Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Looking at Willa Cather's West

Looking at Willa Cather's West
Image: Chelsea Beck
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The second movie proved to be the last straw for Willa Cather. Warner Bros. had first adapted her novel A Lost Lady in 1924, a year after the book was published. The film is now lost, so we can only take the New York Times’s word for how terrible it might have been. (It seems unfair to reduce a thing that can’t defend itself to a single snide glance upon it, but the past, reliant on summary, unable to preserve most of the things described, rarely gives us another option.) “There are too many close-ups in this production,” Mordaunt Hall—the Times’s first regular film critic—complained, and far too many scenes of trains for a film that doesn’t go anywhere. There is one absurd mustache, and said lost lady unforgivably wears so much makeup that “she presents an appearance that would hardly attract any young man.”

The 1934 adaptation of A Lost Lady is still with us today, unfortunately. It remains unclear why it was necessary to add a crash-landing aviator and an ever-present collie to the plot. The movie is only an hour long, and yet it still drags on so interminably that you wish someone would just give star Barbara Stanwyck directions so she won’t be lost anymore. (One review on Letterboxd: “This film was so confusing, men kept throwing themselves at Stanwyck and, instead of her getting one of them to murder her old rich husband she… cries a lot? What the hell?”)

Cather hated the second film so much that when she died in 1947, she codified that fury in her will. Any adaptations of her work, “whether for the purpose of spoken stage presentation or otherwise, motion picture, radio broadcasting, television and rights of mechanical reproduction, whether by means now in existence or which may hereafter be discovered or perfected” were forbidden. The copyright has worn out on A Lost Lady and it’s now in the public domain, which makes it a good time to pick up the book (especially when the streaming wars are about to turn every public domain property into a CW-esque teen soap complete with anachronistic werewolves with absurd mustaches and a hunger for murdering old rich husbands).

Once described as her masterpiece, A Lost Lady is now rarely remembered; it’s a fascinating way of poking at the idea of adaptation, as the novel was a Pandora’s box of adaptations before producers started playing with it. The thoughts of the woman at the center of the book, the one given top-billing in the title, are never revealed to the reader firsthand; she is only assembled from those around her, who adapt her to fit their needs. The frontier and the past are both so present in the book that they feel, for a moment, more corporeal than the lost lady, until you realize that they too are adapted works. They are destined to be remade in the next generation and every generation that follows or coaxed into a new shape more quickly by a bright literary or political voice, or a rupturing event, or the infusion of new voices, ones that the people allowed to do the adapting previously never noticed were even there to be unheard.

America and its past are always just an assemblage of glances, always changing angles depending on who is doing the looking (and who is allowed to do the looking). The books about it are no different. Cather’s own angles—many and always changing—make the past appear momentarily whole and covetable until her eyes move to a different part of the landscape and, suddenly, it’s fractured or obscured. It’s hard to find any part of the past or America or lost ladies worthy of such nostalgia because if the perspective shifts, even the tiniest bit, you’re forced to consider what’s often left out.

By the end of the first sentence of the novel, the reader knows it’s going to end badly.

A Lost Lady was one of Cather’s Nebraska novels; it takes place in a fictionalized version of Red Cloud, the town where her family moved after leaving Virginia in the 1880s. This version of Red Cloud is called Sweet Water. The narrator, an omniscient voice gazing back at the 19th-century prairie from the early 20th century, after World War I split history into two, is sorry to say that these towns along the railroad are not what they used to be. (The fact that there was a history before settlers invaded the prairie is important to the world in which this mythology is set, but not in a way that anyone bothers to vocalize.) A Lost Lady is set in what used to be, closer to now than the better past, but long enough ago that all the characters aren’t resigned to the future.

The plot begins near 1893, when historian Frederick Jackson Turner was publishing his essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” a work that quickly entrenched the frontier’s role in American myth. “The power of Turner’s thesis, or theory,” Greg Grandin writes in his book The End of the Myth:

Was not that it was refutable or provable, from a scientific or logical standard, but that it wasn’t. The frontier could be posited as numerous things and speculated as the cause of multiple effects. It cultivated a “love of wilderness freedom”; nurtured “the formulation of a composite nationality for the American people,” which in turn led to the “evolution of American political institutions”; “promoted democracy”; combined coarseness and strength” with acuteness and acquisitiveness” to create an archetype personality uniquely American, at once “practical” and “inventive,” fast “to find expedients,” displaying a “masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends.” Such multifunctional complexity! The frontier, here and henceforth, was a state of mind… an adjective, a noun, a national myth.

