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O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

[ Edited ]
Dec 1--
Discussion of Part I "The Wild Land" and
Part II "Neighboring Fields"

This is a slim volume, but I'm also covering the book in 3 weeks because many people have holidays in late December. If you must refer to something later in the book, please mark the post:smileyfrustrated:POILER.

Message Edited by foxycat on 11-25-2007 08:23 PM
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

Because of other, heavier reading commitments, I have been reading O Pioneers somewhat quickly, but have been enjoying it.

But I must say that I regretted the sudden 16 year jump between Parts I and II. At the end of Part I I was waiting to see how they would work through these hard years, how the boys would react to hardship, how Alexandra would hold the family together (I was sure she would, but how was the question!), how long it would take for her to be proved right in her gamble (again, I was sure it would, but what obstacles would she have to overcome in the process?), and the like.

But suddenly, bang, it's sixteen years later and all the hardship is behind them without our having any idea how they overcame it or how it changed or developed them as people. Sort of like reading Cinderella and getting to the point where the sisters and stepmother drive off to the ball and you turn the page and suddenly it's sixteen years later Cinderella is married to the Prince and has four children! How did all this happen???

Am I the only one discombobulated by this disconnect?
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

Do we have any Nebraskans here who can answer questions about the land and area involved in the novel?

There is an actual town of Hanover, Nebraska, (at least Google maps says it's Nebraska, but it looks like it might actually be in northern Kansas), but sources I read say that in fact Cather's Hanover was a fictional town based on Red Cloud (in south central Nebraska about 60 miles to the WNW of the real Hanover). But what is the Divide, what was the river valley she visited, and what is the condition of these lands? I don't recall Cather mentioning the specific crops they were growing, though I may have missed that in my fairly quick reading.

Anybody know this area who can fill in some details?
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

I was startled by the mention of the telephone in Part II; I hadn't realized that the telephone lines had extended to rural Nebraska that early on. O Pioneers was written in 1913; it starts 30 years before that, which would have been 1883. Sixteen years later would be 1899.

I found a mention of a Mr. Yost who "in 1889 he became vice-president and general manager of the Nebraska Telephone Company and in 1891 its president; in 1897 he became president of the Iowa Telephone Company and in 1903 president of the Northwestern Telephone Company, which operated in the states of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota." The same source notes that "The first telephone directory for Omaha was published in 1879, with only 150 names. " I suppose it's feasible that within the next 20 years the telephone had extended out to rural homesteads far outside of Omaha, though I do wonder a bit about the contention that in 1899 "Telephone wires hum along the white roads,..."
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II


Everyman wrote:
Because of other, heavier reading commitments, I have been reading O Pioneers somewhat quickly, but have been enjoying it.

But I must say that I regretted the sudden 16 year jump between Parts I and II. At the end of Part I I was waiting to see how they would work through these hard years, how the boys would react to hardship, how Alexandra would hold the family together (I was sure she would, but how was the question!), how long it would take for her to be proved right in her gamble (again, I was sure it would, but what obstacles would she have to overcome in the process?), and the like.

But suddenly, bang, it's sixteen years later and all the hardship is behind them without our having any idea how they overcame it or how it changed or developed them as people. Sort of like reading Cinderella and getting to the point where the sisters and stepmother drive off to the ball and you turn the page and suddenly it's sixteen years later Cinderella is married to the Prince and has four children! How did all this happen???

Am I the only one discombobulated by this disconnect?
I found this comment fascinating.

I had read a couple of Cather's books over the years, e.g., My Antonia and Lucy Gayheart, so the depth with which she treated the characters and the plot development was rather in line with what I expected from her and I didn't stop to ponder what the book could have been. I, too, read the book quickly, for me, mostly on the train and over the holiday while visiting family. I do remember being startled when making the transition you mention and looking back and reassuring myself that I hadn't skipped a section. But then I just plunged back in to where Cather wanted to go.

I certainly didn't compare the writing with anything approaching Middlemarch, even though in the midst of reading that -- I had no such expectations from Cather. I do think someone like O.E. Rolvaag in Giants in the Earth gives a deeper picture of the struggle of early Scandinavian pioneers on the plains. I contrast Cather more with the spare, sparse diaries of pioneer women such as those printed by midwestern state historical societies -- in fact, Cather seems emotional by comparison. They have a "this is what happened" quality about them, leaving the reader to imagine the causes, natural and human, at play. This book also reminded me of the sensationalism of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood -- a book read long ago.

