Source File: cat.cs002.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 2

"It Came Closer than That"

Willa Cather's Lucy Gayheart

In making "the case" of Willa Cather's modernism, Phyllis Rose focuses upon Cather's writing through Death Comes for the Archbishop, which she evaluates as "the most daring and innovative of Cather's works" and interprets as the one that "perfectly embodies the antiillusionist aesthetic which many of her early books strove for" (Rose 138). While serving well to demonstrate Cather's modernism, such a focus leaves its story incomplete. Beginning in 1927 or thereabouts, Cather began to shape an independent narrative response to modernism culminating in Lucy Gayheart (1934), where she subtly interrogated and refashioned certain core assumptions of modernist aesthetics (Lucy Gayheart 45). As Cather's Lucy Gayheart was until recently largely ignored, however, so questions concerning the nature of art and aesthetics have been ignored while in the past two decades we have focused upon issues of gender, class, and race. I propose that we return to aesthetics, recognizing that it is a new aesthetics we are returning to-one informed by insights from feminism, structuralism, and post-structuralism. To be more specific, in reading Lucy Gayheart, I believe that we have focused disproportionally on the dazzling story of Lucy and her failed flight to romantic glory at the expense of the novel's subtle narrative technique that originates in the "mental complexion" decisively shaping the novel through its narrator, Harry Gordon.

With this reading I am suggesting that Lucy Gayheart is both better than and different from its critical reputation. In the densely informative Willa Cather: A Literary Life, James Woodress deems Lucy Gayheart an "extremely interesting novel without being a superior piece of fiction" (461). The comment summarizes the interpretive impasses Lucy Gayheart has encountered over the years. Until recently, Lucy Gayheart was largely ignored as slight; in the last decade, various readers have argued variously that the book may be more than romantic dross. Paul Comeau judges it as "complex and experimental as anything [Cather] has written" ("Willa Cather's" 199); Susan Rosowski argues that it is a female Gothic in which Cather's plot focusing on the vulnerability of a young woman's emerging sexuality is at odds with the novel's emotional energy invested in the aging men courting her; and Merrill Skaggs interprets Lucy as a character doomed by her "lack of high seriousness" in a morality tale teaching the importance of a woman's claiming her own life. In entering the rapidly diversifying traditions of recent Cather scholarship, I argue that Harry Gordon is the overlooked narrator of the entire novel, the most squarely encountered and accepted of Cather's long line of male tellers.

From its opening, Lucy Gayheart is a novel that is about memory as well as one that develops in memory. As such, it is the culmination of Cather's critical musings that gradually moved memory to center stage, as if she were fulfilling her midlife statement, "Life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember" (Sergeant 107). According to Edith Lewis, Cather's longtime friend, Cather immersed herself in memory-life during the writing of A Lost Lady, twelve years before Lucy Gayheart. "She was very much preoccupied with the past out of which her story sprang . . . surrendering herself to memories, impressions, experiences, [lying] submerged in her consciousness; letting them come to the surface, and relate themselves to the theme" (Lewis 127). Cather's practice evokes the layered congeries of memories, events, and images that, in the mind of Harry, the single recollecting narrator, make of Lucy Gayheart a unitary novel of a scope and depth that story-centered readings do not readily recognize.

In an aesthetic reading of Lucy Gayheart, Harry's struggles as narrator with "a series of pictures remembered" result in a different novel from readings focused on Lucy Gayheart's plight as frustrated heroine. When a reader looks at the novel through the eyes of Harry as filtered through his "mental complexion," she may discover a shift in Cather's compositional orientation in the 1930s. In the unexceptional person of Harry and his conflicted perceptual-introspective environment, Cather explores a conviction that art is intimate with life and that people's remembered pictures make an essential difference.