The frontier is endlessly adapted in A Lost Lady, deployed in all its multifunctional complexity. For the old people in the book, the salad days of the frontier were the best of times. (Reader, they were not.) For the young, the bygone days of the West are something they will never have; they can either adapt and say good riddance—which makes the old people think that they are abandoning their legacy, however nonexistent it may be—or they can adapt and let the absent frontier be a festering carbuncle on their life that never heals. For those who want to ignore the frontier completely, they fail, as it’s hard to avoid an idea that everyone else has grown fond of, either to embrace or rebel against. The array of generational slots on display are familiar, repeatedly adapted to this day.

The first chapter of A Lost Lady steeps in this myth, leaving the taste of it strong enough to last the entirety of this short book. The novel is mostly space. We are left to wonder at what is left unsaid. This chapter merely stretches the canvas, establishing how much empty space Cather has allotted in the upcoming pages, and how big the picture we’re supposed to fill in might be. There is a little house on the prairie, over the creek and past the poplars, that is not at all a special house except for the people in it. The second chapter begins, “But we will begin this story…”, making it clear that the people in this house, introduced in the preceding chapter, are part of the western landscape where the rest of the book will take place.

Captain Forrester built the decaying railroads. He is on a slow road away from prosperity toward death, existing only in a chair in the corner of the house where other characters can look at him and think of the grand past. He is described as a mountain, and it’s hard not to look at a mountain in Nebraska. It will always be in view as it erodes.

Mrs. Forrester, his young wife, is the lost lady. The rest of the characters look at her. She is supposed to be like the landscape, constant and unchanging, but in the 19th century Midwest, the landscape is constantly changing, drying out and catching fire, because the white settlers who live there ask too much from it. Sweet Water is disappearing. There is no reason to live there, so the residents abandon the town, leaving fewer people to look at Mrs. Forrester. But the same forces that have kept people away from Sweet Water keep the Forresters there permanently. The rich couple used to go to Colorado for the winter, but now that the railroad money is gone, they are stuck, static, just like the landscape.

The first person to look at Mrs. Forrester is a farmer from Sweden. Her power, he thinks, is that she doesn’t even need to speak to be heard: “If she merely bowed to you, merely looked at you, it constituted a personal relation.”

The Great Gatsby, like A Lost Lady, is a spare novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald was still worried that his book was roomy enough to have allowed him to plagiarize a paragraph from Cather. The young author wrote to her in 1925; he noticed that when he wrote that Daisy Buchanan’s voice made men inch closer and reckon that “she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour” it echoed Cather’s description of Marian Forrester in A Lost Lady: “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.”

Cather wrote back to say that she had already enjoyed The Great Gatsby, and her lost lady hadn’t even come to mind. Maybe both authors were merely adapting the same glance.

So many people have tried to say that same thing before either you or I tried it, and nobody has said it yet. I suppose everybody who has ever been swept away by personal charm tries in some way to express his wonder that the effect is so much greater than the cause, and in the end we all fall back upon an old device and write about the effect and not the lovely creature who produced it. After all, the only thing one can tell about beauty, is just how hard one was hit by it. Isn’t that so?

It’s one way of summing up A Lost Lady. Cather could build an entire novel out of letting people be struck by beauty, although the lovely creature who produced it often is just America or something like it, a version of it that doesn’t exist anymore and never really did. These glances end up telling a lot more about the people doing the looking, the people being entranced by it.

Many other people look at Marian Forrester: young boys, paramours, friends of her husband. Niel Herbert, a young boy who thinks he has grown up by the end of the book, is the character who looks the most. The subject of his gaze is not interesting by herself, at least for him.

It was as Captain Forrester’s wife that she most interested Niel, and it was in her relation to her husband that he most admired her. Given her other charming attributes, her comprehension of a man like the railroad-builder, her loyalty to him, stamped her more than anything else. That, he felt, was quality; something that could never become worn or shabby; steel of Damascus. His admiration of Mrs. Forrester went back to that, just as, he felt, she herself went back to it.

