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From Cather Studies Volume 7

"Two or Three Human Stories"

O Pioneers! and the Old Testament


Scholarship on canon construction suggests that texts become literary icons in much the same way that symbols accrue meanings, that is, through association. If a canonical work is "authoritative in our culture" (Bloom 1), then an iconic work might be emblematic or representative of certain ideas in a generally recognized way. In the case of both canon formation and iconography, intertextuality, or the ability to tap into a recognized tradition while still making a unique contribution, would seem essential. Sometimes canonicity and iconography collapse into one, rendering a literary text (or an author) both an icon and the cornerstone of a canon. The Old Testament, for example, occupies such a place in our culture and literature. Harold Bloom establishes this centrality of the Old Testament to the canon of Western literature by describing it as "such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies" (4). Many writers since have both adopted and adapted the biblical tradition as part of their own journey to canonical and iconic status. While Willa Cather's literary corpus has by now earned an indisputable place in the canon of American literature, her status as an icon is only beginning to be systematically investigated. One step toward understanding Cather as cultural icon might involve beginning to explicate an iconography of Cather. Therefore it would seem that the powerful undercurrent of the Old Testament in Cather's texts, in terms of both content (particularly themes and motifs) and techniques (style and genres), would provide significant insights into Cather's emergent status as literary and cultural icon.

Explication of these undercurrents should not, however, be confused with engaging in the often fascinating but ultimately meaningless process of enumerating correspondences. A major flaw in such delineations is the necessity of establishing intentionality on the author's part (otherwise we are just talking about coincidence). As familiar as Cather was with the Old Testament, it is safe to assume that she did not have access to (or perhaps even interest in) a wealth of biblical criticism and traditional rabbinic scholarship. But positing influence does not require intentionality. The likelihood that consciously created parallels and unconscious similarities coexist in Cather's work does not detract from the importance of these Old Testament echoes. Quite the contrary, as Cather herself might point out. In fact, it seems plausible to argue that given Cather's knowledge of the Old Testament, the elements that recur throughout Cather's novels serve as another manifestation of "the thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper" (Not Under Forty 76).


Cather's knowledge of the Bible and its lifelong influence on her sensibilities have been well established: the Bible was among her earliest reading materials, and at least one prominent critic "can imagine her enjoying the sonorous phrases of the King James Bible" at her own funeral (Hoover 192).[1] Furthermore, Cather habitually read from the Bible before writing, according to Malcolm Cowley, who speculates "that it did involve a touch of piety" (188) despite Cather's avowal that she was only interested in quality prose. The rhythms and devices of that prose certainly made their mark. And although, as Thornton Wilder reports, Cather "regretted that she had formed this habit, for the prose rhythms of 1611 were not those she was in search of" (qtd. in Cowley 188), her disclaimer should only serve to pique our interest, particularly since in other places she accepts this influence as a matter of course.

