One hundred years ago, she published a book that evidently pleased her—for, as the editors of the scholarly edition note, when the 1913 novel O Pioneers was reprinted in 1937, she changed only 100 words, far more than the single correction that earlier editors had assumed but far less than she made to other of her books.
O Pioneers, the first of the so-called Prairie Trilogy (its other parts being The Song of the Lark and My Antonia), is a crystalline tale so well-constructed that it’s hard to imagine improving on it. As with Cather’s own family, who moved west from Virginia when she was 8, it tells of transplanted Nebraskans who set themselves to finding a place on the oceanic prairie. Wrote Cather to a friend as she was drafting the book while living in Arizona, “The West always paralyzes me a little. When I am away from it I remember only the tang on the tongue. But when I come back I always feel a little of the fright I felt when I was a child.”
Alexandra Bergson surely feels more than a little trepidation when, upon her father’s death, she inherits her father’s farm. Other immigrants, mostly Swedish, are abandoning the prairie, in part because, as she says, “The rich men down there own all the best land, and they are buying all they can get.” Some of the ones who stay are “touched by God,” or perhaps the bottle, or cannot get away, or do not want to, rather like the people in Michael Polish’s luminous film Northfork, set on another part of the Great Plains in the century after Cather’s novel.
Poor though her spread might be, Alexandra aims to beat the odds and the rich, to grow and prosper. At the same time, she wrestles with the problem of keeping the man she loves down on the farm when all he wants to do is see places even wilder than wild Nebraska, a place where as Cather writes, “the rattle of her wagon was lost in the howling of the wind, but her lantern, held firmly between her feet, made a moving point of light along the highway, going deeper and deeper into the dark country.”
Alexandra prevails, as tough as her creator; one suspects that this is the reason that Cather, so stern a judge of her own work, was satisfied with her book. Whip-smart and careful to a fault with her legacy, it would surely displease her to know that, a century later, once her last relative and executor had died, a selection of her letters was indeed issued and that much of the conversation around it concerned her sexual preference, which she had taken pains to keep her own business in life.
What matters is her work—and O Pioneers reveals a writer at one of her finest moments.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.