(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

O Pioneers! Willa Cather

American novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, and poet. See also Willa Cather Short Story Criticism.

Published in 1913, O Pioneers! is a novel that portrays the lives of Old World immigrants struggling to make a life on the Nebraskan frontier. Cather called the novel a “two-part pastoral,” and consisted of two of her earlier short stories, “Alexandra” and “The White Mulberry Tree.” Although it was her second novel, she regarded O Pioneers! her first true novel. It is still viewed as one of her best works, and signaled her arrival as a prominent American novelist.

Plot and Major Characters

O Pioneers! opens in 1883 and chronicles the story of Alexandra Bergson, the oldest child of a Swedish immigrant, John Bergson. In the first section of the novel, John Bergson falls ill after struggling to make a living off of his farmland for eleven years. He dies, leaving Alexandra and her three brothers to take care of the family farm. A few years later, the area is hit by a devastating drought and widespread crop failure, which forces several families to sell their land and move. She loses her best friend, Carl Linstrum, when his family goes bankrupt and leaves for the city. Two of Alexandra's brothers, Oscar and Lou, want to sell the farm, but Alexandra refuses. Moreover, she begins to buy more land, a risky financial move that incurs the disapproval of her brothers. In the second part, which takes place sixteen years later, Alexandra's instincts have proved successful; in spite of several obstacles, she has expanded her landholdings and implemented innovative farming methods that have made her a rich woman. Her youngest brother, Emil, falls in love with a childhood friend, Marie, who is married to a brooding neighbor. Alexandra considers marrying her childhood friend, Carl Linstrum, an artist who has fled rural Nebraska for the city. Yet at the end of the second section, he leaves and travels to Alaska to prospect for gold. The third segment of O Pioneers! is a description of the harsh and unrelenting Nebraska winter. In the fourth section, Emil and Marie are killed by her jealous husband after he catches them together. In the fifth and final segment of the novel, Carl returns when he hears of Emil's death. At this point he is ready to commit to Alexandra and the land. The novel ends with hope and optimism, as Alexandra and Carl look forward to the future.

Major Themes

Commentators view O Pioneers! as a story about the relationship of man to the land; Alexandra succeeds where others have failed because she employs a creative approach to farming and exhibits a strong devotion to the land itself. Some critics regard the novel as a study of the immigrant experience in America: John Bergson, the sensitive Swedish immigrant, is eventually destroyed by the unrelenting demands of the prairie, which deftly illustrates Old World values crushed by the harshness of the New World. In addition, O Pioneers! is perceived as an example of the American frontier myth. Commentators note that in her descriptions Cather strives to create an atmosphere of separation and alienation, which is juxtaposed against the passion and intensity of the youthful characters in the story. In addition, critics have explored the implications of passion and romantic love between the characters. Feminist perspectives have been applied to the novel, as the portrayal of female sexuality and Alexandra's role as Earth mother have been discussed. The symbolism of O Pioneers! is another recurring thematic concern; for example, the romantic interlude between Emil and Marie in the orchard is deemed as a metaphor for the Garden of Eden.

Critical Reception

Initially, O Pioneers! was well received by reviewers and established Cather as one of the premier American authors in the early twentieth-century. Yet critics found fault with the structure of the novel, contending that O Pioneers! was essentially still two separate stories, not a coherent, consistent work. This perceived flaw has remained a recurring theme in critical analysis of the novel. Yet some critics note that the story is tied together by such unifying themes as passion and the relationship between man and the land. Others have asserted that the novel is actually structured in five parts: the first three sections develop the major themes of the novel; the fourth focuses on death; and the final section concerns rebirth and regeneration. The symbolism and mythological associations within the novel have also been a rich area of critical discussion. O Pioneers! is considered much more than a regional tale, as the themes of the novel are perceived to be classic and universal. Several critics have placed O Pioneers! within the context of Cather's literary development, viewing it as an integral step in her maturation as an author.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

April Twilights (poetry) 1903

The Troll Garden (short stories) 1905

Alexander's Bridge (novel) 1912

O Pioneers! (novel) 1913

The Song of the Lark (novel) 1915

My Ántonia (novel) 1918

Youth and the Bright Medusa (short stories) 1920

One of Ours (novel) 1922

A Lost Lady (novel) 1923

The Professor's House (novel) 1925

My Mortal Enemy (novel) 1926

Death Comes for the Archbishop (novel) 1927

Shadows on the Rock (novel) 1931

Obscure Destinies (short stories) 1932

Lucy Gayheart (novel) 1935

Not under Forty (essays) 1936

The Novels and Stories of Willa Cather. 13 vols. (novels and short stories) 1937-41

Sapphira and the Slave Girl (novel) 1940

The Old Beauty, and Others (short stories) 1948

On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art (essays) 1949

The Nation (review date 4 September 1913)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of O Pioneers! The Nation 97 (4 September 1913): 210-11.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic provides a favorable assessment of O Pioneers!]

