Teaching Old World Vs. New World in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!

This is not meant to be a case for why Cather’s work, and O Pioneers! in particular, should be taught, though it easily could be. I guess I should come clean and admit that my daughter may share a name with Cather, and I’m an unabashed fan. I’m assuming that most recognize her skill and the usefulness of her perspective, and maybe even simply want to teach her out of enjoyment.

If you are still on the fence, though, let me give you a few other reasons, particularly in a survey-style classroom, when a rather large span of time/genre/diversity of author often must be covered. With that in mind, Cather’s slim, easily segmented novels are a strong compliment to the short stories, poems, essays and speeches that probably make up the majority of the semester’s reading. It’s not that American literature lacks good novels – quite the opposite– but the form often reads long before the turn of the 20th century, and when considering squeezing Moby Dick into three, 50-minute periods, O Pioneers! distinctly titled parts are a welcome alternative.

It’s also a text that grapples with a number of large ideas in a relatively short space: identity, personhood, sexuality, gender, labor, and religion, to name a few. I love this about it; it bites off a chunk of humanity and presents it in all of its intertwined complication. There is no looking for the central theme or subject; there are too many! Of course, this broadness can be overwhelming, at least for me, specifically with time constraints. I’ve consistently taught OP! in American lit survey sections, and because of these limitations, I like to draw out, discuss and have students consider in great detail primarily the idea of Old World vs. New World.

Maybe it’s a theme, or perhaps theme isn’t the right word: I think teaching or reading for theme may no longer be en vogue, or is perhaps too rudimentary. But I do see it as a kind of backlight, one that once considered is hard to ignore. And it’s an inclusive kind of umbrella that branches out and draws in other, perhaps more subtle, ideas and questions. In this way, OW vs. NW throws big, broad ideas that may lack clear form or definition into sharp relief.

The Varying Usefulness of Old World vs. New World

I first began to work OW vs. NW into my lesson-planning as a way to talk about character, particularly women in the text whose personhood and identity are defined by where they’re from originally and where they live in the text’s present (Mrs. Bergson, Signa, Mrs. Lee, even Marie). I originally intended to focus and discuss this distinction as a way of moving into the importance of regionalism/nationality for Cather. She repeatedly draws distinctions between the French, Swedish, Bohemian and American personalities and sensibilities, among others. Characters are often defined by being more or less like their country of origin, and I still think it’s useful in strictly those terms (Old World = European countries represented vs. New World = America). However, when I brought the idea into the classroom and assigned a brief writing exercise asking my students if they noticed any distinction or separation between the Old World vs. New World (I left these terms undefined), they interpreted them to mean a variety of things. Our resulting discussion was much more thorough than I had anticipated, thanks to the looseness the language offers coupled with a clear dichotomy. I now routinely ask the same question on the first day of OP! class discussion – we often arrive at these interpretations, which take us down all manner of avenues:

Age vs. Youth: Some attached them to the idea of age, understanding old and new literally, and began to focus on the importance of youth in the text. Many were forlorn that Alexandra only found love in old age (her forties!). We brought in Cather’s poem that opens the text, “Prairie Spring,” its emphasis on “Against all this, Youth,” as well as the final page, whose final word is literally “youth.” Having read and listened to Whitman read his own “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” we brought in Cather’s awareness of the poem, and the connection of the vigor and vitality that usually is attributed to the young to the spirit of the American pioneer. It was also interesting for us to see the novel reject ideas of age as a limiting factor, with Alexandra herself and Ivar serving as examples. We went back to Alexandra’s dream, how it comes to her when she is tired, and how feeling worn and weary of life is not necessarily dependent on the age of the character in OP!, as much as their experiences. Some saw the praise of youth as a warning against rashness and naivety as they mourned Emil and Marie; age brings wisdom and experience offers perspective, they argued, and it was a right of passage to move from the new world to the old, a direction that works against common ideas of upgrading from old to new.