The spell wears off eventually. Niel sees that Mrs. Forrester does not simply exist as a monument to the past. As her husband continues to slowly die, she has an affair. She tries to latch onto it as the romance ends, not concerned if the rest of Sweet Water finds out. Niel, watching, is embarrassed and tries to cut her off just when she finally has a chance to speak her mind. After Captain Forrester finally dies, she no longer allows her dead husband’s friends to run her affairs. Helping others reenact the past is not a path that works well for all.

This fact is “was what [Niel] most held against Mrs. Forrester; that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widows of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms.”

Joanna Russ wrote in her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing that Cather seemed to be reduced in the canon by being treated as a mere regionalist, while Sinclair Lewis and William Faulkner’s small plots of land were allowed to be synecdoches. Cather never thought her project so small—“America,” she wrote, “works on my mind like light on a photographic plate.” Russ also writes that women’s writing can be cheapened by being received without context and antecedents, an unexpected find amid a backdrop of men. There are women who surround Cather—George Eliot and Sarah Orne Jewett, for example. Cather wrote in the preface to her essay collection Not Under Forty—written for the enjoyment of those who aren’t young—that the book was “for the backward, and by one of their number.”

Reading Cather means remembering that there are many ways to look backward.

Cather tried to make herself synonymous with her novels and their assemblages of glances: sparse and mostly left unsaid. But, despite the manuscripts and correspondence Cather burned, she still left behind plenty of herself, especially from when she was a young journalist constantly on deadline, filing stories full of opinion that are revealing, but also perhaps the work of a mind that would come to a different conclusion on different topics as the years passed. She wrote in an 1895 book review on Ouida for the Nebraska State Journal that “she did not have much faith in women in fiction.”

Women are so horribly subjective and they have such scorn for the healthy commonplace. When a woman writes a story of adventure, a stout sea tale, a manly battle yarn, anything without wine, women, and love, then I will begin to hope for something great from them, not before.

This belief was voiced by a very young person who might have thought she was merely echoing the beliefs of one of her favorite authors, George Eliot, who wrote the essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” But, even if she grew out of thinking little of women, many of the women that feel like the subjects of Cather’s novels are filtered through the eyes of the subjective men surrounding them. Cather later said that she picked up the rhythms of writing in a man’s voice after ghostwriting a biography for her former editor, S. S. McClure. Women don’t get to tell the story in A Lost Lady. They go on living anyway, regardless of how they are seen.

At this point, Cather is also often summed up via the men she let do the looking. Her earlier novels—My Ántonia, O Pioneers!—are better remembered perhaps because her admirers like how the beauty she described makes them feel, what nostalgias it comforts. It is easy to reduce a Cather novel to one of the gazes within, and the pastoral strain in her books is a bright through-line. New readers of Cather often borrow her nostalgia for an absent past for a new sorry age.

“Through her words, we come to appreciate who we are as a people and what we can achieve as individuals and as a community,” Laura Bush said when at the opening of the Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Nebraska, in 2017. “Willa Cather gave a lasting voice to the western spirit that defines us as a nation, and that’s what makes her work so timeless.” In 2019 Bret Stephens touted My Ántonia as the perfect antidote to Trump:

An education in what it means to be American: to have come from elsewhere, with very little; to be mindful, amid every trapping of prosperity, of how little we once had, and were; to protect and nurture those newly arrived, wherever from, as if they were our own immigrant ancestors—equally scared, equally humble, and equally determined.

There are ways to adapt a Cather novel that doesn’t involve putting it on a screen.

The 1934 adaptation of A Lost Lady begins with exposition not revealed until the very end of the novel. Marian Forrester met Captain Forrester in California after her fiancé was murdered and after she fell during a hike, breaking both of her legs. In the book, this information is revealed just as Mrs. Forrester starts to fight back against the stasis of her life, and readers realize she has always been willing to fight if necessary, even if such action is deemed less romantic. By not revealing this backstory until the end of the book, Cather makes it clear that Mrs. Forrester’s past is irrelevant to the people who have been describing her for a hundred pages. Her own past, however, is what guides her actions at the end of the book, and at every point before, even if none of the men who look at her consider, or even know, these motivations.