Few American novels of recent years have impressed us so strongly as this [O Pioneers!]. There are two perils by which our fiction on the larger scale is beset—on the one hand a self-conscious cultivation of the “literary” quality, and on the other an equally self-conscious avoidance of it. The point may be illustrated by the work of two “late” novelists of native force, Frank Norris and David Graham Phillips. There was no doubt about the Americanism of either of them, so far as their subject-matter was concerned. It was the newer Americanism which has displaced the New Englandism of our nineteenth-century fiction. These men saw American life on a larger scale. Its scope and variety, its promise rather than its accomplishment, absorbed them. The big spaces and big emotions of Western life seemed to them far more interesting and more significant than the snug theory and languid practice of society in the smaller sense of the word. But Norris could not forget the books he had admired, and died before he had outgrown the influence of the French masters of “realism.” Phillips, on the other hand, failed to shake off the pose of the plain blunt man, who thinks that the amenities of life are symptoms of weakness and that all Harvard men are snobs.

Now (in writing this story at least) it is the same big primitive fecund America which engages Miss Cather's imagination. She dwells with unforced emotion upon the suffering and the glory of those who have taught a desert to feed the world. The scene is laid in the prairie land of thirty years ago. The settlement to which we are taken is of some years' standing. The rough work has been done, the land cleared and broken up, sod homesteads built, crops planted—and then (the great test of courage and faith in that land) a succession of dry seasons. The weaker have already abandoned their claims, or lost them by mortgage. Only here and there a strong heart, like that of the heroine of the story, refuses to be discouraged, persists in believing that the country has a future. Her father, though defeated, has died in this faith, bequeathing it to her; so that when the stupid brothers wish to give up the fight, it is she who insists not only upon holding the land they...

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Sister Peter Damian Charles, O.P. (essay date December 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Charles, Sister Peter Damian, O.P. “Love and Death in Willa Cather's O Pioneers! CLA Journal 9, no. 9 (December 1965): 140-50.

[In the following essay, Charles explores the conflict between love and death in O Pioneers!]

Like any other significant novel, Willa Cather's O Pioneers! has elicited a variety of critical responses. E. K. Brown rejoices in its “happy looseness” of structure and “easy strength” of style characteristic of Willa Cather at her best.1 David Daiches, though he finds the novel “episodic and unevenly patterned,” grants it “moments of force and beauty and a general air of power and...

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David Stouck (essay date spring 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stouck, David. “O Pioneers!: Willa Cather and the Epic Imagination.” Prairie Schooner 46, no. 1 (spring 1972): 23-32.

[In the following essay, Stouck considers O Pioneers! “in the light of its epic vision and in view of the author's imaginative origins in the Midwest.”]

Wright Morris introduces his collection of critical essays, The Territory Ahead (1963), by pointing to that tendency of American writers to “start well then peter out.” His observation is fully substantiated in a discussion of Melville, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway among others. His thesis, however, does not hold with regards to his fellow Nebraskan, Willa Cather,...

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Dorothy Tuck McFarland (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McFarland, Dorothy Tuck. “O Pioneers! (1913).” In Willa Cather, pp. 19-28. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1972.

[In the following essay, McFarland surveys the dominant thematic concerns of Cather's novel.]

When she returned to Red Cloud from her visit to the southwest in 1912, Willa Cather found in her mind a story, which was to be called “The White Mulberry Tree,” and a poem called “Prairie Spring.” With the new story she juxtaposed another story written the winter before in Cherry Valley, “Alexandra.” This “two-part pastoral,” after considerable additions linking and clarifying the relationships of the two stories, became O...

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Maynard Fox (essay date fall 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fox, Maynard. “Symbolic Representation in Willa Cather's O Pioneers! Western American Literature 9, no. 3 (fall 1974): 187-96.

[In the following essay, Fox explores the symbolism in Cather's O Pioneers!]

Willa Cather by 1910 had determined to become a writer, as is evidenced by her work during the decade then just finished; but whether she was to be a poet, a journalist, a writer of short stories, or a novelist was not yet clear. She had published a number of stories of considerable maturity, a volume of poems (April Twilights, 1903), any number of critical articles and other journalistic essays; and had done extensive editorial work for...

