The Magic of Contradictions: Willa Cather's Lost Lady

By Dickstein, Morris | New Criterion, February 1999 | Go to article overview

The Magic of Contradictions: Willa Cather's Lost Lady


Dickstein, Morris, New Criterion


First published in 1923, when Willa Cather was almost fifty years old, A Lost Lady occupies a special place in her rich and varied body of work. Though it never gained the wide popular appeal of My Antonia or Death Comes for the Archbishop, which became staples of the school curriculum, it has long been a novel that critics admire extravagantly and ordinary readers recall with passionate enthusiasm. The early reviews were laudatory but a little condescending, for Cather's "portrait of a lady" is barely longer than a novella and centers on a single character. To Edmund Wilson it was "a charming sketch performed with exceptional skill." Joseph Wood Krutch found it "short and slight" not "a great novel" but "that very rare thing in contemporary literature, a nearly perfect one" But the tide was turning by 1937 when Lionel Trilling, not Cather's greatest admirer, described it as "the central work of her careen Far from being the delicate minor book it is often called, it is probably her most muscular story." Later critics, including Alfred Kazin in On Native Grounds (1942), followed Trilling in seeing A Lost Lady and its even darker successor, The Professor's House (1925), as Cather's pivotal works, affecting, powerfully imagined, and strikingly modern even in their recoil from modern life.

The early readers who described the book as a character sketch saw only the brilliance of Cather's portrayal of Marian Forrester, the high-spirited wife of one of the great pioneers and railroad builders. They were less responsive to the historical implications of Cather's fable and missed the enigmatic and ambiguous elements in Mrs. Forrester's portrait. On the surface, Marian Forrester belongs to Cather's long line of restless, magnetic, intelligent women, like Alexandra Bergson, who grows wealthy farming the virgin land in O Pioneers! (1913), Thea Kronborg, the Swedish girl who becomes a famous opera singer in The Song of the Lark (1915), and Antonia Shimerda, the heroine of My Antonia (1918), who survives tragedy and abandonment to become the mother of many children, "a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races."

Those earlier women were immigrants, and Cather herself grew up among the farms and small towns that shaped their lives. Many of their experiences were also her experiences, and she loved the irrepressible hunger for life she saw in them, which mirrored her own fervent ambition to live boldly. At a time when immigrants in literature were usually treated as comical figures with silly accents or as piteous social victims, when women characters were expected to find happiness only in love or marriage, Cather gave us forceful heroines who tilled the soil, balanced the books, negotiated an alien culture, navigated new worlds in literature and the arts, showed adventurous independent minds, and, above all, had a tremendous spark of emotional and physical vitality that Cather admired as the very sap of life. At the end of My Antonia, we learn that the heroine's "inner glow" has not faded: "Whatever else was gone, Antonia had not lost the fire of life."

A Lost Lady is a brilliant epilogue to Cather's famous pioneer novels, but it has a different tone, not heroic and optimistic like the Whitmanesque O Pioneers! but bittersweet and retrospective like Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. O Pioneers! is a fertility myth in which the golden land yields lovingly to the plough, the women are almost magically in tune with the rhythms of the soil and the seasons, and death is simply the moment of being gathered back into the larger whole, the vibrant heart of nature. This sense of the inevitable is brought home to us by the stately, almost biblical nobility of the book's style. Even in My Antonia, which builds up a harsher picture of the struggles of an immigrant farm family--beginning with unspeakable poverty, miserable living conditions, depression, even suicide--a stirring sense of progress emerges, thanks to hard work and the fecundity of the land. …

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