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From Cather Studies Volume 10

Time Out of Place: Modernity and the Rise of Environmentalism in Willa Cather's O Pioneers!


Willa Cather was notoriously skeptical of how modernity was transforming American life in the early twentieth century. In her 1923 Nation essay, "Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle," she mourned the midwestern state she had moved to as a child, in 1883, at the age of nine. Nebraska's European settlers, immigrant cultures, and sod houses were being displaced by electricity, telephones, furnaces, tractors, cinema, and public education: "[T]he splendid story of the pioneers is finished," she wrote. "The generation that subdued the wild land and broke up the virgin prairie is passing." In awe of their accomplishments she wrote that the settlers "came into a wilderness and had to make everything, had to be as ingenious as shipwrecked soldiers." Cather felt none of this reverence for the pioneers' descendants who, she claimed, did not show any signs of such courageous spirit: this "generation . . . wants to live and die in an automobile, scudding past those acres where the old men used to follow the long corn-rows up and down" (47). Indeed, the 1920s, the decade of Cather's Nation essay, revolutionized everyday Nebraska life, introducing radio communications, entertainment, household appliances, and the widespread use of cars. Echoing Cather's observations, historian Frederick Luebke writes that in the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, from the 1880s to the 1920s, "the lives of ordinary Nebraskans . . . [were] profoundly transformed." Already, when the Trans-Mississippi Exposition was held in Omaha in 1898, the "message was that Nebraska's frontier phase . . . was over" (192). Yet two decades later Cather was still at work recalling the old Nebraska, translating the cultures, events, and people of her childhood into the fictional narratives of O Pioneers!, Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia, published from 1913 to 1918.

While Willa Cather's preoccupation with nineteenth-century agrarian culture has won her the respect of readers and critics, her distrust of modernity left her with a historically unstable position in the modernist canon. Resistance to the changes wrought by the twentieth century, of course, does not necessarily disqualify one from the "modernist" label. The impulse to reconnect with more primitive, earlier times is a hallmark of modernist aesthetics, shaping the search for meaning in a fragmented, disenchanted, mechanized world. Yet more often than not, Phyllis Rose explains, the early twentieth-century atmosphere of experimentation and "making it new" and an attendant critical discourse that "valued complexity, ambiguity, even obscurity" resulted in Cather's labeling as "naively traditional" and "essentially nostalgic and elegiac" (123).[1] In effect, in modernist studies she has been treated as a romantic regional writer, unconcerned with the international terrain so integral to modern thinking—at least until scholars, in the 1980s and 1990s, began reevaluating the historical record, demonstrating her innovative departures from nineteenth-century fiction, including antiheroism, gender-bending, episodic narrative, antirealism, simple prose, emphasis on memory and time, and the exploration of immigration, empire, and race. Today it is not uncommon to encounter critics announcing Cather's newfound canonical status as a modernist—indicated mostly clearly by her inclusion in works such as The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism, published in 2005.[2]

But despite this historical revision the environmental content of Cather's writing remains remarkably absent in discussions of her modernism, and critics' evaluations reveal a deep-seated prejudice against thinking ecologically about modernity. For example, Catherine Morley and Alex Goody set out "to question the preconceived notions of simplicity and parochialism that still surround Cather's writing, to link Cather scholarship . . . to international modern culture and American modernism." As Morley and Goody define modernism's relationship to globalization, however, it becomes clear that their understanding of international exchanges of ideas includes no consideration of place, environment, and nature—even though global exchanges and networks include a reorganization of how humans relate to space and location. Cather, Morley and Goody point out, "wrote about the war" and "found in Europe an inspiration" and was "politically committed to . . . the great democratic experiment." Rather than putting these characteristics of Cather's writing into dialogue with her emphasis on rurality and environmental experiences, Morley and Goody merely present them as proof that Cather can be resuscitated from her "pigeonhole . . . as a prairie elegist" (7, 8). While making a substantive contribution to studies of Cather and modernity and modernism, analyses like Morley and Goody's cast environmental issues and modernity into divergent realms. Globality and rurality not only occupy different physical spaces; they belong to different historical periods, one modern, the other not, one an asset, the other a liability. In this theoretical framework Cather can "make it new" but not with ecology and nature.[3]

In this essay I contend that Cather's pastoral nostalgia and her preoccupation with nineteenth-century Nebraska, especially in her 1913 novel O Pioneers!, are not rejections of modernity but rather concentrated attempts to grapple with what might be called "environmental modernity"—or "modern environmentality." T. J. Jackson Lears argues in No Place of Grace, his study of turn-of-the-century American anti-modernism, that "the most powerful critics" of modernity may be those that have "looked backward rather than forward, directing their fire at the bureaucratic 'rationality' common to all corporate systems, indicting capitalist progress for its corrosive impact on family, craft, community, or faith" (xx). Cather similarly traces the effects of a modernization through her skepticism of new lifestyles and technologies and her longing for a bygone era. I argue, however, that at the same time that Cather exhibits antimodernism sentiments, she cannot be labeled as only "backwardlooking," to use Lears's term, or simply skeptical. Her work betrays a complicated negotiation with past and future, premodern and modern. At the same time that she condemns the "ready-made" generation obsessed with cars and speed in the Nation, she is enthralled by the earlier generation that made this "progress" possible—"as ingenious as shipwrecked soldiers." Torn between premodernity and the act of modernization, and inspired by this tension, Cather's exploration of the past details a definitive process of modernization: the reorganization of everyday relationships to work, land, the local, and the home. In documenting the farmers, homesteaders, and simple-lifers fading from twentieth-century life, Cather also negotiated with history, navigating between the late 1800s and the early 1900s in order to invent the environmental narratives and tropes that later writers, thinkers, and activists would use to articulate the effects of anthropogenic ecological transformation on the imagination. In this capacity a work like O Pioneers!, I argue, creates a new vocabulary for understanding life as modern human beings, the experience of displacement and disembedding, the struggle to integrate environmental values into a world engulfed in incessant ecological change, and the text is uniquely positioned to assist critics in theorizing the little-studied relationship between modernity and environment.