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Sharon O'Brien (essay date autumn 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Brien, Sharon. “The Unity of Willa Cather's ‘Two-Part Pastoral’: Passion in O Pioneers!Studies in American Fiction 6, no. 2 (autumn 1978): 157-71.

[In the following essay, O'Brien contends that the two sections of O Pioneers are linked by the theme of passion.]

Willa Cather formed her first successful novel, O Pioneers! (1913), by combining two previously written short stories: “Alexandra,” a 1911 version of Alexandra Bergson's taming of the wild Nebraska soil, and “The White Mulberry Tree,” a tragic tale written a year later in which a crazed Bohemian farmer kills his wife, Marie, and her young Swedish...

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Susan J. Rosowski (essay date spring-summer 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rosowski, Susan J. “Willa Cather—A Pioneer in Art: O Pioneers! and My Ántonia.Prairie Schooner 55, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1981): 141-54.

[In the following essay, Rosowski analyzes the role of separation and alienation in O Pioneers! and My Ántonia.]

Nebraska and great literature seem, as Willa Cather once acknowledged, an unlikely combination, for “as everyone knows, Nebraska is distinctly déclassé as a literary background; its very name throws the delicately attuned critic into a clammy shiver of embarrassment.”1 Yet Cather, a writer of the very first rank, wrote of Nebraska. For over fifty years, readers have...

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Bruce P. Baker II (essay date fall 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Baker, Bruce P., II “O Pioneers! The Problem of Structure.” Great Plains Quarterly 2, no. 4 (fall 1982): 218-23.

[In the following essay, Baker traces the critical reaction to the structure of Cather's O Pioneers!, finding several unifying patterns in the novel.]

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...

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John J. Murphy (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Murphy, John J. “A Comprehensive View of Cather's O Pioneers!” In Critical Essays on Willa Cather, pp. 113-27. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1984.

[In the following essay, Murphy applies different critical perspectives to O Pioneers!]

The dual nature of Willa Cather's O Pioneers! (1913) has occupied its critics from the beginning, from bookman reviewer Frederick Taber Cooper's backhanded admiration for Emil and Marie's passionate affair as a vivid touch of Maupassant unfortunately outside the plodding main story to more thoughtful considerations by subsequent generations.1 Cather herself described her work as a “two-part...

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Ann Moseley (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moseley, Ann. “Mythic Reality: Structure and Theme in Cather's O Pioneers!” In Under the Sun: Myth and Realism in Western American Literature, pp. 92-105. Troy, N.Y.: The Whitston Publishing Co., 1985.

[In the following essay, Meldrum examines Cather's “mythorealistic” approach to her fiction in O Pioneers!]

Willa Cather's own definition of realism recalls James's assertion that each writer must be granted his own donnée, for to her realism is “more than anything else an attitude of mind on the part of the writer toward his material, a vague indication of the sympathy and candour with which he accepts rather than chooses his...

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Warren Motley (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Motley, Warren. “The Unfinished Self: Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and the Psychic Cost of a Woman's Success.” Women's Studies 12, no. 2 (1986): 149-65.

[In the following essay, Motley provides a psychological study of the female protagonist of O Pioneers!, Alexandra Bergson, contending that the character's success exacts a heavy toll on her emotional life.]

Eager to find strong, independent women in American literature, readers have consistently turned to Willa Cather's early heroines. Not only are these women liberated from pasteboard roles; they also participate in the mythic founding of frontier communities—in realms of experience central...

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C. Susan Wiesenthal (essay date January 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wiesenthal, C. Susan. “Female Sexuality in Willa Cather's ‘O Pioneers!’ and the Era of Scientific Sexology: A Dialogue between Frontiers.” Ariel 21, no. 1 (January 1990): 41-63.

[In the following essay, Wiesenthal investigates the role of sexuality in O Pioneers!]

Perhaps the most critical issue which immediately confronts any discussion of Willa Cather's fictional portrayal of sexuality is the nature of the relationship between the author's life and her work, between biography and art. For it is primarily on biographical bases such as Cather's adolescent rejection of femininity—her masquerade as the short-haired, boyishly-dressed ‘William Cather...

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Demaree Peck (essay date spring 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Peck, Demaree. “‘Possession Granted by a Different Lease’: Alexandra Bergson's Imaginative Conquest of Cather's Nebraska.” MFS 36, no. 1 (spring 1990): 5-22.

[In the following essay, Peck evaluates the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his work on Cather's O Pioneers!]

Ever since O Pioneers! was first reviewed in 1913 as “a study of the struggles and privations of the foreign emigrants in the herculean task of subduing the untamed prairie land of the Far West,”1 it has become enshrined in our literature as a national epic. And yet, ironically, the actual chronicle of the pioneer's taming of the wild frontier is precisely what...