Cather's admiration for the Old Testament as a literary text with far-reaching canonical influence is apparent in her review of Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, in which she proclaims the ubiquitous character of the Old Testament for herself and her contemporaries: We have all been there before, even if we have never crossed salt water. . . . The Bible countries along the Mediterranean shore were very familiar to most of us in our childhood. Whether we were born in New Hampshire or Virginia or California, Palestine lay behind us. We took it in unconsciously and unthinkingly perhaps, but we could not escape it. It was all about us, in the pictures on the walls, in the songs we sang in Sunday school, in the "opening exercises" at day school, in the talk of the old people, wherever we lived. And it was in our language—fixed, indelibly. The effect of the King James translation of the Bible upon English prose has been repeated down through the generations, leaving its mark on the minds of all children who had any but the most sluggish emotional nature. . . . The Book of Genesis lies like a faded tapestry deep in the consciousness of almost every individual who is more than forty years of age. (Not Under Forty 101-2) Further, much of what Cather says about Mann's text could also be said of her first Nebraska novel, O Pioneers! For example, Cather praises Mann's decision to write from the inside instead of using structure to produce distance. In O Pioneers! she dramatizes the universal through the particular by using Alexandra to show how "the history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman" (64). Cather also praises Mann's "tempo, the deliberate, sustained pace" (Not Under Forty 99), which she finds particularly appropriate to his subject. When writing O Pioneers!, Cather similarly allowed the text itself to dictate its form. James Woodress explains that she "worked out a form that was loosely episodic and let the tale pace itself" (Life and Art 156); this ultimately produced, in Cather's words, "a slow-moving story" (Willa Cather on Writing 94).[2] Ultimately, what Cather proves in O Pioneers! is precisely that which she credits Mann with knowing: "what we most love is not bizarre invention, but to have the old story brought home to us closer than ever before, enriched by all that the right man could draw from it and, by sympathetic insight, put into it" (Not Under Forty 119). Hence by adapting the content and cadences of the Old Testament to the story of Swedes in Nebraska, Cather creates a novel that reaches back to the foundation of Western literature (the Old Testament) while simultaneously setting its author on the path to the immortality of iconic status.


Critical examinations of Cather and the Bible thus far have generally fallen into two categories: explications of allusions and attempts to link biblical influence with spiritual or religious identification.[3] Building on the groundwork laid by these former explorations, this article quickly moves beyond the parallels to early Genesis to considerations of some of the less-often-noted books of the Old Testament. Even more fundamentally, it probes the way the literary techniques by which the Bible conveys its message similarly operate in O Pioneers!, emphasizing embedded structures as well as content-level comparisons.

While biblical style and influence is apparent throughout Cather's canon, many critics have used words like "archetypal" (Butterworth) and "iconic" (Urgo 44) specifically in reference to O Pioneers! The text that Ferris Greenslet said would establish Cather as "a novelist of the first rank" (qtd. in Woodress, Life and Art 159), O Pioneers! initiates the sequence of Nebraska novels that in turn made Cather a Nebraskan icon. In both lay and academic circles, Cather is equated with Nebraska in an iconographic way that belies the facts—she was not born there, she spent very little of her adult life there, and she is not buried there. And yet Cather is not connected with New York City (where she lived for more than forty years), Virginia (her birthplace), New Hampshire (where she is buried), or the Southwest (a prominent setting in Song of the Lark, The Professor's House and Death Comes for the Archbishop) in the way that she and Nebraska have become identified with each other. "Willa Cather" brings to mind the image (or icon) of a plow magnified against the sun, not a pub in Greenwich Village or even a turquoise set in dull silver. While it is arguable that someone like Gertrude Stein became an icon as much for how she lived as for what she wrote (particularly early in her literary career when she had trouble finding a publisher), it would seem that the private and reserved Cather became a cultural icon primarily through her literature. Cather describes writing O Pioneers! as a sort of homecoming: "this was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding" (Willa Cather on Writing 92-93). She similarly places the idea of homecoming at the thematic center of the Old Testament, which she calls "that greatest record of the orphan soul trying to find its kin somewhere in the universe" (Not Under Forty 97).

Indeed, O Pioneers! serves as a foundational text in Cather's canon and one that sets the stage for Cather's use of the characters, devices, and worldview of the Old Testament in subsequent texts. As Granville Hicks observes, "O Pioneers! contains all the elements that, in varying proportions, were to enter into her later novels" (139). While critics have already laid essential groundwork by analyzing the role of Genesis in the text (esp. Creation and the Fall),[4] an expanded overview of some of the Old Testament echoes and parallels can further elucidate the iconography of this novel and thereby help to situate Cather herself within an iconographic tradition. A careful look at structure, characterization, theme, motif, and genre in O Pioneers! reveals that the Old Testament is, to a large extent, that which "is felt upon the page without being specifically named there" (Not Under Forty 50).