I am not convinced that Willa Cather had the life experiences to have written the book for which you seem to be wishing. However, within the scope of who she was, she has, at least for me, an ability to capture a sense of the dynamics of that semi-arid country at a particular point in its settlement -- the pure physical struggles with the land, the family expectations, the communities and churches that both were and were not melting pots, the loneliness, the pettiness, the hospitality and humanity of spirit as cultures rubbed against each other.
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II


Everyman wrote:
I was startled by the mention of the telephone in Part II; I hadn't realized that the telephone lines had extended to rural Nebraska that early on. O Pioneers was written in 1913; it starts 30 years before that, which would have been 1883. Sixteen years later would be 1899.

I found a mention of a Mr. Yost who "in 1889 he became vice-president and general manager of the Nebraska Telephone Company and in 1891 its president; in 1897 he became president of the Iowa Telephone Company and in 1903 president of the Northwestern Telephone Company, which operated in the states of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota." The same source notes that "The first telephone directory for Omaha was published in 1879, with only 150 names. " I suppose it's feasible that within the next 20 years the telephone had extended out to rural homesteads far outside of Omaha, though I do wonder a bit about the contention that in 1899 "Telephone wires hum along the white roads,..."

Everyman -- Thanks for the background work. The name "Yost" is startling for me -- I worked with a Mr. Yost years ago in the telecom industry and now wonder if he might have been related. (Yes, a total aside.)

The telephone did not fit for me, but I haven't tried to verify one way or another. Omaha was certainly an early telephone deployment center. On the other hand, I know REA (rural electrification) did not come to much of the Midwest until the late 1940's, although it certainly did vary from state-to-state.

In line with your earlier comments about the missing sixteen years, the availability of telephony would have gained credence by some sort of reference to a local cooperative stringing lines, perhaps by one of the characters. My own cynicism asks if she had been living in NYC too long by the time she wrote O! Pioneers. I hope I'm wrong and come across some person or source that can correct me.

I would have liked more on how Alexandra interacted with the bankers and other town-folk. While Cather might not have had a lot of experience with familial management, I suspect she had considerable anecdotes from interacting with strong men in business. I also wanted to know more about why crop growing apparently got easier (I think it was more than sod busting and alfalfa rotation) and what was driving the changes in land prices. (I don't recall much of the railroad story here, although its presence is evident.)
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

Nice comments, Pepper.

I don't know much about Cather's life, and the only other book of hers I have read is My Antonia, which I found okay but not much more than that. I agree that she doesn't have the depth of, say Eliot; I liked your comment that her writing seemed more like the spare diaries of pioneer women.

My edition noted that she wrote the book because she couldn't find any other books about the pioneer experience she had had, and she wanted to preserve it. To that extent, it probably fulfills its function.
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

Everyman wrote: I don't recall Cather mentioning the specific crops they were growing, though I may have missed that in my fairly quick reading.

Anybody know this area who can fill in some details?


p. 28 -- "the last struggle of a wild soil against the encroaching plowshare...The failure of the corn crop made labor cheap."

I smiled at this (and "citron" surprised):

p. 29 --"The dry garden patch smelled of drying vines and was strewn with yellow seed-cucumbers and pumpkins and citrons. At one end, next the rhubarb, grew feathery asparagus, with red berries. Down the middle of the garden was a row of gooseberry and currant bushes. A few tough zinnias* and marigolds and a row of scarlet sage bore witness to the buckets of water that Mrs. Bergson had carried there after sundown, against the prohibition of her sons." {*spelled "zenias" in my copy}

Also: "...Alexandra had gone over to the garden across the draw to dig sweet potatoes--they had been thriving upon the weather that was fatal to everything else." {Another surprise statement.}

p. 33 I laughed at the choice of Charley Fuller for the real estate man -- and wondered if it had been influenced by "the Fuller brush man."

p. 13 "John Bergson had the Old-World belief that land, in itself, is desirable. But this land was an enigma. It was like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces." {A vivid metaphor that fits earlier readings, and a theme that runs throughout O! Pioneers.}

The very opening page mentions the grain elevator and Ivar's hiring himself out at threshing and corn-husking time is told on p.22. But, the references to wheat and alfalfa I recall are much later -- "wheatfield corner" p. 144; "He begins to cut his wheat today; the first wheat ready to cut anywhere about here. He bought a new header, you know, because all the wheat's so short this year. I hope he can rent it to the neighbors, it cost so much. He and his cousins bought a steam thresher on shares." p. 140. "When I put in our first field of alfalfa you both opposed me, just because I first heard about it from a young man who had been to the University." p. 99

As I look at that last line, I realize that Cather does give us some flashback insights into the missing sixteen years.

