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  • "Possession Granted by a Different Lease":Alexandra Bergson's Imaginative Conquest of Cather's Nebraska

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 Cather omits in a sixteen-year hiatus in the plot. Moreover, she never once depicts her heroine Alexandra Bergson physically working the land. Although Alexandra has typically been seen as a representative of the pioneers who settled the prairie, she can be better understood as a representative of Cather, herself a pioneer staking out a new territory in art. At its deepest level, O Pioneers! tells not the dramatic story of the pioneer's conquest of the prairie but rather the imaginative story of an artist's conquest of her true literary material—a material that, as we shall see, lay not, finally, in Nebraska but in consciousness. The real pioneers whose footsteps marked the way for Alexandra's imaginative conquest [End Page 5] of Cather's Nebraska are Emerson and his fellow transcendentalists Thoreau and Whitman.2

By naming O Pioneers! after Whitman's poem, Willa Cather was making a bold bid for a place in the literary tradition of the American transcendentalists. Yet while critics have recognized that the line of influence from Whitman to Cather is direct and clear, they have overlooked its source in Ralph Waldo Emerson.3 Cather explicitly upheld Emerson as her model of the artist in the short story that laid the groundwork for her novel. Written in 1902, "The Treasure of Far Island" was the first story in which Cather idealized Nebraska and thus can be seen as a rehearsal for her extended celebration of the prairie in O Pioneers! Although Cather was fond of looking back on O Pioneers! as the novel in which she discovered the material "that [was] truly [her] own" (Alexander's Bridge vii), she had first claimed Nebraska for her "own" when she wrote "Far Island." Ostensibly about two children who play on an island in a Nebraska river as its "original claimants" ("The Treasure of Far Island" 265), "Far Island" is more profoundly about Cather's own original claim upon her regional subject matter. Cather legitimates the children's rule by invoking Emerson: as she insists, the "empire" of Far Island "seemed particularly to belong to the two children . . . because they were of that favored race whom a New England sage called the true land-lords and sea-lords of the world" (265). Emerson had granted the poet a figurative possession of nature in reward for his imaginative possession, or incorporation, of beauty when he promised him that "Thou shalt have the whole land for thy park and manor, the sea for thy bath and navigation, without tax and without envy; the woods and the rivers thou shalt own, and thou shalt possess that wherein others are only tenants and boarders. Thou true land-lord! sea-lord! air-lord!" ("Poet" 240-241). Similarly, Cather favors her two children with an exclusive ownership of the island because they value it as a stimulus "to the intensity of their inner life" (276). By arguing that the children's superior imaginative investment in nature qualifies them to claim it as natural "artist[s]" (275) akin to Emerson's poet, Cather was able to justify her own acquisition of Nebraska for her art. When she next attempted to celebrate Nebraska in O Pioneers!, she would again enact her imaginative appropriation of the landscape through a surrogate "claimant" in the fiction. Although disguised as a Swedish immigrant farmer who breaks the ground of the western frontier, Alexandra Bergson is really a noble descendant of Emerson's poet landlord who lays claim to Cather's new literary territory grounded in the self. [End Page 6]

At one level Cather modeled her claimants upon Emerson's poet landlord in order to put herself and her readers in possession of the...


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