U.S. Intellectual History Blog

How to Fight Loneliness in Only, Tennessee

Probably more than any novel I planned to teach at the Only, Tennessee prison on Tuesday nights, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers seemed the biggest challenge. Cather’s novel doesn’t jibe with traditional, patriarchal notions of pioneering. Her protagonist is a woman. The story doesn’t play well with most history textbooks either. Native peoples on the Plains don’t figure in the story at all, and Populism merits only a passing mention, mostly as an irritating tendency in resentful men. After getting along for a while in its intimate world, the reader has to think about absences like these.

The story is about a Swedish immigrant named Alexandra Bergson who, over time, works out the meaning of her relationship to the land and people in her small portion of Nebraska. Cather calls Alexandra’s home “the Divide,” a proper noun and a general topographical feature, the high land between two river valleys. The land becomes a character in the novel, as it turns out the only one fit for an incredible being like Alexandra Bergson. We meet her for the first time as a young woman during a visit to town. She absolutely levels a pitiful traveling salesman with one look after he marvels at her remarkable “shining mass of hair.”[1] We had a good time reading this part aloud in class:

She stabbed him with a look of Amazonian fierceness and drew in her lower lip—most unnecessary severity. It gave the little clothing drummer such a start that he actually let his cigar fall to the sidewalk and went off weakly into the teeth of the wind to the saloon. His hand was still unsteady when he took his glass from the bartender. His feeble flirtatious instincts had been crushed before, but never so mercilessly. He felt cheap and ill-used, as if someone had taken advantage of him. When a drummer had been knocking about in drab little towns and crawling across the wintry country in dirty smoking-cars, was he to be blamed if, when he chanced upon a fine human creature, he suddenly wished himself more of a man? (6)

A comment from the back of the room summed this one up: “Damn, doc.”

Yet another concern of mine had to do with teaching the story of a woman in the wide-open spaces to a group of men locked up in a prison. By its second half, the book tends toward the melodramatic, so I worried too that the guys might lose interest lest they seem “soft” around everyone else. They surprised me. The opposite was true. It was a wondrous thing to listen to some truly tough men have a heated debate about what Alexandra Bergson really wanted, whether Carl—a quasi-romantic interest in the novel—was right for her or not.[2] They dove right into the thicket of family and romantic relationships with genuine abandon.

Pleased and a little perplexed, I launched into some talk about loneliness, what I’ve come to call “the dark twin of American individualism.” (I think I stole that phrase from someone else, but I can’t recall.) Behind every paean to American grit and rugged individualism lurks the shadow of people so lonesome they could cry, and still others who sometimes feel like motherless children.

Carl and Alexandra grow up together. Carl leaves to make his way in the city only to return and then leave again, finally coming back for good at the end of the novel. When he returns for the first time, he and Alexandra talk about being lonely. It would be easy to over-determine the Nebraska environment. There weren’t many people around, and the land was often harsh and unforgiving, but landscapes alone don’t solve the riddle of American loneliness. Loneliness can take the guise of freedom. Cather has Carl describe his urban anonymity and your heart aches for him. It anticipates lonesome men in grey flannel suits:

Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you [Alexandra] 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. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder (77-78).

Alexandra understands Carl’s feelings, but at that point in the novel, she stakes her success on the fate of her little brother Emil. It is her wish that Emil not be tied to the land in the way that she is. She would prefer that he end up like Carl rather than get stuck with the small-minded provincials who live around the Divide. This all sounds suspiciously like a version of Tocqueville’s reason for why revolutions will be rare among democratic peoples:

In aristocracies men often have a greatness and a force that are their own. When they find themselves in contradiction with the greater number of those like them, they withdraw into themselves, and sustain and console themselves. There is nothing like this among democratic peoples. Among them, public favor seems as necessary as the air that one breathes, and to be in disagreement with the mass is, so to speak, not to live. [The mass] does not need to use the laws to bend those who do not think like it. It is enough for it to disapprove of them. Their sense of isolation and their impotence immediately overwhelms them and drives them to despair.[3]

The men thought Carl was a real downer. The discussion moved to whether or not Alexandra knew she was lonely before he showed up again. We moved up the ladder of abstraction. Does loneliness require recognition to be true loneliness? Most of our lives involve unreflective routine and habit. Does loneliness require reflection of some kind to truly exist? Or is loneliness an inchoate quality of being felt all along at certain times in our lives, waiting for someone to call it by name?

