Source File: cat.cs010.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 10

Making It New: O Pioneers! as Modernist Bildungsroman

Ezra Pound demanded that modern writers "make it new." Readers generally connect his famous imperative to more pyrotechnic modernists such as T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Pound himself, but the "it" in "make it new" implies something previously established that must be reformed for the modern era. Willa Cather has often seemed out of alignment with more overtly experimental peers, yet her significant innovations to the novel form situate her solidly within the cadre of artists who characterize the movement we call "modernism." Moreover, in this respect she stands high in a crowd of "modernist realists" who worked to deconstruct nineteenth-century realism in order to reconstruct a modernist version that got closer to key attributes of the human experience. This essay contends that Cather manipulated nineteenth-century literary techniques, tropes, plots, and characters in order to "make it new." In O Pioneers! (1913) Cather creates two female bildungsroman plots, Marie's and Alexandra's, and subsumes Marie's traditional version within Alexandra's new, hybrid one. She also creates a third bildungsroman, that of the Nebraskan prairie, which Cather uses to symbolize the bildungsroman of the new modern art.

This essay's tracking of how Cather "makes it new" follows a recent turn in modernist scholarship that analyzes a significant modernist formal technique that involved revising, manipulating, or deconstructing earlier forms or themes. Scholars of African American modernism were among the first to launch these kinds of readings; for example, Houston Baker Jr. argues that African American modernists "mastered" traditional forms in order to "deform" the mastery of white hegemony (Baker 50).[1] The bildungsroman, as a genre, has piqued recent interest in modernist scholars, including two major studies: Gregory Castle's Reading the Modernist Bildungsroman (2006) argues for the revitalization of the genre among modernist writers, while Jed Esty's Unseasonable Youth (2011) analyzes the effects of colonialism on modern subject formation as mediated through the bildungsroman, arguing that "Modernism exposes and disrupts the inherited conventions of the bildungsroman in order to criticize bourgeois values and to reinvent the biographical novel, but also to explore the contradictions inherent in mainstream developmental discourses of self, nation, and empire" (3). Franco Moretti, whose The Way of the World (1987) significantly influenced readings of the genre and the nineteenth-century novel, revised his study on the history of the bildungsroman in 2000 to address the genre's modification by modernist writers. Manipulated bildungsromans appear over and over again in Cather's work, such as the "portrait of the artist as a young woman" plot of The Song of the Lark (1915) or the ironic and tragic maturations and dematurations of One of Ours (1922) and The Professor's House (1925). O Pioneers! is a particularly intriguing example of Cather's revision of the genre. Not only does it participate in the modernist trend of revising older generic forms, but its focus on two female protagonists living on the American frontier prior to World War I also makes it a unique text among both modernist novels and bildungsromans.

When speaking of bildungsromans, I mean "novels of development" whose plots revolve around the maturation of the central protagonist, a definition that encompasses works as different as Charles Dickens's David Copperfield (1850) and Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854). The genre traces its origins from Goethe and the German tradition, but it became a popular form during the late eighteenthand nineteenth-century rise of the novel that evolved alongside the burgeoning middle class in Britain and, in divergent ways, the United States. Moretti reads the bildungsroman as a form that mediates the rise of capitalist modernity by explaining the place of the subject within that changing world.[2] Building on Moretti, Esty argues that the traditional bildungsroman mirrors the narrative construction of the nation-state as it/the protagonist strives through a dynamic adolescence to a static maturity: "[T]he tension between the openended temporality of capitalism and the bounded countertemporality of the nation plays out in fictional or symbolic form as a vivid struggle between youth and adulthood" (5). As bildungromans solve the problem of the subject in modernity, they usually feature a misfit protagonist who ultimately learns how to contribute his unique talents and thereby join the mature community, his successful maturation generally signified by marriage. As with any genre many novels diverge from this base model, and such deviation is often evident in texts with female protagonists, which have the additional need to account for socially limited subjects.

