Study Guide

O Pioneers!

By Willa Cather

O Pioneers! Introduction

On the lookout for stock images of the American frontier? You know, covered wagons, cowboys, shootouts? Well, check out one of these films.

But if you're looking for a story about the American West that really goes for the good stuff—the frontier way of life—then step right up to Willa Cather's 1913 novel, O Pioneers! By the end of this classic, you'll have an idea of the human experience on the frontier, in a drama that plays out between an unforgiving land and its tenacious settlers.

In O Pioneers!, which gets its title from an 1865 poem by Walt Whitman, the American West comes at us chock-full of symbolism. At the same time, though, the depictions of frontier life are realistic and specific to this author. See, Willa Cather grew up on the Nebraskan Great Plains, in surroundings that inspired the setting of O Pioneers! The book is really an ode to this stark landscape and the sturdy folks who call it home.

O Pioneers! tells the story of the Bergson family, Swedish immigrants with a farm on the highland prairies of Nebraska, a region known in the novel as "the Divide." Now, there's no shortage of romance and tragedy in O Pioneers! But if we loobk closely, the human stories in the novel often seem overshadowed by the drama of the land itself. Alexandra, the novel's heroine, doesn't just own land; she belongs to it. Her character easily merges into something that is bigger than herself, grander than her desires, property or individualism.

Have no fear—we'll have a lot more to say about this in Alexandra's "Character Analysis." But if you still can't get enough of Willa Cather, then we have some good news for you: there's more, much more where this comes from. In fact, O Pioneers! is just the first book in Cather's "Prairie Trilogy," which includes her other novels, The Song of the Lark and My Ántonia

What is O Pioneers! About and Why Should I Care?

There's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's no place like…

… Nebraska?

We admit: it's easy to give Nebraska a hard time. Like the Kansas of everyone's favorite, ruby slipper-wearing heroineNebraska has a pretty humble place in the American imagination. Ask most people, and they'll tell you that Nebraska is the epitome of flat, gray, Midwestern boringness. Oh, and something about the Oregon Trail.

Yeah—not exactly the best place to spend your next Spring Break.

If you're at all like us, though (by which we mean awesome), then you'll know that first impressions don't get you very far in the world of literature. While Nebraska might not sound like all that jazz, back in 1913, when Willa Cather wrote O Pioneers!, it was the living legacy of the Wild West. Nebraska was once the frontier in its prime, and Willa Cather is one of the greatest champions of this state's rugged beauty and devoted citizens.

All the same, the people in O Pioneers! often long to break free from the land, to see the world beyond the Great Plains. In the end, though, the novel's heroine rediscovers her love of the prairie. She concludes that her heart can belong to the land, and she can still free to be herself. Now, that's a nice American Dream—but how free is Alexandra? Could her sense of belonging to the land mask a refusal to confront all her dreams and desires?

Well, fellow explorers of Shmoop, we invite you to look for your own answers to these questions. In the end, they're not so different from questions we ask today about American identity, personal freedom and what it means to call a country home.

So, hitch your wagons and hold onto your bonnets, because it's time to say: O Pioneers!

O Pioneers! Resources

Websites

The Willa Cather Foundation
This is the place to go for the latest news on Willa Cather.

The Willa Cather Archive
And here's where you should go for the latest material on Willa Cather. A great resource for academic research.

A Short Biography
This biographic essay gives a nice overview of Cather's life and her writing.

Another Short Biography
Here is another overview of Cather's life, with a list of sources for more exploration.

Everywhere Cather Went. Everywhere.
This map, kindly provided by the Willa Cather Archive, shows every place ever visited by Willa Cather. Wow, now those are some devoted fans.

National Geographic Does Nebraska
The National Geographic Travel site on Nebraska—with pictures. You can be a tourist without even leaving your house.

Life in a Sod House
Wondering what it was like? (So was Shmoop.)

Movie or TV Productions

O Pioneers! (1992)
Check out the IMDb page for this 1992 TV production of Cather's novel. It won an Emmy for music composition. 

Articles and Interviews

Willa Cather's Private Life: Exposed
A New York Times article from March, 2013, discussing the publication of Willa Cather's private letters.

More on Cather's Letters
This article includes some excerpts from Cather's letters to her partner of 40 years, Edith White.

Even More (The New York Review of Books)
Here, you can read a review of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (eds. Andre Jewell and Janis Stout), written by Hermione Lee.

Cather's Obituary in the New York Times
Well, that says it all. She died April 24, 1947.

Articles about Willa Cather
This Willa Cather Foundation website includes a number of different articles about Cather. (Though the website's banner might make you dizzy…)

Interviews with Willa Cather
The Willa Cather Archive has a large number of interviews with Cather, published during her lifetime. Check them out.

Video

Willa Cather's Private Letters
Cather's private letters were recently published for the first time (see the articles, above). Here's a short series about her letters.

Images of the Nebraska Prairieland
This is a short clip about the Nebraska prairieland and the threats to its preservation.

Audio

O Pioneers!: The Audiobook
If you're itching to hear the novel spoken aloud, you may now… stop itching and start scratching.

Cather Speaks at the Pulitzer Prize Awarding Ceremony
Cather won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours. Here, you can listen to her giving a speech at the 1933 award ceremony.

Images

Willa Cather
Check out Cather, looking dashing in a feathered hat.

Cather's Birthplace
If you're up for a trip to Frederick County, VA, you can visit her house.

Willa Cather's Childhood Home
Here's the place Cather lived after her family moved to Red Cloud, NE, in 1884. Cather was 11 years old.

Cather in Time Magazine (cover)
Here's Cather on the cover of Time Magazine, from Aug. 3, 1931. Work it, girl.

Willa Cather Stamp
Attention collectors. This stamp was issued in 1973.

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie
Check out these awesome pictures of the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, a nature reserve in south central Nebraska. It's nice to keep these in mind when reading all those pastoral passages in O Pioneers!

So, What's a Sod House?
Take a look. Settlers often built these homes because there were so few trees on the prairie.