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History and the Invention of Innocence in A Lost Lady
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History and the Invention of Innocence in A Lost Lady
Nina Schwartz
Southern Methodist University
Nina Schwartz

Nina Schwartz has published articles on Hemingway and Conrad in Criticism and New Orleans Review, and has just completed a book entitled Dead Fathers: The Discourses of Modern Authority.


1. See David Stouck (58-69) and Evelyn Thomas Helmick for other developments of this argument.

2. In an essay on My Antonia, Blanche H. Gelfant discusses this tendency to dissociate a heroic past from a degraded future: "[Cather] denied that 'the beautiful past' transmitted the crassness, disorder, and violence which 'ruined' the present for her and drove her to hermitic withdrawal. She blamed villainous men, such as Ivy Peters in A Lost Lady, for the decline of a heroic age" (106). And, speaking specifically of My Antonia, Gelfant says "At the same time that the novel is highly autobiographical, it is representatively American in its material, mood, and unconscious uses of the past" (116). I would argue that the same could be said for A Lost Lady, a novel that also "reveals our common usage of the past as a romance and refuge from the present [and] . . . engraves a view of the past which is at best partial; at worst, blind" (121). John Hollander also comments briefly on the novel's tendency to glorify the past "at the expense of a fallen, later form of enterprise, instanced in the life and works of Ivy Peters" (173).

3. As Philip L. Gerber puts it, "The Captain had built a bulwark against greed and vulgarity, and she had failed in its defense" (111). Gerber also argues that "Niel exists chiefly to represent the author and her attitude" (111): the unspoken assumption here is that if Cather believes Marian to be a lost or fallen woman, it must be so.

4. Even those who find a certain validity in Niel's harsh judgment of Marian, for example, have sometimes denied that his is the narrative's center of consciousness and thus distinguish his perspective about other things, such as the prairie, from Cather's. In David Stouck's words, Cather's "use of the third person allows the introduction of an ironic perspective into the story simultaneously with the romantic view of its protagonist," and "Miss Cather gives us an overview which both exposes Niel's romanticism and illuminates the failure of the pioneer aristocracy to perpetuate itself. The ironic, third-person narration also admits a subtle interplay between degrees of sexual awareness and innocence . . ." (59). Such readings manage to make Niel only a marginally unreliable figure: he sees Marian's inadequacies clearly, but he generalizes too much in forcing her failures to symbolize the loss of a noble age in American history.

5. As Dalma H. Brunauer has argued, ". . . it is Niel who is a prude, not Willa Cather. If we realize that Niel Herbert is not a mouthpiece of the author, we also recognize that Marian Forrester is a 'lost lady' in the eyes of Niel, and not of Miss Cather" (47-48).

6. See Jennifer Bailey, Susan J. Rosowski, and Anneliese H. Smith, all of whom pursue important feminist reconsiderations of Marian Forrester. The assessments of Niel in these feminist arguments seem to me largely accurate, particularly as they have been expressed by Kathleen L. Nichols in her very fine essay on the novel, "The Celibate Male in A Lost Lady: The Unreliable Center of Consciousness." Nichols' analysis subverts Niel's authority by demonstrating how the young man's relation to Marian plays out an Oedipal drama: Niel cannot forgive Marian for surviving "the pioneer period to which . . . she belongs" because that period represents his own "presexually-aware youth" (20). What is most persuasive about this argument for me is the thoroughness with which it accounts for Niel's ambivalence toward Marian Forrester: he loves her, of course, but he also needs her to die with her husband's era (as in fact his own mother did) in order to resolve his sexual dilemma.

But, as the title of her essay suggests, Nichols defines Niel as a false, an unreliable, center of consciousness inscribed within the omniscient narrator's...