Cather's Capitalism

Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture - Paul A. Cantor & Stephen Cox 2009

Cather's Capitalism

Stephen Cox

“Economics and art are strangers.”1 So said Willa Cather in an essay written deep in her last period of authorship.

For once in her life, Cather was wrong—though she was wrong for sufficient reason. Leftist critics had been hounding her about her novels' alleged lack of relevance to current industrial and social problems.2 She responded by arguing that art must not be reduced to such partial and temporary terms. If this is “economics,” she suggested, then art should have nothing to do with it.

But “economics” need not be treated merely as a solvent for other modes of human experience. If one adopts a non-reductive view, the falsehood of Cather's declaration about the estrangement of economics and art becomes obvious. Her own art was economic in every useful sense of the term. It was economic in its practical concern with buying and selling, prices and investments. It was economic in its analysis of the framework of institutions that supports the capitalist or market system. Finally and most importantly it was economic in its application of certain essential principles of choice and valuation that are crucial to an understanding of the capitalist system but that long remained obscure even to professional economists. Cather, a mere novelist, discovered them through her art.


Cather's most straightforwardly economic book is O Pioneers! (1913). It was the first of her major novels and the first with which she felt content. It was also the start of her unwelcome reputation as an American regionalist and purveyor of heartland nostalgia, an author supposedly indifferent to large social issues and hard economic facts. Even Cather's sympathetic critics tend to regard O Pioneers! as a story about a slice of the American landscape. If economic principles are at issue, the critics do not see it.

The reason, perhaps, is that the idea of an “economic novel” still carries its old, anti-capitalist associations. Hearing the phrase, one thinks of masses and classes, oppressed labor and plutocratic power, and everywhere the crying injustice of unearned profits. One thinks of Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, Michael Gold, and large portions of Theodore Dreiser. The Grapes of Wrath may come to mind, and What Makes Sammy Run? Economics perhaps, but not Willa Cather's kind. O Pioneers! is a textbook exposition of capitalist theory and practice, viewed from a perspective that is highly unusual, even today, in the literature of the world's greatest capitalist country—the capitalist perspective. The protagonist of Cather's novel is a successful capitalist. She is also something much rarer in our literature: she is a capitalist who understands and appreciates the economic principles and social implications of the capitalist system.

The protagonist (the heroine, indeed, for Cather is always on her side) is Alexandra Bergson, the child of Swedish immigrants who arrive in Nebraska before it looks anything like a heartland. The Bergsons are confronted by “the Divide,” a wilderness of wind and hostile vegetation—coarse, dull, and miserably unprofitable. Alexandra's father dies at the age of 46, bequeathing to his family a wretched farm and the prospect of a lifetime of hard labor. The Bergsons' neighbors are giving up and heading out; the Bergsons wonder if they should, too.

But if Nebraska is not yet the heartland, it may still be the site of such heartland virtues as hard work and family solidarity. The situation is made to order for any novelist who wants to inculcate those virtues, or, for that matter, to take the familiar “economic” approach and demonstrate the delusiveness of the American dream of success. In either case, the resulting novel would practically write itself. But Cather has no interest in novels that write themselves. She is not about to suggest that the Bergsons' story will arrive at any particular destination simply because the Bergsons work hard or nourish dreams or cultivate family values. The decisive aspect of the story that she tells is neither land nor dreams nor work nor family but one person's capacity for economic thought. Alexandra Bergson has that capacity. She understands the modern capitalist theory of value.

Her father lacked her understanding. He “had the Old-World belief that land, in itself, is desirable.”3 Alexandra's eldest brothers, Lou and Oscar, never begin to understand. Oscar is especially backward. He is a radical exponent of the equally old-world belief that labor is desirable and valuable in itself. He is so convinced that “there [is] a sovereign virtue in mere bodily toil” that he “like[s] to do things in the hardest way.” He is willing to thresh a crop “at a dead loss” after he knows it has failed.4 Hard work may be a moral value, but as Oscar's performance demonstrates, it may have absolutely no relationship to economic value. Only Alexandra perceives that value, in this sense, is intrinsic to neither land nor labor. What has value is something that people want to buy. Alexandra's butter and egg business doesn't require hard work, but her eggs can be sold at a profit, and the profits can be used to buy the labor of a hired man and contribute something to the Bergsons' capital. “It was one of my mistakes,” says the dying Mr. Bergson, “that I did not find that out sooner.”5

Alexandra sees what is bad about the labor theory of value and what is good about a division of labor, about people doing different things that can help to make a profit. Her father had a glimmer of this idea when he left the direction of the farm to her and the hard labor to Lou and Oscar. Alexandra grasps the idea, and improves on it. She intends to use her skill as a financial manager to take the hardship out of labor itself: “I don't want you boys always to have to work like this. I want you to be independent.” To her, the vital thing is economic insight. She wants “to do like the shrewd ones,” the people who know what it means to make a profit.6

So she follows the market reports, investigates real estate values, and talks to experts about alfalfa and new kinds of clover.7 She concludes that new methods of farming will enable the land to produce more marketable goods, thus multiplying its own market value. She therefore suggests doing the opposite of what seems sensible at the moment. She suggests that the family mortgage its homestead (the only apparent virtue of which is that it currently lacks a mortgage) and buy as much more seemingly unprofitable land as possible. When real estate prices rise, the Bergsons can sell some of their holdings, use the profit to pay their debts, and end up with more land (and incomparably more money) than they had when they started. The market will make them rich.

This idea is beyond Oscar and Lou. Oscar complains that he can't possibly work hard enough to take care of all the land that Alexandra wants to buy—and this is true, supposing that he keeps on working in the same old way. But to Alexandra, that's just the point: the Bergsons are going to make money by specialization, innovation, and investment, not by hard labor. The objection, of course, is that investment means risk. But Alexandra knows that successful competition requires that a risk be taken, the risk of doing something different. She realizes that she may suffer the fate of her grandfather, who “speculated” and lost a fortune.8 But she considers the chance worth taking.

This is a very hard thesis for her brothers to buy. They are not only risk-averse but also socially minded in a way that makes them incapable of comprehending the individualism of the marketplace. “Everybody will say we are crazy,” Lou says. “It must be crazy, or everybody would be doing it.” But Alexandra understands that the market is founded on diversity. “If they were,” she replies, “we wouldn't have much chance.” In fact, “the right thing is usually just what everybody don't do.”9

She makes her case with a shrewd play on the two meanings of “chance.” Chance means risk, and chance means opportunity. Some people “have a little certainty,” Alexandra declares, but “with us there is a big chance.... The chance that father was always looking for has come.” She herself is “nervous” about this chance, and her brothers are scared out of their wits.10 But since mental labor is not their forte, they can't figure out how to defeat her arguments. They finally submit—and within ten years they have become more prosperous than they could have dreamed.11

The economic ideas that appear in this first movement of O Pioneers! are not just so much background to the real action. Alexandra's character emerges in the debate about these ideas, and the resolution of the debate determines the course of the plot until its next crisis, which involves yet more debate about economic principles and Alexandra's kind of individualism.

This second crisis comes after Alexandra has made her fortune and has started to show an interest in marriage. Her choice is Carl Linstrum, a man who is (in a purely financial sense) simply not worth thinking about. Carl has traded any prospect of wealth for the chance to pursue an old-fashioned art. “Woodengraving is the only thing I care about,” he tells her,

and that had gone out before I began. Everything's cheap metal work nowadays.... [M]easured by your standards here, I'm a failure. I couldn't buy even one of your cornfields. I've enjoyed a great many things, but I've got nothing to show for it all.12

Carl prompts Alexandra to revisit the problem of values, prices, and profits. The results of her thinking would be shockingly out of place in the ordinary “economic” novel, where she would probably be expected to adopt one of two roles, or both roles sequentially. She could play the part of the class-conscious capitalist and let Carl know that if he wants to earn her respect he should get busy and make some money. Or she could play the part of the repentant convert to a higher social consciousness who has suddenly been forced to realize that capitalism turns life and love and even art into mere commodities. She adopts neither of those roles and expresses none of those sentiments. She remains herself, and she continues to say pretty much what a free-market economic theorist would say.