In an award-winning article on Sara Coleridge and Virginia Woolf, Bradford K. Mudge provides a framework useful for narratively exploring each of Lucy Gayheart's three central figures. Like Sara Coleridge, each character "struggled . . . to order a life threatened suddenly by a late shift in perspective, by the unasked-for traumas of self-revision" (242). In the world that is Lucy Gayheart, each encounters such a "trauma" of self-confrontation, undergoes a "late shift in perspective," and inherits in it a potential for "self-revision." The exquisite interplay of the traumas-made in a series of often palimpsestic cross-cuttings from memory to the present in the recollection of one of them, namely Harry Gordon, himself engaged in a prolonged attempt at "self-revision"-constitutes the novel.[1]

Unfortunately, content-directed readings defer or blur recognition of Lucy Gayheart's narrative breakthroughs and its developing, chiastic structures.[2] Because the structure is so exquisitely integrated throughout, one may not immediately recognize Lucy Gayheart's form for what it is: an aesthetic structure that completes itself only with the final section of the book. Small wonder, then, that Cather reveled at having gotten "the ending right" (Woodress 461). It is also small wonder that Wallace Stevens, modernist connoisseur of poetic density, has singled out Cather for intricate narrative prowess: "We have nothing better than she is. She takes so much pains to conceal her sophistication that it is easy to miss her quality" (381).

Intricate structural frameworks increasingly compelled Cather's attention. "The first thing an artist does when he begins a new work is to lay down the barriers and limitations; he decides a certain composition, a certain key, a certain relation of creatures or objects to each other" (Cather, On Writing 123). In Lucy Gayheart's three-part structure, this novel's salient "key" clue emerges: like a musical opus, Lucy Gayheart rounds to its full sonority in the harmonic interplay roused by a final section's potential. In each section, Lucy Gayheart foregrounds and contrasts overlapping acts of memory. Each section is initially identified emotionally with a single character's particular kind of "self-revision" and, most importantly, with an identifiable relation to time. The significance of Lucy Gayheart as more than a lightweight romantic story depends upon careful assessment of the often-criticized final section, whose importance and difficulty Cather apparently recognized. She called it the "best part" (Letter to Akins), the one she had the occasion and craft to get right.

As Lucy Gayheart slides around in time and memory, juxtaposing the time of the remembering with the time of the original action of the remembered event, various core contexts-Lucy's, Sebastian's, and Harry's-intertwine. Recognitions of shiftings between overlapping temporal and thematic contexts provide, then, a "key" to this novel's densely rich, narratively unexpected experiements in the ways of memory, knowing, and time. As Hermione Lee has observed, the novel is certainly "something more than the 'Ballad of Lucy Gayheart'" (343). More than a piece of nostalgia, by means of its structure Lucy Gayheart enacts a reconciliation to the present in the person of Harry Gordon, a virtually forgotten narrator. The book's delicate complexity emerges more clearly in examining closely the two areas that most finely constitute it: the temporal frameworks and the matter of the telling.

Eudora Welty concludes that while Cather's writing forges links between present and past, it displays what she calls "a lack of middle distance" (6). Similarly, Hermione Lee senses a disjunction in Cather between past and present (348). In my reading, Lucy Gayheart overwrites such a two-part focus by introducing that "middle distance" in a turn of narrative attention that undermines the dominance of either a future or a past. Lucy Gayheart acquires this "middle distance," a felt sense of the narrative present connecting past to future, by means in part of the future-perspective synonymous with the ever active hurrying of Lucy's present toward her future.[3] In consequence of the future framework that Lucy thus sets, Harry Gordon becomes a figure engulfed in a present he cannot inhabit comfortably and Sebastian becomes a figure enveloped in the past that drowns him. In contrasts between the temporal frameworks of the three-Lucy, Sebastian, and Harry-the novel gradually engenders a "middle distance," which in the third and final section becomes for Harry neither wholly past, nor present, nor future: "time had almost ceased to exist" as "the future . . . suddenly telescoped out of the past" (220).

