Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1982, pp. 218-223.
In her preface to the 1922 edition of Alexander's Bridge and in the 1931 essay "My First Novels: There Were Two," Willa Cather conveyed not only her dissatisfaction with Alexander's Bridge but also her awareness that with O Pioneers! she had touched matters closer to her "deepest experience," material that was distinctly derived from the Nebraska of her childhood. She had written the book with genuine enthusiasm: "O Pioneers! interested me tremendously because it had to do with a kind of country I loved, because it was about old neighbours, once very dear, whom I had almost forgotten in the hurry and excitement of growing up and finding out what the world was like and trying to get on in it." The process of writing O Pioneers!, she says, was much different from her experience with Alexander's Bridge. The difference is conveyed in simple but effective similes: "This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. The other was like riding in a park, with someone not altogether congenial, to whom you had to be talking all the time." O Pioneers! was a departure from the material and technique of not only Alexander's Bridge but also the Jamesian novels of that day:
Since I wrote this book for myself, I ignored all the situations and accents that were then generally thought to be necessary. The "novel of the soil" had not then come into fashion in this country. The drawing-room was considered the proper setting for a novel, and the only characters worth reading about were smart people or clever people .... O Pioneers! was not only about Nebraska farmers; the farmers were Swedes! At that time, 1912, the Swede had never appeared on the printed page in this country except in broadly humorous sketches.
Thus Cather herself knew that O Pioneers! was clearly a departure from what she had tried to do in Alexander's Bridge as well as from what others were doing in the novel genre at the time.
What was "new" for Willa Cather in this novel was not its material and setting so much as its structure, which was an innovative departure from traditional form as well as content. O Pioneers! in fact comprises two major stories, not one, with Alexandra Bergson's development of the "wild land" into the settled and prosperous "neighboring fields" in the first part of the novel and the tragic love affair of Marie Shabata and Emil Bergson in the second. Such an apparent dichotomy has led some critics to disparage the novel's "inferior structure" and "unassimilated incidents." Even Cather's good friend Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant commented, upon reading the manuscript, "the only flaw I could find in O Pioneers! was that it had no sharp skeleton." Rene Rapin, in one of the earliest studies of Cather's work, calls O Pioneers! a "great book" but notes that it "lacks both unity of time and place ... and unity of treatment and subject." David Daiches some twenty years later was more explicit: "the first part of the novel seems to arise from a different impulse and to be built on different underlying rhythms than those later sections which deal with the love of Emil and Marie."