Like the Pentateuch, O Pioneers! consists of five books, and like the book of Deuteronomy (literally a "second [telling of the] law"), "Alexandra" serves as a sort of reprise for the main action that takes place in the first four books. In addition, Cather utilizes the technique of envelope structure, prominent in the Psalms and much other biblical prose, defined by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode as "a formal organizing device frequently used by biblical writers in which the borders of a poetic or narrative unit are marked by repetition, at the end, of salient terms, phrases or clauses that appear at the beginning" (669). While it is significant that O Pioneers! begins and ends with Alexandra and Carl on the land, it is equally important that two of the main figures introduced at the beginning of the novel, Marie and Emil, are absent from the final scene, an illustration of another significant biblical pattern: repetition with a difference. This technique is also apparent in repeated references to the white mulberry tree, roses, ducks, and journeys (especially the comings and goings of Emil and Carl). Using repetition as a structuring device is a hallmark of Cather's modernism, and it is equally characteristic of biblical prose. Furthermore, Alter's assertion that in biblical narrative "there is never leisurely description for its own sake; scene setting is accomplished with the barest economy of means" (22) could be taken word-for-word from Cather's philosophy of the novel démeublé: "How wonderful it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window; and . . . leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre" (Not Under Forty 51).

Finally, even the composite structure of O Pioneers! is consistent with the composition of much biblical prose. As Keen Butterworth explains, Cather wrote "Alexandra" and "The White Mulberry Tree" and then "realized [the two] could be merged . . . to make a novel." David Stouck elaborates that the process took place over a period of several months and that the poem in the beginning, "Prairie Spring"—itself further evidence of genre blending—was part of Cather's writing process as well (Historical Essay 284-85). Rather than viewing composite structure as a flaw, biblical critics such as Alter liken it to other composite art, for example, the construction of great cathedrals, in which the presence of multiple artists does not take away from the greatness of the whole (25). Thus in both composition and form, Cather's iconic first Nebraska novel reveals a kinship with the Old Testament; the characters of the Old Testament resonate within Cather's text as well.


Crazy Ivar has been read variously as a religious mystic (Rosowski, Voyage 50), an embodiment of discomfort with sexual difference (Lindemann 37), a latter-day representation of the biblical Noah (Murphy, "Comprehensive" 115), an "early monastic desert Christian" (Schubnell 41), and one of a series of literary "wise fools." In addition to these comparisons, Ivar's emphasis on holiness through separateness echoes the ways of the Levitical priests. At the same time, the "spells" that periodically come upon Ivar, making him unlike himself and causing Alexandra's brothers to fear for her safety, further suggest the madness of Saul, the ill-fated warrior-king whose hybrid religio-political position is reflected bodily in his mysterious malady (Rosenberg 128). An "old-time" person (O Pioneers! 91) out of place in the New World and displaced from his property by an inability to manage it effectively, Ivar also bears a distinct resemblance to Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Joel, all post-Exilic prophets who personally experience displacement and alienation.

To begin with, Jeremiah offers a precedent for the difficulties Ivar encounters in the New World, time and again facing a hostile audience and living under the ongoing threat of imprisonment. When Jeremiah prophesies doom to the Israelites, they respond on several occasions by having him beaten and imprisoned (Jeremiah 20:2, 26:8).[5] In Cather's novel, Lou and Oscar, who have neither honored Ivar's requests nor heeded his warnings, advise Alexandra to institutionalize Ivar herself before the neighbors complain and Ivar is "taken up by force" (95), a thinly veiled threat that Alexandra recognizes but refuses to be intimidated by.