Each character in each of the novel's books maintains a distinctive rapport with time. Sebastian is gripped by the past, Lucy gropes toward a fugitive future, and Harry struggles stalwartly to fill up a present with which he is oddly stuck. The first, Sebastian, an entrenched past lingerer, suggests Cather's complexly ironic attitudes toward the modernist artist.[4] While overweening aesthetic needs cripple effete Sebastian for daily living, epistemologic uncertainties shatter his peace and decisively cripple his art. At the beginning, Sebastian discovers himself a failure with his wife, with his musician friends, and, most shatteringly, with his art. Into the center of his emerging personal trauma slides Lucy Gayheart, quite accidentally. Seemingly incapable of connection with others except for that shadowy, diabolic accompanist, James Mockford, Sebastian plays out his life in self-serving nostalgia. For instance, upon the death of a childhood friend, he senses with unreasonable dread, "Now, all in a moment, it came over him that when people spoke of their dead youth they were not using a figure of speech" (77).

Forced as the other two major characters will be to confront the past, Sebastian laments, "The lid once off, he began remembering everything, and everything seemed to have gone wrong" (78). At the end of his self-pitying self-confrontation, he concludes hopelessly: "He had dragged the bottom, and brought up nothing worth remembering. His mind could not find a comfortable position to lie in. . . . Wasn't there one lovely, unspoiled memory?-In the present wasn't there somewhere a flower or a green bough that he could hold close and breathe its freshness?" (79-80). In his Weltschmerz, Sebastian, like Eliot's Prufrock, is possessed by the fear that he "had missed the deepest of all companionships, a relation with the earth itself, with a countryside and a people" (78).[5] He fruitlessly exudes modernist angst and its corollary, dissociation from past and personal circumstance. Lucy Gayheart suggestively frames Sebastian's sentimentality with Lucy Gayheart's recognition of his balked potential and emotional aridity. Lucy uneasily senses his frozen distance when she realizes that "he seemed very careful never to come too close to people," and she discerns his isolation when she realizes that "he had renounced life" (52-53, 87). In spite of such insight, however, Lucy cannot curb her craving for the protective citadel that the "invisible, inviolable world" of his art seems to promise for the future, and she goes off with exaggerated expectations to Sebastian's elevated, cloisterlike chamber of art (104).

The novel juxtaposes this stereotypically modernist model of art as inviolable stasis introduced in book 1 with Lucy's fluid sense of time associated with book 2. While delicate Sebastian looks back upon life as riddled with disappointments and loss, Lucy looks expectantly forward toward the glowing richness Sebastian as artist purportedly offers. Ever nostalgic, Sebastian turns back into emptiness; in contrast, Lucy, rapt in future, is identified with "life hurrying forward" (24). This fluid, forward movement propels her through the novel. Under Sebastian's influence, she feels herself "going with something much stronger than herself" (136); after his death, she determines to "go back into the world" (184); and after Harry abandons her on an icy road, she resolves that-"She must not give in to it, she must hurry on" (198).

While Sebastian appears leached of vitality, Lucy quivers with energy. She emerges on the first pages of the novel, "darting . . . giving her body to the wind as if she were catching step with it" (3); the final pages of book 2 recall "how often she had run out on a spring morning, into the orchard, down the street, in pursuit of something she could not see, but knew!" (183) and confirm that shortly before her death she still moved as though "everything in her was reaching outward, straining forward" (184). Contrast heightens the impression of her forward-moving intensity. Whereas Pauline, her aggrieved sister, is "always walking behind herself" (168, emphasis added), Lucy moves as if "straining" ahead of herself with a "swiftness, mischief, and lightness" (227).

Interestingly, the two men with whom Lucy could become romantically involved respond in inverted ways to Lucy's ability to move toward something.[6] Sebastian sinks deeper into the past-pool of inertia in which he ultimately drowns, while Harry uneasily inherits an ill-fitting present. In the face of the novel's excentric plot and discourse circles-Lucy's, Sebastian's, Harry's-Hermione Lee terms Lucy Gayheart "a redistributed narrative," finding its structure not a "linear accumulation," but "a conjunction of 'timeless moments'" (270). These overlapping stories, these "timeless moments," constitute the final harmony of the composition of Cather's "three-part sonata." Lee's admonition to read the novel as a series of "timeless moments" or charged focal points rather than as a consecutive linear narrative helps formulate a more aesthetically acute reading of this dense book about human understanding.