In addition to staking a place for ecological concerns within studies of modernity and modernism, my analysis also works against the tendency of ecocriticism to refuse engagement with modernization. While modernist scholars avoid the ecological content of literature produced during this period, ecocritics invest Cather's portrayal of pastoral landscapes, specific ecosystems, and local culture with their hopes and desires for a simpler, more sustainable time. To that end her writing is often reduced to a model of place-based environmental ethics or a document of pastoral idyll before modernization disrupted traditional ways of life. What remains obscured in both the ecocritical and the modernist approach are the ways in which experiences and understandings of the environment are entangled in historical, cultural, and economic transformations and how Cather's work can register the intricacies of these changes, working out a new, ecological modernism. In the first section of my reading I trace O Pioneers!'s portrayal of how modernization processes rearrange nineteenth-century relationships to place, nature, and the environment in Nebraska. The next section examines the impact of this process on two proto-environmentalist characters, Alexandra Bergson and Crazy Ivar, who negotiate in distinct ways with the changes taking place from the 1880s to the 1920s. Last, I relate Alexandra and Ivar's peculiar relationship to some of the tensions that inhabit environmentalism today. Through O Pioneers!'s contrasts between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, household and market economies, and creative labor and new modes of production and consumption, Cather contributes to a theory of modernity and the environment, anticipating along the way the tropes that would come to define classic "green" writing, thought, and activism that would appear decades later.


In her Nation essay Cather articulates the effects of modernization on Nebraska through images of speed and technology and through contrasts of production and consumption and of domestic and market economics. As I note above, she reports that the pioneers she observed as a child in the 1880s had had to "make everything" and, in order to survive, "had to be as ingenious as shipwrecked soldiers." This capacity for innovating new ways of living based on the limitations of landscape was what Cather saw missing in the youth born of the twentieth century. The new "generation now in the driver's seat"—she distinguishes them with the new mode of transport—"hates to make anything." This lack of productivity is intertwined with speed, consumerism, and a disregard for the local environment: this younger generation, Cather laments, "want[s] to buy everything ready-made: clothes, food, education, music, pleasure" (47). The "old men" moved slowly on foot, attached to landscape, "follow[ing] the corn-rows up and down"; by the 1920s their grandsons and granddaughters raced by these fields, "scudding past those acres" in cars, not producing their existence but rather consuming manufactured commodities from afar, without regard for the cultural, ethnic, and environmental particularities of local place.

The imagery and ideas guiding Cather's depiction of historical change in the Nation are forecast in O Pioneers! (op), which takes the reader from the pioneers struggling in a nineteenthcentury Nebraska "unfriendly to man," living in sod dwellings constructed from the "unescapable ground," to their prosperous descendants who have life much easier (OP 13, 12). The novel focuses on the Bergsons, an immigrant family that has come from Sweden to farm an unforgiving land described as "savage" with "sombre wastes" that "seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society." Part I, "The Wild Land," shows John Bergson, the family patriarch and the novel's "shipwrecked soldier," so to speak—he is actually described as having "come up from the sea himself"—on his deathbed, tallying assets and anxious about leaving his family behind to work a property that, although he had "come to tame" it, still "had its ugly moods" (14, 12). The first line designates the date as "thirty years ago," and if we subtract this number from the novel's publication date of 1913, we find ourselves in 1883, "on a windy Nebraska tableland," the same time and place that nine-year-old Cather found herself when her parents moved her out west from Virginia (OP 3). The trajectories of O Pioneers!, the Nation essay, and Cather's life arc across the massive economic, political, cultural, and social shifts in the American Midwest from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. When John dies, his children live on to experience—and to create—a Nebraska much different from the one he left behind, the Nebraska described by Cather in the Nation. The sod houses, dirt roads, workhorses, and struggling farmers that defined the landscape give way to a modernized society of international trade, material abundance, and upward mobility.