Scholars of the nineteenth-century novel recognize two types of female bildungsromans, both of which have relevance for this discussion of O Pioneers! The first type, epitomized by Jane Eyre (1847), mirrors the male plot in that it focuses on the protagonist's youth and education, culminating in marriage. However, in the male texts marriage signals the subject's assumption of his place in society, while in the female this conclusion features more as resignation and acceptance of her place and often includes troubling counterplots that reveal women's limitations. In their foundational The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that novels by nineteenth-century women writers often bury their rebellions against patriarchy and its literary lineage in subplots that trouble the conservatism of the primary one. Focusing specifically on the female bildungsroman, Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland also recognize how the "tensions that shape female development may lead to a disjunction between a surface plot, which affirms social conventions, and a submerged plot, which encodes rebellion; between a plot governed by age-old female story patterns, such as myths and fairy tales, and a plot that reconceives these limiting possibilities; between a plot that charts development and a plot that unravels it" (12)—as in, for instance, the case of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre or of Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice (1813).

The second type of female bildungsroman is what Susan Rosowski calls a "novel of awakening" (rather than one of "development" or "apprenticeship"), exemplified by Madame Bovary (1856) and, fittingly, The Awakening (1899). These plots go further than their counterparts in critiquing the limited options available to female subjects. In these texts the female protagonist "develops" through a growing awareness of her limitations and the falseness of romantic illusions, usually after she is married, and her attempts to discover happiness and agency inevitably fail and culminate in her death. In a move that foreshadows the interiority of modernism, the plot movement of this protagonist "is inward, toward greater self-knowledge that leads in turn to a revelation of the disparity between that self-knowledge and the nature of the world . . . it is an awakening to limitations" ("Novel of Awakening" 49). Even with their embedded rebellions or acts of questioning female bildungsromans generally remain resigned to the limitations in their primary plots or, if not, envision no alternative ending for their protagonists other than to kill them off for their inability to conform.[3]

Cather signals her desire to remake such bildungsromans by rejecting the valorization of these failed female protagonists: "These people really expect the passion of love to fill and gratify every need of life," she wrote, "whereas nature only intended that it should meet one of many demands" (qtd. in Rosowski, "Novels of Awakening" 55). Her disdain for Emma Bovary and Edna Pontelier suggests attributes of Cather's own character as well as the impetus for her manipulation of such plots. With her dislike for these characters Cather telegraphs her radical, genderbased manipulation of the genre in O Pioneers!—gendered because female bildungsromans already revise the male model and formally radical because, for women writers of the twentieth century, changing narrative patterns "signals a dissent from social norms as well as narrative forms" (DuPlessis 20). If modernism stems from the drive to "make it new," then Cather's deconstruction of the generic conventions of the bildungsroman in O Pioneers! participates in the movement's unique literary innovations but gives a particularly gendered cast to those changes. In O Pioneers! Cather creates a hybrid bildungsroman: Marie's plot mirrors that of the novel of awakening, but, as with the subplots found in the other form of female bildungsroman, Cather subsumes Marie's failed female potential within the overarching story of Alexandra. The plot of Alexandra, however, reflects male and female bildungsromans and thus deconstructs both, thereby positing new developmental possibilities for female characters in narrative and female subjects in the world. Cather worked within the logic of "make it new," which allowed her to enhance a sizable female tradition of quiet rebellion to the limitations placed on women's development. In the process she created a distinct, modernist bildungsroman.

This second of Cather's "first novels" works in what we would call a "realist" vein, but it diverges significantly from what she came to regard as the derivative realism of her first "first novel," Alexander's Bridge (1912).[4] Cather acknowledged that O Pioneers! had "no skeleton but defended it on grounds that the country she was writing about had no skeleton either. There were no rocks or ridges; its black soil ran through one's fingers. It was all soft, and somehow that influenced the mood and the very structure of the novel" (Woodress 238). Generally, scholars emphasize the importance of the land to this formulation and to Cather's literary technique, but Cather's comment also implies that writing itself is just as significant as the land, just as soft and rich, because just as open to manipulation and change. From this perspective literature in the early twentieth century symbolizes a new frontier waiting to be developed by the pioneering artist. Such a metaphor reflects the modernist moment, with its rebellious desire to reshape the very geography of art. Put another way, the literary landscape of the emergent modernist movement evokes the metaphorical potentials and hazards of the American frontier several decades before. Cather, rarely perceived as a rebel or radical, nevertheless significantly reimagined the experiences and potentials of female subjects, and she did so through innovations to both plot and form.[5] In order to make this point about the newness of modern life and modern literature in O Pioneers! Cather creates two female development plots that contrast the past against the present.