As the third major re-membering presence, Harry Gordon rounds out temporal dichotomies between Lucy and Sebastian and between past and future, completing the novel's three-part structure in the process. While Sebastian stews in regrets over an elusive past and Lucy ogles a potentially inexhaustible future, Harry Gordon faces head-on the lonely job of living in a flat present surrounded by inert, often invidious people. Book 3, Harry's section, is that little examined part of the novel that completes Cather's "score," infusing into what could appear saccharine tragedy a dense, full-bodied, harmonic texture.

The remembering vein of Harry Gordon, a man glued to the present-tense world yet turned toward a past he cannot bury, introduces a resonantly significant present tenseness, the "middle distance" of which Welty speaks. This orientation becomes apparent in the rapid-fire verbal shifts into and out of the present tense that appear in the novel's opening chapters. Such temporal fluctuations acquire importance from the first sentence, which establishes the novel's overall time in the present, but in a present linked to a past, "In Haverford on the Platte the townspeople still talk of Lucy Gayheart" (emphasis added). Almost coyly the narrative continues this present-tense flavor, "They do not talk of her a great deal, to be sure; life goes on and we live in the present" (3). This tense-frame continues until the third page of the novel, at which point in one paragraph there are two shifts into and out of the present.

Later, suddenly, in the closing of the first chapter in book 3 (immediately after Lucy's father's funeral), the present tense abruptly breaks in, and the reader receives a direct statement of Harry's hitherto unmentioned predicament, his need for strength, "He has need of it, for he has much to bear" (208). These intrusions of present tense identify Harry's present-tense location on the night of Mr. Gayheart's funeral. Provoked by Lucy's father's funeral, Harry manages then to complete, in the present, what had previously been an obsessive, traumatically insistent, effort to understand. In the final book, verbs move between narrative past and psychological present. When Harry sits alone in his study in front of the fire on the evening of the funeral, remembering the past twenty-five years, temporal adverbs lace his discourse: "tonight," "years ago," "now," "sometimes." Then, toward the middle of book 3, a felicitous, thoroughly present-tense reconciliation occurs in Harry: "He is not a man haunted by remorse; all that he went through with long ago. He enjoys his prosperity and his good health" (224, emphasis added).

Once noticed, this mingling of time frameworks gives pause. It signals an unexpected role and importance for Harry in the action and harmonics of Lucy Gayheart's narrative structuring. Once the present-tense moments are identified as Harry's, miscellaneous "intrusions" of tense and feeling suddenly identify Harry's "mental complexion." For instance, in Harry's perspective, Lucy exists simultaneously in the present and in the past: "Afterwards," recalls Harry, "from day to day, he had to see her at a distance, pass her on the street. That grace of person appeared more marked now, when she was withdrawn, than in the days when she had been careless and gay" (215, emphasis added). The word "now" reveals a persistent present-tense mode in the diegetic arena of Harry's night by the fireside.[7] In reviewing his life with Lucy, Harry reveals in narrative terms his uncertain shifts between past and present perspectives upon "his" elusive Lucy Gayheart.

Just before the celebrated epiphanic vision of Lucy's spatially frozen, yet volatile footprints, Harry bonds himself tangibly to the present-tense locale. While in the opening, the shift into present tense acknowledges continuity with the past, at the close the shift is made into virtual present as Harry observes, "What was a man's 'home town,' anyway, but the place where he had had disappointments and had learned to bear them?" (231). In other words, at novel's end, Harry weds himself to that place and time.

