Spring 2004

Mowers Tree logo

Cather's Use of Genius in O Pioneers!

by Matt Hokom, Fairmont State College

Critics have written extensively about Willa Cather's debts to various literary traditions: literary schools like romanticism, realism, and modernism; traditions of popular literature and oral story telling; and ancient sources like those found in the Bible and the Greco-Roman classics. This article attempts to interject another voice into this fruitful critical conversation by examining Cather's multilayered use of the Roman genius figure in O Pioneers!

Cather begins Alexandra's story in the hard times of the pioneer period when the Bergsons and all their neighbors are struggling to stay afloat as farmers in the Nebraska countryside. The opening chapters present us with a bleak picture: the family is in debt, Alexandra's father is dying, and winter is upon the prairie. We read that "in eleven long years John Bergson had made but little impression upon the wild land he had come to tame. It was still a wild thing that had its ugly moods; and no one knew when they were likely to come, or why. Mischance hung over it. Its Genius was unfriendly to man" (26).

By the end of the first book, however, things are looking up. At her dying father's behest, Alexandra has taken over the farm and is intent on remaking it in her own image, even though this will place the family in tremendous risk. Once she has decided to gamble everything by buying more land and expanding the farm, Alexandra feels a great sense of certainty and relief. Her brother Emil wonders "why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her" (64). The answer, we are told, is that,

For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman. (64)

I believe that these two passages about the Genius of the Divide are best understood in terms of the Roman conception of Genius, and, when so understood, other important aspects of Alexandra's personality are illuminated. Perhaps even more importantly, by studying the figure of the Genius, we can see some of the ways Cather not only borrowed ideas from the classical tradition, but also modified those same ideas to serve her own literary ends.

The ancient conception of the genius is a rich one with many meanings in Latin literature depending on era and context. As an able amateur Latinist, Cather would have been familiar with most of them, and especially conversant with presentations of the genius in major authors like Horace, Ovid, and especially Virgil. Etymologically, the root meaning is related to the Greek asaiiiae, meaning "to beget," which gives us such English words as genesis. The Oxford Classical Dictionary defines the literal meaning of the word as that which is just born" (630). Thus, even at this most basic level, the root meaning of "genius" fits well with the use of the term in the novel. The twin heroes of the book, Alexandra and the land (if one can really disentangle them), are begetters, not of children but of crops. When the Genius of the Divide smiles on Alexandra, she is able to release the lands fertility, to ultimately beget a community.

Ancient art also reflects this meaning of the word genius. In visual depictions of the genius, especially the genius of the emperor, the spirit is often shown with a cornucopia in one hand, a symbol perfectly appropriate to a novel whose heroine is a successful farmer. In the other hand, the Genius typically holds a patera (a kind of saucer), from which he pours a libation. Libations, as opposed to burnt sacrifices, were especially associated with "chtonian and nature deities," another reference which reinforces the novels themes (Oxford 854) (see illustration).

Moving from etymology to specific uses of the term in Roman religion, we encounter the tradition of the genius loci, or spirit of the place. In this instance, the genius serves as a guardian spirit attached to some locale: a field, a glade, a spring or the like. As with all such divinities, the genius loci has the power to help or harm, and may do either depending on how it is approached. Piety is typically rewarded, impiety punished. Perhaps the most famous passage about such a genius, and one Cather certainly would have known, occurs in the fifth book of the Aeneid. In this book, Aeneas, fleeing Carthage and the scorned Dido, returns to Sicily and the grave of his father. Preparing to celebrate funeral games at his father's tomb, Aeneas makes sacrifice. As Aeneas addresses the spirit of Anchises, a great snake appears from the depths of the tomb and feeds on the offerings. Aeneas thinks this "The local god, the genius of the place, / Or the attendant spirit of his father" (128). Notable here is the belief in local divinities which, when properly approached, may grant favors. Also significant is the context, which places Aeneas and Alexandra in similar situations. When the Genius of the Divide first smiles on Alexandra, it is three years after her father's death, much as Aeneas encounters this genius loci after his father's death. Like Anchises to Aeneas, John Bergson has passed on his authority to Alexandra, who now heads the family and will soon lead the community in the new land they have settled, just as Aeneas leads the Trojans as they make their way to a new land in which they will flourish. And, ultimately, both Aeneas and Alexandra will serve as founding parents of new nations formed as immigrant communities arrive in an already settled country.

