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A couple of weeks ago I posted my thoughts on the interesting project of teaching the 20th century through American novels, 1 per decade. That post proved to be quite popular, so I’m going to go ahead and continue the series!

1 ) We’re moving on into the 1910s — the decade beginning with 1910 and ending with 1910. In the first post in this series, it was suggested that folks provide two responses, one being the canonical “dead white [straight/able-bodied] male” option and the other aimed at providing perspective from authors who might be differently gendered, queered, dis/abled, racialized, colonized, and so forth. I really like this strategy, since I see great value in both options, particularly since it’s always productive to read against the grain when teaching a canonical text as a means of resisting the dominating discourses of a given era.

2) Give a brief suggestion as to how you see this novel fitting into a narrative arc of the twentieth century as told through the novel. Evolution of form? History of social / political movements? Expansion or recovery of discourses of race or gender? Decidedly non-academic yet perfectly natural, wholesome, and not at all embarrassing literary crushes?

My answers:

This is a relatively simple one for me — Willa Cather, O, Pioneers! I absolutely love this novel. In high school, we were handed a reader with a collection of three short novels: The Awakening, Ethan Frome and O Pioneers. We were told to read two out of the three for a series of assignments — it was up to us to choose. I read Awakening first, and hated it. My loathing for this work has since been tempered by feminist and psychoanalytical frameworks which opened the text up for more interesting readings, but we approached it with a good old-fashioned New Criticism angle — read the text, try to identify with the characters, use dialogue and interior monologue to ascertain their motivations, etc. This approach was also taken in a later college course, which did nothing to soothe my irritation at the entire book; it’s only been in the intervening years that I’ve come to appreciate certain qualities, although I feel it is still over-hyped as a masterwork of American short fiction.

But Cather! Cather was a revelation: clean, straight-forward prose, characters who persevered in spite of their emotional and financial circumstances. As someone growing up on the northern edge of the Great Plains (the last stand of the Big Woods written about by Laura Ingalls Wilder was a scant 2 miles from our home), I realized that I had never really looked at the landscape I grew up in. Although I was always a history buff, and our school system had several intensive units in 6th and 7th grade on local and regional history, I tended to focus on the “big stuff”; conflicts between European settlers and the natives, conflicts between the Lakota and the Anishinabeg, local history regarding bank robberies and gunfights — the exciting stuff. Cather’s book opened my eyes both to the history of the land and the European settlers who farmed it — my ancestors. As I learned more about my own family’s background, primarily my maternal grandmother’s family, who mostly emigrated to Minnesota directly from Sweden c.1900, and whose lives were told to me in vivid oral stories paired with bleak, grainy, often grim-faced black and white photographs, I began to feel a kinship with Cather and her characters.

I still consider O Pioneers! to be Cather’s masterwork, although I am always happy to read any of her work. Although it lacks the city-country tension of My Antonia, with its latent discourses of queer sexuality and bourgeoisie mobility, I find Pioneers to be an excellent resource for ecocritical readings (the naked desire to bend the land to suit human needs), Marxist readings (Alexandra leverages her family’s resources into a moderate agricultural empire, consolidating various farms into a plantation-esque, even feudal power structure) and of course feminist / queer readings (Alexandra is far more pragmatic, intelligent, and even prophetic than her brothers, yet has to continually make allowances for the patriarchal structure she occupies).

What are your selections?

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