By moving these details to the beginning of the story—and moving the scenes from Nebraska to Chicago—A Lost Lady is transformed. Barbara Stanwyck is seen too clearly, the camera lingers on her for too long. The only gaze that seems important is hers, as she looks and judges and chooses the men that revolve around her. The judgment is for the watcher to make, it does not arrive pre-chewed. The past is unimportant. But the loss of the West seems most acute. Without a frontier to stare at, the rest of the plot evaporates. In A Lost Lady, the book begins with the pioneer days over, but the movie never even acknowledges that such days existed.

Captain Forrester gives a speech about the good old days and his philosophy of life near the beginning of the book. “Well, then,” he begins, sharing a lesson he had clearly offered many times before, “my philosophy is that what you think of and plan for day by day, in spite of yourself, so to speak—you will get. You will get it more or less. That is, unless you are one of the people who get nothing in this world. There are such people.”

“All our great West has been developed from such dreams; the homesteader’s and the prospector’s and the contractor’s. We dreamed the railroads across the mountains, just as I dreamed my place on the Sweet Water. All these things will be everyday facts to the coming generation, but to us—” Captain Forrester ended with a sort of grunt. Something forbidding had come into his voice, the lonely, defiant note that is so often heard in the voices of old Indians.

Because A Lost Lady is about the West and America and the past, the role of indigenous people in the plot is large, even if it does not take up much text. The Forresters’ house lies on land that used to be an Indian encampment. If one of the former residents were asked about this house and this past, they surely would see it differently. After Captain Forrester dies, Mrs. Forrester invests her money with a young man nicknamed Poison Ivy, who cheats American Indians to make a quick buck. He isn’t doing anything different than the settlers and railroad magnates that came before him—who also relied on the work of Chinese migrants to finish the railroad tracks that made them into myth—but those obsessed with the past don’t see it that way. The myth makes their actions righteous, putting the matter plainly ruins the effect.

Red Cloud was named after an Oglala Lakota leader whose successful campaigns against the U.S. led to the short-lived Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. The Pawnee had lived on the land that would later serve as the setting for Cather’s novels, until they were convinced to sell 13 million acres for 1.1 cents an acre in 1833, give up hunting, and start planting. The settlers flooding Nebraska by the end of the 19th century stole reservation resources, and in the decade before Cather’s family arrived, most of the Pawnee in the state were relocated to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. When A Lost Lady was published, indigenous Americans were still a year away from being able to vote.

In an article in The Nation the same year that A Lost Lady was published, Cather wrote that Nebraska “was a State before there were people in it. Its social history falls easily within a period of sixty years, and the first stable settlements of white men were made within the memory of old folk now living.”

The piece, an adaptation of the past by means not yet perfected, feels familiar after listening to the memories of the men in A Lost Lady:

In Nebraska, as in so many other states, we must face the fact that the splendid story of the pioneers is finished, and that no new story worthy to take its place has yet begun. The generation that subdued the wild land and broke up the virgin prairie is passing, but it is still there, a group of rugged figures in the background which inspire respect, compel admiration. With these old men and women, the attainment of material prosperity was a moral victory, because it was wrung from hard conditions, was the result of a struggle that tested character. They can look out over those broad stretches of fertility and say: “We made this, with our backs and hands.” The sons, the generation now in middle life, were reared amid hardships, and it is perhaps natural that they should be very much interested in material comfort, in buying whatever is expensive and ugly. Their fathers came into a wilderness and had to make everything, had to be as ingenious as shipwrecked sailors. The generation now in the driver’s seat hates to make anything, wants to live and die in an automobile, scudding past those acres where the old men used to follow the long corn-rows up and down. They want to buy everything ready-made: clothes, food, education, music, pleasure. Will the third generation—the full-blooded, joyous one just coming over the hill—will it be fools? Will it believe that to live easily is to live happily?

It is oddly reassuring to see how stale arguments against younger generations can be. Beauty is a narrow thing, which is why it bands together the few people hit by the same causes so tightly.

My Mortal Enemy—a novel Cather published a few years after A Lost Lady—also features a woman being looked at, one much harder and hateable than Marian Forrester. Her husband, knowing how she must look to the narrator, tells her, “I wish you could have seen her then.”

But if there’s one thing we can know from a Willa Cather novel, it’s that one view might tell us nothing if all we’re allowed to do is see her as he once did.

Jaime Fuller is web editor at Lapham’s Quarterly.