O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers.
Thus wrote Walt Whitman, 1865, on how the West was won. The women came behind with the pack animals.
The romantic notion has it that it is the conquest of the wilderness that formed the American character – open, robust, democratic and optimistic. When the pioneering is done, when infinite space proves finite and you have fenced it in, what do you do with your pioneering virtues? You tell stories about them, put them into verse. You speak of lost Edens. The marching song becomes an elegy. Survivors have the task of turning their memories into myths.
Willa Cather took on this task in a manner unique among the female writers of her time. She won a Pulitzer prize, and became required reading for American students. Later her sentimental patriotism made her deeply unfashionable. More recently, feminist criticism has grappled her to its manly chest.