Like many female bildungsromans of the nineteenth century O Pioneers! also features "a blurring or decentering of the 'major' narrative by alternative stories of female destiny, so that each text is less the telling of one life than a struggle between rival stories" (Fraiman 10).[6] But in this case Cather contrasts the paradigm shift that is Alexandra's plot with Marie's traditional one. In O Pioneers! the novel's younger female protagonist is its most traditional in terms of narrative and genre. Marie, the "prettiest Bohemian girl in Omaha," fell in love with the dashing Frank Shabata, eloped with him, ran away to a farm in Hanover, Nebraska, discovered she had married a limited and limiting man, and her romantic dreams gave way to troubling realities (263). She thus awakens to her subjectivity only after marriage and tries to deny her attraction to Emil Bergson only to die by Frank's hand when he discovers the lovers in the orchard.

O Pioneers! shows that Marie and Emil belong to an older time, enslaving them to the expectations of traditional plot. In her study of Cather's romanticism Rosowski argues for the modernity of Emil and Marie, compared to the "older" stability of Alexandra, seeing them as "characters in parts they do not understand, motivated not by a commitment to a code, even one of defiance, so much as by the desperation of entrapment. . . . At no point do they seize control of their own destinies" (Voyage Perilous 59). Rosowski recognizes a strain of modernism that emphasizes the powerlessness and aimlessness of modern subjects. However, I counter that Marie and Emil's inability to "seize control of their own destinies" stems from their misplacement in time, with the text situating them as figures from the old world and not from the new, in contrast to the rejuvenating potential exhibited in Alexandra's story. Even as children, and from the first time we see them, the text describes Emil and Marie as misfits in their time. Emil is "about five years old" when the novel opens and wearing a "black cloth coat" that "was much too big for him and made him look like a little old man" (12). The child Marie, too, on the same day, appears prematurely aged: "[H]er red cashmere frock, gathered full from the yoke, came almost to the floor. This, with her poke bonnet, gave her the look of a quaint little woman" (18). Such descriptors suggest that, despite their youth, Emil and Marie belong to a different, older time, signaling that their plot, too, comes from before the modern moment.

Compare, then, the description of Alexandra on the same day, wearing equally unorthodox clothing in terms of fit and gender but wearing it with far more precision: "She wore a man's long ulster (not as if it were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged to her; carried it like a young soldier)" (13). The confidence with which Alexandra wears her clothing highlights her youth, strength, and unorthodoxy—the traits Cather will celebrate and emphasize in her new bildungsroman. Guy Reynolds also notices Alexandra's alignment with the future, which he sees as a major theme in the novel, writing that the "pioneering effort" Alexandra exemplifies "requires an imaginative leap into the future to the time when untilled earth is ploughed and fertile" (50). Cather's depiction of Alexandra relies upon generic destruction, which enables the novel's subsequent reconstruction as a new, modern bildungsroman. It is worth noting here that, particularly prior to World War I, modernism was characterized as much by play and possibility as by fracture and despair.[7] Thus Cather's portrayal of modern potential, rather than modern dissolution, aligns with prewar literary trends.

Cather continues to use clothing to signal the established roles that Marie and Emil embrace. At the French Church supper and fair Emil cuts an impressive figure in a traditional, ornate Mexican costume that he got on his recent travels: "a tall Mexican hat, a silk sash, and a black velvet jacket sewn with silver buttons" (109). He looks the part of a romantic hero, and when Marie sees him she "looked delightedly at the black velvet coat that brought out his fair skin and fine blond head" even "while the French girls fluttered about him in their white dresses and ribbon (111, 112). Marie herself is in a costume, "a Bohemian dress her father brought back from a visit to the old country" (109). Marie's outfit again aligns her with the old world rather than the new; moreover she wears it to fulfill the expected look for a fortune-teller in a performance of an antiquated tradition in the modern world. Emil and Marie's costuming contains multiple connotations, from their desire to be people in situations other than they are to a modern nostalgia for exotic and simpler cultures and time periods. It also suggests their entrapment in established roles in an established plot, signaling their inevitable movement toward a specific conclusion. On this night the "Mexican troubadour" and the "Gypsy fortune-teller" will be forced to acknowledge their love, and Emil and Marie will be powerless to escape their plot.