In addition to sharing aspects of Jeremiah's fate, Ivar joins Jeremiah and Ezekiel in the practice of prophecy as performance, living, as well as speaking, his prophecies. While both Jeremiah and Ezekiel symbolically act out aspects of the nation's fate, Ezekiel in particular undergoes symbolic sufferings, including having to lie on his side for 430 days and eat coarse bread cooked on coals of animal dung in order to teach and heal his wayward people (Ezekiel 4:4-17). Ivar seems to have a similar approach to healing, as Oscar reports: "They say when horses have distemper he takes the medicine himself, then prays over the horses" (37). Carl confirms that when Ivar helped his family with a sick horse, "he kept patting her and groaning as if he had the pain himself" (36). Further, Ezekiel is frequently referred to in the biblical text as Ben Adam, variously translated as "Mortal," "Son of Man," or "Son of Earth." The third translation suggests a particular kinship with Ivar, who goes barefoot and "dislikes human habitations" (84). While Ezekiel is particularly known for his visions (e.g., the flaming chariot and the dead bones resurrected), Ivar believes that he is "despised . . . because I have visions" (88).

Although Ivar's visions alienate him from his neighbors, he reports that where he came from, he was not unusual: "At home, in the old country, there were many like me, who had been touched by God. . . . But here, if a man is different in his feet or in his head, they put him in the asylum" (88). Such was the case in biblical times as well, according to the Hebrew sages, who teach that there were many more prophets than the twenty or so recorded in the Old Testament, but that only those whose prophecies transcend their context and have relevance for later generations are recorded and passed on. Another biblical precedent for Ivar's attitudes and experiences comes from the book of Joel, which proclaims "a radical democratization of spiritual authority" (Marks 230): "After that, / I will pour out My spirit on all flesh; Your sons and daughters shall prophesy; / Your old men shall dream dreams, / and your young men shall see visions" (Joel 3:1). Also like Joel, Ivar accepts prophecy but not necessarily all of the aspects of law and ritual: "he had a peculiar religion of his own and could not get on with any of the denominations" (40). Hence, some of Ivar's difficulties spring from the disjuncture between the individualist approach he takes toward religion and the conformity insisted upon by most of his neighbors.

While Ivar shares Jeremiah's experiences, Ezekiel's media, and Joel's attitudes, another important similarity between Ivar and the post-Exilic prophets is the shift in the role that each takes on after tragedy strikes and the concomitant shift in the tone of his message: condemnation to comfort. Once the great temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, the prophets cease prophesying doom for the Israelites and instead speak of return to the Promised Land, reunification of the tribes of Israel, renewal of the covenant between God and his people, and rebuilding of the sanctuary. Ivar shares this role, for after he discovers "sin and death for the young ones" (242), he serves as Alexandra's caretaker and comforter. He looks after both her physical well-being and her psychological needs, fetching her by wagon from the graveyard during a storm and using biblical tones as he urges Signa: "When the eyes of the flesh are shut, the eyes of the spirit are open. She will have a message from those who are gone, and that will bring her peace. Until then we must bear with her" (246-47). In fact, the need for rebuilding and moving on in the face of tragedy is just one important thematic echo of the Old Testament in O Pioneers !


While the book of Genesis gives us the Creation story, the Garden of Eden, and paradise lost, it also introduces thematic elements such as the wanderings and generations of the forefathers, the tension between continuity and crisis, the necessity of sacrifice, the ties of brotherhood, and the destructive capacity of jealousy; O Pioneers! resonates with these themes, as well. For example, in Cather's novel, Lou's and Oscar's fear that Alexandra's accumulated wealth will go outside the family prompts them to run off her only suitor. Even her suspicions of their plans—later confirmed by Carl himself—cannot prevent Carl from being driven away. Furthermore, we learn that Frank is "jealous about everything, his farm and his horses and his pretty wife" (111). The harm caused by jealously permeates the Pentateuch from Cain's murderous jealously of Abel to the envy that prompts Joseph's brothers to stage his death and sell him into bondage, and it wreaks havoc on Cather's Divide, as well.