Aside from the tradition of the genius loci, there is another set of meanings for genius, all dealing with its relation to individuals, rather than places. According to this usage, everyone has his/her own genius, envisioned as an indwelling spirit, sometimes seen as ones spiritual double or even personality. The genius of the individual, much like the genius loci, could serve as a protective spirit. Eventually, the Latin notion of the genius was conflated with the Greek notion of a daemon, with the result that the genius became something very much like an individuals unconscious or intuition or even guardian angel (Ogilvie 123). Richard Onians writes, "Not only was his genius thus apparently liable to intervene or take possession of a man but[...]was, in the time of Plautus, thought to enjoy knowledge beyond what was enjoyed by the conscious self and to give the latter warning of impending events" (160-161). This notion of the genius as a kind of intuition informs key moments in the text when Alexandra feels an inexplicable certainty before making an important decision. For instance, immediately following the passage where the Genius of the Divide smiles upon Alexandra, she decides to risk the family's fortunes by purchasing more land. When her brother asks how she knows her plan will succeed she can only answer, "I can't explain that, Lou. You'll have to take my word for it. I know, thats all. When you drive about over the country you can feel it coming" (66). This sort of intuitive knowledge would have been explained by the ancients as the work of one's genius. Just two pages after Alexandra's conversation with Lou, Cather offers a glimpse of this kind of visceral genius: Alexandra drew her shawl closer about her and stood leaning against the frame of the mill, looking at the stars which glittered so keenly through the frosty autumn air. She always loved to watch them, to think of their vastness and distance, and of their ordered march. It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security. That night she had a new consciousness of the country, felt almost a new relation to it[...] . She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. (68-69)

In this passage linking Alexandra with the earth and the stars, Cather reinforces the notion of Alexandra's personal genius by drawing on the astrological connection between ones genius and one's natal star. Jane Chance Nitzsche writes that in "the Augustan period, the concept of the genius accrued an astrological meaning. It controlled the guiding star, the natal constellation, of each individual, and thus also his uniqueness" (22). The book's final paragraph, even more explicitly connecting Alexandra to the land, evokes the same celestial imagery: "They went into the house together, leaving the Divide behind them, under the evening star. Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!" (274). The first sentence gives us the trio of Alexandra, the Divide, and the evening star, representing three versions of genius: the personal, the genius loci, and the astrological. The final sentence captures the root meaning of genius as a begetter and hints at yet another important meaning for the term.

This fourth variation of the genius is related to the idea of the personal genius, but is an older and more restricted concept associated with the paterfamilias. The paterfamilias was the head of the household, the father who ruled the family. This rule extended over both the biological members of the family and the extended family of servants and slaves and included the power of life and death over family members along with control of the family property (Oxford 1122). The genius of the paterfamilias was a spirit associated with an entire family, but it inhered in only one person, the paterfamilias. It seems to have originally expressed [...] the special idea of the mysterious ability of the paterfamilias to continue the family and keep up its connexion with the genius" (Fowler 18). H. J. Rose identifies it as the "life, or reproductive power, almost the luck, of the family" (59). In this tradition, there is one genius per family, and it is always found in the paterfamilias. The genius of the paterfamilias thus symbolizes the continuity of the family and is passed down from one paterfamilias to another. The one immediate obstacle to applying this idea to Alexandra is that she is a woman and there is no materfamilias equivalent to the paterfamilias. But here, I think, something interesting is occurring. Rather than simply borrowing ideas to enrich her writing, Cather is deliberately revising the patriarchal Roman tradition. In every way except her biological sex, Alexandra functions as the paterfamilias. Her father, the past paterfamilias, carefully chooses her to head the family after he dies because "in his daughter, John Bergson recognized the strength of will, and the simple direct way of thinking things out, that had characterized his father in his better days. He would much rather, of course, have seen this likeness in one of this sons, but it was not a question of choice" (29). And, later, Bergson addresses his sons, saying, "Boys[...] I want you to keep the land together and to be guided by your sister so long as there is one house there must be one head" (31). Once she has become prosperous and has servants, the brothers too look upon Alexandra as a paterfamilias figure; her hired hand Ivar, in particular, "always addressed Alexandra in terms of the deepest respect," calling her "the mistress" (87). Finally, when Lou and Oscar try to defy Alexandra's authority by insisting that "the property of a family belongs to the men of the family, because they are held responsible, and because they do the work," Alexandra reasserts her role as the head of the household and dares her brothers to defy her (153). Alexandra's very name, which means "protector of men," confirms her role as the paterfamilias of the family. In fact, the novel repeatedly shows her looking out for the men of the household who are incapable of adequately managing their own affairs. Although Alexandra's capabilities fit her to be the carrier of the family genius, Cather provides one other piece of evidence, again from the iconography surrounding the genius. Richard Onians explains that "the belief that the genius manifested itself in flame" and that the genius[...] manifested itself in the fire in the head[...] . The greater the energy, the potency of the soul, the brighter the flame" (163-4). Significantly, Cather depicts Alexandra's head as surrounded by just such a fiery nimbus. She tells us, for example, that "her thick, reddish braids, twisted about her head, fairly burned in the sunlight," and that her hair is so curly that the fiery ends escape from the braids and make her head look like one of the big double sun-flowers that fringe her vegetable garden" —all hints that Alexandra is indeed the one who embodies the genius of the family (51, 84).