Temporal relations in Lucy Gayheart corroborate contemporary recognitions that in her later years Cather developed an energized confidence in the potential for living. The novel draws to an unsettled, perhaps unending, ending in middle-aged Harry's dogged self-confrontation, which, whatever else it may be, bespeaks "that energy which moves quietly, but always moves" (189).[8] Such positive potential in a male narrator in Cather's work contrasts radically with other male narrators such as Niel Herbert of A Lost Lady and Jim Burden of My Ántonia, narrators characterized by their inability to adapt to change. It seems that the potential for more intimately inhabiting one's time persistently fascinated Cather in the latter part of her life.[9] With "Tom Outland's Story," in The Professor's House, an embryonic nesting within things becomes a radiant potential for people: Tom realizes, "I wakened with the feeling that I had found everything, instead of having lost everything" (251). In Lucy Gayheart's extended narrative of ever-persevering, self-involving Harry Gordon, Cather introduces a more humanized, though bleaker and more ironic, version of the Tom Outland potential in a turn of attention that invigorates much of her 1930s fiction. This turn focuses on the ways people may become more intimate with themselves in their settings.

In a speech on authorship and the novel written in 1933 when composing Lucy Gayheart, Cather optimistically avowed a conviction that aesthetic endeavors may enhance people's capacity to live in the complex modern world, "And we may say that for this latest and, not loveliest, child of the arts; From the past, from the Russian and the French and the English past, we may hope for the future" ("On the Novel" 170). Earlier, in McClure's Magazine, she had emphasized the imperative to fill up one's allotted time: "The individual possesses this power [creativity] for only a little while, a few years. He is sent into the world charged with it, but he it he can't keep it a day beyond its allotted time. He has his hour when he can do, live, become" ("Plays" 72). Current reassessments of Cather's allegedly past-directed energy, previously identified with the past-regretting male narrators of her 1920s fiction, are fertilely reconstructing the tenor of her 1930s opus.

Blanche Gelfant has called the third section of Lucy Gayheart a "palinode," that is, a mode that "epitomizes an action that belongs" to the structure rather than to the "character's performance" (129). With a Harry-as-narrator reading, the entire novel records Harry's "performance" as character and as narrator. Harry is undeniably an unusual narrator, an invisible narrator who does not tell or write a story to others so much as recollect it in himself, often in the third person.[10] The novel is overall Harry's extensive review of what has happened that has left him a survivor in his story of Lucy's life. Book 3 becomes thus not a palinodic "epilogue" added on to books 1 and 2 but a culminating palinodic section of Harry's three-part ode.[11] Gelfant's study introduces Harry as embryonic elaborator of "a self-serving story" of Lucy as "infatuated heroine of romance" (130). Seen as narrator in the entire novel, Harry struggles with himself not so much to tell Lucy's story as to understand his part in the unfortunate history of his Lucy Gayheart.

Initially, recognition of Harry's pervasive narrative presence emerges in pieces, such as when he wistfully admits, "Life would have been much easier for him, certainly, in those years after Lucy's death, if he could have told someone about his last meeting with her" (220). Harry has hungered over the years, it turns out, for a chance to tell his story to someone. His stifled need for intralocution, the ache of that "dark place in his mind" (222), is so great that he has taken to talking out loud in the presence of others, "thinking aloud as he drove; talking, indeed, to his motor engine. Once when he had his wife along, he forgot himself and came out with: 'Well, it's a life sentence'" (221). After his abortive marraige proposal to Lucy in Chicago, Lucy is said to break out scornfully at Harry in her rejection, "Can't you understand anything?" (111). In the more than twenty-five years after Lucy's premature death, Harry belatedly strives to understand, and thus to respond to Lucy's scornful rhetorical question. The results may correspond to what Gelfant has called an "inner transformation" (130).