Looking beyond Genesis, the book of Numbers presents the wilderness as a testing ground, a theme that finds analogue in "The Wild Land" of O Pioneers! Indeed, while the fourth book of the Pentateuch does begin with a census and contain many numbers, this is not an accurate translation from the Hebrew. Rather, Bamidbar translates as "In the Wilderness," a much more fitting name for the biblical book and a clear parallel to the testing ground of the prairie's "Wild Land." While wandering in the desert and relying on God to provide for them, some Israelites repeatedly grumble about leaving the ills of Egypt for another, less certain set of ills in the desert, saying, "Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt!" (Numbers 11:20). Such grumbling usually provokes rebuke from Moses and yet another sign of God's omnipotence. The wanderings are full of tests—no food here, no water there—but the most important test involves spying out the Promised Land, a test that all but two of the spies (Joshua and Caleb) fail. The spies report: "The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size . . . and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Numbers 13:32-33). Hearing this account, the community directs its backlash to Moses and Aaron: "If only we had died in the land of Egypt . . . or if only we might die in this wilderness! Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt! . . . Let us head back for Egypt" (Numbers 14:2-4). Only Joshua and Caleb respond: "The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the Lord" (Numbers 14:8-9). As a result of the spies' lack of faith, the entire wilderness generation, save Joshua and Caleb, is fated to die outside the Promised Land.

The Divide in O Pioneers! tests its inhabitants, as well. It has "its little joke," as Alexandra calmly remarks in retrospect, but while it was "pretend[ing] to be poor" (108), it required sacrifice and faith from the farmers, and Alexandra's belief in the land is gauged in precisely these terms. Like the Israelites who grumbled in the desert, the pioneers on Cather's Divide have second thoughts about coming "to the end of the earth" (23), first leaving the Old Country and then abandoning steady jobs in the city for the unknowns of the frontier. For example, when the Linstrums give up on the land and return to St. Louis, where Mr. Linstrum will return to his factory job, Lou tries to convince Alexandra that "everybody who can crawl out is going away" (57). While Lou and Oscar contend that "it's too high to farm up here," Alexandra insists that "the land itself will be worth more than all we can ever raise on it" (58). Having gone to spy out the river farms, Alexandra tells Emil, "we must have faith in the high land" (63), the land of their father, and she transmits this attitude to Lou and Oscar. And when Lou demands a sign, asking "how do you know that land is going to go up enough to pay the mortgages," Alexandra can only offer him faith: "I can't explain that, Lou. You'll have to take my word for it. I know, that's all" (66). Lou objects that Alexandra's idea "must be crazy or everybody would be doing it," but Alexandra realizes that "the right thing is usually just what everybody doesn't do" (67). Like the Israelites who have a special destiny, Cather's epic farmers must chart their own path, trust their fathers, and show faith during difficult times.

Looking beyond the themes of the Pentateuch, the book of Isaiah provides additional prototypes of farming and fecundity motifs and a miraculous journey, echoed in Alexandra's trip to the river farms. Butterworth notes that "the land which at first seemed flat and monotonous proved to furnish endless variations on the theme of fertility." In Isaiah, "The future emerges as a seed shooting forth and opens for itself a way upward" (Schokel 178). Isaiah further prophesies that "The arid desert shall be glad, the wilderness shall rejoice and shall blossom like a rose" (35:1), while in Nebraska, "under the long shaggy ridges, [Alexandra] felt the future stirring" (69). Similarly, Isaiah later reports that "Truly the Lord has comforted Zion, comforted all her ruins; He has made her wilderness like Eden, Her desert like the Garden of the Lord" (51:3). Sixteen years after the opening of Cather's novel, the once-poor Divide has been transformed into a new Eden of rich farmland: "there is something frank and joyous and young in the open face of the country" (74). Clearly, the motif of seasonal renewal in O Pioneers! extends well beyond that of initial Creation.

