As we put together the initial list of Books that Shaped Work in America, I thought it important that we have at least one title that was published in 1913.
The project is, after all, part of the U.S. Department of Labor’s centennial commemoration. President William Howard Taft created the Labor Department on March 4, 1913.
I wasn’t disappointed. The one book on the list that was published the same year as the department’s founding: “O Pioneers!” by Willa Cather. Frankly, it’s one book that quintessentially shaped work in America.
One of three Cather titles suggested for inclusion on the list by the author/critic (and Cather expert) Joan Acocella (the others are “My Antonia” and “Song of the Lark”), “O Pioneers!” – a novella – tells the story of the Bergsons, a Swedish family that immigrates to a fictional town in the author’s native state of Nebraska in the late 19th century. Upon the patriarch’s death, the family farm is bequeathed to only daughter Alexandra (and not to her brothers), who succeeds in making it sustainable at a time when most others are leaving to seek better lives elsewhere.
In her essay recommending it for our list, Acocella noted: “It is a sad book, but with almost mystical scenes of beauty.” She’s right. The land – and the work the characters do on the land – are spiritual supporting characters in the novel. That adds to the mysticism. “O Pioneers!” isn’t Cather’s best book (she and almost everyone else cite “My Antonia” as her masterpiece). But it is her best work about work. It has everything: the immigrant experience; the sweeping beauty and the back-breaking hardship of working the land; the passing down of work from one generation to the next; and best of all … a beautiful story of self-discovery through work. There’s no better portrait of work and family life on the American frontier than this.
It is an extraordinary read. And 100 years later, it’s still vital and compelling, interesting and important. So is the work of the U.S. Department of Labor.
Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs and serves as the chair of the department’s centennial. Learn more about the department’s 100 years of service by viewing an interactive timeline and watching a special centennial video at dol.gov/100.