Cather paints Emil and Marie's doomed love affair in language that evokes troubled awakening to a kind of fate. Their first, stolen kiss during the church fair is described as "like a sigh which they had breathed together; almost sorrowful, as if each were afraid of wakening something in the other" (201). When Emil goes to find Marie after Amédée's funeral, he finds her literally sleeping in the orchard and wakes her with an embrace. Such language suggests Cather may have directly parodied Kate Chopin's The Awakening or, perhaps, embraced the literary lineage uncovered by Rosowski's theory of "novels of awakening." In any case Cather indicates her conscious appropriation of older plots through Marie's stereotypical story.[8] Moreover, given the "out of time" terms that contribute to our first impressions of Marie and Emil, the language of awakening shows, as well, that acting on their love for each other also means acknowledging the impossibility of it and admitting that they, or, rather, such plots as theirs, do not belong in modern times. When Marie wakes she whispers, "I was dreaming this . . . don't take my dream away!" (232). Her statement reveals the fine boundary between dream and reality, between real life and expected plot. Cather writes for Marie a well-known plot and projects her story as one bound by fate—Emil and Marie powerless to avoid their passion and, therefore, equally powerless to avoid the conventions of narrative and genre.

Cather further emphasizes this powerlessness in the puppetlike depiction of Frank Shabata's murder of the lovers: "He began to act, just as a man who falls into the fire begins to act. The gun sprang to his shoulder, he sighted mechanically and fired three times without stopping, stopped without knowing why. Either he shut his eyes or he had vertigo. He did not see anything while he was firing" (235). On one hand, the novel suggests that unrestrained passions create powerlessness, an opinion Cather likely held. On the other hand, forcing Emil, Marie, and Frank to play out perfectly their prescribed roles, in a novel that contrasts their antiquated traditionalism against Alexandra's modern iconoclasm, emphasizes the lack of agency within preestablished narrative bounds.

We can see Cather's rejection of generic requirements further in other aspects as well, such as Alexandra's forgiveness of Frank when she visits him at the penitentiary. This enigmatic act appears more comprehensible if we read Alexandra as perceiving Frank's inability to act outside plot, a constraint for which she "bitterly" blames Marie—the protagonist and, therefore, the impetus of that plot (263). Readers may not share Alexandra's condemnation of Marie; indeed, the murder of these beautiful young people by a distasteful, foolish man—and the grief it brings to the primary protagonist, Alexandra—feels classically, achingly tragic. But Cather nevertheless refuses to valorize this plot, favoring Alexandra and her story and physically containing and constraining Marie's story within the overarching bounds of Alexandra's. Like many female authors Cather critiques the lack of agency in the lives of women specifically, but she also rejects the similarly constraining conventions of genre. She thus makes the old plot new by subsuming it within Alexandra's counterpoint story of development.

If Cather's construction of Marie and Emil's love and death constitutes a commentary on established plots themselves, then her assessment of the pioneering impulse, which Alexandra and her counterplot exemplify, also implies a view of modern literary creation. The narrator states: "A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves" (50). In Cather's estimation this declaration holds true for pioneers wrangling the American frontier, but it also applies to literary pioneers wrestling art away from the conventions of genre. For both types of pioneer to be successful and satisfied, they need "imagination," and they need to "enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves": that is, they need to be happy living lives of possibility and experimentation rather than of concrete realities or traditional expectations. Cather's novel dramatizes this argument about pioneer possibility in generic terms with Alexandra's counter to the female bildungsroman.

We have already seen how the young Alexandra wears well her unconventionality, just as Cather declares a good pioneer must. This unconventionality continues in the various ways Alexandra's plot subverts the primary bildungsroman traditions of education, self-actualization, and responsible marriage. The novel first signals this break in the gap between sections 1 and 2, a span of time in which Alexandra develops—but to which the reader has no access. We leave the young Alexandra leading her family in their struggle with "The Wild Land," sensing that the "future" is "stirring," and we come back to her sixteen years later, visiting "Neighboring Fields" as a prosperous, middle-aged, independent, and single woman (69). Rosowski argues that Cather remains silent about this period of struggle so that she can update the conventions of the pastoral: "Cather has skipped over sixteen years of change so radical it seems fantastic, of transformation from a wild land and an undeveloped, crude society to one of the world's most productive regions" (Voyage Perilous 52-53). Other critics, particularly eco-critics, tend to emphasize Cather's complicated relationship to the land, which has traditionally been celebrated but, they assert, reveals problematic attitudes of the period.[9] My goal here is not to apologize for Cather's erasure of struggle, violence, and colonialism, but, rather, to unearth how this erasure subverts generic conventions in order to show their limitations in modern literature. By burying these years of struggle and development, Cather also undermines the bildungsroman's conventions and contrasts them directly with Marie's traditional "awakening" plot. No one questions that Alexandra "develops" in this gap, yet she manages to do so without her story "ending" with her marriage—a fact that signals her rejection of social convention as well as the possibility of a postmarriage, postromantic "awakening" that ends in disillusionment and death. The novel structurally emphasizes her transcendence of these traditional female plots by bracketing the stereotypical tragic romance between the boundaries of section 1, "The Wild Land," and the final, aptly named "Alexandra."

