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WILLA CATHER AND THE WEST E. K. BROWN I T HE appearance of Lucy Gayheart (1935) marks Miss Cather's return to her greatest subjectthe West, the clash in the West between the grandeur of the land and large natures in sYlnpathy with it, on the one hand, and, on the other, the 111eanness of the towns and those among their people who are provincial and shrewd. The three short stories collected in 1.932 under the tide Obscure Destinies indicated that Miss Cather was preparing to return to the vVest. \Vhen in one of these stories she refers to a IittIe Colorado town as "a snappy little Western delnocracy, where every lnan was as good as his neighbour and out to prove it," we recognize the comment as by the saIne han'd which drew the town of Black Hawk in My Antonia (1918); and when, in another, she presents a Bohemian family in which the prevailing spirit, warm, generous, rnagnanimolls, had been created by a man who had suffered in London and New York and then found serenity and harmony on a Nebraska farm, we recognize even more clearly the author of 0 Pioneers! (1913). A full-length novel was needed to assure us that the return was ' not merely episodic; and Lucy Gayheart is as silnilar to the early Western novels as anyone of these is to any other. From the West-that is, from Nebraska and Colorado -Miss Cather broke away in The Professor's House (1925) and moved farther and farther in Death Comes jor the Archbishop (I927) and Shadows on the Rock (1931). Closely considered, these three novels disclose important 544 WILLA CATHER AND THE WEST poin ts of contact with the earlier works: the same formula of heroism, the S,ame subtle and illuminating sense of a relation, a fundamen tal likeness, between the influence of the frontier in its purest expressions and the influence of mellow traditional civilizations. S611 the later works, for all the quiet richness of their emotion, or the perfect mov'ement of their narrative, are not completely satisfying to one steeped in The Song oj the Lark (1915), My .Antonia, and .Ii Lost Lady (19'23). It is not because they are historical novels and their glamour seems less Q substantial, less vigorous,- than the subdued glow of the earlier novels. I t is not because their style has been l"efined and modulated until it is a little artificial. What is dissatisfying is that New lYlexico and New France are not 1\1iss Cather's country as Colorado and Nebraska are. The mysterious but sustained power of the earlier vVestern novels was an emanation from the land. When ~Iiss Cather parts from this land, "the grand passion of my llfe" as she calls it, she retains much, her style, her art, her sense of heroism: but the essence ,of her power, an essence so nne that it ahnost resists definition, she cannot retain. Lucy Gayheart is an attempt to recapture this essence: here once more we :find a close and subtle presentation of distinguished and fine character and a poetic evocation of the \Vestern land. The heroine is brought before us as a person whose essence, a fine animated charm, is less an individual thing than an expression in a human cha~-acter of the electric air and broad vivid spaces of Nebraska. Her voice had in it "a ring of truth" that not -even -so great a singer as Clement Sebastian could define; even her laugh had an intense reality; in both something deeper than the girl herself found expression. All in her life that really mattered-and in this she represents I - 545 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY the whole company of Miss Cather's heroic charactersoccurred on a level so far below the surface of visible successes and failur~s that to most observers nothing at all seemed to occur to her until Clement Sebastian was drowned in Lake Como and Lucy·in the little river that ran just beyond her Nebraska town.. '(C Some 'people's lives," as Miss Cather says) "are affected by what happens to their per~on or their property...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 544-566
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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