2013 Challenges, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Fiction, Realism, Regionalism, Willa Cather

Review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

51T04Q139GLO Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 2

What can I say about Willa Cather?  Not enough, certainly.  She is known as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, chronicler of American Pioneer life, and for good reason.  O Pioneers! is the first in a trilogy known as the “Prairie Trilogy”; it is followed by Song of the Lark and My Antonia.  I have been, until now, more familiar with Cather’s later works, such as A Lost Lady, and there is a striking difference between her earlier works of Realism and the later move to Modernism.  In A Lost Lady, one can witness that shift in action, but O Pioneers! is all Realism (with a bit of sensational romance thrown in vis-a-vis the likes of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Thomas Hardy). 

Alexandra Bergson is the eldest child and only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Bergson, who have emigrated from Sweden to make a home and farm on the Nebraska prairie.  Things do not go as planned.  The land is difficult to farm, the climate is difficult to live in, and the people – a hodgepodge of French, Swedish, and other nationalities are not always on the best of terms.  But when the farm becomes Alexandra’s, she soon proves her prowess at managing a household (or three) and cultivating the land, so much so that she becomes one of the most prosperous landowners in the region.  This success does not come without sacrifice.  She spends her young adulthood and middle years alone and lonely, sacrificing love and courtship to take care of her younger siblings and to honor the dying wishes of her father.  Much of the story seems to be a lament – a commentary on the difficult way of life these early pioneers endured. 

In addition to Alexandra, the minor characters (and all of them, except Alexandra, are minor), are equally well-drawn and independent.  The youngest brother, Emil, is the secondary character and it is his story that the reader believes will be carried on, after Alexandra’s closes – he is to be the “new” that comes from a successful pioneering life.  Emil has left the farm to get a college education, his brothers despise him for it because they can no longer understand him, and they fear and hate their sister for allowing Emil the opportunity and for forcing, as they see it, their family to change.  In this rural community, being different is not encouraged.  The most important character of all, though, is probably the land itself – and everything Cather wants to express through it and about it.

Alexandra and Emil, as well as Emil’s love interest (a married woman) and the loose-living French community are in stark contrast to the rest of the town.  The main point of the story seems to live here, somewhere.  It is extraordinary that this book, written exactly 100 years ago (1913), still speaks to us today.  Anyone who has felt trapped by modern day’s excesses – too much noise, too many things, too many distractions, too many responsibilities, too much commentary… all of this was at issue, for Cather and the problem, having only amplified over time, is certainly valid and meaningful today. 

Told in a beautiful, almost lyric prose that is accessible at all levels, but somehow transcendent, O Pioneers! is a story about chance and about planning; it is a story of leaders and followers, givers and takers; it is about family, community, hard work, education, and pursuing one’s dreams.  Ultimately, it is a story of fate and impulse – a commentary on control and our inability, perhaps, to command even our own destinies, let alone those of others.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: High School+

Interest: Pioneer America, Frontier Days, Rural/Farming Communities, Family, Destiny/Fate, American Realism, American Regionalism, Education

Notable Quotes:

“The little town behind them had vanished as if it had never been, had fallen behind the swell of the prairie, and the stern frozen country received them into its bosom” (11).

“A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves” (37).

“It’s by understanding me . . . that you’ve helped me.  I expect that is the only way one person ever really can help another” (39).

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years” (89).

“I’ve found it sometimes pays to mend other people’s fences” (105).

“It’s queer what things one remembers and what things one forgets” (178).

“Above Marie and Emil, two white butterflies from Frank’s alfalfa field were fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadows; diving and soaring, now close together, now far apart; and in the long grass by the fence the last wild roses of the year opened their pink hearts to die” (201).

“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” (229). 

 O Pioneers! is Book 1 for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge & Book 7 for my Classics Club Challenge.