Moving from the Prophets to Ketuvim, or the other collected writings of the Old Testament, the book of Ecclesiastes, which reminds us "to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven" (3:1), also provides important thematic precedents for Cather's novel. Ecclesiastes stands out in the Old Testament for its basic secularity: the locus of authority is not God or tradition but individual experience. Indeed, its emphasis on realism, experimentation, and cyclical patterns suggests that everyone must struggle to find his or her own answers: try out, build up, destroy, and move on. The Hebrew sages explain that the paired lines that make up the famous third chapter[6] do not fall into a predictable pattern—for example, stating the good and then the bad—because life itself has no order. Instead, Ecclesiastes offers a realistic outlook on life, suggesting that the key to happiness is not to avoid difficult times but to know how to handle them when they come. Furthermore, the cycles put things in perspective, reminding us that the pendulum will come back around. These are lessons that Alexandra learns firsthand. The opening words of Ecclesiastes, Hevel hevalim, have been variously translated as "vanity of vanities" or "utter futility," but they also connote that which is ephemeral or fleeting, suggesting that everything in this world is constantly changing and short-lived and that therefore we must make the most of our time here. Certainly Alexandra senses the basic ephemerality that forms the backbone of Ecclesiastes when she tells Carl, "the land belongs to the future. . . . We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while" (272-73).


The land is "the great fact" (O Pioneers! 11) in Nebraska, in Cather's writing, and in the Old Testament. And once the pioneers learn to farm the land productively, it becomes, as Carl notes, a land of "milk and honey" (110). In O Pioneers! the land takes on a special status; as Butterworth observes, "the sacredness of landscape is evoked with spiritual intensity." Cather's novel chronicles the creation and ordering of the land,[7] but it also records the conquering and settling of land, the focus of the biblical book of Joshua. Indeed, the book of Joshua is divided into two nearly equal sections: chapters 1-12 recount the conquering of the land, while chapters 13-22 focus on the Israelites' efforts to become a people in the land.[8] Further, the promise of the land, preparation for entering the land, attaining and conquering the land, becoming a people in the land, and striving to retain and then to regain the land form the crux of the bulk of the Pentateuch and the Prophets (from Genesis to Malachi). Because the Promised Land is a special inheritance that God has set aside for his chosen people, the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua contain numerous injunctions to the Israelites to separate themselves from the practices and beliefs of the nations who currently occupy it: "When the Lord your God has cut down before you the nations that you are about to enter and dispossess, and you have dispossessed them and settled in their land, beware of being lured into their ways after they have been wiped out before you! Do not inquire about their gods, saying 'How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow those practices'" (Deuteronomy 12:29-30). Although Alexandra is willing to listen to college graduates, the land itself, and her own heart, her conservative brothers resist doing anything that might make them stand out: "they hated experiments and . . . disliked to do anything different from their neighbors" (47). Not surprisingly, it is to Alexandra that the "Genius of the Divide . . . bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before" (64).

Alexandra's success is not unmitigated, however. She links her success on the land with that of her "tended-hearted" boy (55), Emil, and she reflects: "Yes, . . . it had been worth while; both Emil and the country had become what she had hoped. Out of her father's children there was one who was fit to cope with the world, who had not been tied to the plow, and who had a personality apart from the soil. And that, she reflected, was what she had worked for. She felt well satisfied with her life" (191). It is at precisely this moment that the Nebraskan landscape exacts its toll. Alexandra's efforts toward continuity and freedom are cut off by Emil's death. The very best (Emil, Marie, and even Amedee) do not live to enjoy the land's fruits, seemingly singled out because they are the best, as Carl surmises: "he was the best there was, I suppose. They were both the best you had here" (271). In the Old Testament, Moses was a prophet like no other, as Deuteronomy relates: "never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom the Lord singled out, face to face" (34:10). He sees God's face, leads his people out of Egypt, shepherds them through forty years of wandering in the desert, and brings them to the brink of the Jordan only to be condemned to die on the far side. And while Alexandra has a special relationship with the prairie, she cannot foresee or prevent the events that occur under the white mulberry tree, events that threaten to negate everything she has accomplished. Just as Moses is credited with delivering the tablets from Sinai and recording the Pentateuch but cannot make the crossing himself, Alexandra realizes that the story of the Divide is written "with the best we have" (272).