Her ideas closely resemble those of Cather's younger contemporary, Ludwig von Mises, an influential figure in the twentieth-century theory and defense of capitalism. His theory starts with the basics: a price is something that one foregoes in order to obtain something that one prefers to have; a profit is the difference between the value that one foregoes and the value that one gains in any transaction. But Mises emphasizes that these ideas apply to nonmaterial as well as material goods; there are “money profits,” he says, and there are also “psychic profits.” The quest for profit is universal: “To make profit is invariably the aim sought by any action.” When Carl refers to “your standards,” as if there were more than one measure of economic value, he is more correct than he thinks he is. “Profit in [the] primary sense,” says Mises, “is purely subjective.... The difference between the valuation of two states of affairs is entirely psychical and personal.”13

These are the ideas on which Alexandra bases her assessment of Carl's life, and her own. Both of us, she argues, have paid a price, and both of us have made a profit. Carl actually does have something “to show for” his investment in art: “[Y]ou show for it yourself, Carl.”14 There is value in being the kind of man Carl is—if you are the kind of person who recognizes such values. The appearance of great wealth on one side and sheer poverty on the other results from the assumption that all values are money values. But this assumption is as false as the idea that value inheres in land or labor or other material things. Carl's profit, as Alexandra sees it, is largely “psychic,” but it is no less real for that.

She too has made investments of time and energy, and she too has profited; she has gained wealth and security. But she has also paid a price. She has surrendered “freedom.” She and all the other prosperous people of the heartland have incurred nonmaterial costs in exchange for material gains: “We pay a high rent, too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don't move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff.”15 This doesn't mean that the lives of farmers are any more “commodified” than the lives of artists. It means that there are nonmaterial as well as material commodities, and that a price must be paid for all of them.16 Prices are inseparable from profits. Alexandra makes no attempt to decide whether the heartland folk pay a greater or a lesser price than Carl has paid. The standard of value (which is not necessarily the “money” standard) must be defined by every individual.17 It is “subjective”; it depends on each individual's order of preferences.

And because it is subjective, it is changeable. What is valuable to one person may not be as valuable to a nother, or to the same person at another time. As Mises says, all economic valuations are rendered by particular individuals at “a definite time.”18 The definite time when Alexandra estimates the psychological “rent” that she pays for her farm and begins to find it onerous is after she has made the place financially profitable. Now she can say, “I don't need money.”19 What she needs now is Carl Linstrum, and the lightness and ease that she associates with him.

The problem is Lou and Oscar, who are just as unenlightened about the issue of economic valuation as they ever were. Computing Carl's value in strictly material terms, they estimate it as less than zero. In the event of a marriage, an event they are determined to prevent, Carl would not add wealth to the family. He would probably take some away: “Don't you know he'd get hold of your property?” Well, Alexandra answers, “He'd get hold of what I wished to give him, certainly.”20 She has estimated Carl's value in her own mind and has found it perfectly adequate.

The argument from individual preference and subjective value is lost on her brothers. They assume that there is one and only one standard of value, which just happens to be their own; and they try to enforce that standard by appealing to notions of collective authority. Although the Bergsons' land has now been legally divided among the various siblings, Lou still refers to Alexandra's property as “[o]ur property” and says that it “belongs to us as a family.”21 To this Oscar adds the ancient principle of collectivism, the principle of patriarchy: “The property of a family belongs to the men of the family, because they are held responsible, and because they do the work.”22

Alexandra is well acquainted with such ideas. Her brothers have always been conformists, casting sidelong glances at the surrounding community and trying their best to do what everybody else does. They continue to believe, or hope, that the community will consider them “responsible” for anything that Alexandra does. And they remain addicted to the labor theory of value, believing that all the family's property “belongs” to them because they did “the work” on it, thus giving it value. By “work” they mean hard labor, not skill at dealing with the marketplace. “You liked to manage round,” Lou tells his sister, “and we always humored you.... But, of course, the real work always fell on us. Good advice is all right, but it don't get the weeds out of the corn.”23

“Maybe not,” she says, “but it sometimes puts in the crop, and it sometimes keeps the fields for corn to grow in.”24 Her argument would be decisive, if her brothers could only understand it. But they can't. Their only refuge is misogyny: “That's the woman of it.... You can't do business with women.”25 Yet as Lou confusedly remarks after Alexandra lets her brothers know that she's finished both with the conversation and with them, “Alexandra ain't much like other women-folks.”26

No wonder he's confused. For him, values are fixed: labor has value, men have value, women have value; everything has its own fixed value. But what can you say about a woman who isn't like other women? Lou and Oscar are amazed to discover that Alexandra can still have value—from Carl's perspective, and from her own—despite her lack of any attractive female qualities. As Oscar reminds her, she is 40 years old, and she has not yet married!27


Lou and Oscar Bergson are two of the stupidest characters in American literature. Cather is not about to give these suckers an even break. Their function is to show the harmony between bad economic ideas and bad ideas about such matters as family, community, sex, and politics. What ties these ideas together is their opposition to individualism.

From Alexandra's point of view, individualism is a practical necessity, akin to the division of labor: “It's bad if all the members of a family think alike. They never get anywhere.” A family ought to use its differences and even its mistakes as a source of new information: “Lou can learn by my mistakes and I can learn by his.”28 Alexandra has identified a principle of self-correction that is crucial to the success of competitive market societies. Such a thought would never occur to Lou and Oscar. Alexandra is a methodological individualist; they are methodological collectivists. Her idea is that diversity increases opportunities to profit by increasing opportunities to learn; their idea is that the community, considered as a whole, already knows everything worth knowing.

Lou and Oscar never realize that there is anything the least bit backward about their ideas. They are not imaginative enough for that. Lou regards himself, indeed, as a disciple of progress. When 1896 rolls around, he becomes a fervent supporter of the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, Cather's fellow Nebraskan and her generation's greatest proponent of “progressive” economic causes.

But there is less irony here than meets the eye. Bryan's progressivism was in most respects highly reactionary. His “free silver” campaign proposed to relieve labor of its debts by the old-fashioned expedient of inflating the currency, in this case by the minting of an unlimited supply of silver coins. The campaign was supported by everyone in America's heartland who cherished the venerable conception of labor as the source and measure of value, everyone who harbored suspicions about such newer ways of establishing value as the mortgage market, the commodities market, and the money market. Such people naturally resented the idea that the currency should be based on the price of gold instead of something more readily inflatable for social purposes; they eagerly accepted as their prophet the man who shouted: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”29

It is inevitable that Lou should be attracted to Bryan's cause. Cather prepares us for the worst. “The trouble with Lou,” she announces in her most confident narrative voice, “is that he is tricky.... Politics being the natural field for such talents, he neglects his farm to attend conventions and to run for county offices.”30 Enriched by his sister's speculations, Lou can afford to spend his time extracting votes for “labor” from people who are still busy laboring. He represents a common human type: the man who has wealth and would like power. The salient though unspecified and “tricky” feature of Bryanism was the economic power it would convey to politicians. A victory for free silver would greatly enhance their ability to manipulate the marketplace in the name of the workers and farmers. Bryanism was made for people like Lou, people who like first-person plurals and assertions of community feeling. “We're waking up to a sense of our responsibilities,” he declares: “We gave Wall Street a scare in ninety-six, all right, and we're fixing another to hand them. Silver was n't the only issue.... There's a good many things got to be changed. The West is going to make itself heard.”31

While waiting for that to happen, Lou feels entitled to demand that the oppressed people of the East “get together and march down to Wall Street and blow it up. Dynamite it, I mean.”32 Carl, who is the audience for these remarks, reminds Lou that the community he claims to represent is actually doing pretty well under the capitalist system: “One only has to drive through this country to see that you're all as rich as barons.” But—values being individual and subjective, after all—what Lou values most is power, not money. He sees money as valuable because it can buy a degree of political power. “We have a good deal more to say than we had when we were poor,” he says “threateningly.”33

But neither Lou nor anyone else can acquire enough power to abolish economics. Carl makes that point. Blowing up Wall Street, he says, “would be a waste of powder. The same business would go on in another street.”34 Nothing can change the human desire to buy and sell and try to make a profit—in Adam Smith's famous expression, “to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.”35 The market is a permanent structure. It would exist even if Wall Street did not. Alexandra's brothers concede this by their actions and choice of words. When they come over to her place to convince her that she doesn't really own it, they go to “do business” with her.36 They propose a trade in certain goods: if she will give them control of her marriage plans and property, they will give her something that they think she ought to value more, preservation of the family. As traders often do, however, they misjudge their market; they make a wrong estimate of their customer's values and preferences.