American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Literature, Realism, Regionalism, Willa Cather

Review: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Book Review Template

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 36


4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

“If her image flashed into his mind, it came with a brightness of dark eyes, her pale triangular cheeks with long earrings, and her many-coloured laugh.  When he was dull, dull and tired of everything, he used to think that if he could hear that long-lost lady laugh again, he would be gay.”  Thus sums up the sense of loss, nostalgia, longing and romance which characterizes Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady.  The narrator, Niel, is relating the story after thirty years.  He is looking back on his boyhood and young manhood, remembering a certain woman who helped to define and destroy his ideals of chivalry, morality, and responsibility.  When Niel is young, he and the other neighborhood boys adore Mrs. Marian Forrester, the wife of Captain Forrester – they are the Queen and King of little Sweet Water.  With the rise of big industry – Federal banks and stock brokers- comes the fall of small town power and wealth.  Suddenly, the Captain, a once mountainous figure, hero to young Niel, finds himself broken and displaced.  His decline leads to the necessary rise (or adaptation) of his wife, and the subsequent disillusionment of Niel.  Before Niel’s very eyes, the neighborhood bully, Ivy Peters, an ugly, crass, ignorant man, becomes the town’s champion and, suddenly, all Niel holds dear begins to disappear – the “Great West” becomes lost to progress.

3 – Characters well-developed.

Cather’s characters, like her prose, are sparsely and quietly drawn.  They are best examined in relation to one another, rather than on their own individual descriptions or by their particular monologues.  Their growth (or lack thereof) oftentimes must be inferred by decisions they make and by the things they leave unsaid. Still, there are clearly differences in each of the characters and purposes which each of them serve.  Marian, for instance, is the opportunist.  She is perhaps the most capable but vacuous person in Sweet Water.  She takes on the characteristics of the men she is with and it can be reasonably understood that, without a strong man in her life, she would be nothing at all.  Niel is the romantic – he is in awe of Captain Forrester, the great American pioneer, whose strength and composure reminds Niel of a great mountain, immovable and majestic.  As Captain Forrester’s health declines and as Niel learns more about the Captain’s relationship with Marian (including sad notions of honor), Niel becomes jaded and confused, losing grip with his romantic notions.  Ivy Peters is animalistic and amoral.  His purpose is to make money at all costs.  He is the enemy of the aesthete (Captain Forrester) and the champion of capitalism and unchecked wealth and power.  In addition to the main characters are a few minor characters who also serve their purposes – the Forrester’s servants, including “Black Tom,” and the bread boys, German immigrants, who serve to demonstrate the disconnect in classes and the whispered racism of this region.  Also present are the town gossips, the lower-middle class ladies whose primary responsibilities are to nose their way into others’ business and to demonstrate with clarity the fall which the Forresters suffer.      

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Cather wrote this novel in two parts, so that the structure of the novel would be equal to its primary dichotomy (the eradication of regionalism and the rise of nationalism).  In part one, we see the almost idyllic home life of the Forresters.  They are popular, beautiful, wealthy, and well-respected by the entire town (with the exception of Ivy Peters, whose arrogance and jealousy will not allow him to respect anyone who has more than he does).  They represent the top-tier, the upper-echelon of the rural class – a railroad giant and his wife, landowners, who displaced the native population to create their own Eden.  In part two, the Forresters suddenly find that they are the ones who are being displaced.  The railroad fails, the local banks and business fail, and the Captain’s own sense of honor, pride, and moral responsibility to his town and people leave him bankrupt.  Soon, it is the Ivy Peters’ of the world who become dominant – the men who answer only to themselves.  These men feel no sense of responsibility to anyone else and they, like locusts, will consume anything in their paths, without regard for those who might be ruined in the process.  The simple but pointed prose allows for moments of irony and clarity, wherein we witness characters exposed in ways they would not normally allow themselves to be (Marian, alone in the field, a real smile on her face; Captain Forrester, retelling the story of his settlement and being caught by moments of remorse for what he may have done to the native population, etc.).  The language, prose, and structure, though simple and somewhat sad, match the construction of the major themes perfectly.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

In this seminal work, the first of Cather’s to break away from traditional American Romanticism and into the realm of Realism, there is a clear dichotomy of virtue:  Regionalism vs Nationalism; Rural vs. City; Pioneer vs. Industrialist; Tradition vs. Opportunity.  The title would lead one to believe that the story is about Marian Forrester, the woman who Niel idolizes and whose story he narrates for us; however, the terms “Lost” and “Lady” seem to take on many meanings and one begins to realize that the story is not so much about Marian as it is about the loss of Niel’s idealism and naivety.  Marian is the one character who can adapt to any situation and, though this lets Niel down, it is her great strength and it is this inability to accept and grow with change which leaves Niel forever a boy in Marian’s eyes.  Furthermore, Cather employs a common literary theme (common, particularly to the preceding Romantic and Gothic eras) of Money/Wealth & Power/Health.  As Captain Forrester’s money worries increase, as he becomes bankrupt, so does he lose his vitality, suffering from illness and injury until, finally, he succumbs to bankruptcy and to old age. 