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David Stouck (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stouck, David. “Historical Essay.” In O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather, edited by Susan J. Rosowski, Charles W. Mignon, and Kathleen Danker, pp. 283-303. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Stouck traces the publication of Cather's novel and discusses the sources of and influences on the work.]

Willa Cather liked to think of O Pioneers! as her first novel. When she sent a copy of the book to her friend Carrie Miner Sherwood in Red Cloud, Nebraska, she wrote on the flyleaf, “This was the first time I walked off on my own feet—everything before was half real and half an imitation of writers whom I admired. In this one...

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Evelyn Helmick Hively (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hively, Evelyn Helmick. “O Pioneers! In Sacred Fire: Willa Cather's Novel Cycle, pp. 37-49. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994.

[In the following essay, Hively views O Pioneers! from a mythological and cultural perspective.]

The first novel of the frontier, O Pioneers!, was begun certainly with Whitman's poem in mind. The young Willa Cather thought Whitman somewhat ridiculous, but admired him because “there is a primitive elemental force about him.” Alluding to him seems appropriate at the beginning of the first stage of the cycle for that reason and because, as she had said in the same essay, “He is so full of hardiness...

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Neil Gustafson (essay date summer 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gustafson, Neil. “Getting Back to Cather's Text: The Shared Dream in O Pioneers!Western American Literature 30, no. 2 (summer 1995): 151-62.

[In the following essay, Gustafson analyzes the relationship between gender and nature in O Pioneers!]

A number of feminist studies of the past twenty years have focused on the relationship between gender and landscape or nature. Annette Kolodny and Ellen Moers are two important promoters of a theory that casts the male as the marauder of nature, the female as its protector; the male abuses nature, the female nurtures it.1 Several critics have maintained that this general argument applies to Willa...

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Sally Peltier Harvey (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harvey, Sally Peltier. “O Pioneers!” In Redefining the American Dream: The Novels of Willa Cather, pp. 33-41. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1995.

[In the following essay, Harvey discusses the concept of the American Dream and its role in Cather's O Pioneers!]

The quest to define self that fails in Alexander's Bridge proves decidedly more successful in Cather's next three novels, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia, all of which depict the American Dream in a more positive light. It is as if, after exploring what was not fulfilling in the American Dream, Cather, unwilling to reject it...

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C. Downs (essay date summer 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Downs, C. “Glasgow's Barren Ground and Cather's O Pioneers!: Changing the Paradigm.” Southern Quarterly 35, no. 4 (summer 1997): 51-8.

[In the following essay, Downs finds parallels between Cather's O Pioneers! and Ellen Glasgow's Barren Ground.]

In the early twenties and twenties of the century Willa Cather and Ellen Glasgow embarked upon experiments in form in the novel. Like other early modernists, they reacted against the worn-out paradigms of a previous century. Within those paradigms, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis has pointed out, the novel ends in marriage. Marriage, for female characters, was the rest of the story. Cather's and...

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Mary Paniccia Carden (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carden, Mary Paniccia. “Creative Fertility and the National Romance in Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and My Ántonia.MFS 45, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 275-302.

[In the following essay, Carden explores the role of frontier mythology and national imagery in O Pioneers!]


Although definitions and descriptions of America have varied considerably over time, one aspect of the national imaginary remains constant, if contentious: America is at heart a frontier nation, newly born, created out of the wilderness. Its character and spirit can be traced back to and accounted for by its frontier origins. This...

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Melissa Ryan (essay date June 2003)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Enclosure of America: Civilization and Confinement in Willa Cather's O'Pioneer!American Literature, 75 (June 2003): 275-302.

[In the following essay, ]

Willa Cather's public persona turns on the rhetoric of wide-open space. Since the beginning of Cather's career, journalists have romanticized the wild Willa of the prairie, often obscuring the relative refinement of the Cather family. The mature Cather, too, is pictured as most at home in the open air; a 1921 piece in the Lincoln Sunday Star is representative: “Miss Cather had elected to take her interview out-of-doors in the autumnal sunshine, walking. The fact is characteristic. She...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Byatt, A. S. “Willa Cather.” Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings, pp. 197-216. New York: Turtle Bay Books, 1992.

Discusses O Pioneers! in light of Cather's literary development.

Cather, Willa. “My First Novels.” On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art, pp. 91-7. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949.

Discusses the origins of O Pioneers!

Daiches, David. “Early Novels.” In Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction, pp. 15-35. New York: Collier Books, 1951.

Asserts that “episodic and unevenly patterned as it is, O Pioneers! has...

(The entire section is 458 words.)