Oscar starts off by trying to intimidate Alexandra with the threat of social sanctions. He says that already “people have begun to talk” about Carl and her. But Alexandra, who has been going over her business records, “shut[s] her account-book firmly” and warns them not to continue. Her financial accounts may have been “neglected of late” because of her involvement with Carl, but she has not neglected her accounting of nonmaterial goods. She knows precisely what other people's opinions are worth to her, and she knows they are worth much less than freedom. The ensuing quarrel over her property rights proves that she is capable of breaking completely with her brothers if that is the price she has to pay to “do exactly as [she] please[s].”37 There is finally nothing left for the brothers to do but go away and discuss the price they will have to pay for trying to “do business” with Alexandra in the overbearing way they chose. Oscar thinks that the price of arrogance may not be prohibitive: there is considerable profit in having one's “say.” Lou isn't so sure: “Talk of that kind might come too high, you know.”38

Cather must have had fun assigning business metaphors to Lou and Oscar, who are absolutely terrible businessmen. Still, the snap of Alexandra's account-book is a very earnest note. It signals her definite choice in the marketplace of spiritual and material goods, and it does something more: it signals her intention to retain the power of individual choice on which the marketplace itself is founded. Every reader sees that O Pioneers! is a story about personal freedom; not every reader sees the relationship it establishes between the personal, the political, and the economic dimensions of freedom. Cather makes the relationship explicit by making Alexandra an exponent of free exchange and free contracts as well as an exponent of her freedom to act as she will toward her family.

All of Alexandra's dealings with other people are freely contractual. Early in the novel, when she is doing her best to persuade her brothers to risk everything on her investment scheme, she stipulates that they must not sign the mortgage papers unless they really want to.39 If they refuse to sign, her scheme is doomed; but she would rather stay poor than force them to do anything against their will. Later, the contract principle governs her relations with employees and dependents.

The best of many examples is old Ivar, an eccentric neighbor who “lost his land through mismanagement,” then took up residence on Alexandra's land.40 How would one expect to find this situation represented in the standard “economic” novel? One would expect to see all the local communitarians sympathizing with Ivar, who would be regarded as a victim of the ruthless banking system that foreclosed on him; and one might expect to see Alexandra, a successful practitioner of the capitalist or “Protestant” ethic, despising Ivar's mismanagement as if it were a sin. But again, Cather plays against the normal pattern of “economic” fiction: the communitarians despise Ivar because he doesn't fit in with the community, and Alexandra respects him because he is an individualist, as she is.

Nothing about capitalism requires her to conform to purely “commercial” values. Enjoyment of any kind can amount to profit. Thus, when Ivar worries about the neighbors' not liking to see him around her house, she assures him that his presence is in her “interests”; she has a “need” for him.41 Their relationship has dignity because it is freely contractual, a free exchange in which both of them profit. Alexandra offers Ivar a home because she values his presence; he accepts her offer because he values her protection and respect. No larger community has to take “responsibility” for Ivar or judge his worthiness for official charity or welfare.

Alexandra's implicit contract with Ivar is one more cause of the rift between her and her eldest brothers. Ivar complains, and she agrees, that heartland America can be a distressingly conformist place: “The way here is for all to do alike.... [H]ere, if a man is different in his feet or in his head, they put him in the asylum.”42 Sure enough, Lou turns Sunday dinner at his sister's house into an opportunity to threaten her with legal action if she doesn't do something about Ivar, whom Lou considers insane: “[T]he neighbors will be having a say about it before long. He may burn anybody's barn. It's only necessary for one property-owner in the township to make complaint, and he'll be taken up by force.”43

Lou is gearing up for his communitarian attack on Wall Street and, quite soon, on Alexandra's right to own her land. But Alexandra has no difficulty deciding the Ivar question. If her neighbors try to diminish Ivar's freedom, she'll “take the case to court, that's all.”44 She, too, is gearing up. When her brothers claim that they own her land, despite any contractual agreements to the contrary, she makes a similar response: “Go to the county clerk and ask him who owns my land, and whether my titles are good.”45 Her brothers have political and social theories; she has a theory, too: government exists to defend her freedom to transact her own business, in her own way.

Alexandra's politics are as liberal, in the classical sense of the term, as her economics. Her ideas agree with those of James Madison, who in the Federalist Papers refers to “[t]he diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate.” Madison defines “[t]he protection of these faculties” as “the first object of Government.” Pressed by her brothers, Alexandra issues a challenge: “Go to town and ask your lawyers what you can do to restrain me from disposing of my own property. And I advise you to do what they tell you; for the authority you can exert by law is the only influence you will ever have over me again.”46

That is, to put it bluntly, no influence at all. The government will protect Alexandra's property, and thereby her ability to differ from other people and survive despite the difference. As Madison realized, this can be put in another way: the object of government is to protect individual differences, and thereby the ability of individuals to create and acquire different kinds of property.47 Individual freedom and property rights—the political principle and the economic one—cannot be separated. Alexandra understands that fully.


This is classical liberalism, and it helps to resolve the notoriously difficult question of Cather's own political preferences.

In her thirties, before she published O Pioneers!, Cather edited McClure's magazine, the nation's leading “muckraking” journal and a focus of “progressive” politics. But she revealed no particular interest in political questions. To her grimly progressive friend Elizabeth Sergeant she confided that “all this practical side of her [Cather's] career was directed to getting together enough money to retire and write fiction.” In her forties, Sergeant says, Cather reacted to the advent of The New Republic by demanding to know if “these people” were “Wilsonians, Bull Moosers, and such?” Assured that they were, she contemptuously and “abruptly changed the subject.” In her sixties, she retaliated against Sergeant's praise of New Deal projects by declaring that the government should not help anybody, even (in case you were wondering) artists and writers like herself: “Endowments, frescoes for public buildings, travelling fellowships be damned.” Sergeant concluded that Cather still “believed in the early American virtues, courage, sturdiness, tough endeavor.”48

That is why people often call Cather a “conservative,” whether they approve of conservatism or not. James Woodress, her most authoritative biographer, goes so far as to call her “a staunch Republican.”49 But she was not the kind of “conservative” or “Republican” who can easily be confused with Babbitt. Many of the social attitudes that annoyed her leftwing critics annoyed her, too. She opposed prohibition and know-nothing laws against the teaching of foreign languages.50 She wrote an article for The Nation in which she reproved heartland Americans who wanted their children to study something called “the principles of business” instead of the humanities, and who enjoyed “buying things instead of making anything.” Such people wanted “snug success and easy money”—so much the worse for them.51

But even here, individualism and individual enterprise are Cather's touchstones. What is being lost, she says, is the education that “enrich[es] personality,” the job that reveals “character.”52 In her novel A Lost Lady (1923), Cather distinguishes the pioneer generation from the one that succeeded it. The first generation consisted of “great-hearted adventurers” who knew “the great brooding spirit of freedom.” These people could be “unpractical” enough, in narrowly commercial terms, to exchange financial profit for the enjoyment of sheer “magnificence.” But the next generation, which was her own, was infested by “men... who had never dared anything, never risked anything,” men who were “trained to petty economies” and mean-spirited envies.53 They were individuals, surely, but hardly individualists.

These are the men who appear in Cather's story “The Sculptor's Funeral” (1905, 1920), a work that probably did her reputation very little good among conservative midwesterners. The story is set in the “progressive town” of Sand City, Kansas. It is about Sand City's posthumous valuation of a former citizen, the artist Harvey Merrick. Merrick was the only great man who ever came out of Sand City; he had to come out of it if he was ever to amount to anything. When Merrick's body is returned to Sand City for burial, the village grandees gather to sneer. They believe that he would have done better if he had taken “a course in some first-class Kansas City business college.”54 So much for “the great brooding spirit of freedom” in Cather's generation.

