SAT Sample Reading-Test Questions: Literary Passage
If you face a literary passage on the SAT (one from fiction or a memoir), you should pay attention to details and word choice, and at the same time keep in mind the big picture. You don’t need to worry about plot, as the passage will be too short for that.
Questions 1–5 refer to the following excerpt from O Pioneers, by Willa Cather.
The Bergson homestead was easier to find than many another, because it overlooked a shallow, muddy stream. This creek gave a sort of identity to the farms that bordered upon it. Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening. The houses were small and were usually tucked away in low places; you did not see them until you came directly upon them. Most of them were built of the sod itself, and were only the inescapable ground in another form. The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings.
In eleven long years John Bergson had made but little impression upon the wild land he had come to tame. It was still a wild thing that had its ugly moods; and no one knew when they were likely to come, or why. Mischance hung over it. Its Genius was unfriendly to man. The sick man was feeling this as he lay looking out of the window, after the doctor had left him, on the day following his daughter Alexandra’s trip to town. There it lay outside his door, the same land, the same lead‐colored miles. He knew every ridge and draw and gully between him and the horizon. To the south, his plowed fields; to the east, the sod stables, the cattle corral, the pond — and then the grass.
Bergson went over in his mind the things that had held him back. One winter his cattle had perished in a blizzard. The next summer one of his plow horses broke its leg in a prairie dog hole and had to be shot. Another summer he lost his hogs from disease, and a valuable stallion died from a rattlesnake bite. Time and again his crops had failed. He had lost two children, boys, that came between Lou and Emil, and there had been the cost of sickness and death. Now, when he had at last struggled out of debt, he was going to die himself. He was only forty‐six, and had, of course, counted on more time.
Bergson had spent his first five years getting into debt, and the last six getting out. He had paid off his mortgages and had ended pretty much where he began, with the land. He owned exactly six hundred and forty acres of what stretched outside his door; his own original homestead and timber claim, making three hundred and twenty acres, and the half‐section adjoining, the homestead of a younger brother who had given up the fight, gone back to Chicago to work in a fancy bakery and distinguish himself in a Swedish athletic club. So far John had not attempted to cultivate the second half‐section, but used it for pasture land, and one of his sons rode herd there in open weather.
John Bergson had the Old‐World belief that land, in itself, is desirable. But this land was an enigma. It was like a horse that no one knows how to break to the harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces. He had an idea that no one understood how to farm it properly, and this he often discussed with Alexandra. Their neighbors, certainly, knew even less about farming than he did. Many of them had never worked on a farm until they took up their homesteads. They had been handworkers at home; tailors, locksmiths, joiners, cigar‐makers, etc. Bergson himself had worked in a shipyard.
Which of the following statements best describes John Bergson’s attitude toward nature?
(A) Natural features are beautiful.
(B) Human beings should not interfere with nature.
(C) Nature is inferior to human construction.
(D) Wilderness areas are preferable to cities and towns.
The comparison between the plowed fields and “the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races” (paragraph 1, last sentence) serves to
(A) introduce the idea of human weakness
(B) show that this settlement has a long history
(C) emphasize the primitive quality of the farming
(D) describe the effects of glaciers
The “Genius” mentioned in paragraph 2, sentence 4 may best be defined as
The list of events in the third paragraph serves to
(A) illustrate Bergson’s bad luck
(B) show that Bergson was unprepared for farming
(C) emphasize some hope for the future of Bergson’s farm
(D) provide information about Bergson’s character
In the context of paragraph 5, sentence 2, the land is “an enigma” because
(A) it differs from the land of the Old World
(B) the settlers don’t know how to farm it
(C) it is too dry
(D) John Bergson planned poorly
Answers and Explanations
Paragraph 1, sentence 3 states that “the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening.” Sentence 5 refers to “sod,” or dirt, as “inescapable.” “Inescapable,” “depressing,” and “disheartening” — all negative descriptions that apply to nature, in John Bergson’s view. (Those words also apply to the SAT, by the way.) Did you select Choice (D) based on paragraph 5, sentence 1, which mentions Bergson’s “Old-World belief that land, in itself, is desirable”? Later in that paragraph, he laments the pioneers’ inability to farm the land “properly” (sentence 4). In the same paragraph, Bergson compares the land to a “horse . . . that runs wild and kicks things to pieces” (sentence 3), clearly implying that land tamed by human efforts would be better.
The first paragraph shows a land that has been settled only on the most basic level. Because the “record of the plow was insignificant,” the reader imagines shallow marks in the soil, which are similar to scratches made ages ago by primitive, or “prehistoric” people. Thus, Choice (C) is correct.
The usual meaning of genius is “supersmart.” In this passage, though, a less common definition fits “the spirit or character” of a place or person or time period.
The third paragraph lists what went wrong on Bergson’s farm: weather, a broken leg, snakebite, disease, and death. True, Bergson was unprepared for farming this land, as the last paragraph reveals. However, simple bad luck dominates this paragraph, making Choice (A) the correct answer.
John Bergson had worked in a shipyard, and his neighbors were “tailors, locksmiths, joiners, cigar-makers.” None of them were farmers. The land isn’t the problem; the farmers are, because, to them, the land is an “enigma,” or puzzle.