, The Professor's House, someday, I hope.

    1. Not familiar with that one.
      Will read One of Ours next, starting now, in fact.
      Cheers, Kevin

    2. I have not read The Golden Bough myself and likely never will, but it is a good book to know about. T. S. Eliot uses it, Faulkner's Sanctuary uses it, that fertility god stuff up above comes from it. The book is Casaubon's "key to all mythologies."

      One of Ours is a boldly obscure choice.

    3. What would you like to know about it?
      That'll help organize my reading.
      You didn't blog yesterday.
      That is a newsworthy event.
      Hope all is well.

    4. I have become a little more fluid, by which I mean loosey-goosey, in my scheduling, but I still do five a week. I will put something up tonight, not at all related to Cather or trolls.

      Edmund Wilson, reviewing One of Ours at the time of its publication, calls it a "pretty flat failure" and thinks it lacks "vitality." I fear this provides little help with organization.

      Wilson's review is in The Shores of Light, "Two Novels of Willa Cather."

  21. With Moberg my impression is that you're better off watching the movie. I've not seen it, but people sure are fond of it. Also, the director's name is Troell, so that's something.

  22. The Emigrants has a heck of a cast, doesn't it? It has a pretty good reputation.

  23. I like the plainness and I like the subtle symbolism that you have highlighted.

    I think that such aesthetic simplicity is enough to make a book with reading.

    Cather is a writer that I really want to get to.

  24. Subtle, Brian, really? Where?

    The plain style is certainly a valid aesthetic choice, but you can hardly mean what you said. SparkNotes summaries are written with aesthetic simplicity, too. Are they therefore worth reading?