If Cather was a conservative, what she wanted to conserve was America's tradition of individualism, which was more valuable to her than any current set of heartland attitudes. There was a world of difference between taking a creative risk in business, as Alexandra did, and taking a class in some local business college; but there was nothing about the market system that dictated which alternative anyone must choose. Individuals had the chance to make their own decisions, and take the consequences, too. Their choices would show whether they had courage and character. Even while Cather was telling The Nation what she thought was wrong with America's worship of mere “mercantile processes,” she was defending America's capitalist framework of decision-making. She observed that the depression of 1893 stimulated “the People's Party and the Free Silver agitation,” the politics of Lou Bergson. But the more significant result was a testing of individuals: “These years of trial, as everyone now realizes, had a salutary effect on the state.... The slack farmer moved on. Superfluous banks failed, and money lenders who drove hard bargains with desperate men came to grief.”55

The effects were not uniformly salutary: remember those remarks about people who received harsh training in “petty economies.” But there were large entries in the credit column: “those who had weathered the storm came into their reward.”56 The Alexandra Bergsons showed that they could survive and prosper in the real economy as well as the economy of Cather's novels; they showed that they could prosper both spiritually and materially. Their “attainment of material prosperity,” she said, “was a moral victory” in a “struggle that tested character.”57 In both the real economy and the fictional one, people's values were revealed by the choices they made, including their choice of attitudes toward the market system. They could view it either as a source of “snug success and easy money” or as an opportunity to accept risk and exhibit courage and intelligence. But that is the nature of a market system: it is an arena of individually chosen and competing values. Sand City may think that there is just one kind of values and one kind of profits; the Alexandra Bergsons and the Harvey Merricks know better.

Cather is not presenting some kind of Social Darwinist stories about the survival of the financially fittest. (Those stories proved more congenial to the socialist novelists of Cather's time— Dreiser, Norris, Sinclair.) Her stories have room for success and failure; but, simply because they are stories about economic freedom, as opposed to evolutionary law, they are stories in which almost anything can happen.


Where did Cather get her political and economic ideas? The political ideas were easy to come by. Their sources were anywhere and everywhere in America's classical-liberal tradition. Her ideas about economics, many of them, might develop easily enough from her experience of life in a capitalist society. Some of them, however, were recent additions to economic theory. Working knowledge of these ideas was rare, except among professional economists. The crucial concepts in this category are the principle of subjective value and the closely related principle of marginal utility.

Both ideas run counter to the traditional, intuitive belief that some things (e.g., land and labor) are intrinsically valuable. It is counterintuitive, but it is true, that a single cup of water may be more valuable than all the farmland in Nebraska. Yet something needs to be added at the end of that sentence—the words “to a certain person, at a certain time.” The single cup of water might be supremely valuable to a person dying of thirst, but without any value at all to other people, or to the same person at a different time. As Mises argued, the only way to be sure about the economic value of a commodity is to see what someone does when he has to choose between it and something else.58 We know that the cup of water is more valuable than the farmland (to the chooser, at the moment of choice) if the chooser gives up the farmland in order to possess the water. Someone else might not make the same choice. The same person might not make the same choice about a second cup of water. Once his thirst was assuaged, a few sections of Nebraska farmland might start to look more attractive to him than they had before.

To put this in another way: If I don't have a refrigerator, I will probably want one very badly; once I have a refrigerator, I will probably prefer almost anything else to a second one. In fact, I will probably be willing to part with some money to get a second refrigerator removed from my home. According to the principle of marginal utility, which is the economic principle at stake in these examples, each successive unit of a commodity is valued in response to the place it occupies, at each successive moment of choice, in each chooser's scale of preferences. The principle, which became “the accepted basis of economic theory” (accepted, that is, by economists, though unfamiliar to most other people) was formulated in the early 1870s by “the celebrated trinity,” William Stanley Jevons, Léon Walras, and Carl Menger, the progenitor of the Austrian or “subjectivist” economics embraced by Mises and other twentieth-century figures.59

If Alexandra's brothers understood this principle, they would not be so shocked to see her snap her account-book shut and communicate the astonishing intelligence that additional units of Carl Linstrum's company are now more valuable to her than additional units of their own. Forced to choose, she will take more of Carl and less of them—and less of money and property, too, if it comes to that. None of these things has any fixed and inherent value. Value is assigned by Alexandra's subjective acts of choice.

This way of thinking is profoundly disturbing to Lou and Oscar, whose sense of their own fixed and inherent value has so much to do with the fixed and inherent value of man's land and man's work. Alexandra's new economic thought is the unsettling factor in the first crisis of the novel, when she announces her land investment plan. This is her brothers' unhappy introduction to a world of fluctuating values, a world in which hard acres of land are transformed into flexible objects of speculation, a world in which successive units of man's physical labor can become much less valuable than successive units of a woman's financial management.

Alexandra's new way of thinking continues to be disruptive. It enriches her brothers materially, but it is bad for their mental health. She uses it to justify her valuation of Carl and of herself, a valuation that from her brothers' point of view is as offensively unearned, unworked for, as Wall Street profits. Like Wall Street, it arouses their envy and resentment. Figuratively speaking, Alexandra's brothers live in Sand City, where people are “hated” for many things, but primarily for “winning out.”60

I will return to the problem of envy. At present, it is important to notice the precision with which Cather controls her political argument. Alexandra, she says in a careful aside, has “not the least spark of cleverness.”61 She is individual but not unique. What she does in the marketplace, millions of other men and women can do. She exemplifies the familiar classical-liberal argument that individuals of ordinary intelligence can handle the business of life perfectly well, if they are left alone to do it. And yet... Alexandra is cleverer, in one way, than John Locke, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx. None of those distinguished economic and political theorists had been able to dismiss the traditional, and very plausible, idea that the value of a commodity must have something to do with the inherent value of the labor that went into producing it. Alexandra knows better than they did.

Yet the evidence lay all about them. It could be seen wherever people like Oscar worked hard but stayed poor, wherever people like Alexandra “managed round” and grew rich. As for the principle of marginal utility, which Cather uses so adroitly in O Pio neers!, its operations could be seen in even the most casual inspection of economic behavior. Anyone could see such things; anyone in a capitalist society could see them all day long.62 But obviously a mere sight of the evidence was not enough. Imagination was required to make proper sense of it, and imagination works in mysterious, unpredictably tardy ways. The method of thinking about economic values that is central to O Pioneers! was not assimilated by formal economic theory until the “marginal revolution” of the 1870s, when capitalism had long been the object of searching intellectual inquiry. That method of thinking, it is safe to say, is still unknown to the great majority of intellectuals.63

Nevertheless, it can be practiced with sophistication by people who have no special training in economics. Cather had no such training, and no taste for it, either. She seems to have studied no more profound economic authorities than the authors of the attacks in McClure's on big capital and corrupt labor; and she made little or no use of their ideas in her novels. When she had the opportunity to look over the library of her compatriot, Mr. Bryan, she reported that “[t]he works on political economy were mostly by quacks.”64 She had confidence in her judgment, although her chief economic equipment was the gift of imagination. But that, as an economic writer once said, is the principal intellectual “faculty” that economics demands.65

It takes imagination to identify an economic principle. It takes still more imagination to follow the implications of the principle outside the context of commercial activity and explore its psychological, social, and political meanings. Cather had that kind of imagination. It responded fully to her need, as a novelist, to understand her characters' behavior. It made economic processes and modern economic insights essential to the structure of her texts, which is a structure of choices and valuations. “The economy of the text” is a phrase one often finds in literary theory. Usually it has less to do with any modern principle of economics than with some conception of the text as a world of its own (an 'oikouméne, to use the old Greek term for “inhabited world,” a term only distantly related to economy). Cather's stories give the phrase a closer relevance to the modern idea.


To illustrate: here is a story called “Two Friends,” which Cather published in 1932 in a little volume called Obscure Destinies. It shows something about her thoughts on economic issues, with particular reference, once again, to the unfortunate Bryanites.66 It also shows her way of structuring a text as a pattern of individual or “subjective” economic valuations.

The two friends are Mr. Dillon, a banker, and Mr. Trueman, a cattleman. They are the most prominent personalities of a little Western town, a town much like Cather's Red Cloud, Nebraska. It is 1896, the great election year. Cather chooses that crucial moment of decision between two political and economic theories—populist free silver and capitalist hard money—as the opportunity for Mr. Dillon and Mr. Trueman to decide their own values and confirm their own destinies. Those destinies are as “obscure” as Red Cloud, but for Cather they are as significant as the power of choice they exemplify.