Despite the positive appearance of her unorthodoxy Alexandra's foiling of traditional plots is a problem that must be worked out in the text, particularly when she seeks to further undo expectations by marrying Carl Linstrum. Stereotypical things about women, age, property, work, and business come out during her argument with her brothers Lou and Oscar (even Emil feels she is "somewhat ridiculous" in her proposed proposal to Carl), but the meat of the matter appears in Lou and Oscar's summation of the conversation (149-56, 161). Oscar states, "If she was going to marry, she ought to done it long ago, and not go making a fool of herself now." He asserts that the proper time for Alexandra's marriage would have been during that gap in the narrative, that traditional time when he and his brother married—yet she did not. The word choice highlights Alexandra's travesty of expectations by first avoiding marriage and then suggesting it, making her intention to marry Carl more radical than her remaining single. And as Lou concludes, "Alexandra ain't much like other women-folks. Maybe it won't make her sore. Maybe she'd as soon be forty as not!" (156). He thus acknowledges that given Alexandra's rejection of expectations so far—in marriage as much as self-actualization and independence—they have no reason to expect her to play out the role of "old maid" or any other either.

Alexandra's proposed marriage to Carl is not only unorthodox in terms of age, but it also reverses gender roles and complicates the social-cultural imperative of reproduction that buttresses heterosexual marriage. For one, Alexandra, in essence, pursues and proposes to the younger Carl, and he assumes the female role by acquiescing to their mutual affection and shared ideals. Second, Cather renders their coupling in terms of friendship rather than passion, a further contrast to the story of Marie and Emil. In her youth Alexandra tells Carl that he's helped her most by "understanding" her and her family; she muses at the novel's end, "I think when friends marry, they are safe. We don't suffer like—those young ones" (52, 273). Last, their age also assures that their marriage will not be reproductive, which sabotages marriage's importance to the re-production of the heterosexual gender roles necessary for the maintenance of social structures. Moretti, Gilbert and Gubar, Esty, and others agree that the traditional bildungsroman helps maintain society by reincorporating the protagonist into the cultural fold, most often through plots ending in marriage. Cather's drawing attention to the underlying logic behind such matrimonial conclusions makes her plotting of Alexandra's life particularly radical.

Alexandra doubly invalidates this imperative of heteronormativity through her parental relationship with her much younger brother, Emil. She treats this youngest sibling much more like a child than a brother, caring and striving for him. She claims, "He is going to have a chance, a whole chance; that's what I've worked for" (109). Her symbolic parenthood of Emil, coupled with her late marriage to a friend rather than a lover, draws attention to the real reason women are expected to marry— procreation and the continuation of society—as well the fictions they are told to make this imperative more palatable—based in sentimentalism and the bliss of maternity. Such fictions are part and parcel of female bildungsromans, and Cather uses her novel to exhibit her rejection of them. She does so first through the "awakening" plot of Marie's dissatisfying marriage and bloody death and, second, through Alexandra's competent unorthodoxy, which imagines a different future for white, able-bodied, female protagonists than marriage or death.

In certain ways Alexandra's choices may appear as masculine or as fulfilling male bildungsroman conventions. Daniel Worden argues that Cather depicts Nebraska "as a space where female masculinity prospers," a legitimate subject position that is not "merely a doomed imitation" of maleness but, rather, depicts "masculinity as pure becoming, as a process that will not be stabilized" (273). Worden argues that Alexandra's story is a "masculine narrative of development" because it mirrors a male bildungsroman's "trajectory, from adolescent fantasy to adult escapism to entrance into marriage" (277). Worden makes an intriguing case, but Cather's alteration of the traditional plots proves even more complex and resonant than Worden suggests. For one thing, she does not merely write a female version of Young Werther. Instead, she hides and alters the first female trajectory of development and then contrasts it with the second female trajectory of awakening in order to emphasize the inefficacy of both plots in the modern, American landscape. Such conscious deconstruction of female Bildung plots complicates the attributes of Alexandra's story that mirror male bildungsromans. Ultimately, by situating her dissolution of female Bildung plots on the Nebraska prairie, Cather signals the new possibilities available to those with the right mentality, male or female, on the American frontier. And in the subtle connections she makes between writers and pioneers, Cather declaims literature as the next generation's frontier whose pioneers, she believes, will plough over the old genres and styles as they make new triumphs.

