What Nebraska novelist Willa Cather can teach us about the age of Trump

Below is a piece by Mark Schwehn, Professor of Humanities in Christ College, the Honors College of Valparaiso University. Schwehn is perhaps best known as the founder of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso and the author of Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation (Oxford, 1993), Everyone a Teacher (Notre Dame, 2000) and with Dorothy C. Bass Leading Lives That Matter (Eerdmans, 2005, 2020). Enjoy!

All of us have spent and will spend countless hours attempting to comprehend Trump and Trumpism. As we do this, we should bear in mind that our novelists are far more instructive than our psychologists, economists, sociologists, and political pundits.  Consider, for example, a short passage from Willa Cather’s first novel O Pioneers! (1913).  

The novel’s protagonist, Alexandra Bergson, is a self-assured, determined, shrewd, and courageous young Swede who saves her family of four after her father’s early death. They and their neighbors suffered tremendous hardships and losses during the years of perilous drought and famine on the Divide in south-central Nebraska during the last years of the nineteenth century.  Yet while other families moved away, Alexandra had the foresight and acumen to borrow money to buy large sections of abandoned rich soil on the tableland, a move that secured her and her brothers’ future for years afterwards.  

Two of her brothers, Lou and Oscar, gratefully received their own portions of the large family homestead Alexandra had prodigiously expanded. But year by year, as they married and had their own children, they became more and more selfish, coming to believe that their own earlier hard work and deprivations entitled them to lay claim eventually to Alexandra’s land as part of their own inheritance. Gratitude became grudging admiration, which in turn became resentment, which finally became anxiety over the prospect of Alexandra’s marriage prospects that could imperil their own eventual wealth.

Alexandra’s favorite and beloved brother, Emil, is the youngest member of the family who shares with Cather herself a love for the land and its people combined with a desire to move beyond it. He is the only one of the four siblings to go to college, the same place where Cather herself went to college, at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  And he aspires to become a lawyer in distant Michigan. As he is packing his books to move on first to Omaha and then to the University of Michigan, Alexandra thinks about the relationships among her brothers as follows:

She knew that Emil was ashamed of Lou and Oscar, because they were bigoted and self-satisfied. He never said much about them, but she could feel his disgust. His brothers had shown their disapproval of him ever since he first went away to school. The only thing that would have satisfied them would have been his failure at the University.  As it was, they resented every change in his speech, in his dress, in his point of view; though the latter they had to conjecture, for Emil avoided talking to them about any but family matters.  All his interests they treated as affectations.

So there, over a century ago, in the heart of what we today would call the Red States of the Great Plains, a family divided. The ethnic diversity they knew consisted only of Swedes, Norwegians, Frenchmen, and Bohemians. No person of color appeared in Cather’s account of the Nebraska Divide of the early twentieth century. The two most violent men in that world savored the rancorous vein of Populism in the 1890’s. Two of the white men in the Bergson family drew more and more insular and resentful; the third one broadened out and nursed a larger vision.

Two were proto-Trumpians.  One was a proto-Biden voter. This is just about the exact ratio of white male Trumpians to white male Democrats in Nebraska today.  As in so much else, Cather had things exactly right.

She had published her first major work of fiction, a collection of short stories, in 1905. Donald Trump’s father Fred was born in the same year.