Review: ‘O Pioneers!’ by Willa Cather (1913)

In 1913, The Times declared Cather’s “novel without a hero” to be “American in the best sense of the word.”

Credit:Lily Snowden-Fine

Sept. 14, 1913 | The New York Times

The hero of the American novel very often starts on the farm, but he seldom stays there; instead, he uses it as a springboard from which to plunge into the mysteries of politics or finance.

Probably the novel reflects a national tendency. To be sure, after we have carefully separated ourselves from the soil, we are apt to talk a lot about the advantages of a return to it, but in most cases it ends there. The average American does not have any deep instinct for the land, or vital consciousness of the dignity and value of the life that may be lived upon it.

“O Pioneers!” is filled with this instinct and this consciousness. It is a tale of the old wood-and-field worshiping races, Swedes and Bohemians, transplanted to Nebraskan uplands, of their struggle with the untamed soil, and their final conquest of it.

Miss Cather has written a good story, we hasten to assure the reader who cares for good stories, but she has achieved something even finer. Through a direct, human tale of love and struggle and attainment, a tale that is American in the best sense of the word, there runs a thread of symbolism. It is practically a novel without a hero.

There are men in it, but the interest centers on two women — not rivals, but friends, and more especially in the splendid blond farm-woman, Alexandra.

In this new mythology, which is the old, the goddess of fertility once more subdues the barren and stubborn earth. Possibly some might call it a feminist novel, for the two heroines are stronger, cleverer and better balanced than their husbands and brothers — but we are sure Miss Cather had nothing so inartistic in mind.

It is a natural growth, feminine because it is only an expansion of the very essence of femininity. Instead of calling “O Pioneers!” a novel without a hero, it might be more accurate to call it a novel with three heroines — Alexandra, the harvest-goddess; Marie, poor little spirit of love and youth snatched untimely from her poppy-fields, and the earth itself, patient and bountiful source of all things.


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