It would be so convenient if all that neighborliness required was knowing names and offering polite smiles. Yet, as the Boston Globe reported and may others have observed, modern American culture is not one for knowing, let alone being neighborly to, those near us. With many traditional community associations on the decline and loneliness on the rise, neighborliness is more and more a lost art.
For this cultural sickness, Willa Cather, writing over one hundred years ago, has a timely antidote: a recipe for neighborliness—simultaneously a bitter medicine and its sweet sugar chaser. Neighborliness, for Cather, is at once binding oneself to another and experiencing the freedom of one’s own individuality that is only visible reflected in the eyes of another. The brilliant diversity of these eyes is on display in her three early novels about the Nebraska and Colorado prairie: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Ántonia (1918).
Cather’s nostalgic love and genius descriptions of the prairie along with the relationships that characters develop with it emerge quickly in the shortest of the three, O Pioneers!. The story centers on Alexandra Bergson, who immigrated with her family from Sweden as a young girl. In her young adulthood, her father dies, not so unexpectedly, and leaves her as matriarch, which he clearly communicates to her three younger brothers. Now she wants to put in the work to expand their holdings and buy more land. Because her brothers are resistant, she goes to investigate the prospects. As she returns home across the Divide, the narrator explains what her youngest brother, Emil, observes in her:
For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.
Alexandra is conceiving a new country in her heart, as the free spirit of the Divide obeys her love. The community of persons that grows on the prairie is only sustained through a love of and cooperation with the virgin land. Otherwise, pioneers fail and return east, selling their land to those willing to stay. Carl Linstrum, Alexandra’s nearest neighbor and her first best friend, was of such a family who gave up on the pioneer dream and left Nebraska.
In adulthood, as she runs her household and farm, Alexandra becomes a paragon of generosity and hospitality, often to the frustration and disapproval of her brothers. She takes in an elderly Swede who lost his land; she employs housemaids from Sweden even though she’s more than capable of doing it all herself. She is a community leader, a family leader, certainly constrained in many ways by her time and culture, yet a free woman in the image of Cather herself.
Even so, when an adult Carl Linstrum comes to visit, she confesses: “I’d rather have had your freedom than my land.” This is Alexandra’s paradox. In so many ways, her business acumen and the financial success attributable to the land she wisely acquired have given her a great freedom reflective of the “free spirit” of the prairie itself. But at the same time, she is tied to the land forever. She has responsibilities to friends, family, neighbors, livestock, and the land itself. To be a neighbor is to be bound to another for the good of the other. It is accepted restrictions on freedom for a broader flourishing, a good created and held in common. Seeing the beauty and goodness in this,
Carl shook his head mournfully. “Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him[…]. We have no house, no place, no people of our own.”
It is precisely the lack of freedom that gives meaning, individuality, ties, relationships, belonging.
Elsewhere in the novel, neighborliness is interrupting work to share coffee with a friend dropping in. It is sharing equipment that may return broken, giving time to mow another’s orchard, mend another’s clothes, help harvest another’s crop. Neighborliness is high risk. It is accepting limitations. At the same time, it is openness to reciprocal gifts; it is an invitation to deep and abiding friendship.
It is easy to suppose that Cather’s descriptions are not endorsements. There certainly wasn’t a large-scale hospitality industry at the time, so the welcome and assistance people provide was necessary to friends and travelers alike. Still, let us not begrudge a culture its pervasive virtues. As odes to the prairie, these novels are likewise celebrations of the pioneer way of life and the neighborliness it extolled.
At the very end of the novel, Alexandra once again contemplates the nature of freedom in a place so vast and open as she remembers that return trip with Emil years before:
When I was on the train this morning, and we got near Hanover, I felt something like I did when I drove back with Emil from the river that time, in the dry year. I was glad to come back to it. I’ve lived here a long time. There is a great peace here, Carl, and freedom.
She is only forty years old, but the weight of her full life is tangible. On this side of tragedy and loss, of struggle and difficulty, Alexandra realizes that that freedom and belonging are not antithetical, but that being tied in relationship to others enables one to embrace the reality of one’s own individuality, the peace of living life as it is meant to be lived in the complicated contradiction of our individuation and desperate interdependence.
The sacrifices required for neighborliness acknowledge the temporary stewardship of all that is given to us. We hold things only for a time, for all is given by God and often meant to pass through our hands into those of another. Alexandra realizes this, too: “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.” The only way to own the land is to love it. And even this intimate affection is only temporary. Alexandra’s legacy, however, will be those people whom she has known and loved: the needy, the young, the old, the stubborn and the lonely. In the end, it is the land that mimics the generous Alexandra, receiving hearts like hers, “to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!”
This is the first part of a series of articles on the work of Willa Cather.
Timothy Chapman worked in youth ministry in St. Louis before moving to Nebraska where he writes and studies theology and culture.