What Dillon and Trueman choose is shocking to the town; many years later, it remains shocking to the story's narrator. In 1896, the narrator was an impressionable girl who saw the two men as her “unalterable realities.” Intelligent, self-assured, unpretentiously kind, they were the image of concord and stability, an implicit gold standard of human experience. But that summer, Dillon attended the Democratic national convention and heard Bryan's great attack on gold. He became an ardent Bryanite, maintaining that “gold had been responsible for most of the miseries and inequities of the world; that it had always been the club the rich and cunning held over the poor; and that ’the free and unlimited coinage of silver’ would remedy all this.”67 To this Mr. Trueman replied, “That's no way for a banker to talk.” In his opinion, “a banker had no business to commit himself to a scatter-brained financial policy which would destroy credit.”68 A banker ought to know that people will avoid making investments if they expect to be repaid in inflated currency. But there is a market in ideas about money as well as a market in money itself. Just now, the market of ideas is full of paper that some people regard as valuable and others perceive as worthless. Dillon and Trueman, the “unalterables,” prove that fact about the market when they decide to quarrel about Bryan's program. Is there nothing more valuable for them to do with their limited and passing time? But bad money tends to drive out good.

Trueman retaliates against Dillon's ideas by withdrawing his money from Dillon's bank. The flight of money is always an objective effect of a subjective cause, of a lapse of confidence. Trueman's act, which causes a sensation “all over town,” is a publicly visible index of how far, for him, Dillon's moral stock has fallen. In response to Trueman's disapproval, Dillon ostentatiously makes new and less critical friends. He finds utility where he never found it before. He roams the countryside “organiz[ing] the Bryan Club and the Bryan Ladies' Quartette,” thereby confirming Trueman's hypothesis that unscattered brains are in short supply on the Bryan side.69

Cather's own view of Bryanism isn't hard to guess. She allows Trueman to argue against Bryan's economic crusade, and she never allows a substantial refutation. According to her narrator, it is “senseless” and “stupid” for a friendship to end because of something like this. It is worse than stupid; it is “commonplace.”70 But that word is odd. Bryan's campaign for free silver was virtually the last thing that middle Americans born in the late nineteenth century would call “commonplace.”71 Cather, who conscientiously avoided cheap and transient literary material, clearly regards the Bryan campaign (the only external political event that is mentioned in O Pioneers!) as reason enough for the fictional conflict she wants to evoke in “Two Friends.” The word “commonplace” is a calculated choice; it has an ironic emphasis, the signal of a complexity in Cather's intention.

That signal can easily be missed by people who are more interested in direct statements of values than in Cather's way of building value choices into the economy of her texts. For Granville Hicks, who led the leftist attack on Cather in the 1930s, the meaning of “Two Friends” is obvious. The story simply “teaches” “that politics is much less important than friendship.” I must add that “teaches” is not meant kindly. It connotes an Olympian detachment, a cultivation of elitist and “romantic dreams” that involve “the distortion of life,” the true life of modern politics and economics.72

But one could just as easily argue that the story teaches the opposite idea (if it plainly “teaches” anything). We see Dillon and Trueman making choices, and their choices reveal that politics, at this juncture, is more important to them than friendship. For good or bad reasons, politics is what they choose to buy. The narrator would presumably have chosen otherwise; to her, a preference for politics over friendship seems merely commonplace, merely one more example of people's chronic willingness to surrender spiritual gold in exchange for ideological silver: it naturally leads to “a stupid, senseless, commonplace end.” Cather herself would probably agree. But that isn't what she chooses to say. She does not, as Hicks alleged, find it “necessary to rely on direct statements.”73 Instead, she retires behind her narrator, shifting the emphasis from her own position to the contrasting positions and priorities of Dillon, Trueman, and the narrator. Cather's first priority—what she values most, in the economy of this story—is the presentation of the characters' acts of choice and valuation, not an argument about what they should have chosen and valued.

When one looks at the story in this way, one realizes that Cather permits the word “commonplace,” like the word “destiny” or the word “obscure,” to suggest two possible meanings. The reader can buy either one of them. “Obscure” can mean either “insignificant” or “significant in some subtle way.” “Destiny” can mean either “what has to happen” or “what one's choices cause to happen.” “Commonplace” can mean either “ordinary, trite, uninteresting,” or “standard, basic, of essential interest.” What is commonplace in this second sense of the term is people's ability to assign violently competing values to the same object, whether that object be gold, free silver, friendship, or an “unalterable” sense of reality. The deepest irony of the story is that particular values are constantly in flux, within the unalterable frame of people's need and ability to value.

“Two Friends” does not represent a “romantic dream” or a flight from economics; it explores the ways in which the human economy works. Whether we are concerned with material or nonmaterial goods, or with both, as we are in this story, choice and subjective valuation are the essence of economics; and to choose, in economic terms, is to pay a price, to forego one possible good for another. Dillon and Trueman choose politics over friendship; the narrator chooses friendship over politics; Cather, devising the economy of the story as a whole, makes her own choice, which is to emphasize choice itself—and to offer her audience the opportunity to make some choices, too, choices that reveal her readers' values just as precisely as the choices within the story reveal the values of the characters. Even Hicks, who had other priorities than an attentive reading of Cather's story, saw it as an enticing target for investment in a certain kind of political and economic values. It was all the more enticing because he assumed that his competitor, the exalted Miss Cather, had made the mistake of investing in a rival fund.

Literary effects come at a price. Hicks made Cather look like a one-sided writer, and he paid for the privilege by writing onesidedly himself. His strategy remains a substantial debit against his literary reputation. The price that Cather paid in “Two Friends” was the sacrifice of more direct means of self-expression. She could drop enough hints about her economic and political ideas to allow readers to make some persuasive deductions, but adding more hints would not have been a wise investment. It would not have helped her achieve her more general purpose. She was willing to forego that pleasure. It was the price she paid for the emphasis she wanted. “That which is abandoned is called the price paid for the attainment of the end sought.... The difference between the value of the price paid (the costs incurred) and that of the goal attained is called gain or profit or net yield.”74

In one of her essays, Cather advances the same idea, although she uses more vivid and concrete language. Recalling a painting by Millet, she says that he created it by “sacrificing many conceptions good in themselves for one that was better and more universal.” Then she discusses the costs and profits of literature: “Any first rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it.”75 A real artist has the courage to pay the price and the insight to anticipate the profit.

This is an act of courage because there is no guarantee that the audience's valuation will coincide with the artist's, even if the audience is as intelligent as Granville Hicks. Cather's work was financially successful, but she knew that her income depended on strong support from a small portion of the total book market. Even then: Cather's My ántonia earned only $1,300 in the first year, $400 in the second.76 There is, as she understood, “no market demand” for art as there is for “soap or breakfast foods” or putatively realistic (“photographic”) fiction about contemporary social problems.77 She believed that real art does have a permanent audience, an audience defined by its willingness to pay the high price that artists demand—a price paid chiefly in sensitive attention and reflection, but sometimes also in money (Cather refused to cheapen her books by permitting paperback editions). Nevertheless, an artist's investment may never bring adequate returns of recognition. That is a risk the artist takes.

There is always, of course, a risk of sheer incomprehension by one's best audience. This risk is especially serious for the kind of artistic effort that is itself most fully constituted by risks. An excellent example is Cather's defiantly enigmatic novel My Mor tal Enemy (1926). In this book we are about as far from the forthright approach of O Pioneers! as we can possibly get, but Cather's interest in the economy of subjective values remains intact. If anything, it is enhanced, and that is where the risk comes in.

Myra Driscoll, the protagonist of My Mortal Enemy, expects—is practically assured of getting—a fine inheritance from her rich and doting uncle. Then she falls in love with Oswald Henshawe, who is merely “handsome and promising.” Her uncle opposes the match. He “confronted her with a cold, business proposition. If she married young Henshawe, he would cut her off without a penny.... If she did not, she would inherit two-thirds of his property.”78

Myra selects Option 1. She takes the risk of giving up the inheritance, surrendering it as the price of a romantic marriage— and later finds reason to regret her choice. Oswald is touchingly devoted to her, and their lives pass pleasantly enough, for the most part; but as the romance gradually cools, Myra thinks more and more about the comforts and pleasures she exchanged for it. Embittered and ill, she asks, “Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?”79 But what does she mean by that?