Mention is also made of the steers, which would have been sold as a cash crop, and the mother's ability to provide more with egg and butter money than by otherwise working the farm. I was surprised by the extent and variety of the orchards. Also, the reference to hedgerows.
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

I realize that I don't even know what citrons are. Here's what m-w on line says:

1 a: a citrus fruit resembling a lemon but larger with little pulp and a very thick rind b: a small shrubby tree (Citrus medica) that produces citrons and is cultivated in tropical regions c: the preserved rind of the citron used especially in cakes and puddings
2: a small hard-fleshed watermelon used especially in pickles and preserves

Nebraska certainly isn't a tropical region. I wonder whether they were talking about the #2 kind?
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

I was not bothered by the jump in time. Cather wants to concentrate on the family's problems as adults, and is therefore willing to skip over the 16 years. She's not trying to write an epic history of the family. Neither does she cover the entire of Alex's life, but leaves the story off at a propitious moment.

You two have gotten here ahead of me. Due to heavy work schedule, I was hoping to be ready by Dec. 1. Have fun meanwhile.
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

Is it save to assume that she got her title from Whitman's poem?

http://www.bartleby.com/142/153.html
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II



foxycat wrote:
You two have gotten here ahead of me. Due to heavy work schedule, I was hoping to be ready by Dec. 1. Have fun meanwhile.

Oops, sorry! I do see that the header says Dec 1, but when you set up the thread so early, we eager beavers just hit our gas pedals and take off!
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

Thinking about Whitman's poem makes me realize that he (and Cather) epitomize one of the great differences between America and Europe which persists to this day, and which has been discussed in other threads.

In Europe, the land was basically settled and parceled out well over a thousand years ago. Oh, sure, there were lots of wars over it, and borders and ownership changed all the time, but that was all done by soldiers, not by farmers and cattlemen and hunters and trappers. For well over a thousand years there hasn't been a place in Europe where a family could just drive up a wagon and start plowing and planting and making a new home and farm out of wilderness.

Whitman writes:

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied, over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden, and the lesson, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Europeans long ago had to learn to live in a relatively small geographic area (the land area of the traditional Europe (that is, excluding Russia and Scandinavia) is only about a third of the area of the United States, excluding Alaska and Hawaii) with no real opportunity, unless they emigrated to America or Africa or Asia or Australia or such) to become significant landowners by effort rather than by purchase or inheritance.
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II--Title

[ Edited ]
Yes, it comes from Whitman. This is the first time I've posted far in advance. Not being a "certified" R-MOD, I'm just getting into planning these things properly. Actually, we're expecting 3 more readers.

Message Edited by foxycat on 11-27-2007 08:59 PM
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

I provided a thread on Cather's life, as well as a schedule. Check the forum. I've been constructing my book discussions as in other boards, with a schedule and background on the author.

If you two are going to compare Cather to Eliot, you're on the wrong path. This is not meant to be an epic. The book concentrates on Alex and her family as adults, and how she holds on to both what she has inherited and what she has earned. Cather's stories are small and personal, not on a grand scale.




Everyman wrote:
Nice comments, Pepper.

I don't know much about Cather's life, and the only other book of hers I have read is My Antonia, which I found okay but not much more than that. I agree that she doesn't have the depth of, say Eliot; I liked your comment that her writing seemed more like the spare diaries of pioneer women.

My edition noted that she wrote the book because she couldn't find any other books about the pioneer experience she had had, and she wanted to preserve it. To that extent, it probably fulfills its function.


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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

[ Edited ]
Being a product/student of pioneers, I can tell you you didn't miss much in those 16 years. Blizzards, crops freezing in the fields, being so cold you stay in bed all day just so you don't freeze... It was a hard life. I think the more interesting thing to Cather was what those years - the pioneering experience - produced, and hence her focus.

I'll be here with you all, too. I'm not rereading the novel so much as following along to see what everyone else thinks. I've read it, oh probably a dozen times, and have always had a pioneer obsession. Middlemarch is consuming my reading time this month. :smileyhappy:




Everyman wrote:
Because of other, heavier reading commitments, I have been reading O Pioneers somewhat quickly, but have been enjoying it.