There is also much being said about the relationship between men and women, particularly in terms of sexual power and dominance.  Cutting is a persistent theme throughout the book – each of the men, at some point, performing an act of cutting (sexual power) in the presence of Marian Forrester who, though capable, is constantly seeking to be controlled and, in her submissiveness, she adapts to become the woman her man needs her to be.  There is also the theme of “falling,” which both opens and closes the narrative.  Individual people, like Captain Forrester, as well as larger ideas, such as the romantic ideal of the Great American West and the small town bank, will fall from prominence and be replaced by new powers, human and otherwise.  Ultimately, A Lost Lady is an elegy – it is one man’s (Niel’s) act of lamenting the loss of a particular era and predicting the impersonal, power and money-hungry era to come.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Regionalism, Nationalism, Industrial America, Realism, Sexual Dynamics, Power, Money/Wealth & Health.

Notable Quotes:

“I’m just as good as she is.”

“There was something wild and desperate about the way the darkened creature beat tis wings in the branches, whirling in the sunlight and never seeing it, always thrusting its head up and shaking it, as a bird does when its drinking.”

“His clumsy dignity covered a deep nature, and a conscience that had never been juggled with.  His repose was like that of a mountain.”

“My philosophy is that what you think of and plan for day by day, in spite of yourself, so to speak – you will get.”

“As she turned quickly away, the train of her velvet dress caught the leg of his broadcloth trousers and dragged with a friction that crackled and threw sparks.”

“In that instant between stooping to the window-sill and rising, he had lost one of the most beautiful things in his life.”

“I feel such a power to live in me.”

“When women began to talk about still feeling young, didn’t it mean that something had broken?”

“She had always the power of suggesting things much lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring.”

“The longer Niel was with Captain Forrester in those peaceful closing days of his life, the more he felt that the Captain knew his wife better even than she knew herself; and that, knowing her, he, -to use one of his own expressions, -valued her.” 

1001 Books, Book Review, Classics, Doctoral Work, Literature, Naturalism, Philosophy, Re-Reads, Realism, Theodore Dreiser

Review: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 33

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is perhaps the perfect example of American Naturalism.  In it, a small-town Wisconsin girl, Carrie Meeber, moves to Chicago to live with her sister and brother-in-law.  While on the train into the city, she meets a man named Charles Drouet, and this encounter (characterized by Carrie’s adoration of his fancy clothes and well-to-do appearance) will set in motion Carrie’s entire future.  Carrie’s life is filled with example after example of good fortune and coincidence, so that, without taking any real agency of her own, she finds herself elevated from the lowest levels of society (once forced to work in the harshest of factory conditions) to the ranks of wealth and stardom, on Broadway.  Concurrently, the life of her second lover, Hurstwood, begins to deteriorate as of the day he meets her.  At the start, he is a powerful, charming, and accomplished business man.  His wife and children are normal and healthy, although rather self-absorbed.  Soon, the powers of fate and destiny converge on Hurstwood & Carrie – their lives are linked and their livelihoods inverted.  Hurstwood falls tragically and cannot seem to find his way back, while Carrie rises ever higher, without ever putting in much effort of her own.  But, though she ultimately achieves her dreams, she is never happy, never satisfied.  She is lost in a world of “cosmopolitan morality,” where success is defined by things and where possessions are consumed at an ever-growing rate, in an attempt to fill an un-fillable void.

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

There are two main characters in Sister Carrie, including Carrier herself, as well as George Hurstwood.  Although the story’s title would lead readers to believe that the story is all about Carrie, it is not hard to argue that the true main character ends up being Hurstwood (whose decline is ultimately much more interesting than Carrie’s rise).  Carrie is naïve, but not inept.  She is not exactly a coquette – not immoral, by any means, but she is quite possibly amoral.  For most of the book, she lacks completely any agency – she allows others to guide her and care for her.  Fortunately, this ultimately works for her, and it is not until near the end of the story, where her relationship with Hurstwood has become interchanged (Carrie becoming the powerful and wealth partner), when she takes a firm action of her own and leaves him to his poverty.  The fact that her one self-guided action is to leave Hurstwood when he is down says much about her character, as does the fact that, though she becomes increasingly wealthy and famous, she remains wholly unsatisfied and lonely. 