Before his death John appoints his level-headed daughter, Alexandra, the novel's protagonist, as his successor on the family's failing homestead, bypassing his brutish sons Lou and Oscar. After his passing Alexandra's agricultural and financial instincts—and indeed her modernization efforts—develop the Bergson holdings into "one of the richest farms on the Divide" (OP 49). From ecological struggle to human triumph over landscape: this is the prevailing narrative of U.S. frontier literature.[4] For Cather this transformation is both a triumph and a curse: she celebrated the labor that had turned Nebraska into those productive "long corn-rows" in the Nation, and she had been devastated by the harsh, barren Midwest when she moved there as a young girl, but the new fertility and prosperity seem to yield moral decay and the loss of a sense of place. O Pioneers!'s narrator focalizes John's sentiment that "the absence of human landmarks" in the Nebraska of his time was "depressing and disheartening" (12), sounding a lot like Cather herself on her first impressions of the stark prairie she encountered as a child. Cather never advocated a "hands-off" environmental ethic.[5] Instead, she cherished the ecological intertwining of humans with the earth, the ways in which individuals carved out a place for themselves on the planet through their home-making impulse.[6] John Bergson's wife, though displaced from her native country, succeeds in "maintain[ing] some semblance of household order" despite "conditions that made order very difficult." By merging her Old World ways with her challenging New World surroundings, she "[kept] the family from disintegrating morally and getting careless in their ways." One sign of her skilled household management was her "mania" for "preserving" and pickling the fruits and vegetables she either grew herself or found on the prairie—grapes, plums, cherries, tomatoes, peas (17). Yet, with the twentieth century, something profound changes. The direct relations to the land that Mr. and Mrs. Bergson represent are replaced by a dis-placed network of cultural and economic influences. When they die, so does, it seems, the pioneer era, and the new generation of O Pioneers!'s Nebraskans begins to look a lot like the ready-made consumers of Cather's Nation article. Except for Alexandra—she occupies a place between raw, harsh survival of life in a moody ecosystem and the rise of consumer culture, between her mother's subsistence foraging and the rise of the corporate capitalist order—the implications of which will be explored at length below.

When we catch up with the Bergsons sixteen years later, in Part II, presumably in 1899, the narrator tells the reader that if John were to rise from his grave, "he would not know the country under which he has been asleep": the prairie has been reworked into a fertile landscape, "a checker-board" of "squares of wheat and corn"; "telephone wires hum along the white roads"; and steel has arrived in the form of windmills. In contrast to Mrs. Bergson's creative home-making in her local landscape, her sons marry women concerned more with values defined from spaces outside their immediate area and performances of class, upward mobility, and standardized beauty: "Oscar's wife . . . was ashamed of marrying a foreigner," and "Lou's wife . . . wears her yellow hair in a high pompadour, and is bedecked with rings and chains and 'beauty pins.'" Disregarding the functionality previous generations adopted on a rugged prairie, she wears "tight, high-heeled shoes [that] give her an awkward walk, and she is always more or less preoccupied with her clothes" (OP 59). John's youngest son, Emil, instead of becoming a farmer like his siblings, has graduated from the "State University"—a reference marking the rise of public education. Compared to the rest of the Bergsons, he is "so different" and "scarcely remembers[s]" "the old wild country" (45, 69, 46). As news from the outside world travels to Hanover, Nebraska, it's readily admitted that some people are better suited to the excitement and freedom of "big and interesting" cities than to the monotony of cornfields, where "life was just the same thing over and over" (73). O Pioneers! has taken the reader into the twentieth century. The home is no longer constructed out of skills and resources developed from the local environment; rather, it is networked to commodity markets, educational systems, and cultural exchanges of desires and ideas.

In 1990 Anthony Giddens coined the term disembedding to label the process of upheaval that Cather details through her fictional narrative of rural Nebraska. According to Giddens, "disembedding," which he describes as the "'lifting out' of social relations from local contexts of interaction," is the definitive transformation wrought by modernization. As remote locations come to determine everyday activities, from cultural performances to life-sustaining tasks, "place becomes increasingly phantasmagoric," Giddens explains; "that is to say, locales are thoroughly penetrated by and shaped in terms of social influences quite distant from them." In this process both time and space are emptied of "localised activities," and the organization of daily life is no longer determined by the material resources or the pace of immediate environments (21, 19, 18; original emphasis). What O Pioneers! adds to this account is an analysis of disembedding's impact on ecological consciousness—a "greening" of the already incipient green content of any account of disembedding. The novel is a sort of response to the question, What happens to the environmental imagination when humans shift from dwelling within local times and places to living amid networks spread across what Giddens describes as "indefinite spans of time-space" (21)? Through her antimodern nostalgia, Cather traces the ways in which modernization reshapes humans' awareness and understanding of the ecological and physical spaces in which they dwell. Furthermore, the rearrangement of daily practices and the imagination is not only a matter of economic and social transformations but can also be strategically organized through public policy, as in the case of O Pioneers!'s Crazy Ivar, who treats his land as a wildlife preserve and therefore loses it for failing to comply with the Homestead Act of 1862's requirement that land-grant recipients "improve" their land for five years. By translating her personal experiences of disembedding into her fiction—Sarah Orne Jewett famously told her friend to "write what you know"—Cather did much more than simply weave a nostalgic text; she documented the unfolding ecological effects of the reorganization of everyday rural Nebraskan life by new networks, technologies, forms of mobility, and processes of rationalization and land development, and she tried to imagine a figure who might be able to move between the two, surviving and enjoying modernization in an environmentally ethical way. As a result she effectively worked on many of the questions that occupy U.S. environmental thinkers today, seeking solutions to the tension between, on the one hand, the technological developments that have freed humanity from many natural limits and, on the other hand, the loss of creative labor, sense of place, "slow" time, enchanted nature, and domestic economy.