Thus far we have seen how Cather draws on the tradition of the genius loci, the genius as a personal divinity, often associated with one's natal star, who guides one's actions, and the genius of the paterfamilias. The root meaning of the word "begetter" also permeates the novel. Cather uses these ideas not only individually but in combination. In one of the most enigmatic parts of the novel, a recurring dream of Alexandra's that is twice described, Cather mixes the idea of the genius loci with the basic sense of the genius as a spirit of fertility. Cather describes the first dream in the following words: There was one fancy indeed, which persisted throughout her girlhood. It most often came to her on Sunday mornings, the one day in the week when she lay late abed listening to the familiar morning sounds; the windmill singing in the brisk breeze, Emil whistling as he blacked his boots down by the kitchen door. Sometimes, as she lay thus luxuriously idle, her eyes closed, she used to have an illusion of being lifted up bodily and carried lightly by someone strong. It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew; he was much larger and stronger and swifter, and he carried her as easily as if she were a sheaf of wheat. She never saw him, but, with eyes closed, she could feel that he was yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him. She could feel him approach, bend over her and lift her, and then she would feel herself being carried swiftly across the fields. (185-6)

The second version of this encounter is described in similar terms: As she lay there with her eyes closed, she had again, more vividly than for many years, the old illusion of her girlhood, of being lifted and carried lightly by someone very strong. He was with her a long while this time, and carried her very far, and in his arms she felt free from pain. When he laid her down on her bed again, she opened her eyes, and, for the first time in her life, she saw him, saw him clearly, though the room was dark and his face was covered. He was standing in the doorway of her room. His white cloak was thrown over his face and his head bent a little forward. His shoulders seemed as strong as the foundation of the world. His right arm, bared from the elbow, was dark and gleaming, like bronze, and she knew at once that it was the realm of the mightiest of all lovers. She knew at last for whom it was she had waited, and where he would carry her. (251; my emphasis)

This enigmatic figure has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Mary Ruth Ryder connects him to Apollo, to Adonis, and even to Poseidon abducting Demeter, but finally argues that "the dream figure is a vegetation god who embodies the very powers upon which Alexandra must rely to sustain herself and her family" (111). Starting from this premise, critics have identi- fied the dream figure with Sumerian, Caananite, and Pawnee mythology; one critic simply dubs the figure the "eros of the corn" (Reaver 19-23). I agree with Ryders assertion that the figure is indeed a vegetation god and think the simplest identification is with the already named Genius of the Divide. That Alexandra's dream man is indeed a Genius figure is supported by two small but significant hints. First, Alexandra never sees the figure clearly because his cloak is thrown over his face. This fits the usual Roman depiction of the genius figure, who typically is depicted capite operto, with the toga thrown over the head.[1] The other significant detail is that the Romans called the marriage bed the lectus genialis, the bed of the genius (Bailey 51). Since Alexandra always has these erotic visions while in bed, this would seem to confirm that she is in fact married to the land represented by the genius loci. Carl later makes this point explicitly when he and Alexandra finally reunite. Indicating that he knows to whom Alexandra is really married, Carl reminds her (and readers) that "You belong to the land" (272).

