Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
Volume 46, Number 2, Summer 1990
pp. 33-54 | 10.1353/arq.1990.0016
NINA SCHWARTZ History and the Invention of Innocence in A Lost Lady All terms which semiotically condense a whole process elude definition; only that which has no history can be defined. —Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals iven its subject matter of youthful love and adult treachery, Willa Cather's A Lost Lady may seem surprisingly dispassionate in tone. But as much of the novel's critical treatment reminds us, the absence of passion is often understood to indicate an exhausted yet clear-sighted understanding of things. In Morton D. Zabel's words, the novel reflects Cather's quiet mourning for America's noble pioneer past, her "feeling that the inspiring landscape of the prairies, deserts, and mountains, no less than the gracious charms of colonial Virginia or old New York, had been obliterated by a vulgar and cheapening modernity" (43).1 Most critics seem to share this assessment of America's decline from her grand past; they disagree with one another not over this version of history, but over the estimation of the novel's two main characters, Marian Forrester and Niel Herbert, the young man who admires, loves, and then repudiates Marian. The source of contention is the significance attributed to Marian's sexuality, manifested first in a fairly discreet infidelity to her husband and later, more problematically, in a less discreet affair and in overt expressions of dissatisfaction with her life in the prairie town of Sweet Water. Though some see Marian's sexual behavior as evidence of her failure to uphold her husband's ideals, her want of moral firmness, others argue with Arizona Quarter!} Volume 46 Number 2, Summer 1990 Copyright © 1990 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004- 16 1 o 34Nina Schwartz equal certainty that it expresses her passion and independence of spirit in the face of social conventionality and oppression. But even those few who suggest that Marian might be both passionate and motally flawed, unconventional and a violator of ideals, don't address the fact that idealism and its betrayal are mutually constitutive terms, two sides of the same coin: a high ideal is such only to the extent that it is difficult to uphold and therefore likely to be betrayed. Indeed, the possibility of betrayal gives the ideal the seductive appeal of a challenge . I believe the novel represents this alterity both in the figure of Marian and in its version of the history of western development. That double representation clearly suggests the actual continuity between the noble pioneer values and Marian's offense against them, between a glorious past and the fallen present.2 Such a continuity, however, is not something the novel articulates in any conscious way. Cather's work, like many other accounts in and of American history, frequently disguises or "mythologizes" events and phenomena that might conflict with expressed cultural values. As Richard Slotkin explains, "The mythologization of American history contains within its structure both a representation of historical reality and an ideological apology or polemic that distorts reality in the service of particular interests" (34). But despite its complicity in such mythologization, A Lost Lady exposes both the mechanisms by which it distorts cettain historical actualities and the interests in whose service it operates; as such, it performs an analysis of the doubling and conflation of myth and history in our construction of the past and its relation to our present. The novel's plot makes it easy, though, to focus on the dynamics of interpersonal relationships rather than on the ambivalent account of history the narrative provides. Marian's moral condition is a reassuringly specific object of evaluation and at the same time can easily be seen to represent various other kinds of "degeneration." Married to Captain Forrester, a retired railroad aristocrat many years her senior, Marian becomes the special friend of the young Niel who worships her as the ideal of beauty, culture, and grace. When he learns of her infidelity , however, Niel judges Marian a fallen woman. And aftet the Captain's death, Marian falls even further in Niel's estimation: economic troubles and a desire to escape the stultifying prairie town lead her to trust an unscrupulous young lawyer with her business matters...