Cather creates two characters, Ivar and Alexandra, who maintain their ties to "old" ways of life, treating their homesteads as bases for interacting with local environments and resisting the disembedding drives of modernity. Their struggles achieve very different outcomes: Ivar becomes homeless, loses his land, and is in continual danger of clinical incarceration, whereas Alexandra, as we know, becomes a successful land baron and farmer. Yet despite the divergence in their paths, together these two characters provide a way for O Pioneers! to explore an inchoate environmentalist resistance to the ecological disruption wrought by disembedding, to imagine an alternative way. At first glance this impulse may seem similar to the anti-modernism detailed by Lears in No Space of Grace. Lears writes that the American "anti-modern impulse" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time period and sentiment into which O Pioneers! fits squarely, "stemmed from revulsion against the process of rationalization": that is, "the systematic organization of economic life for maximum productivity and of individual life for maximum personal achievement; the drive for efficient control of nature under the banner of improving human welfare; the reduction of the world to a disenchanted object to be manipulated by rational technique" (7). In their search for an alternative "cultural authority" leaders of the anti-modernism movement, concerned that the "urban market economy had undermined the home's economic role," turned to the domestic ideal and the simple life as their solutions: "the sanctity of hearth and home, the virtues of life on the land, and the ennobling power of work." Cather does indeed bring the hearth, home, and hard work into the foreground of the lives of her most sympathetic characters. However, as Lears points out, while American writers, thinkers, and craft leaders claimed to be reviving a traditional ideal, they were actually participating in the modernist effort to create new, stable values and meaning amid profound change: they "failed to see that the same [economic] developments had generated the domestic ideal they sought to preserve" (74-75, 74, 75). In other words, what appears as an authoritative value rehabilitated from the past is made possible by the anti-modernists' contemporary context, just as there was no romantic celebration of nature until industrialization. With this logic it can be argued that anti-modernism is thoroughly modernist, engaging the historical moment it claims to reject, that any response to the new, no matter how retrogressive, is itself inescapably new, that clinging to the past is also futuristic. O Pioneers! similarly complicates our perspective. As Ivar and Alexandra search for an alternative to Lou, Oscar, and their families, they solidify their commitments to homemaking with a sort of "modernist domesticity"—a term I borrow from Richard Millington's reading of another Cather novel—yet the distinct ways they choose to relate to the new rational, market-driven, disembedded twentieth century demonstrate how turning backward can only take one so far in forming a viable response.

Let me begin with Crazy Ivar, the character who loses his land for not complying with Homestead Act regulations, because understanding him is integral to making sense of Alexandra's environmental identity and the ways that Cather anticipates the tensions of modern environmentalism. Ivar is often compared to Henry Thoreau: his ethic of "frugality, simplicity, and ecology" and "ecstatic intermingling between self and nature," Guy Reynolds writes, "has its roots in transcendentalism" (176). Like Thoreau, Ivar is vegetarian, enjoys "contentment in . . . solitude," and sees God in "wild things." His home is "in the clay bank, without defiling the face of nature any more than the coyote that had lived there before him," and he is bothered by the "litter" produced by more extravagant housing, "the bits of broken china, the old wash-boilers and tea-kettles thrown into the sunflower patch." Refusing to develop his land for profit because he enjoys it more as a haven for wildlife—birds especially are "great company"—Ivar works as a horse doctor and earns extra money making "hammocks out of twine" (OP 22-24). His "old country" ways bear resemblance to many popular tropes of today's environmental movement—animal ethics, reuse and recycle, leave-no-trace, the sublimity of wilderness, and even green architecture—yet ultimately fail to protect him or his land from the intensifying logic of capital improvement. He lives in an isolated utopian time-space on his homestead, ignoring, while he can, the "process of rationalization" described by Lears, the demand for "maximum productivity" and "personal achievement," and the "drive for efficient control of nature." Despite being attached to his property, he is thoroughly out of place in the modern context. Not only is his land ethic unsustainable, as the government takes his property away, but it threatens his survival when the Hanover community begins to think that anybody who lives like him must be crazy.

In O Pioneers!, as Nebraska moves from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, Cather suggests that rationality is increasingly aligned with productive labor, personal achievement, property development. After a visit to his place in the 1880s, Lou and Oscar agree "that [Ivar] was crazier than ever" and directly relate his mental health to an anticapitalist ethic: he "would never be able to prove up on his land because he worked so little" (OP 27). Ivar does work though: he doctors horses, weaves hammocks, and builds a dam to create water habitat for birds. But these creative forms of labor do not exploit or discipline land; they do not generate products or accumulate capital. Measuring mental well-being through capitalist productivity demands that all economic activity be market driven and that the environment be transformed into an instrumental object. According to Michel Foucault's genealogy of reason and unreason, the alignment of madness with a lack of market-based productivity developed with the system of thought, knowledge, and discourse that redefined labor for the modern age. Madness, in short, became the "absence of work" (l'absence d'œuvre), implicated in improper modes of relating to the environment. The great crime of idleness in modernizing France, resulting in mass incarceration, Foucault writes, involved the refusal to treat nature as an exploitable resource or site of investment: the supposed madman, in refusing to work, was "wait[ing] for nature to be generous as in the innocence of Eden" (84). With the accompanying rise of the discipline of psychiatry, madness's previous associations with spiritual forces or the conscious renunciation of reason were replaced by new understandings of madness as disease and threat—a shift that Cather writes into the Nebraska landscape. As Ivar himself explains, "I am despised because I do not wear shoes, because I do not cut my hair, and because I have visions. At home, in the old country, there were many like me, who had been touched by God. . . . We thought nothing of it, and let them alone. But here, if a man is different in his feet or in his head, they put him in the asylum" (OP 55).

