Andrew Belonsky

Wall Street, Willa Cather and Pioneering Imagination

Filed By Andrew Belonsky | April 23, 2010 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, economic policy, News, O Pioneers, politics, Recession, Wall Street, Willa Cather

The President flew to New York yesterday to both rebuke and embrace bankers. With Obama's visit, ongoing financial reform and amplified populist anger, this nation is having the most volatile monetary debate in its history. Before things get out of hand, it's time for contemporary Americans to review lesbian writer Willa Cather's 1913 novel, O Pioneers!, which provides guidance on how to make it in America. All it takes is a little imagination and a lot of hard work.

Some may say it's anachronistic, and perhaps presumptuous, to call pre-Stonewall Cather a lesbian, it seems to me that the shoe fits. Cather enjoyed dressing in butch clothing, at one point preferred being called "William" and had a series of intimate relations with women, most notably the editor Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived for 35 years. They moved in together in 1912, the year before the publication of O Pioneers! Though that book came out nearly a century ago, Cather's message rings even more true today.

Obviously aware that economic tensions are reaching a breaking point, Obama implored Americans yesterday, "Ultimately there is no dividing line between Main Street and Wall Street. We rise or we fall together as one nation." Though true from an economic perspective, Obama's remarks ignore the historic animosity between these two sides of the economic culture war, one that Cather illustrates with timeless clarity.

I won't give too much away, but O Pioneers! basically tells the tale of a prairie family, led by the eldest daughter, Alexandra Bergson, that fights against Nebraska's harsh, turn-of-the-century hardship. Their grit and determination, of course, pay off, bringing economic security, although not necessarily happiness.

Alexandra's oldest brothers, Lou and Oscar, grow bitter with their lot, especially since their sister - a woman! - has done even better. Like so many Americans throughout time, and today, Lou blames Wall Street, and lectures a family friend, the less successful Carl Linstrum, "If you had any nerve, you'd get together and march down to Wall Street and blow it up. Dynamite it, I mean..." The less enraged Linstrum replies, "That would be a waste of powder. The same business would go on in another street. The street doesn't matter." Cather saw back then what few today have realized: Wall Street isn't the problem. We are.

It's queer that Americans hate on Wall Street so much, yet consistently celebrate the free market. It's odd. Wall Street's simply a street. It's a geographical symbol of the free market gone wild. That's because American greed, like its pioneering spirit, always wants more. If there's a way to make that dollar, people will do it.

A good example, seen more on Melrose than Wall Street, comes in the form of paparazzi. Once professional, courteous reporters snapping shots for the 50s-era Hollywood magazines, the ever expanding tabloid market has heightened demand, therefore opened new incentives for photogs to get rich for relatively little work. Such a market requires very little creativity, a force that remains essential to success.

"A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves," writes Cather in O Pioneers! A good American, as a pioneer, should constantly think outside the box and envision progress, whether it's social, economic or otherwise. Cather's Alexandra refused to follow her neighbors' advice and planted wheat, a crop that ended up making her one of the richest women on the plains.

Though Cather's characters don't always get what they want, their lives hinge on America's collective imagination. Americans, whether born here or elsewhere, have long strived to break boundaries, barriers and chains for a better, brighter future. That imagination has dwindled. A disheartening amount of Americans have locked down their imaginations. They no longer fight for progress, but against change, as the right does with gay marriage or finance reform.

Wall Street's not entirely to blame for today's economic predicament. The American people are, too. We helped pave that street. We constantly wanted more, and received it. Now that all the gold and riches are gone, we best remember the pioneering imagination that made this nation great. For, as Cather - and our own history - shows us, only creativity and gumption can provide social and economic salvation.

[Author's Note: At risk of being fatalistic, it's worth noting that Cather borrowed her book's title from Walt Whitman's iconic poem, "Pioneers. Oh, Pioneers!" which reads, "O I mourn and yet exult - I am rapt with love for all, Pioneers! O Pioneers!" That poem has since been co-opted into a commercial for Levi's jeans...]


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A disheartening amount of Americans have locked down their imaginations. They no longer fight for progress, but against change, as the right does with gay marriage or finance reform."

Just like our dysfunctional LGBT Equality Movement. No imagination or innovation. Stuck in the Past.

America was built on "working hard" and it's been a difficult transition to "thinking hard." The latter requires imagination.

I loved O Pioneers! when I read it and you've done a great job of summing it up and its relation to both Wall Street and the LGBT community.

What's next on your reading list?

Andrew Belonsky Andrew Belonsky | April 25, 2010 10:20 AM

Bil! Yes, isn't it wonderful? I must admit, that's the first Cather book I've ever read. It's part of my "read more classics" pledge. Was going to read My Anontia next, but didn't want to disrespect Alexandra, whom I loved. Now I'm about to crack open Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent," which is about terrorism. Funny how these "classics" remain so relevant!

I actually preferred My Antonia, but it reminded me an awful lot of Little House on the Prairie.

It's queer that Americans hate on Wall Street so much, yet consistently celebrate the free market. It's odd. Wall Street's simply a street. It's a geographical symbol of the free market gone wild.

There was a poll last week that showed that more people (esp. Republicans) support finance reform if asked about reforming "Wall Street" than reforming banks.

It's American producerism, that hard-working, middle class people are better than everyone else, both the too-rich and the poor (filled with racist and anti-semitic potentials). Hard-working bankers are fine, but not those bad ones we hear are getting bailed out!

But the more basic narrative - rich people wanting more and screwing over the peasants to get it - is much older than contemporary American democracy. As jj rousseau would say, that goes back to the first person who labeled a piece of land his and got everyone else to believe it (and I'm assuming this person was a dude).