While what happens under "The White Mulberry Tree" contains elements of the Garden of Eden motif (Murphy, "Comprehensive" 113-17; Rosowski, Voyage 54) and draws on the Greek pastoral tradition (Rosowski, Voyage 54), this section of O Pioneers! also has important connections to the biblical pastoral, Song of Songs, a love poem that uses juxtaposition of images (especially red and white) to explore the tension between unity and disunity and the dual-edged nature of love. Narrative cannot be the point of "The White Mulberry Tree," as Elizabeth Janeway observes: the story itself is "ancient" and "often told" (xii). Along similar lines, Francis Landy argues that Song of Songs offers "no 'story' . . . , no truth, only a set of anecdotes, hovering between reality and dream, that exemplify the relationships of lovers" (316). Cather's novel and the biblical pastoral also share a prevalent image pattern: "the interplay of white and red evokes a powerful symbolic contrast (purity versus sexuality)" (Landy 309). This juxtaposition recurs throughout O Pioneers! whenever the mulberry tree and the orchard are mentioned: when Alexandra brings Carl to visit Marie, we are told that "wild roses were flaming in the tufts of bunchgrass along the fence," immediately followed by information about the "white mulberry tree" (124). When Emil agrees to mow the orchard for Marie, he finishes to find her "sitting under her white mulberry tree, the pailful of cherries beside her" (138). Finally, Ivar discovers "white mulberries . . . covered with dark stain" (240); this image is paralleled by a scene that tells the other half of the story: "two white butterflies from Frank's alfalfa field were fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadows . . . and in the long grass by the fence the last wild roses of the year opened their pink hearts to die" (241).

Thematically, the warning of Song of Songs, "For love is fierce as death, Passion is mighty as Sheol" (8:6),[9] is embodied in Frank's jealous rage and the subsequent death of the lovers. Landy further reminds us that love "is the bond of a vital society" but can "also threaten . . . social order" (318). Lack of awareness of this potential threat to the social order is precisely what blinds Alexandra to theeloping passion between Emil and Marie: "she wondered at herself now, but she had never thought of danger in that direction. If Marie had been unmarried,—oh yes. Then she would have kept her eyes open. But the mere fact that she was Shabata's wife, for Alexandra, settled everything. . . . Now, Alexandra could in a measure realize that Marie was, after all Marie; not merely a 'married woman'" (253). Marie's heroic last act of dragging herself to her beloved, "his brows . . . drawn in a frown," and her "look of ineffable content" (241) suggest another central theme of Song of Songs, as Landy explains: "the disunity is also that of the lovers, whose work of integration can never be completed" (316). It is perhaps on the strength of the ideals of Song of Songs that Alexandra chooses to visit Frank and work to have him pardoned. For the biblical pastoral is ultimately a love story about relationships—between a lover and a beloved, between God and the Israelites, and between the sometimes contradictory impulses within a single human heart.


As perhaps the most enduring and influential text in Western literature, the Bible serves as a crucial foundation for Cather's work, and one that goes far beyond the interesting and important echoes of early Genesis to encompass structure, characterization, theme, motif, and genre across a number of biblical texts. Understanding how the various iconic elements of the Old Testament have been employed and transformed in O Pioneers! is an important first step that can only enhance our appreciation for Cather's literary accomplishments and their enduring qualities. Indeed, the Old Testament is a prime source of those "two or three human stories [that] go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before" (110).

Such stories recur throughout Cather's canon; in subsequent texts she will use the elements that she establishes centrally in O Pioneers! in iconographic ways, reassembling them to create new variations on familiar themes. As Merrill Skaggs explains, Cather "relied from the beginning through the end of her career on a repertory of trusted devices to get her to her desired new goals" (12). Thus, it would seem possible and indeed essential to systematically explore an iconography of Cather, highlighting other such broadly based biblical techniques as type-scenes, leitwort, and sequence-of-action repetitions across Cather's corpus. Through tapping into an iconographic biblical tradition and creating her own literary iconography, Cather lays the groundwork for becoming a cultural icon herself, fulfilling her own oft-quoted pronouncement: "every artist makes himself born" (Song of the Lark 153). Cather's journey and our investigation begin with the Old Testament echoes in O Pioneers !


