Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 2007


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring 2007, pp. 101-15.


Copyright 2007 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Willa Cather's move to Nebraska as a child, the people she met there, and the seemingly endless prairie around her captured her imagination and became the inspiration for her novel O Pioneers! In this work, Cather introduces her readers to the diversity of immigrants who settled in the area around her home in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Cather's novel represents the age-old appeal of the West-hope, optimism, mystery-as well as the Janus-face dilemma of acculturation: the longing to partake in all that the new land has to offer and the reluctance to give up a rich and comforting cultural heritage.

While this novel is often read as an example of America's welcoming acceptance of immigrants, O Pioneers! opens a door into exploring nativist attitudes toward the influx of immigrants into the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this era the subject of race-its definitions and implications for the continuing success of American culture-permeated discussions among politicians, educators, anthropologists, and reformers. O Pioneers! fits within the nativist discourse of the early twentieth century, as Cather's novel illuminates assumptions about these immigrants and their ability to acculturate not only to society in the Great Plains but to American society at large. Unlike current trends, which place all western-bound immigrants under the singular heading "EuroAmerican," newcomers to the United States in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were judged according to racial origins. This historical perspective sheds light on assimilation issues at the local, regional, and national levels. The language Cather uses in O Pioneers! reveals a racial hierarchy among the settlers. Though Cather was not a racist-rather, she had what Mike Fischer called the "cultural limitations" of her era-her depictions of characters in the novel would have resonated with educated, middle- to upper-class old-stock Americans as they grappled with the perceived threat of so many newcomers. In this context the novel provides a means to explore nativist views of four of the groups found on the Great Plains-Swedes, French Canadians, Bohemians, and German Russians-by characterizing them as good immigrants, bad immigrants, or immigrants one could quite easily ignore.


Born in Back Creek, Virginia, Cather moved to Nebraska with her family in 1883 at the age of nine. The Cathers originally lived outside town, her father helping manage the farm her paternal grandfather started in 1877. Their experiment with rural living did not last long; after eighteen months the family moved to Red Cloud, a bustling town of two thousand inhabitants. The Cather family's move to Nebraska was part of a general flood of immigrants who made their way to the Great Plains between 1870 and the early 1900s. The combination of confining Native Americans to reservations and the aggressive promotion of the land by railroad companies, both in the United States and abroad, attracted both old-stock settlers (those who had lived in the United States for a generation or more), as well as newly arrived immigrants.

The population boom in the Plains coincided with a new wave of immigration into the United States. Between 1880 and 1920, 23 million people entered the United States, which in 1900 had a population of only 76 million. After 1896 the majority of these newcomers came from southern and eastern Europe-Italy, Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Austria-Hungary, Greece, Turkey, and Syria. Although three-quarters of these so-called New Immigrants remained in urban areas along the eastern seaboard, they created intense anxiety among old-stock Americans all across the United States, who considered them a threat to American culture and its system of democracy. Ellwood P. Cubberley, Stanford University's dean of the School of Education, argued in 1919 that these New Immigrants, "'largely illiterate, docile, lacking in initiative, and almost wholly without the Anglo-Saxon conceptions of righteousness, liberty, law, order, public decency, and government' had diluted the nation's racial stock, corrupted politics, undermined social conditions, and disrupted public education."