Cather's narrator answers the question in a carefully ambivalent way: “Violent natures like hers sometimes turn against themselves... against themselves and all their idolatries.”80 From one point of view, the enemy is Myra herself. From another, it's her husband, the unworthy idol.81 In either case, the issue is choice and risk, the possibility of making a disastrously wrong valuation, either of oneself or of what one desires, at either the beginning or the end of one's course of choices. The problem is the unpredictable manner in which values can “turn” and fluctuate, for both the chooser (Myra Henshawe) and the observer (the reader or, perhaps, the author) who is trying to assess Myra's choices at each stage of their making and their effects. And Cather is unwilling to reduce the risk of unprofitable interpretive choices. She provides sufficient evidence to substantiate any of four symmetrical interpretations and valuations:

1 Myra thinks that Oswald is the enemy, and she is right.

2 Myra thinks that Oswald is the enemy, and she is wrong.

2 Myra thinks that she herself is the enemy, and she is right.

2 Myra thinks that she herself is the enemy, and she is wrong.

Cather confided in a private letter what she chose not to confide in her book: in her opinion, Oswald is the enemy. But she also indicated that she thought “most people” would not agree with her.82 She had not shaped the economy of the text so as to eliminate the risk of diverging choices. Quite the contrary: she had shaped it so as to emphasize that risk, omitting any authorial moralizing that might possibly reduce it.

So the novel is about the problem of choice, and it is a problem of choice. It was therefore criticized, wrongly but understandably, for being “[a]ll bones and no flesh.... Significant things are left out, and the reader is left not only unsatisfied, but also puzzled.”83 Some of Cather's most sympathetic and perceptive readers have been baffled by the novel or have tried to explain it in terms that are not its own. Woodress suggests that it provides a “comment on the destructive power of money”: “Myra is wrecked by greed” because she threw away her inheritance and then regretted it.84 But is money in itself to blame? Myra confesses that she is “greedy” for it, but she is greedy for other things, too. She especially wants an admiring “circle” of her “own kind.”85 She wants “community,” in the trendy phrase; and whatever she wants, she wants intensely. It is her intensity—by turns charming, repulsive, pathetic—that makes one pause before either condemning or acquitting her. And Cather won't provide the verdict herself.

She made generous allowance for the problems implicit in My Mortal Enemy. She said that although “[i]n form she thought the book faulty enough... one had to choose the thing most desired and try for it at the cost of everything else.”86 She knew that even in the economy of stories, you cannot have everything you want. Like Myra Henshawe, you have to choose what you most desire. What Cather chose, what she thought was valuable enough to buy at the price of “everything else,” was a brilliantly pure focus on the risks of choice and valuation. And that is what she got.


Choice, risk, price, payment, competing valuations—such economic concepts came naturally to Cather when she thought about art. They were her way of imagining the life of the imagination. She used them from her earliest period of authorship, and she made sure to use them in contexts where they were likely to cause offense. As a young journalist, she ridiculed the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for trying to prevent a thirteen-year-old actress from working. Cather's argument was that art has its price:

It is a pity that the kindhearted... folks do not extend their noble efforts and forbid authors to write and musicians to play before they are fifteen years old. If the society had its way there would be no actors at all in a generation or two. The greatest part of an actress' education must be completed before she is fifteen. The society claim that it is cruel for a child to be put to the strain of acting every night when she ought to be at home and in bed. Of course it is cruel, most art is cruel, and very few artists have time to sleep much in this world, though we trust they rest very peacefully in the next.... Great actresses cannot be brought up upon what Kipling calls the “sheltered life-system.” They must have abundant knowledge of good and evil....87

Cather found her own art deeply fulfilling, but she still had to pay for it, if only, as she indicated in a late and unusually mild remark, by giving up whatever she regarded as less agreeable.88 On the whole, she greatly enjoyed writing her World War I novel One of Ours, yet she could have set herself an easier task. The hero was modeled on her cousin, G.P. Cather, who died in the war. The cousins had not been close. She told a friend that “to get away from him and his kind... was why she wrote at all.”89 It was a cruel process to try to give his life an appropriate literary form— crueler than it might have been, because the portrait that emerged must not be cruel. But, she said, “we all have to pay a price for everything we accomplish and because I was willing to pay so much to write about this boy, I felt that I had a right to do so.”90

The price that the artist pays and the profits that she expects to get are the subject of Cather's most comprehensive study of an artist's development, The Song of the Lark (1915). It is the story of Thea Kronborg, a girl from a small town in Colorado who becomes a world-renowned singer. Toward the end of the book, Thea considers how different her valuations are from everyone else's. Of her artistic achievement, she thinks: “nobody on God's earth wants it, really!” Of an old friend, she thinks: “The things she [herself] had lost, he would miss readily enough. What she had gained, he would scarcely perceive.”91 Again, this is the wisdom of the economist: “The difference between the valuation of two states of affairs is entirely psychical and personal.... It can be sensed only by the individual.”92

At this particular moment of Thea's life, that is not a very cheerful reflection. But it fails to convert her to a less economic view of reality. It simply shows her that she can bear even the “psychical” cost of understanding reality as she does. Taking a few minutes out of her demanding schedule to audition a prospective husband, Thea informs him, “Who marries who is a small matter, after all.... If you're not interested, I'll do my best, anyhow. I've only a few friends, but I can lose every one of them, if it has to be.” A romantic speech! and one that has not been to every reader's taste. But there is nothing to indicate that Cather disapproves. The point is: “anything good is—expensive.”93

The Song of the Lark derives its literary structure from a hard, unyielding sequence of investment decisions. As a girl, Thea learns what life in her little western town has to offer—stability and community—and what has to be paid for it—conformity and mediocrity. She refuses to pay. She leaves town, gambling a small inheritance and her unproven musical talent against the enormous risk of failure in a profession that most people regard as useless to begin with. She finally succeeds in the limited and demanding marketplace that exists for her art, but she does so only by sacrificing virtually everything that is not art. She surrenders friends, would-be lovers, even a dying mother whom she cannot visit because she needs to sing Elizabeth in Tannhäuser. Cather registers no disapproval. To be an artist, she told Sergeant, one must “refuse most of the rest of life.”94 Cather surrendered “most of the rest” of her own life as an investment in art. Her management of life was roughly similar to her management of Thea's career and her management of The Song of the Lark in general.

In each episode of that novel, Thea must choose something, some definite amount or extent of something, and let the rest of life go—which is just another way of saying that at each moment of the story Cather herself must weigh the marginal utility of every kind of thing she could put into it, paying for what she chooses to do with the price of everything that she chooses not to do. Of course, every author has to make such choices; every author confronts the principle of marginal utility. In this regard, The Song of the Lark is interesting mainly because it shows an unusual self-consciousness about the economics of the artistic process.

It is also interesting because it shows an author's gradual education in the management of her artistic investments. There is a general sense among Cather's critics that the first half of the novel takes far longer than necessary to describe the small-town life that both Thea and Cather chose not to settle for. Cather carefully works up subsidiary characters whose stories neither she nor her protagonist finds worth pursuing for very long in the second half. As the novel nears its end, Thea reflects on one such friend “and all that he recalled.” “[B]etter as memories,” she muses.95 So, perhaps, does Cather, who has been learning artistic ruthlessness along with her heroine. The novel's last movement proceeds with maximum efficiency. Thea decides to marry one of her admirers, Fred Ottenburg, but neither she nor Cather can afford to waste much time on this. The decision episode has been described as “probably the most unsentimental betrothal scene in all of Western fiction.... [Thea's] car is waiting. She's singing Sieglinde on Friday, and she has to get her rest.”96 Thea rides off alone, and twenty pages later we learn that “Mr. Ottenburg” has become “her husband.”97

It's not simply that Thea cares more about her career than she cares about Fred. It's also that Cather has discovered where to dim the lights and where to bring them up again. They should be dim for the “betrothal scene” (which, in that twilight atmosphere, might easily be mistaken for a rejection scene); they should be bright again for Thea's triumphant performance of Die Walküre, because this is where the great investment pays off:

The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is. That afternoon nothing new came to Thea Kronborg, no enlightenment, no inspiration. She merely came into full possession of things she had been refining and perfecting for so long. Her inhibitions chanced to be fewer than usual, and, within herself, she entered into the inheritance that she herself had laid up....98


Cather entered into her own inheritance by learning what needed to be spent, paid, given up. You can see it in her life; you can see it in the small, cunning effects of her fiction.

She was fascinated, for instance, by the Indian ruins of the American Southwest. She visited them, she loved them, she was always interested in them; but she found out when to use them and when to sacrifice them to something else. In the second half of The Song of the Lark, she finds a way for Thea to visit them and there discover “the inevitable hardness of human life. No artist gets far who doesn't know that.”99 But once Thea has gathered all the intuitions she needs, Cather has her grow “tired of the desert and the dead races, of a world without change or ideas.” So she leaves, on the eastbound express.100 Cather, who is by now on frank and intimate terms with the principle of marginal utility, leaves too. She returns in The Professor's House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). In those two novels, she places stories about the Indian past precisely where she thinks they will contribute some crucial insight. Then, precisely where that ceases to be true, she returns to the living world, where ideas and values constantly, unpredictably change.

