Saturday, December 30, 2023

Centennial Appreciation: Willa Cather’s ‘A Lost Lady’

In the fourth quarter a century ago, Alfred A. Knopf published a new novella by perhaps the hottest in its stable of authors at that point: Willa Cather, who had received the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours in May.

A Lost Lady reflected Cather’s recognition, as she put it, that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts." The period it covers—1873 to 1916 to the early 1920s—marked the passage of the Old West from the pioneers, “dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were impractical to the point of magnificence,” to a new, rapacious generation who would “dispel the morning freshness, [and] root out the great spirit of freedom.”

After a few false starts (including a first-person narrator), Cather settled into a more comfortable narrative mode. Soon, everything fell into place. The plot, tightly sprung, moves swiftly; the characters are rendered in pinpoint detail; and, most of all, Cather exhibits her usual exquisite feeling for how setting molds their lives, in this case Sweet Water, Colorado, a frontier town “of which great things were expected.”

In the idyllic early days of the plot, for instance, a group of boys “behaved like wild creatures all morning; shouting from the breezy bluffs, dashing down into the silvery marsh through the dewy cobwebs that glistened on the tall weeds, swishing among the pale tan cattails, wading in the sandy creek bed, chasing a striped water snake from the old willow stump where he was sunning himself, cutting sling-shot crotches, throwing themselves on their stomachs to drink at the cool spring that flowed out from under a bank into a thatch of dark watercress.”

For her two main characters, Captain Daniel Forrester and his graceful, vivacious second wife Lyra, the novelist overcame her reluctance to rely too heavily on real-life models to summon memories of the magnetic couple in her childhood town of Red Cloud, Neb.: Silas Garber, a banker and former governor of the state, and his much younger spouse, Lyra.

So strongly did this magnetic couple affect the social consciousness of Red Cloud that Cather had stayed abreast of their doings even years after she left the prairie town. The news of the 1921 death of Lyra, a woman that Cather "loved very much in [her] childhood," shook and saddened her, then catalyzed her into finishing the novella in only five months.

As much as Cather had tried to camouflage details of the Garbers’ lives, in the end she couldn’t help herself, and the real-life story of the couple becomes incorporated in the Forresters’ history: the two-decade difference in their ages, “The Captain’s” deterioration from physical vigor to invalidism, the decline in their fortunes after the Panic of 1893, and Mrs. Garber’s move out of state and remarriage after her husband’s death.

Though Cather frequently resorted to composite characters to camouflage the sources of her characterization, she stuck quite closely to a woman she knew in creating Marian Forrester: Lyra Garber. She ended up with a vividly realized protagonist who ranks with Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Edith Wharton's Lily Bart among literature's most vibrant but complicated beauties.

When seen early on by the admiring boy Niel Herbert, Marian brings heightened sophistication, grace, and beauty to her husband’s circle, standing “in her long sealskin coat and cap, a crimson scarf showing above the collar, a little brown veil with spots tied over her eyes. The veil did not in the least obscure those beautiful eyes, dark and full of light, set under a low white forehead and arching eyebrows. The frosty air had brought no colour to her cheeks,—her skin had always the fragrant, crystalline whiteness of white lilacs. Mrs. Forrester looked at one, and one knew that she was bewitching. It was instantaneous, and it pierced the thickest hide. The Swede farmer was now grinning from ear to ear, and he, too, had shuffled to his feet. There could be no negative encounter, however slight, with Mrs. Forrester. If she merely bowed to you, merely looked at you, it constituted a personal relation. Something about her took hold of one in a flash; one became acutely conscious of her, of her fragility and grace, of her mouth which could say so much without words; of her eyes, lively, laughing, intimate, nearly always a little mocking.”

As Niel sets off for college, a seismic shift occurs in the dynamics of the Forresters’ relationship. “The Captain” suffers physical and financial reverses, and Marian embarks on an affair with a bachelor friend of her husband’s that, from Niel’s judgmental perspective, results in her moral degradation.

The novella ends with yet another reversal: After Daniel Forrester’s death, Marian moves out of state, remarries, and Niel comes to feel “very glad that he had known her, and that she had a hand in breaking him in to life….She had always the power of suggesting things much lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring.”

Just as Marian Forrester had many admirers, so did her creator, in the artistic sense. One of them, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was then hard at work on a novel that he hoped would demonstrate that the witty, youthful promise of his initial books was now being invested with a mature perspective.

After finishing The Great Gatsby, the 29-year-old author wrote to the veteran writer from the island of Capri “to explain an instance of apparent plagiarism” in how he described the voice of Daisy Buchanan in one sentence. Cather generously reassured him that there were only so many ways of conveying beauty, so she did not perceive any plagiarism on his part.

In less obvious ways than style, A Lost Lady may have helped influence the structure and themes of The Great Gatsby.

Both novels feature an ambivalent character: a male moved, despite moral misgivings, by the romantic instincts of the title characters, and an elegiac sense that the men who built “built up the country” had been replaced by “careless people” lacking scruples or a sense of responsibility (Ivy Peters in A Lost Lady, Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby).

Hollywood, with its appetite for tragic women’s pictures in its early days, seized on Cather’s property twice, for a 1924 silent and a 1934 talkie starring Barbara Stanwyck.

TCM has evidently run the latter at some point, but I doubt very much that I will ever get around to seeing it, and not just because the cable station runs it in ungodly hours. From its plot summary, it’s immediately evident that Warner Brothers made wholesale changes that upset Cather so much that her will prohibited further adaptations.

More than 30 years after her death, that restriction was relaxed, allowing viewers to see TV adaptations of her short story “Paul’s Case” and novels O Pioneers! My Antonia, and The Song of the Lark (starring, respectively, Eric Roberts, Jessica Lange, Jason Robards and Alison Elliott).

Beginning in the Great Depression and continuing for several decades, critics such as Granville Hicks and Lionel Trilling, writing from an urban, sometimes Marxist, perspective, thrust Cather, with her focus on agrarian environments and the past, outside the circle of “major” writers.

Time has blunted the force of such arguments. In particular, A Lost Lady is now seen, in the words of Benjamin Taylor in his new biography of the novelist, Chasing Bright Medusas, as inaugurating her “late style,” constituting a breakthrough to “a simplified manner in which earlier preoccupations are dispensed with in favor of a new expressiveness, a new simplicity.”

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