Europe vs. America: Others interpreted the question in more traditional terms, either having some familiarity with the idea or from the frequent textual references to “the old country” and “the New World.” From this we turned back to passages that characterized individuals through their nationality, as Cather’s narrator conveys that “‘Frenchies like to brag’,” and Swedes are “apt to be egotistical and jealous…cautious and reserved.” In this way, we worked to briefly define each country historically and its immigration history in America, and how that might have played a role in Cather’s characterization. Since all the players in the text reside in America, many saw this division as how Americanized a character might be (and what that means), or how strongly they hold to their ancestral roots. Some, it seemed, were a paradox of both, at times progressive and unorthodox (Alexandra’s ownership and working of farmland, her employment of Ivar), at others, traditional and firmly linked to the values of their national identity (her insistence on speaking and reading Swedish, her loyalty to her forefathers and her country). We identified this as an evolution of identity, and the importance of values led us to the next interpretation.

Traditional vs. Progress: Of course, much of what is necessary in the typecasting of national identity is understanding perceived values. Some students absorbed the clear differences drawn between the Czech, Germans, Norwegians, etc., and moved on to read OW vs. NW as a tug-of-war between tradition and progress. At times this manifests as seeing OW countries as more antiquated and conservative and America as enlightened and open-mined, and the latter seemed to be valued by the students themselves. However, that led to thoughtful discussions regarding whether patriotism and their own national identity played a role in a positive reading of America, as well as whether we could make a case for which Cather would argue was more progressive. Characters in OP! are often split: for all of Alexandra’s radical dismantling of contemporary gender norms and eager willingness to do so, she is still admittedly conservative in her blaming of Emil, and particularly Marie, for their own deaths. And though the text paints the OW with broad strokes, at times we see more compassion and generosity than the NW offers (Ivar’s constant fear of being carted off to an asylum in the Divide, for example, while in the OW his eccentricities would be viewed as such and easily tolerated). Perhaps, as one student offered, it’s to be expected that the NW, like its land, is rough and not yet refined?

Wildness vs. Tamed Landscape: One of the favorite interpretations of the original question was to read it with emphasis on world as land, both old and new. I jumped at this, as it is a text born of its landscape, and the Divide is a character unto itself. I like to bring in and illustrate environment whenever possible, and for this we looked at a number of historical photographs of Nebraska “farmland” before it was farmed. There was quite a bit of surprise that it didn’t resemble closely mowed, carefully tilled rolling farmland by any stretch. The shaggy images we viewed mirrored the titles of the five sections of the text, starting with “The Wild Land” and progressing in specificity and friendliness, much as the land in the text does. We slowly sorted through images as Nebraska farmland aged, watching it change shape, alter in color, lose rivers, gain them, becoming “tamed” as history progressed, and this led to interesting segues into early environmentalism, regionalism and national identity’s debt to landscape.

Limitations and Reflections: For all of its value, I have also witnessed the shortcomings of prompting a fairly specific discussion direction. At times students assume I want to make everything relate back to this dichotomy, and while it can lead to unorthodox jumping off points, it can also feel forced and limiting. I originally hoped the question would help understand characters and their motivations, and this has sometimes led to them having been defined too much by these terms and not by their own idiosyncrasies, which are so thoughtfully assembled by Cather. I’m also eager to disabuse students that there is any one way to read a text, though this is a concern that pervades on a much larger scale. Still, for all of it’s pitfalls, I appreciate the flexibility and constructive insight these terms can provide, and I also think it empowers students to feel that their understanding of them is probably valid and useful, even if it’s not the same reading their neighbor came away with. An area I’m most interested in building upon is student’s awareness of the historical context of the OW countries discussed and how that plays into their perceived values and sensibilities, as this can be difficult to flesh out, especially in a short period of time. Ideas and suggestions are welcome!

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One thought on “Teaching Old World Vs. New World in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!

  1. I love that the set up of old verse new world is broad enough to get lots of different answers but specific enough that students still have a lot to work with. Its hard to find a balance between leading them too much and not giving enough direction. It also seems like presenting the text in this way would give you plenty to transition with to your next texts. The themes are particular to Cather but land or immigration could certainly be picked up in lots of other early 20th century texts.

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