Change is unpredictable because it results, not from the necessities of environment or “economics,” but from the choices of individuals for whom the fundamental economic necessity is choice itself. I suppose that no American novelist is more famous for the arts of environment—atmosphere and setting—than Willa Cather. But her stories never just emerge from their environments, as if the fictional landscape were studded with fields and mines and forests that required no investment to exploit. Nothing is a resource until someone makes a decision to invest in it and turn it to human use. Usable resources vary with desire and choice.

That is the optimistic message of O Pioneers!, and the unsettling message of The Professor's House. The protagonist of the latter novel, Professor St. Peter, is wealthy and respected, a man of finished culture and consummate intellectual power. But he has reached a stage of life at which intellectual gold no longer seems to justify the expense of mining it, and his happy family life no longer makes him happy. After a point, some mysterious point that can be fixed only by himself, whatever goods the Professor possesses are not what he wants any more of. This is the principle of marginal utility, with a vengeance. Waking in a room that is filling with gas from a malfunctioning stove, he faces the apparently easy task of deciding whether to open a window. But it's not clear to him that the returns are worth the effort. Further increments of existence may not repay the cost of getting out of bed. He starts to let himself die—only to be rescued by a hired woman who happens to set a higher value on his life than he does. Limited in many ways, enslaved (as anyone else might say) to commonplace duties, she has a quality of realism that clarifies St. Peter's sense of the inevitable hardness of existence. That sense of the desert, he now decides, may justify the investment of continued life. The novel ends. Its end may or may not be edifying; that's for the reader to decide. But its construction is true to Cather's economic principles.

Cather advocated “the novel démeublé”: “How wonderful it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window.” The furniture that she especially wanted to defenestrate was the detailed surface realism that loves to “catalogu[e]” facts about characters' “material surroundings,” as if that were the important thing.101 Cather's characters often share her desire to throw things out. Contemplating the “simple and definite” in the remains of the Southwest Indians, Thea decides that her mind is stuffed with useless material and “she must throw [the] lumber away.”102 In Cather's stories, what goes sailing out the window is pseudo-economic “realism” and its assumption that values are determined by what people have (or do not have) instead of by what people choose.

“Neighbour Rosicky,” another offering from Obscure Des tinies, has much to say about this subject. Cather's theme is the Rosicky family's independence from any ordinary, pseudo-economic plot. Rosicky is a modestly successful farmer who decides to remain modestly successful—as success is defined by people who think in purely material terms. His neighbors think that Rosicky and his wife lack “good judgment” about the marketplace, because the pair can't see the value of getting all the cash profits they can possibly get from it. But the Rosickys have perfectly reasonable ideas about profits. When they give their dairy cream to their children instead of selling it, they receive more value, as they define value, than they would otherwise. The Rosickys are individual enough—and unenvious enough, a great point with Cather—to see “their neighbours buy more land and feed more stock than they, without discontent”; they prefer to spend their time and energy pursuing nonmaterial profits. Within the economy of Cather's text, Neighbor Rosicky is a very successful man. When he dies, Cather's eminently reliable spokesman pronounces his life “complete and beautiful.”103 It has been said that the Rosickys are successful because they allow the “human” to take “precedence over the economic,”104 but that isn't quite right. Economic values are human values, too. Cather's idea is that the Rosickys are successful because they are humans who make wise economic choices.

The larger form of the Rosickys is ántonia Shimerda, the protagonist of My ántonia (1918). A pseudo-economic novelist would have portrayed her as a victim of her environment, the captive of a heartless landscape where her father kills himself in despair, where she is seduced by a worthless lover and abandoned to bear his child, where she is finally forced by circumstances to marry a man for whom she feels no passion. But thatis not Cather's story of ántonia's life. Her story is about the power of individual choice,105 and about everything that choice implies in economic terms: valuation, investment, risk, the chance of success.

The narrator of My ántonia, Jim Burden, is described in the novel's introduction as a capitalist who has been important in the development of the West. His business investments have been more successful than his personal ones (his wife is a rich dilettante with leftish political interests, disliked by Cather), yet he retains his “romantic” disposition and his interest in other people's romantic investments.106 Some of those investments have tragic results, such as the suicide of ántonia's father, a man who should never have risked his all on the American West. Others turn out better. As the novel continues, Cather's emphasis on investments and outcomes grows stronger and her handling of the theme grows more complex. She provides examples across the range of possibilities: old Colonel Raleigh, who lost most of his “inherited fortune” by investing it in real estate “at the time of inflated prices”; Tiny Soderball, a servant girl who made a fortune in the Klondike by speculating in real estate and buying up “claims from discouraged miners”; Lena Lingard, another impoverished girl who built a lucrative business and “[c]ertainly... had no one but herself to thank for it”; and Wick Cutter, the local usurer and villain, who also has no one but himself to thank for the way his investment in life turns out—he quarrels with his wife over what will be done with his property after he dies, then hastens the event with a murder-suicide.107 The cause is “spite.” Obviously, investments in money and property are only two factors in the economy; there is the little matter of character and emotion, too.

All this is preparation for the final report on ántonia's investments. Needing a legal father for her first child and for the many others that she wants to bear, ántonia marries a man so poor that he has “to borrow money from his cousin to buy the weddingring.”108 She assumes other risks. She and her husband take up cheap new land on time payments.109 He is no better prepared to cope with the situation than her father was, but her ability gets them through. Their land appreciates fivefold; they are able to liquidate the mortgage on the original property and buy up more.110 Yet ántonia is not to be considered a successful investor because she makes a lot of money. She never becomes rich or even middle class. She is successful because, like the Rosickys, she accomplishes her primary purpose, the creation of a large and happy family. That may not be your primary purpose ormine, and it certainly was not Willa Cather's; but it is ántonia's, and she achieves it by calculated risk and investment.111

The results are evident in the celebrated episode in whichántonia and her virtually uncountable children show Jim Burden the artificial “cave” where she stores her preserves. Woodress sees the visit to ántonia's fruit cave (“a cornucopia of the earth's bounty”) as a Nebraska version of the mysteries of Eleusis, a revelation of life miraculously emergent from earth's darkness.112 The comparison is apt. When Jim and ántonia leavethe cave, ántonia's children come running out, “big and little, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight.”113 ántonia's cave is a mine of gold—as she would define “gold”—although it would be even better to say, as Jim does, thatántonia herself is the mine, “a rich mine of life.”114 Life is her standard of value and the reward of her investments. And life is her creation; she is not a “natural resource.” If she is the “mine,” she is also the miner, and the mine's very well-satisfied customer. The human economy (and the economy of Cather's story) is complete in her.


Elizabeth Sergeant tells us that although Cather disliked the idea of the government's going about to “help” anyone, she herself did a good deal of helping. She regularly gave gifts to the farm families she knew, and “in case of crop failures... seed corn was not forgotten.... Her presents were always directed to an individual, whose subjective or economic needs she knew.”115 Sergeant's “or” makes “needs” either “subjective” or “economic.” But in Cather's stories, the economic is the subjective, in the sense that “needs” are always defined in accordance with individual differences and desires. The idea emerges continually in Cather's stories: “Only the feeling matters”; “in der Brust, in der Brust it is.”116 This is romanticism, but not mere romanticism. It is an economic principle reduced to essential terms.

Another economic principle is that all human action carries risks, and there are plenty of risks connected with practical applications of the idea that “in der Brust it is.” The idea allows for the existence and interest of a dark as well as a bright romanticism, for values that are decidedly individual and subjective but thatare lamentably different from those of Alexandra or ántonia. It allows for stories about people who “never dared anything, never risked anything” but who bitterly envy what others have achieved. In der Brust, in der Brust: they suffer not from the deprivation of anything they had or earned but from the deprivation of something they think they are entitled to. Their idea of profit is the destruction of that thing in others.

