“ Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist” (Emerson 26). Presumably Willa Cather believed this epigram from Emerson applied to women as well when she wrote her novel, O Pioneers!. Alexandria Bergson epitomizes the pioneer spirit. She is emotionally strong, strong-willed and courageous. When her father dies he Alexandria the head of the family. He entrusts both the farm and the vision which brought him to leave his job, family, and life in Sweden to become a pioneer in America to Alexandria. He trusted Alexandria not his wife, nor to his two older sons to bring his dream to fruition and to protect his family.
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Alexandria does this on her own terms. What she knows how to do, she does. What she doesn’t know, she learns. She asks questions, evaluates the answers and makes her decision about what to do. Once she had made up her mind, there is no stopping her. She seeks her information from all sources.
Alexandria buys land when it is worthless and all her neighbors suggest she sell out. She works and struggles to make the land into good land and her farm into the best she can make it. Her efforts prove fruitful and by the time she divides the farm with her three younger brothers, she is the richest and most respected farmer in the region.
At a time when crops aren’t growing well she talks to a man who had studied agriculture at college and learns about alfalfa. Although laughed at and scorned by her neighbors at first, when she has three successive successful crops, this new crop becomes the economic mainstay of the farms in the community.
When the hogs they are raising on the farm are doing poorly she seeks out “ Crazy Ivar,” a man viewed by the community as insane because he too is a nonconformist. “ For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure” (Emerson 29). Ivar is thought to be crazy because he wears no shoes and spends his time either reading his Norwegian Bible or building a pond where migrating birds can feed and rest. The advice he gives her proves to be correct and the hogs thrive.
When Crazy Ivar loses his farm, she allows him to stay in her barn where he tends the horses and helps Alexandria when needed. The “ proper” citizens of the community are afraid of Ivar because he is different and threaten to have him committed to a mental institution. Alexandria will have none of this.
Throughout the book Cather repeats an image of a “ single wild duck was swimming and diving and preening her feathers, disporting herself very happily. … Years afterward she [Alexandria] thought of the duck as still there, swimming and diving all by herself in the sunlight, a kind of enchanted bird that did not know age or change (Cather 172-173).
This image of the wild duck that the most beautiful living thing in the world to Alexandria. Throughout her life, Alexandria lived in the same manner as the duck, wild, unconcerned about her reputation with others, unwilling to follow the crowd, but perfectly content, to be a nonconformist, doing what came naturally and seemed right to her while relying on her own strength and vision.
Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!. Los Angeles: LRS, 1997. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “ Self-Reliance.” Essays: First and Second Series. New York: Gramercy Books, 1993. 23-48.