As O Pioneers! progresses from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, the casual, harmless "craziness" associated with Ivar early in the novel intensifies from colloquial to clinical: three decades later he is a dangerous psychopath in need of professional intervention. Lou acts as the leading concerned citizen, telling Alexandra, who has sheltered Ivar in her home, "I was telling [the medical superintendent of the Hastings asylum] about Ivar's symptoms. He says Ivar's case is one of the most dangerous kind, and it's a wonder he hasn't done something violent before this. . . . He says he's likely to set fire to the barn, or take after you . . . with an axe" (OP 59-60). Without an instrumentalist, disenchanted approach to the world around him, turning his environment into an object for exploitation, Ivar transgresses the proper bounds of being human. Early in O Pioneers! he communicates with birds, lives like a coyote; he "understands animals," still distinctly acting as a human agent—close to animals but not dehumanized; thirty years later Lou's wife calls him a "disgraceful object . . . scratching about" (20, 60). As humans are disembedded from the physical landscape, O Pioneers! suggests, categories of humanity/animality, subject/ object, and reason/madness are redefined. Through Ivar O Pioneers! suggests that a Thoreau-like retreat from the modern is not sustainable in such a context, opening a path for yet another way: Alexandra's.

In contrast to Ivar's marginalization, homelessness, and persecution, Alexandra grows into a powerful, wealthy woman. Despite being a member of the new, disembedded generation, the generation that according to Cather "wants to live and die in an automobile" and "hates to make anything," Alexandra shares more similarities with Ivar and her deceased parents than with her own age group. She lives simply, exhibiting preferences for household economy over the marketplace. Her house, although large, is "curiously unfinished and uneven in comfort" (OP 58). Her "great farm" possesses "fine order and fine arrangement" and "an unusual trimness and care for detail" (49-50). And her domestic life retains a memory of earlier times, recalling the original pioneers and her mother's "mania" for pickling and preserving: "[T]he pleasantest rooms in the house are the kitchen—where Alexandra's three young [hired] Swedish girls chatter and cook and pickle and preserve all summer long—the sitting-room, in which Alexandra has brought together the old homely furniture that the Bergsons used in their first log house, the family portraits, and the few things her mother brought from Sweden" (49). What allows Alexandra to prosper is her ability to bridge Nebraska's old ways with new, modernization with antimodernity, adeptly negotiating with history in ways Ivar cannot—as if the 1880s and 1910s constituted two oppositional languages, both of which she is fluent in. This is perhaps not surprising given that O Pioneers! opens with her father, one of Nebraska's "shipwrecked" pioneers, passing over his proper male heirs to designate Alexandra, for her "strength of will" and "direct ways of thinking," as "the one among his children to whom he would entrust the future of his family and . . . hard-won land" (15). One of the ready-made generation who receives the pioneer stamp of approval, Alexandra acts as the pioneers' emissary to the future, bridging the vast social, cultural, and economic gap that has opened up in three decades' time. Somewhat displaced from both time periods yet entirely at home at the same time, Alexandra negotiates between progress and the past, between domestic economy and market standards. Despite her pioneerlike frugality she chooses to fashion her "company rooms" with "jars and punchbowls and candlesticks" and her dining room like a store "display window," with "highly varnished wood and colored glass and useless pieces of china . . . conspicuous enough to satisfy the standards of the new prosperity." Her family members, she realizes, "liked to see about them these reassuring emblems" (58).

This skillful navigation of time, however, is also the basis of what many ecocritics find profoundly contradictory about Alexandra's ecological ethics. Crazy Ivar does not, or cannot, waver in his "ethic of noninterference," as Patrick Dooley labels it (70); he espouses familiar tropes of nineteenth-century U.S. environmental discourses, from the wilderness preservation of naturalist John Muir to the romantic simplicity and economy of Thoreau, enthusiastically but inflexibly. In Alexandra, however, Cather creates a more ambivalent figure whose loving attachment to land is intertwined not with romantic or spiritual feelings but rather with an unapologetic capitalist ethic. Whereas Ivar recites psalms and "expressed his preference for his wild homestead by saying that his Bible seemed truer to him there," Alexandra, in contrast, might be found with "the Swedish Bible open on her knees," but instead of reading it, she is gazing off planning a purchase (23, 35). Yet this preoccupation with property is repeatedly recast in O Pioneers! as affection. Even real estate acquisitions, acts of calculation and investment, are described as the means to her transcendent union with the earth. For example, during a trip to assess the value of some land lost by her bankrupt neighbors, a "big chance," our investor is described as "radiant" and "happy." The narrator attributes to Alexandra an almost superhuman emotion, never before existent in the all earthly time: "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." The land sustains Alexandra as if it were nutrition: "Her eyes drank in the breadth of it" (3738). As she nears her big purchase, the narrator's rhetoric intensifies. Her intentions become even more pure, her aspirations nobler: "[S]he had a new consciousness of the country, felt almost a new relation to it. . . . She had never known before how much the country meant to her. . . . She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things" (40-41). Consciousness, relationship, meaning, affection, communion: aside from the property accumulation this passage reads like classic nature writing. It's no wonder that this contradiction gives some ecocritics pause. Environmental thinkers usually regard capitalism and modernity as the root causes of ecological degradation, and making sense of Cather's coupling of affection with exploitation, of domestic anti-modernism and engagement with the ruthless modern order of rational productivity, in such a theoretical framework is perplexing. In addition, as critics have pointed out, Cather's descriptions of Alexandra's land love contribute to the violence perpetrated against the indigenous Americans who lived, before their displacement, on what became Nebraska territory, not to mention all the people in the world deeply connected to landscapes they do not own.[7] But there is yet another tension embedded in Alexandra's pure pastoral intentions that has not been acknowledged before. In Alexandra's negotiation between the nineteenth-century pioneer myth of simplicity and the calculating capitalist order, and in her sheltering of Old World Ivar in her productive modern homestead, O Pioneers!, in its ecological modernism, anticipates the tension of time and place that haunts environmentalism today.


