Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 2001


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 2001, pp. 3-15.


Copyright 2001 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Most studies of Willa Cather's O Pioneers! (1913) comment on Alexandra Bergson's mystic relationship with the land and on the land's positive response to her love, on the "perfect harmony in nature" at the novel's center, or on its country versus city elements.2 In such interpretations, Alexandra is an ideal farmer, one whose literary roots stretch back to Virgil's Eclogues.3 Although these readings work well, they remain incomplete because they ignore a crucial element: the novel's celebration of an agriculture modeled on urban industrialism. Though Cather herself may have had "the dimmest possible view of literature with a social message," her novel is in fact a demonstration of the early twentieth-century demand for a New Agriculture, a farming rooted in sound business practices, efficient organization, and scientific discoveries.4 Advocated by urban agrarians, social scientists, and the US Department of Agriculture, the New Agriculture sought to remake Thomas Jefferson's yeoman into a modern manufacturer, a "New Farmer."5

That its main character is a woman first suggests that O Pioneers! challenges the dominant nineteenth-century political and intellectual vision of the farmer, Jeffersonian agrarianism. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson famously declared that "Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue."6 But Jefferson's agrarian ideal defines farmers as men, never as women.7 Owing its vision of reality more to literary pastoral than to agricultural economics, this agrarianism originally defended the national economy as agricultural; centered on the same family farm's independent husbandman, a man who was virtuous, hard-working, and faithful to the republic.8 But by 1900, the national economy was rapidly industrializing, and though farmers were "commercialists ... their methods, ideas, and institutions were preindustrial."9 To remedy the latter, the New Agriculture defined the successful farm not as the self-sufficient homestead of agrarian myth but as an efficient, profitable business supporting an increasingly consolidating industrial order.

Efforts to redefine the farmer in industrial terms began at least as early as Farm Journal's 1890 assertion: "We farmers are manufacturers, and when we adopt the successful manufacturer's emphatic methods we shall succeed as well as they." The Journal urged readers to discard old farming methods in favor of the "newest and best"; it claimed that farmers will succeed in the new age only by employing "hard thought [to] evolve new plans," and discovering "shorter, cheaper methods ... to supersede the older."10 By 1907, Kenyon Butterfield, father of rural sociology, was pressing Americans to "eliminate" the farmer who "is dazzled by the romantic halo of the good old times" and to replace him with the "new farmer," who is characterized by "keenness, business instinct, readiness to adopt new methods ... he is a successful American citizen who grows corn instead of making steel rails."11 Redefining the farmer became a "national issue" in 1908 when President Theodore Roosevelt formed the Country Life Commission to study "the problem of farm life."12 The Commission defined "two great classes of farmers: those who make farming a real and active constructive business, as much as the successful manufacturer or merchant makes his effort a business; and those who merely passively live on the land."13 In contrast to those who "refused to become modern," the new farmer's "business [was] gradually assuming the form of other capitalized industries."14