The guys enjoyed a character named Ivar, a delightfully odd ascetic, prairie mystic, and horse whisperer who lives in the side of a hill barely distinguishable from the landscape around it: “But for the piece of rusty stovepipe sticking up through the sod, you could have walked over the roof of Ivar’s dwelling without dreaming you were near a human habitation” (24). Ivar keeps a calendar, one of his few concessions to humankind. We discussed the notion of formal, human time by the clock or calendar versus other forms of time keeping, like that kept by animals or given us by the seasons. We distinguished between loneliness and solitude at that point. Ivar enjoys his solitude. He has his own routine and discipline. Following the ways of the flora and fauna around him, he lives apart of most every human contrivance save the one.

I was reluctant to push the discussion much further at that point because I began to worry about despair. I had named something. Some men told me that they felt constantly at the mercy of someone else’s time keeping. They live in environments where they can’t choose much. They live surrounded by others, and no one wants to be there. As one of my best students put it, “Man, the only thing different from day to day is the chow.” A few guys did say that they sometimes feel pretty good during the time they spend with themselves, absorbed in their reading. I wonder now if this explains why they latched on so readily to the romance and relationships in our novels. Maybe imagining worlds where people fight, quarrel and love on their own terms helps them to fight loneliness.

[1] Willa Cather, O Pioneers (Bantam, 1989), 6. Parenthetical references follow.

[2] In my opinion anyway, Carl is something of a prop. I side with those who read something subversive, coded, or certainly more complex than what appears on the surface of her novels. A good summary is here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2013/07/11/willa-cather-hidden-voice/

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Chicago, 2000), 615.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Peter: Do you mind addressing how you set up the reading—i.e. Cather’s background, historical context, etc.? How, in other words, did you set up your readers’ reception of the book? …It’s the classic text-context question. – TL

    • Before reading Cather, the students read a standard history textbook account of railroads, the Plains West, farming, cattle, settlement, the US government and the extermination of Plains Indians, that sort of thing. I also introduced a few ideas: the frontier thesis and its critics, a bit of the kind of old school environmental history that I got from Texas in books like Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains (sod houses and barbed wire, etc). I showed a clip from the show Deadwood too, where Al Swearingen puts together a town meeting, and we talk about the relationship between democratic procedure, corruption and profit.

      As for Cather/the author, I generally leave her alone at the start. I also don’t want students to read any secondary literature about Cather and certainly not about the book in question. I really think texts like this are better read if students actually have to come up with their own thinking about them. I want them to be immersed in the world of the novel and its setting first. This really isn’t a problem in the prison, because the men don’t have internet access most of the time.

      Before we read any novels, we discussed three interrelated and sometimes overlapping ways of making arguments about them: 1) the world of the text itself–you can make an argument about what goes on in a text provided it makes sense in the world of the text. 2) the world that the text portrays–for example, telephones appear in O Pioneers! after the passage of some time, so you can make a case for the impact of telephones working out from the world of the novel and into other sources and vice-versa. Alexandra’s brother is a Bryan supporter, and you can make a case for why her brother might support Bryan, and so on. You can fill in what Cather only suggests in that way. 3) the world of the writer–this usually comes when they have to write about the novel–you can argue about, say, how Cather’s own thinking and world influenced the text.

    • I can’t emphasize enough how different it is teaching to a group of men who have little to no access at all. This by no means suggests that teaching there is some great throwback experience before the internet ruined everything or something. The guys have no library to speak of. They do watch some television, but there’s no on demand watching that I know of. If they need resources, I have to give them to them.

      It does mean that they take in novels differently from the students I see every day. They confront them more directly. There are no shortcuts, no bullshit. There is far less posing, where a student tries to impress everyone with some knowledge they looked up somewhere about the book or the writer.

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