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N E I L G U S T A F S O N San Diego, California GettingBackto Cather’s Text: The Shared Dream in 0 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.1Several critics have main­ tained that this general argument applies to Willa Cather’s 0 Pioneers! For example, this stance serves as a basis for Sharon O’Brien’sanalysis of the novel in her Willa Cather: TheEmerging Voice, a work in which she goes to great lengths to establish a distinct difference between howJohn and Alexandra Bergson perceive and work with the land. While I do not object out-of-hand to the general theory, I do maintain that it cannot be properly applied to 0 Pioneers! and that such attempts to appropriate the novel as exemplary of that theory are clearly invalidated by Cather’s text. Yetattempts to apply this particular feminist argument to the novel are numerous; of these, O’Brien’s approach is typical. She asserts that while ‘John Bergson wants to make his mark on the soil by imposing his will upon it” (434), Alexandra “achieves her creative designs by letting them emerge from the soil, not by seeking to subdue nature through force” (392). This is an interpretation long in incubation; O’Brien’s is not even the first attempt to apply it specifically to 0 Pioneers! Dorothy Tuck McFarland, writing in 1972, states that “[John] Bergson exempli­ fies one possible relationship to the land—that of impersonal owner­ ship—which is shown, by its results, to be inadequate” (21), and, ‘Though many have attempted to subdue the land, its submission to the 152 Western American Literature hand of man is dependent on love rather than force” (23), thus antici­ pating much of O’Brien’s argument. More recent contributors to or promulgators of this theoretical approach in general include Carol Fairbanks, who writes in her 1986 study of female pioneer writers about a “traditional (and usually male) assumption: the land must be subdued; in subduing the land a person becomes heroic. . . . The relationship between women and the land is different.” Their “heroism arise[s] out of their ability to work with the land” (170). Josephine Donovan, writing about Cather and O Pioneers! specifically, identifies Alexandra’s brothers, Lou and Oscar, and Frank Shabata as “figures [who] tend to be divorced from nature. They repre­ sent the masculine.” But Crazy Ivar, Marie Toveska, and Alexandra’s younger brother Emil are found to be “in connection with nature”and, thus, represent the feminine (104). And, Elizabeth Jane Harrison sees the novel “as the first successful attempt to change the relationship between women and landscape,” and finds that Alexandra has an “em­ powering bond with nature,” that she gains her identity from the land rather than being symbolic of it (9). I maintain, again, that a reading of Cather’s text reveals quite clearly that this critical approach, whatever its general strengths or weaknesses might be, does not apply to John and Alexandra Bergson. First, John is not a failed farmer, nor does Cather depict him as a brutalizer ofnature. Second, Alexandra is not presented as having been born with an “empowering bond”with the land; she is, instead, shown from the beginning to be a tough young woman blessed with a solid business mind. She develops her love for the land only gradually, as she begins, first, to understand her father’s vision of the land and, then, to make his vision her own. It is a shared dream. McFarland and O’Brien, however, insist upon seeing John as not only a failed farmer, but also a “defeated”man. He fails, O’Brien writes, because “men like Alexandra’sfather. . .can only interpret [the land’s] resistance to cultivation as hostility . . .” (430). Their first and only impulse is, therefore, to “tame” the land; and this is the impulse that destroys. But Alexandra herself succeeds on the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 151-162
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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