Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 2010


Great Plains Quarterly 30.2 (Spring 2010), pp 97-115


Copyright © 2010 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


At the conclusion of Willa Cather's 1913 novel O Pioneers!, Alexandra Bergson muses about landownership, and more broadly about the human-land relationship, by reflecting on the transience of the county plat map, one of the most popular forms of mapping rural America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These maps were not only housed at the county clerk's office; by the 1880s and 1890s, while Cather was living in Nebraska, commercialized survey maps periodically were collected and published in large, colorful county atlases, also called plat books, becoming among the most widely circulated maps of rural areas throughout the Midwest and Plains states. This utilitarian form of mapping reflects a nationalistic spatial understanding of western geography as empty space, and it is one form of mapping that Cather draws on and responds to in 0 Pioneers!-a novel centrally concerned with how to map out the land, or as Alexandra says, how to "understand it" (273).

While 0 Pioneers! exposes the constructedness of a nationalistic, frontier-focused mapping of western land and invites an ethic of place, it does not entirely forgo the dominant, spaceoriented mapping or a utilitarian approach to land use. Like a mediator, the text opens up discussion of differing viewpoints, and it is in this capacity that we should view O Pioneers! as a part of the literary heritage of American environmentalist texts. Cather's juxtaposition of narrative mappings of space and place creates opportunities for what Greg Garrard calls "alterations of perspective"-moments of recognition of one's presumed orientation toward land and thus the starting point to potentially altering that orientation. Certainly, in our own day, as people with conflicting stories of living on the land negotiate conservation easements or work to set aside ironically named "open space" lands within urban corridors, a Catherian conversation between contradictory land orientations remains as vital as it was in her time.