There are, I think, several important points to be drawn from the foregoing. The first and simplest is that Cather uses the Latin notion of the genius in a straightforward way to enrich some of the main themes of the novel, such as the fertility of the land, Alexandra as the head of the family, and the relationship between Alexandra and the land. More important is that, while Cather draws heavily on Classical conceptions of genius, she does not always straightforwardly adopt them, but often adapts them to her own artistic ends. For instance, she takes the Roman idea of the genius of the paterfamilias and replaces the pater with a mater.

If we're bold enough to speculate a bit, this subversion of gender norms raises an intriguing possibility. If, as has become a critical commonplace, one reads Alexandra as an agrarian artist, it is a small leap to interpret her genius as a synonym for her muse. That is, Cather gives us a female artist being inspired by a male muse. Here we have a truly radical and meaningful revision of the tradition. Susan Rosowski has noted how, in My Ántonia, Cather has revised the notion of the muse to make the artist/muse relationship represented by Jim and Lena more equal and collaborative (85-87). In this reading, however, the relationship is still gendered in traditional terms — male artist and female muse. In O Pioneers! the collaborative nature of the muse/artist relationship remains, but here the muse is quite explicitly male and the artist female. At this point, it is difficult not to leap from Cather's novel to her life, since Cather thought of herself as a serious artist and spent many of her early years writing about the nature of the artists life and struggling to understand what it meant for her, a woman from Nebraska, to be an artist. Cather's dramatic revision of the classical tradition indicates that she, as a female artist, was seriously trying on the classical paradigms for artistic achievement and was bold enough to reconceptualize one of the oldest and most significant models for artistic production &mdash the muse &mdash by shaping this model to her own ends. This, as certainly as her better known rejection of the Jamesian method which characterized Alexander's Bridge, is a sure sign that Cather had reached her artistic maturity and was reinventing the tradition rather than imitating it.

End Notes

 1. One well known depiction of such a figure occurs in a lararium preserved at Pompeii. I dont know of any place where Cather refers to this mural, but I think it is possible that she knew of it. Certainly she was familiar with the rediscovery of Pompeii, which fascinated the nineteenth-century world. She refers to Pompeii in two different novels. In My Ántonia, Jim has a photograph of "The Tragic Theater at Pompeii" in his room in Lincoln, and, in A Lost Lady, an engraving of The House of the Poet on the Last Day of Pompeii" decorates the Forrester mansion. For those interested in learning more about this, Houses and Monuments of Pompeii: The Works of Fausto and Felice Niccolini reprints nineteenth-century paintings, drawings, etchings, etc. of Pompeii. The lararium from the House of the Vettii can be viewed online at http://cti.itc.virginia.edu/~jjd5t/region-vi/vettii/vettii-table1.html. Finally, in his Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome, Cyril Bailey describes a Pompeian wall painting in which "The paterfamilias dressed as the Genius with the fold of his toga passing over his head (capite operto, as always in Roman ritual) holds in his left hand a large cornucopia, and with his right hand is making an offering over a small round altar garlanded with flowers" (82). (Go back.)

Works Cited

Bailey, Cyril. Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome. 1932. Sather Classical Lectures. 10. Westport: Greenwood, 1972.
Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!. Eds. Susan J. Rosowski, Charles Mignon, and Kathleen Danker. The Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992.
Fowler, W. Warde. Roman Ideas of Divinity: In the Last Century Before the Christian Era. London: MacMillan and Co., 1914.
Nitzsche, Jane Chance. The Genius Figure in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. New York: Columbia UP, 1975.
Ogilvie, R. M. The Romans and Their Gods in the Age of Augustus. New York: Norton, 1969.
Onians, Richard. The Origins of European Thought About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1951.
Oxford Classical Dictionary. Third Edition. Eds. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spaforth. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
Reaver, J. Russell. "Mythic Motivation in Willa Cather's O Pioneers!" Western Folklore. 27(1968): 19-25.
Rose, Herbert J. "On the Original Significance of the Genius." The Classical Quar- terly. 17.2 (1923):57-60.
Rosowski, Susan J. Birthing a Nation: Gender and the West in American Literature. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999.
Ryder, Mary. Willa Cather and Classical Myth: The Search for a New Parnassus. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.
Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.