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M A Y N A R D F O X Fort Lewis College Symbolic Representation in Willa Cather’s 0 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 McClures. First, she had to determine who she was, what the Nebraska of her childhood and youth meant to her, and what forms best suited her genius. For example, “A Wagner Matinee” (Everybody’s Magazine, March, 1904) and “The Sculptor’s Funeral” (McClures, January, 1905) are more hardhoiled than her later fiction of acceptance because in them she rejected her West for its sordidness and hostility to the aesthetic capacity of the human being. The West she then saw as particularly destructive of the artist. John H. Randall III has an interesting division of her work into four periods, of which the decade 1900-1910 covers approximately the first. As he says, during this period “She wrote about Nebraska . . . with a shudder of loathing.”1 Sarah Orne Jewett recognized during this period that her friend Willa Cather was not yet settled in her artistry. In a letter written in December, 1908, she advised Willa to go lieyond superficial appearances: I want you to be surer of your backgrounds, — you have your Nebraska life, — a child’s Virginia, and now an intimate knowl­ edge of what we are pleased to call the “Bohemia” of newspaper and magazine-office life. These are uncommon equipment, but you don’t see them yet quite enough from the outside. . . ,2 lThe Landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather’s Search for Value (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), pp. 18-19. 2The Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Annie Fields (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), pp. 248-249. 188 Western American Literature Miss Cather’s fledgling novel, Alexander’s Bridge (1912), proved a failure. As late as 1915 she was still experimenting with form. That year in her third novel (The Song of the Lark) she tried the “over-furnished method,” much used by the Naturalists.3 Evidently she found the method distasteful, for she never again returned to it. Instead, she irrevocably turned in 1918 (My Antonia) to a method that would produce a rich meaning in fewer words. That method, as I am sure careful readers of Miss Cather’s best novels know, effec­ tively employs the symbol and the image in abundance. In 1913 she had used it in OPioneers! before doing The Song of the Lark. Later in A Lost Lady (1923), The Professor’s House (1925), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) came the full fruition of her settled use of symbolic representation. The achievement in the early O Pioneers! lies inthe degree of her use of the method rather than in the brilliance ofthe performance. She showed herself in this first successful novel a good and careful craftsman, but she needed more experience to write a brilliant novel. The dominant symbols in the novels of Miss Cather are naturecentered . The most pervasive of these symbols is the Garden, which appears briefly in O Pioneers!, where for a time Emil and Marie enjoy an innocent but recognized love in the Shabata orchard before they become guilty in the recognition of their love; in well-developed form in My Antonia and A Lost Lady, complete with serpent; in a form briefly translated into Paradise on earth in The Professor’s House — significantly, there is no serpent in that book; and in the form of many small gardens in which the faithful are usually assembled in Death Comes for the Archbishop. This Garden, sometimes despoiled by a serpent in the early novels, is subject to the cycle of the seasons. In O Pioneers! the Garden in winter images slumbering passion; in the summer, passion in bloom. On the other hand, the Garden in My Antonia...


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