 1. Arnold believes that Cather's early exposure to the Bible had a formative effect: "I find in Cather's work biblical echoes that suggest an important source, or at least a confirmation, of her values. Her grandfather Cather was a devoted reader of the King James Bible, and her grandmother Boak regularly read to young Willa from the Bible" ("After All" 230-31). Stout confirms that Cather's "early reading, directed largely by her maternal grandmother, Rachel Boak, included such religious standards as Pilgrim's Progress and the Protestant Bible" (9). Woodress further contends that Cather "absorbed [the Bible] so thoroughly that her writing throughout her life is loaded with biblical quotations and allusions" (Literary Life 23). In terms of the influence of the Bible on the texts Cather produced, Rosowski identifies a "biblical vision" in Cather's early story "Lou, the Prophet" ("Subverted Endings"), while Giannone sees biblical echoes extending all the way to Cather's last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. (Go back.)
 2. In his 1913 review, Frederic Taber Cooper similarly calls the novel a "slow-moving . . .tale," an observation admittedly not meant as a compliment in this case. (Go back.)
 3. Studies that explore Cather's use of biblical allusions include Arnold, "The Allusive Cather"; Giannone; Murphy, "Comprehensive"; Rosowski, "Subverted Endings"; and Stouck, Imagination. Willa Cather and the Culture of Belief (ed. Murphy) offers fifteen essays that emphasize religious implications of Cather's biblical references; most of these essays focus their attention mainly on Christian scripture rather than the Old Testament. Murphy's "Biblical and Religious Dimensions of My Ántonia" both charts biblical allusions and explores religious ramifications. (Go back.)
 4. Murphy's analytical overview of O Pioneers! includes a section titled "The Genesis Dimension," in which he traces several important biblical motifs in Cather's text. These include creation of order and light from chaos, the blind Isaac's deathbed instructions to his feuding sons, Noah's relationship to the animals, and sin and death in the Garden of Eden ("Comprehensive" 114-17). Rosowski argues that "the biblical Garden of Eden is evoked in the general setting of the Shabata orchard, where Maria and Emil play in apparent childlike innocence and where danger takes the form of a snake," but she notes that Cather's story goes on to introduce "enormous differences . . . mak[ing] a 'fit' between characters and myth impossible" (Voyage 54, 56). Stouck notes that the novel employs two important Genesis motifs: "Alexandra's is the story of creation . . . [while] Emil and Marie's is the story of lovers cast from the earth's Garden through sin" (Imagination 31). (Go back.)
 5. All biblical citations come from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), except for the quotation of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 in note 6, which is reproduced in its best-known translation, the King James Version. (Go back.)
 6. The section reads as follows: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (Go back.)
 7. Murphy argues that "In part 2, 'Neighboring Fields,' set thirteen years later, order has indeed come to the wild land—creation is complete and the earth fruitful" ("Comprehensive" 116). (Go back.)
 8. Gunn finds a thematic message in this formal division: "the taking of Jericho and Ai and the other campaigns dramatically recounted in chapters 1-12 sweep us along in a vision of easy success. Chapters 13-21 implicitly suggest that occupation involves much more. They also establish a sense of ambivalence which will not readily be resolved" (103). (Go back.)
 9. The Hebrew word Sheol is sometimes translated as "the grave" or "the netherworld," but it expresses a concept that cannot readily be translated into English. Hence, many translations use the transliteration of the Hebrew instead of trying to come up with an English equivalent. (Go back.)


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———. Willa Cather's Imagination. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1975.
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