While in book 1 it may appear as though there is a framing omniscient narrator and three separate stories, by book3 it becomes apparent that Harry is maker and central actor in the entire recall.[12] In each succeeding book and each reading, distance between Harry and his troubled construction of an understanding diminishes until the fireside reverie in book 3, when he finally moves toward some kind of resolution in his formerly stalled self-appraisal. Harry's memory work actually generates all three books of the novel, but that may become apparent only in book 3, when on the night of Mr. Gayheart's funeral, evidence of Harry's deliberate self-examination overtly appears with the statement: "Tonight was an occasion for remembering: he felt it coming on. Years ago he used to fight against reflection. . . . [N]ow he . . . had begun to understand it a little better" (214). In the light of Lucy's pejorative comment to the contrary in the restaurant, Harry's new-found understanding bespeaks a positive development.[13] In the closing moments of that same evening by the fire, Harry appears to survive his overriding sense of complicity in the present tense: "He is not a man haunted by remorse; all that he went through with long ago" (224). In the process, he discovers "an expectancy" (223), an unexpected lightness: "His own body grew marvellously free and light, and there was a snapping sparkle in his blood that made him set his teeth" (224).

In his review on the night of Mr. Gayheart's death, the isolated, well-repressed underside of Harry's mental complexion drifts intermittently into view, both for him and for a reader attentive to Harry's narrating activities: "There was not," one abruptly learns, "in all the world, a living creature who knew of his last meeting with Lucy on the frozen country road beside the telephone post" (219). Harry, an obtuse figure who "had to be clubbed by a situation" (111), has previously kept his trauma to himself. Worsening the twenty-five years of acute isolation, no one in Haverford has had "the courage" (220) to confront impenetrable Harry as to the particulars of Lucy's death, a trauma precipitating his "late shift in perspective" and condemning him to the retributive re-visionings that constitute the novel.

Additional signs of Harry's acute internal divisions emerge about his personal authority, his need for the "certainty of his ultimate mastery" (217).[14] While it had appeared that Harry once "could feel things without betraying himself. . . . kept that side of himself well hidden" (189), by book 3 this zealous control explodes in words that reveal his pain: "tired and beaten," "grim," "melancholy," "cruel," "shameful," "bear," and "remorse." In the course of his self-confrontations, especially in book 3, conventional Harry of "firm, deliberate tread" (225) becomes a "not quite regular" (230) banker with a "reputation for eccentricity" (211). His cashier complains that Harry "had sprung too many surprises" (211) and was "more lenient than . . . [was] proper" (213). Although Harry had assiduously cultivated appearances-of mastery, money and might-reflective activities in Lucy Gayheart uncover uneasy chinks in his protective armory.

Book 3 narratively "lays bare" an undercurrent of sensitivity and also exposes its opposite, Harry's furrowed, difficult nature. At fifty-five years, his is an uneven nature full of undigested pain, loss, and concealment. Early in book 1, this unevenness emerged in a single, tellingly dissonant image: "His things stood out, and weren't a part of himself" (45). Furtively insecure, Harry took "on a certain self-importance" in a big city "as if he were afraid of being ignored in the crowd" (45-46). An inner oscillation in Harry becomes increasingly evident as memory contrasts the cocky youth he had expected to be with his life of "melancholy pleasure" and his self-declared "barren" marriage (214, 216).

Harry's guilt-driven recall is studded with data that accentuate a doubleness in his self-appraisement, both of his prowess and of his ethical probity.[15] Certain "he is going to have his way" (217), he fantasizes an "inevitable relation with Lucy" based upon an imperturbable feeling that "he and Lucy Gayheart would be together again" (217). Gradually, his narrative juxtaposes that arrogant certainty with a harrowing guilt both in terms of Lucy and of the town's opinion. Telling anecdotes condemn Harry and his professional facade, exposing "the genial, confidential tone, just tinged by regret, with which he refused a loan to a man who needed it" and emphasizing his stinginess, "People said he was hard in business and took advantage of borrowers in a tight place" (99, 18). In a slap at Harry's masculinity, Nick Wakefield, former rival for Lucy's favors, dubs Harry "a damned coward, for all your big chest. Afraid to go to poor Lucy Gayheart's funeral" (213).

