O Pioneers! Book #2 of the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge 2012

Alexandra, from the first edition [source]

To read all 12 of Willa Cather’s novels in chronological order, one each month, throughout 2012. For full details about the challenge click here.


Our second novel of the challenge is O Pioneers!  Read it sometime over the next three weeks and we’ll start our conversation about it on Monday, February 20th.
About O Pioneers!
  • Cather started writing elements of the novel in 1911 and finished it in December 1912.
  • It was published on June 28, 1913 to both critical acclaim and popular success.
  • The novel is dedicated to the writer Sarah Orne Jewett whom Cather befriended in February 1908. Jewett died in June 1909, but their friendship had a big impact on Cather as a writer. Jewett had told Cather that it is the things “which haunt the mind for years” that are the proper material for serious literature. “Write the truth,” she instructed, “and let them take it or leave it.”
  • The title was inspired by Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”
  • The epigraph is taken from Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem “Pan Tadeusz.”

 Here’s a description of the novel from the Vintage Classic Paperback edition:

O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather’s first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier-and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather’s heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra’s devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself.

At once a sophisticated pastoral and a prototype for later feminist novels, O Pioneers! is a work in which triumph is inextricably enmeshed with tragedy, a story of people who do not claim a land so much as they submit to it and, in the process, become greater than they were.


  • O Pioneers! is almost always stocked in general bookstores and most libraries have it in their collections.
  • A free, annotated copy is available to read online via the Cather Archive here.
  • You can download a free digital edition from Project Gutenberg here.
  • Support the Willa Cather Foundation and order it online here.

First edition

Many consider O Pioneers! to be Cather’s masterpiece. Scholars have shown that it was based on two short stories. One was a story titled “Alexandra,” which Cather started writing in 1911 and the other was “The White Mulberry Tree,” which she started in August of 1912. Cather was inspired to write “The White Mulberry Tree” in the summer of 1912 after a visit to Arizona and New Mexico, and while spending the month of June in her home town of Red Cloud, Nebraska where she watched the wheat harvest for the first time in years. Later, while writing “The White Mulberry Tree” Cather was struck with the idea that this new story belonged with her earlier story “Alexandra.” She described the experience as a “sudden inner explosion and enlightenment.” What do you think of these two stories? Do you think they mesh well together? Do they together enhance other themes in the novel?

I’ll post my thoughts on reading O Pioneers! in a new post by noon on Monday, February 20. At that time the conversation will begin–simply post your thoughts about the novel in the comments section of that post so we can have everyone’s thoughts in once place. Please hold off on sharing your thoughts about O Pioneers! until the 20th so everyone has the time to read it.

Happy Reading!


  1. hrough January I've been reading Cather's Youth and the Bright Medusa and enjoying her stories. I hope to complete that collection this month and begin O Pioneers. 😀

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