In the scene in which Alexandra responds to Lou's incriminations of Ivar, she promises he is harmless but does not try to establish his sanity. Instead, when Lou suggests Ivar be committed to the asylum in Hastings, she promises to keep him isolated on her farm—an act of negotiation: "I'll see that he doesn't bother other people. I'll keep him at home." She then deftly changes the subject to one new commodity entering their small town, distracting her dinner-table audience with consumerism, much as she does with her "display window" dining room: "I've been wanting to ask you about your new bathtub. How does it work?" (OP 59, 60). Melissa Ryan argues that Alexandra's strategy of treating Ivar as her ward displaces the psychiatric asylum onto the enclosure of her home, hiding Ivar's "idleness," his disorderly behavior and dress, and his odd relations to nature away from society through physical restriction: "When Alexandra proposes her household as 'an asylum for old-time people,' she's quite right [OP 56]. . . . Lou and Oscar's talk of the Hastings institution merely mystifies the fact that Ivar is already within the confines of the asylum. . . . Her household, presented as an asylum (sanctuary), is ultimately the asylum (the 'juridical space,' in Foucault's terms, of disciplinary confinement)" (283; original emphasis). At Alexandra's home Ivar, too old for field work, "hitches and unhitches the work-teams and looks after the health of the stock" (OP 52). Ryan asserts that this work constitutes Alexandra's regulation of his wildness: "What's at stake here is labor," Ryan writes, "Ivar must be transformed . . . into a productive labor force" (282). Expecting ethical and political consistency in her literary characters, Ryan concludes that Alexandra's harboring of Ivar contradicts her instrumentalist work ethic, turning nature into a productive landscape. That is, Ivar's persecution is the direct outcome of taming the Nebraska prairie, a process in which Alexandra is complicit: "Ultimately, the work of the pioneer (taming the wilderness) is the work of the law (civilizing the savage) is the work of conformity (Americanizing the foreigner)" (283).

If we depart from assessing Alexandra's political purity, an arguably impossible and perhaps undesirable goal, and instead turn to the role of her relationship to Ivar in the novel's portrayal of the shifting environmental terrain of turn-of-the-century Nebraska, another reading of his containment is possible—one that illuminates the struggle to imagine ecological ethics in an increasingly networked culture. Through Crazy Ivar O Pioneers! exposes the "others" that are not admissible into the new "sense of reality" of early twentieth-century American culture, in which, as Ivar explains, "the way . . . is for all to do alike" (OP 55). In his description of the historical moments that make up any particular "effective and dominant culture," Raymond Williams explains that the past is selectively filtered: "[C]ertain meanings and practices are chosen for emphasis, certain other meanings and practices are neglected and excluded," and some "are reinterpreted, diluted" (169). Ivar clearly evokes the past in need of editing: "[A]t certain points a dominant culture cannot allow too much [residue from the past] outside of itself" without incurring significant risks (Williams 171). Thus, through merely existing, as Marilee Lindemann writes, Ivar "enact[s] an assault on a system that seeks to control difference," leading to the drive to contain, discipline, and even eradicate his deviance.

Even so, this reading of Ivar is only part of the story. What critics like Ryan and Lindemann have missed is that Ivar is not wholly excised from the fabric of modern life or shut away and confined to invisibility as they claim; rather, he is reabsorbed into an alternative environmental narrative aiming to challenge the hegemonic social formation "deeply saturating the consciousness" (to use Williams's terms) of early twentieth-century Nebraska life (168). For Alexandra he provides a safeguard for her character's construction as an emissary of the pioneer age into the future, bridging the twentieth and the nineteenth centuries, participating in the economic order of capitalist development while preserving not only vegetables and fruits but also relics from the past, such as her parents' old furniture and Crazy Ivar himself. In fact, Ivar provides a sort of guarantee that her intentions are in the right place: sheltering a human whom everyone believes a murderous madman is a greater risk to herself and her wealth than enjoying pickles and "homely" furnishings. Yet Ivar provides an even more significant symbolic role for the imagination of ecological ethics. Apropos modern environmentalism Ivar's character represents the ways in which the movement filters and reinterprets the past in order to craft alternatives to an ecological crisis caused, in part, by the rise of scientific reason, the disenchantment and instrumental use of nature, technological progress, and the disembedding of communities from local contexts of interaction. As Williams explains, "Alternative meanings and values . . . even some alternative senses of the world . . . can be accommodated and tolerated within a particular effective and dominant culture" (169). In other words, although Ivar is marginalized in the narrative and appears on only a few of its physical pages, he occupies the more culturally significant confined space where aspects of the nineteenth century are incorporated into "alternative senses of the world." Just as Ivar provides a voucher for Alexandra's good intentions, proving that despite her aggressive capitalist impulses she is in fact an ethical human being with sympathies for the pioneer era and its slowness, domestic economy, and creative labor, he also is part of a literary trope developed in U.S. environmental works from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Holding tight to a refuge or fantasy of temporal return has been a predominant mode of imagining an antidote to modernity's ecological problems. Unable to undo the strength and speed of "progress," writers generate a symbolic space untouched by the future. This space must be separated from what Williams calls the "sense of reality" imposed by the "effective and dominant culture," but it is continually rehabilitated and maintained—sometimes as an imaginative resource or as a disingenuous utopian fantasy fleeing engagement with modernity, as in the case of many classic "green" thinkers, such as Aldo Leopold, who provides a useful counterexample to O Pioneers!.