In addition to these main two, there is Drouet, a prominent secondary character.  Without Drouet, Carrie’s story could not exist.  He is a constant throughout – never changing much, never learning or growing.  He does eventually come to love Carrie, but only after she has gone out of his reach (becoming desirable to him after it is impossible for him to have her).  Drouet’s constancy allows for the inversion of Carrie and Hurstwood’s situation to be put into perspective – their changes are made clearer in relation to Drouet’s stationary presence.  Finally, there are a few prominent tertiary characters, such as Mr. Ames, who is the one person Carrie seems to love and respect most in the world and the one person she wishes most to be like (and be with), but who is also the one person Carrie could never truly understand.  Ames is an intellectual – a philosopher and he is entirely without need for commercial things.  Carrie is in awe of his ability to be content with whatever he has, because she can never seem to get enough.  In addition to those, there are quite a few minor characters (such as Carrie’s sister and Mrs. Vance’s brother).  Dreiser’s characterization is brilliant, in that each cast member has a clear and necessary purpose to the story.

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

The only downfall of this novel, for me, was the prose.  Dreiser’s writing was heavily criticized as being pedantic, ungrammatical, and long-winded (even elephantine).  Take, for example, the following passages:

“The, to Carrie, very important theatrical performance was to take place at the Avery on conditions which were to make it more noteworthy than was at first anticipated.” 

“They had young men of the kind whom she, since her experience with Drouet, felt above, who took them out.”

Clearly, Dreiser was not a master of the poetic.  His prose is often clunky and, some would say, cheap or common.  Dreiser himself, as well as some of his defendants, assert that his style is actually presented this way as artistic choice – that he was seeking to present “an accurate description of life as it is,” which means narrating in the way common people would think and talk.  A poetic or graceful prose, then, would be unrealistic of the circumstances described within Sister Carrie and thus his style makes perfect sense.

Whether or not it was true artistic choice, it comes across as sub-par prose from a journalist-turned-novelist who still had much to learn about writing style.  Fortunately, his descriptions and dialogue were generally solid, and his use of concrete and purposeful themes/symbols (the rocking chair, the sea, etc.) throughout help raise the overall tone and value of the prose.  

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

William Dean Howells, critic and novelist (and the one man, other than Mark Twain, who was responsible for the success of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) is considered by most to be the father of Realism.  In his explanation of Realism, he stated that it is “nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.”  There should be nothing sensational, nothing inexplicable in a story, if it is to be considered of literary consequence.  (This is, perhaps, why I found his book The Rise of Silas Lapham so incredibly boring, but I digress!).  He and other Realists believed that the following principles of life were truth, and thus make up the doctrine of Realism in literature.

–       That the world is amoral.
–       The men/women have no free will. 
–       That lives are controlled by heredity and environment.
–       That religion’s truths are illusory.
–       That the destiny of humanity was misery and oblivion in death.

If one takes these principles into account when reading Sister Carrie, then it becomes clear that not only is Dreiser a practitioner of Realism, but this text might be one of the best examples of theory-in-practice.  Each of these five thoughts about life are clearly present in the novel.  Dreiser was a true Naturalist, in that he believed we were all drifting along on a sea of pre-determination, destined to end up wherever life would have us end up.  The choices we make have very little bearing on what we will be or where we will go, because all of that has been decided for us already (not by God, but by a confluence of fate and chance). 

In addition to Sister Carrie being a brilliant example of Realism (if not the best written example), there is also much to examine in regards to the themes of morality, materialism, fate/fortune, cosmopolitan (city) life and even romance.  Its place in the canon of American literature is well-deserved, both as an example of a shift in the treatment of women (previous to Dreiser, most “lost” women would end up dead) and in the shift from American Romanticism to Naturalism.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Determinism/Fatalism, Naturalism, Realism, American History, Rural-City dichotomy.

Notable Quotes:

“She looked into her glass and saw a prettier Carrie than she had seen before; she looked into her mind, a mirror prepared of her own and the world’s opinions, and saw a worse. Between these two images she wavered, hesitating which to believe.”

“People in general attach too much importance to words. They are under the illusion that talking effects great results. As a matter of fact, words are, as a rule, the shallowest portion of all the argument. They but dimly represent the great surging feelings and desires which lie behind. When the distraction of the tongue is removed, the heart listens.” 

“When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse” 

“A real flame of love is a subtle thing. It burns as a will-o’-the-wisp, dancing onward to fairy lands of delight. It roars as a furnace. Too often jealousy is the quality upon which it feeds.” 

“Men are still led by instinct before they are regulated by knowledge.”