Throughout her oeuvre Cather makes odd but important moves when depicting this land, a space pregnant with ideologies of American ambition on physical, political, gendered, and artistic frontiers. In her prewar depictions Cather's West exists to be written upon by the imaginative and the capable. In O Pioneers! the land features as Alexandra's lover, her true husband. She has one "fancy" that "persisted through her girlhood," a fantasy of being "lifted up bodily and carried lightly by some one very strong. It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew. . . . [S]he could feel that he was yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him" (185-86). The text confirms the eroticism of this fantasy as Alexandra always arises "angry with herself" and rushes to "prosecute her bath with vigor, finishing by pouring buckets of cold well-water over her gleaming white body which no man on the Divide could have carried very far" (186). Cather undermines gender boundaries here by making the land a strong, masculine lover rather than a passive, feminine one and by emphasizing Alexandra's physical strength and vigor that thwart the ability of human men to carry her.

In this passage the layered verb "to carry" also proves significant. First, "to carry" signals Alexandra's desire for someone who can "carry" her emotionally as well as physically, a possibility borne out by the relief she feels at being embraced. Second, however, Alexandra has "carried" her family financially for decades, and a desire for someone "to carry" her implies a wish to be cared for financially as well as emotionally. On one hand, the novel refuses to fulfill this desire by marrying the competent Alexandra to the understanding but physically weak and financially insolvent Carl. On the other hand, constructing the land as Alexandra's true lover reveals how he/it has and will continue to carry her, not only emotionally and physically but also financially. When her fantasy comes to her after Emil and Marie's deaths, Alexandra thinks, "She knew at last for whom it was she had waited, and where he would carry her" (251). And as she settles with Carl, her friend, their plans to marry, he himself states, "You belong to the land," acknowledging the true source of her passion and independence (272). The creation of this lover-as-the-land, and the foundation he provides to the whole of Alexandra's story, enables Cather's rejection of traditional plot expectations for her protagonist, including her final marriage to Carl.

Yet even as this masculine lover symbolizes that the land is Alexandra's true husband, she herself signifies the land. The narrator describes her mind as "slow, truthful, steadfast," as Alexandra's commitment and vision will prove the land itself (61). The text also notes that Alexandra feels as if her heart were "hiding" in the land "with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things" and asserts that on "certain days in her life . . . Alexandra . . . was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil" (69, 183-84). The connection between Alexandra and the land, their mutual need for each other, destabilizes regarding the land as solely masculine (as does Alexandra's excessive insistence that "It was a man, certainly"). In Alexandra's fantasy her lover lifts her "as if she were a sheaf of wheat," and the text makes an agrarian connection between her affiliation with wheat and his affiliation with corn (185). And, notably, this portion of the prairie develops as Alexandra does, her bildungsroman and that of the land mirroring each other. Thus, in an hermaphroditic take on the biblical proverb that "the two shall become one," the novel concludes that this country is "[f]ortunate" because it will "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 land becomes both Alexandra's lover and Alexandra herself, the two merging in a symbolic marriage lush with regeneration. If marriage is the traditional end of bildungsroman plots for men and socially successful women, then the novel intermingles the gendering of its development plots of the land and Alexandra, making them hermaphroditic and mutually constituted. The land does not develop without Alexandra; she does not develop without the land.

Scholars of O Pioneers! (and of Cather's work generally) often identify her debts to previous genres, modes, or sources. As noted earlier, Rosowski argues for Cather's manipulation of the pastoral in O Pioneers! David Stouck contends that Cather's novel functions as a new version of the epic. Mary Jane Humphrey claims the novel's debt to Wagnerian opera, which itself drew on older classical or medieval texts for its plots and inspirations. Marilee Lindemann asserts the inherent "'disobedience' or eccentricity of Cather's texts, qualities that arise out of the revisionary engagement with prior texts as well as their refusal to conform to generic expectations" (4). Less often, however, do critics articulate how the experimental, generic manipulations in Cather's work situate her within the realm of literary modernism, particularly in discussions of O Pioneers! (as opposed to, say, The Professor's House [1925], Death Comes for the Archbishop [1927], and even One of Ours [1922], which are more likely to be aligned with modernism). Yet this essay contends that Cather's deconstruction of the bildungsroman, a particularly prominent nineteenth-century form, and the way in which she reveals her self-awareness of the need to construct a new kind of literature highlight her alteration of contemporaneous trends (not only classical genres) and her consciousness of a literary lineage to be both engaged and transcended. In O Pioneers! Cather creates something of a pastiche of bildungsromans, with overlapping and intermingling variations on Bildung plots, themes, and allusions. She uses this assemblage technique, a prominent modernist mode, to remake the older genre into something not merely "new" but dynamic, difficult, resistant, even radical.