Often described as the first American writer to articulate a theory of modern ecological conscience, Leopold published his classic work, A Sand County Almanac, in 1949, thirty-six years after O Pioneers! came out. In the foreword to the text Leopold explains the transformative personal experience that produced his awareness of nature: "what my family sees and does at its week-end refuge from too much modernity: 'the shack.'" He continues, "On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society, we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere" (viii; emphasis added.). Turning back the march of progress at an isolated refuge, using rudimentary tools and living simply, Leopold exchanges material values for what philosophers call nature's "intrinsic value." Describing a sentiment that sounds like it could have come from Ivar, Leopold writes, "[W]e face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television. . . . Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings" (vii, ix). In this foundational text for the field of environmental ethics and literature Leopold's weekend shack parallels Ivar's wild homestead. Both are refuges where the inhabitants hope time can stop, places to hold onto "what we are losing elsewhere"—resuscitating, filtering, and reinterpreting pre-twentieth-century ways of living in order to create an alternative practice. Both Leopold's shack and Ivar's wild homestead create time out of place in order to commune with nature in a "bigger-and-better society."

O Pioneers! makes it clear that Alexandra's capitalism and her power as a wealthy landowner allow the memories and ways of life that Ivar represents to survive. Ivar himself thanks Alexandra: "Only your great prosperity has protected me so far. If you had had ill-fortune, they would have taken me to Hastings long ago" (OP 55). The outline of Ivar's containment is made plain, and this leads to critics' frustration with Alexandra. In contrast Leopold hides his complicity within any larger context, takes the frame of containment completely off the written page, and as a result escapes criticism. A Sand County Almanac was written while Leopold worked at the University of Wisconsin as a professor, presumably during the workweek. The weekend takes up a lot less time than a workweek, two compared to five days, 28 percent versus 71, yet Leopold reverses this ratio through his focus on primitive retreat. What he does for a living is unmentioned, while Cather details Alexandra's inconsistent work ethic. Consequently, although the majority of his life unfolds elsewhere, Leopold creates the impression that his land ethic emerges through escapes from social mechanization, technology, economic growth and commodification, and material abundance, making his environmental identity appear less ambivalent than Alexandra's as capitalist, environmentalist, and protector of Ivar and the past. By reading the ambivalences and consistencies of Alexandra's ethics in O Pioneers!, however, we can begin to see the selective constructedness of accounts like Leopold's: What mode of efficient travel did Leopold employ to get to the shack? How does he reconcile the lessons learned from nature and the wasteful conveniences, such as electricity and supermarkets, that enable his specialized work as an academic and a writer? Last: Why must his "non-shack" life be invisible in a narrative of ecological conscience, and why the disconnect between how life is lived and how one narrates that life in an environmental work?

What is ironic about the environmental writers like Leopold is that while they adopt an antimodern critical stance, they are all the while partaking in what political ecologist Bruno Latour argues is a fundamental operation of modernization. According to Latour modernity is defined by a twofold paradoxical operation: hybridization (or mediation), which "creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids [or networks] of nature and culture," and purification, a way of thinking that creates "two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand; that of nonhumans on the other." These two operations work in tandem while ostensibly negating one another—one reshaping the world irrevocably while the other obscures this process by making it epistemologically unavailable: "The essential point of this modern Constitution is that it renders the work of mediation that assembles hybrids invisible, unthinkable, unrepresentable" (10-11, 34). Today environmentalism works, in part, to expose hybridization, for example, revealing the chemicals integral to current global food markets, arguing that humans are dependent upon biodiversity, suggesting ways that everyday life can be made more sustainable. However, from Cather's modernity to Leopold's land ethic and beyond, the writers engaged in this process can overlook their own reimagining of new hybrids. In the process these works depict one of the most crucial conflicts of modern ecological being: the discord between the desire to live simply and locally by rehabilitating aspects of the nineteenthcentury past and the irreversible ways in which individual lives are enmeshed or ensnared, depending on your perspective, in disembedded networks of power, culture, and economy.

What Cather does differently from Leopold is to admit the modern legal and economic nexus, the hybrid networks, that can protect and also inhibit the imagination of environmental change. Cather's nostalgic gestures, far from disengaging from "what is central and fundamental in her own age," as one of her early critics charged, contribute substantially to understandings of modernization's effects on the ecological imagination—in terms of both the reorganization of the role of place in everyday life and the new tropes and narratives modern environmentalism eventually adopts to articulate its worldview.[8] O Pioneers! not only tells the story of turn-of-the-century Nebraska but also explores the contradictions that individuals living in a networked society must contend with in order to maintain a sense of place and history. We may desire consistency from our political and literary heroes, but what O Pioneers! provides instead is the quintessential quandary of modern environmentalism—the tension between escapism and complicity, between Ivar and Alexandra. And that is why Cather's account of modernization is crucial to understanding the difficulties of dealing with ecological crises in the thoroughly disembedded world we live in today.