But I must say that I regretted the sudden 16 year jump between Parts I and II. At the end of Part I I was waiting to see how they would work through these hard years, how the boys would react to hardship, how Alexandra would hold the family together (I was sure she would, but how was the question!), how long it would take for her to be proved right in her gamble (again, I was sure it would, but what obstacles would she have to overcome in the process?), and the like.

But suddenly, bang, it's sixteen years later and all the hardship is behind them without our having any idea how they overcame it or how it changed or developed them as people. Sort of like reading Cinderella and getting to the point where the sisters and stepmother drive off to the ball and you turn the page and suddenly it's sixteen years later Cinderella is married to the Prince and has four children! How did all this happen???

Am I the only one discombobulated by this disconnect?



Message Edited by AJ981979 on 11-28-2007 03:30 PM
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

I've been there.

Cather's part of Nebraska was central in terms of east-west, but pratically on the Kansas border. (Google it - you'll see) Most critics agree that Cather based her Nebraskan novels on Red Cloud, which is where she and her family relocated. Red Cloud was a railroad town, so it was something of a hub back in the day. Remember that opening scene with the cat up the telegraph pole? Those wires, just like the telephone wires later on, ran along the railroad tracks before they went anywhere else, so station conductors could communicate with each other. People would come from all around - it wasn't unusual to spend a whole day or two getting to town and back - just to use the telegraph.

Likewise, Red Cloud also would've been one of the first places for the telephone. That does not, by any means, mean that everyone in town had a telephone. But as soon as the wires were there, and one had enough money, one could get a phone put in. (Sidenote: my mother, who grew up in another part of Nebraska, had only a party-line until she was in high school (early 1960s) because that's all they could afford; other families had private lines much sooner.) Note that Alexandra did very well for her family - she even was able to keep house girls, which was certainly not the norm.

Of course, as the railroads died out so did the towns, and today Red Cloud resembles any other struggling little town you'll find west of the Mississippi. Except, they do remember and commemorate their Cather - you can see the house, the railroad station, neighbors' houses, a farmhouse, etc. I was on a tour with 6 others that was guided by a high school student working her summer job.

The Divide - now you're really pushing my memory! - had something to do with the water supply. At any rate, it was (is, probably) one of those geographic features that matter immensely when one is planning a farm/ranch, and not at all if one lives in a city.

The land down there is barren. In fact, all of Nebraska doesn't have dirt so much as it has sand, in my opinion, the shrubs and grasses you see are ones with only short roots. These are not the 6-foot grasses of Laura Ingalls Wilder. There is a reason land is as much a charater in pioneer novels as any human - if you can't eke your subsistence out of it, you die. Many of the places immigrants settled weren't settled sooner because of lack of good land, but being new to the country and desparate they would take anything and try to make it work.

I've rather rambled my response and may have bypassed something obvious. Please ask. :smileyhappy:



Everyman wrote:
Do we have any Nebraskans here who can answer questions about the land and area involved in the novel?

There is an actual town of Hanover, Nebraska, (at least Google maps says it's Nebraska, but it looks like it might actually be in northern Kansas), but sources I read say that in fact Cather's Hanover was a fictional town based on Red Cloud (in south central Nebraska about 60 miles to the WNW of the real Hanover). But what is the Divide, what was the river valley she visited, and what is the condition of these lands? I don't recall Cather mentioning the specific crops they were growing, though I may have missed that in my fairly quick reading.

Anybody know this area who can fill in some details?


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Re: O Pioneers!-- Dec 1 -- Parts I and II

Thanks, AJ. Very interesting and useful response.

I liked your comment about certain features being very important to the farmers which would be meaningless to city folks. Very true!
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Re: O Pioneers!-- AJ's post

AJ--

Welcome. You haven't rambled on; your additional info is priceless.

Such arid, sandy land was probably better for something other than farming. It's to the credit of the pioneers that many did succeed in conquering the land. I think irrigation at that would have been very primitive.

I'm behind everyone because it's about 10 years since I last read it, and I scheduled this for next week. I won't be into the meat of these 2 chapters for another few days. Meanwhile carry on.
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Re: O Pioneers!-- Oops! Typo

In the above post, the sentence should read "the irrigation at that time".

Here's another link on Cather's bio:
http://www.geocities.com/Wellesley/3005/Catherintro.html
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