Cather's place in modernism has always been contentious, as contentious as the term "modernism" itself perhaps. Her tendency to realism and her nostalgia for a frontier past seem to situate her in opposition to her future-focused peers. Yet I hope this essay shows that Cather's frontier functions not as a nostalgic retreat from a modernity she does not want to face but as a representation of modernist writing as a site for rethinking subjectivity and the literary genres used to understand and represent it. What Alexandra and Ántonia did to the prairie is what Thea Krongburg did to music, what Cecile Auclair did to domesticity, and what Willa Cather does to narrative. The writing, then, of this second first novel represents Cather's own literary development and situates her artistic abilities as in line with pioneering Alexandra and in contrast to traditional, fated Marie. But even as she rejects the limited possibilities inherent in the novel of awakening and even in the generic conventions of bildungsromans generally, Cather does not reject the form altogether. Rather, she "makes it new," deconstructing the tradition in order to reconstruct it in an innovative, modern iteration. In later novels, such as One of Ours, A Lost Lady (1923), and The Professor's House, Cather's work will focus more on antidevelopment and devolution, in keeping with the orientation of postwar, modern art. But in 1913, when she published O Pioneers!, personal, social, and literary development was still a frontier waiting to be conceived anew.


I would like to thank the editors and reviewers for their thoughtful feedback on this essay. I also want to thank Evelyn I. Funda for her help and mentorship and Joshua Dolezal for his insights on Cather's use of "to carry" in O Pioneers!

 1. In their analyses of the relationship between "white" modernism and "black" modernism George Hutchinson and Michael North also provide relevant examples of this kind of scholarship. In a different vein Linda Hutcheon unearths a "rise of parody" in the twentieth century that works as an homage to previous works as much as a critique of "to carry" in O Pioneers! (Go back.)
 2. Note that "modernity" in this essay is different from "modernism." "Modernity" refers to the long epoch where capitalism developed and became the predominant political and social system in the Western world. Its origins begin in the eighteenth century, and scholars debate whether or not we have transitioned into a new era. "Modernism" refers to the cluster of cultural movements, particularly artistic movements, that appeared, largely, in the first half of the twentieth Modernist works are characterized by various kinds of formal experimentation and represent a host of interests, styles, and concerns; however, they generally responded to a widely held belief that the world had reached a pinnacle (or a chasm) due to these "modern times." (Go back.)
 3. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Jean Rhy's modernist reworking of Jane Eyre—which uses Bertha Mason's perspective to lodge a critique of colonialism—fits the "novel of awakening" George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905) also exemplify slightly different versions of the same plot. (Go back.)
 4. See Cather's "My First Novels: There Were Two" (1931). (Go back.)
 5. In "Willa Cather and the Fictions of Female Development" Judith Fetterley asserts that Cather's work was remarkable in its willingness to depict the developing and developed female outside of wedlock or death, which Fetterley sees most dynamically in The Song of the Lark. However, she bemoans Cather's turn toward devolution or antidevelopment (and the emphasis on male experience exhibited in this turn) as represented by The Professor's House. (Go back.)
 6. Of modern bildungsromans that feature a female protagonist, particularly after World War I, Castle also recognizes "ensemble narratives in which Bildung plots are embedded and thereby reor decontextualized by a larger narrative structure that contains them" (192). (Go back.)
 7. See Singal; Nicholls. (Go back.)
 8. This essay emphasizes the bildungsroman plot, but Cather's allusions to the Pyramus and Thisbe tale through Emil and Marie also fits in with her design of imprisoning them in old-fashioned roles that the novel ultimately rejects. (Go back.)
 9. See Westling; Reynolds; Ryan; and Boyer. (Go back.)


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