 1. For example, Bernard Baum, in 1949, placed Cather among the "Waste Landers" of the early twentieth century, beside classic figures like S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and others, all of whom shared a "profoundly disturbing sense of modern civilisation as bankrupt morally and intellectually—a desert of the spirit inhabited by hollow men" (374). Yet in the history of modernist studies across the twentieth century views like Baum's have been rare. Perhaps the most famous indictment of Cather's antiquatedness is Granville Hicks's disparaging remark, in 1933, that Cather had failed in "the task that has occupied most of the world's great artists, the expression of what is central and fundamental in her own age" (238). Cather was criticized by a number of early critics who saw no social engagement in her romantic longing. Other critics saw this theme as a response to history. In 1949, citing its preoccupation with cultural decay, Bernard Baum wrote that, in The Professor's House, "Cather saw the past, rich in humanising factors, being destroyed in a world of mechanism, of conspicuous consumption, of secularisation" (380). More recently, in 1994, Ian F. A. Bell took this backward orientation a step further, arguing that the work "is about origin and about the impulse for origin . . . construct[ing] an ideological counter to the present alienations of a . . . modern messiness" (487, 489). See also Frederick Hoffman's The Twenties. Even more generous accounts, like James E. Miller's, in 1974, admit that Cather "belongs to a vanished age" and "must have seemed like an anachronism" in the 1920s (121). (Go back.)
 2. The following works have made the case for Cather's definitive role in American modernism: Phyllis Rose's "Modernism: The Case of Willa Cather," Jo Ann Middleton's Willa Cather's Modernism: A Study of Style and Technique, Kathleen Wheeler's Modernist Women Writers and Narrative Art, Guy Reynolds's Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire, Richard H. Millington's "Willa Cather's American Modernism," and Chip Rhodes's Structures of the Jazz Age: Mass Culture, Progressive Education, and Racial Discourse in American Modernist Fiction. None of these studies consider the relationship of place, space, and the frontier to Cather's modernism, and the significance of this will be clear shortly. (Go back.)
 3. Two exceptions to the dearth of combined modernist and ecocritical readings of Cather are Guy Reynolds and Anne Raine. See their respective "Modernist Space: Willa Cather's Environmental Imagination in Context" and "Teaching American Modernism as Environmental Writing." (Go back.)
 4. For a study of the frontier narrative see Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: the American West as Symbol and Myth. (Go back.)
 5. This ethic posed a problem for some first-wave practitioners of ecocriticism, writing during a period when "wilderness" and "nature" and deep ecology dominated scholarship. For example, Joseph Meeker argues, "There is no environmental ethic that emerges from her work but rather an ethic of development that supposes that land fulfills its destiny when it is successfully farmed. The land provides a background for her stories of human growth and development, but it is not loved and studied to find its own integrity and value, let alone its own story" (88). Patrick K. Dooley writes, "A hands-off preservation policy is for Cather . . . mostly a theoretical stance. This view is generally given the token status of a minority dissenting view" (69). Meeker and Dooley are correct that Cather is not concerned with nature as a space to be preserved and untouched by humans. Rather, as many ecocritics have demonstrated, Cather's work concerns a range of environmental motifs, including scientific ecology, the phenomenological experiences of place, pastoralist representations of country and city, the weaving of femininity with nature, and the settlement of the American West and Nebraska, among others. See Rosowski's Cather Studies 5: Willa Cather's Ecological Imagination (2003) for a representative collection of ecocritical readings. (Go back.)
 6. Critics who read the role of the home in Cather's oeuvre fail to read it Marilyn R. Chandler explores homes in Cather's work in detail, but her work exhibits this lack: "Each of [Cather's] major novels is constructed on a series of social and moral polarities embodied in the houses her characters inhabit. . . . [H]er portrayals of homes and families are imbued with nostalgia for a lost ideal. The family and the house it inhabits provide a center and structural model or blueprint for the wide web of social relations radiating out from them" (181, 185). The absence of nature or the environment in this description of the "polarities" of Cather's fictional homes is startling and attests to the long failure of literary critics to take environmental and ecological issues seriously. Other works that treat dwelling or homemaking in Cather's work—but again without reference to environmentality or place—include Fiona Becket's "Building, Dwelling, Thinking" and Katherine Joslin's "Finding the Self at Home: Chopin's The Awakening and Cather's The Professor's House." (Go back.)
 7. Melissa Ryan points out the irony of Cather's concern about the displacement of pioneers since the pioneers themselves were themselves dependent upon the prior displacement of aboriginal Americans: "[T]he removal of native populations to reservations [is the] confinement upon which the 'moral victory' of the pioneer depends" (278). See her "The Enclosure of America: Civilization and Confinement in Willa Cather's O Pioneers!" Archaeological evidence suggests that the area of presentday Nebraska had been populated for twelve thousand years by aboriginals (Pawnees, Arikaras, Omahas, Poncas, Otoes, Lakotas, Arapahos, and Cheyennes) before European settlers arrived in great numbers in the 1830s and 1840s (Luebke 11-12). In Converging Stories: Race, Ecology, and Environmental Justice in American Literature Jeffrey Myers points out that Cather extends agrarian democracy to a diverse group of European immigrants while remaining conspicuously silent about populations of See chapter 2, "Labor in the Earth: Jefferson's Paradoxical Notes on the State of Virginia." Also see Mike Fischer's classic study of Cather's intertwining of pastoralism with imperialism: "Pastoralism and Its Discontents: Willa Cather and the Burden of Imperialism." (Go back.)
 8. The charge is from Granville See n1. (Go back.)


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