Thus, in A Lost Lady, the young lawyer Ivy Peters envies the “freedom, the generous, easy life” of the old pioneer, Captain Forrester, and everything associated with it. When Forrester falls on hard times, Peters rents his beloved wild marshland, drains it, and plants wheat on it, not so much to make money as to “spite” Captain Forrester. The motive is not superficially but deeply economic: “By draining the marsh Ivy had obliterated a few acres of something he hated, though he could not name it, and had asserted his power over the people who had loved those unproductive meadows for their idleness and silvery beauty.”117

In exchange for his rent money, Peters reaps big profits in the strong though nonmaterial currency of power. A vengeful egalitarian, he rejoices at seeing Captain Forrester “come down in the world”: “He's happier now that he's like the rest of us and don't have to change his shirt every day.”118 The Captain no longer has a certain mysterious personal something that Ivy will always lack; and this, in itself, is profit and romance for Ivy.

Lou Bergson cherishes similarly perverse ambitions. He hates old Ivar and wants to persecute him, not because Ivar poses any objective threat, but (apparently) because he possesses some mysterious—and, as Lou sees it—wholly unearned value in Alexandra's eyes. Lou's envy, however, is directed chiefly against material success, that of his sister and that of “Wall Street,” the symbol of the capitalist regime. Without his sister and the capitalist system, he would still be an impoverished farm laborer. He understands neither of them, but he knows that they refuse to give him everything he thinks he deserves. Hence his desire to dominate or destroy: “[B]low it up. Dynamite it, I mean.”119

The dark subplot of O Pioneers! assesses the economics of envy. Frank Shabata, Alexandra's neighbor, is obsessed by an arbitrary sense of deprivation. “Frank had, on the whole, done better than one might have expected,” but he continually feels “sorry for himself” because life is “ugly” and “unjust.”120 He never understands that he has “made his own unhappiness,” but he values himself for his ability to feel it: “it gratified him to feel like a desperate man.”121 He regards his farm as unsatisfactory, his wife as unsatisfactory, and of course the political economy as unsatisfactory:

Frank was always reading about the doings of rich people and feeling outraged. He had an inexhaustible stock of stories about their crimes and follies, how they bribed the courts and shot down their butlers with impunity whenever they chose. Frank and Lou Berg-son had very similar ideas, and they were two of the political agitators of the county.122

It goes without saying that these friends of the common man, as apotheosized in the speeches of William Jennings Bryan, have no desire to exert their benevolence on anyone they actually know. Alexandra, who understands that cooperation and profit are not mutually exclusive, tries to convince Frank that he should help the old woman next door keep her fences in repair; at least then he wouldn't have her hogs in his wheat: “I've found it sometimes pays to mend other people's fences,” she says.123 Her advice is wasted. Frank values his feelings of injury much more than he values good relations with his neighbor—more even than he values hogfree wheat. It is a perverse victory of spiritual over material interests.

Alexander Pope might have been thinking of Frank Shabata when he discussed the problem of subjective self-valuation:

A man's true merit ’tis not hard to find,

But each man's secret standard in his mind,

That Casting-weight Pride adds to Emptiness,

This, who can gratify? for who can guess?124

Frank hates his wife Marie because she fails to gratify the secret standard in his mind, the entirely subjective measure of his superiority: “He wanted his wife to resent that he was wasting his best years among these stupid and unappreciative people; but she had seemed to find the people quite good enough.”125 So he tries to punish her as he thinks he is being punished; he tries to “make her life ugly.”126 In doing so, he destroys three lives, including his own. He drives Marie into the arms of Alexandra's free-spirited youngest brother, Emil; and when he discovers Marie and Emil together, he kills them.


This third crisis of the novel has much to do with the politics of envy, but it is not exactly Cather's answer to the question, Where will Bryanism lead us? She is concerned with more profound and permanent issues.

The episode should be seen in relation to a literary maxim that she liked to quote: “The elder Dumas enunciated a great principle when he said that to make a drama, a man needed one passion, and four walls.”127 The passion in O Pioneers! is Alexandra's love for her land and for what she can make of it. The four walls are the economic facts—not just the little facts of dollars and cents but the big facts of scarcity, choice, cost, and risk that give structure to every form of human action.

Cather could have written the type of story that would easily accommodate Alexandra's passion. She could have written a story in which Alexandra worked hard, grew rich, and lived happily ever after with her family and friends, enjoying a conflict-free utopia where every person contributed according to his ability and received according to his need. Naively conservative story-tellers often evoke this kind of heartland vision. It is, basically, the vision of a world without scarcity or deprivation. “In such a world,” Mises said, “there [would] be no law of value... and no economic problems.” But in that world of “plenty and abundance,” there would also “be no choices to be made, no action.”128 It would be a pseudo-economic world, a world without prices or costs or the prospects and risks of creative endeavor. It would be a world without any stories worthy of the name, and it would not be the world of Willa Cather.

Cather knew that real stories are bounded by economic walls, and she built those walls with care. In O Pioneers! all objects of desire appear, as they really are, “expensive.”129 There is no such thing as emotional free silver, no means of reducing all costs to a level of convenience. Before Marie is murdered by Frank, she talks to Emil about the risks of human action. She sees that this is a world in which knowledge is scarce and unintended consequences are plentiful. They are part of the price of doing what we choose to do. “I would have my own way. And now I pay for it,” she says. “You don't do all the paying,” Emil argues. But “[t]hat's it,” she replies. “When one makes a mistake, there's no telling where it will stop.”130

Even Alexandra, who is as close to perfection as Cather can take the literary risk of making her, has to pay a heavy price for her involvement in the web of human action. She wins her fortune and holds onto it by accepting risk, deferring romance, and alienating most of her family. Finally she has to suffer the tragedy of Emil and Marie. Because she loved them both, she failed to see any dangerous consequences in their relationship and made no attempt to protect them from themselves. She accepts what she considers her share of the blame and the misery, but she wonders if life is worth continuing on these terms.

In the end she decides that it is. She reflects on the story of her life and accepts the fact that she cannot govern all the risks of all the choices from which stories have to grow. Adopting what she calls a “more liberal” view of life—“I try to realize that we are not all made alike”—she forgives other people's failures, and her own, and returns to the enjoyment of her land.131 She no longer associates what she needs to do to possess it with isolation and repetition, with the denial of lightness and ease.

This is ironic, and a bit mysterious; because now she has more reason than ever to curse the land as a source of imprisoned passions, the passions that destroyed Marie and Emil. Part of the reason for Alexandra's optimism is the fact that she now has Carl beside her, and will marry him. The rest of it lies in all those facts of individual judgment and preference toward which we gesture when we concede that “we are not all made alike.” Where one person sees four confining walls, another sees the stage of a great play that is still being written. To Alexandra, her land, with all its limitations, again represents “freedom,” the freedom to create something by one's own choice, even if the consequences cannot be fully controlled.132 She finds in the economy of her life the structure and significance that a good author discovers in the economy of her art. Both economies are born of desire and shaped by limitation. They can be understood and appreciated in similar ways. As Alexandra and Carl look over her property at sundown, surveying their lives and thinking about their coming marriage, Alexandra asks him, “You remember what you once said about the graveyard, and the old story writing itself over? Only it is we who write it, with the best we have.”133

Carl's remark had not been optimistic. He had said that in the pioneers' new graveyard one can already see “the old story” starting “to write itself” all over again. He had suggested that stories are made out of limitations, and that even the number of stories is limited; there are, he said, only “two or three human stories” that “go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”134 But what Alexandra wants to stress is the individual human agency of every human story: “it is we who write it, with the best we have.” Neither Alexandra Bergson nor Willa Cather believes that stories write themselves. Both of them know that art, like the rest of life, is a process of making the best choices possible within a context of scarcity and risk. And the final achievement of both women's art is an understanding of the economy of stories, an understanding that ignores neither the fierceness of individual desire nor the constraints of environment, neither the social and material context nor the choices that respond to it and, in responding, transform and create.

That is what Cather means when she describes Alexandra's solemn joy at the discovery of the great investment scheme that is destined to transform her nearly worthless land:

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.135

According to a long-established way of reading O Pioneers!, the novel is about the land and not about the story that Alexandra writes on her land with “the best” she has.136 A similar misreading represents the novel as a reflection of Midwestern values, as if Cather had no property in her own stories but was merely a wanderer along main-travelled roads. But the invocation to the land in the concluding lines of O Pioneers! has a different emphasis. “Fortunate country,” it says, “that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!”137

The country waits expectantly for “hearts like Alexandra's” that will make it fortunate. They will give it the best they have, and the investment will make of the land a profit and a possession for all future generations. Cather's revolt against the economics of “material surroundings” could hardly be more decisive, her ability to capture the economics of individualism could hardly be more complete.