Harry's narrative recall exposes a divided nature, torn between the practical and artistic worlds, between fact and feeling. While Harry concludes "facts are at the bottom of everything" 101), for Lucy quite the opposite was the case: "There was nothing real, . . . except her own feeling. That was real" (61). This fact-feeling dichotomy saturates the book, and appears in the split between Lucy's "airy" world of art and Harry's world of commercial fact. Until Lucy's death, tension between the worlds of the artist and the businessman, between Sebastian and Harry, often freezes the terms of Harry's recollection. For Harry, Lucy's art attachments are, then, an illness from which she will, it is said, "soon recover" (111).

In his conventional materialism and desire for mastery,[16] Harry initially seems a thoroughgoing doppelgänger of other of Cather's s male narrators. In spite of his "mental nearsightnedness" (98), however, Harry goes well beyond Cather's earlier male narrators as gradually his recollections acknowledge failure to enclose or to own Lucy ever. The novel verifies the demise of a narrative focus in Cather by confirming limitation in the power of Harry's proprietory gaze. Instead, book 3, the section that Cather was delighted "to get right," verifies the potential of a narrative experiment, that of developing a thoroughly unexpected, modern narrating nexus in the unlikely materials of Harry Gordon's recollections.

In this most modern of modern novels, three often overlooked keys signal Harry's narrative centrality and provide a clue to Harry's omnipresent effort to understand: 1) the shift in narrative persons, 2) intermittent parentheses, and 3) extensive projections. From the outset, the novel presents no consistent focus of person or theme. The first pages shift from "they" (the townspeople); to "one," as in "one knew she was delighted with everything" (4); to "we," in "We missed Lucy in Haverford" (5). These shifts record Harry's shifting perspectives toward an event he gropes to articulate to himself.

In addition, the novel is rife with odd parentheses that bring out Harry's multiple perspectives, his commingled sentimentality-remorse. Some parentheses are banal additions of information: "(These are modern times, 1927)" (205). Others verify Harry's oblique presence throughout the novel, as in asides, he interprets, gives causes, and disjointedly confronts his feelings.[17] For instance, in the opening scene, Harry, who already knows enough to "be quiet," reflects in parentheses on his calculated manipulations of Lucy's affections: "(very musical bells, he had got them to please Lucy)" (11). Similarly, in book 2, on her way to Mrs. Ramsay's house, Lucy considers summoning her "old friend" (Harry) to an attempted reunion. A preemptory parenthentical voice observes suddenly out of nowhere, "(no one refused any request of hers)" (165-66). Soon thereafter at Mrs. Ramsay's house, while Lucy plays the piano, an incognito Harry passes outside the window in and out of parentheses: "Had Mrs. Ramsay turned and looked out of the window, she would have seen a man's tall figure go somewhat pompously by. (The blind was still up, and the interior of the lighted room was as clear to the passer-by as a stage setting when the theatre is dark.)" (166). After this fugitive image (which is parenthetically commented on from Harry's position outside the window), Harry radically changes his path, not going his usual course but struggling with himself on the sidewalk beside Mrs. Ramsay's house, "seized by a fierce impulse to go straight to her front door and into the parlour,-he almost did it." Apparently, Harry plans to circle the block and reconcile with Lucy but cannot; "he had recovered himself, and he resumed his way north" (166, emphasis added).

This vignette and its oddly submerged parentheses place Harry as involved observer, self-declared "passer-by" and reveal his struggles about Lucy shortly before the decisive fatal scene on the open road. Later in book 3, Harry recalls that fateful night, admitting with relief: "he had scarcely got himself by" (217). This scene and its dense recognitions underscore the intensity of Harry's multilayered recollections evident in parentheses and in the novel overall. Not all parentheses are this dramatic, as revelatory of motive and covert response; overall, however, they disclose the often oblique presence of Harry Gordon recalling, interpreting, and reshaping in his reiterant, isolated compulsive reviews.

Thirdly, in his recall Harry projects his wishful perceptions as the perceptions of others, especially Lucy Gayheart. For instance, exclamations that appear to be Lucy's thinking provide stirring defenses of Harry's masculinity: "more than physical strength . . . [he] could keep up to the bitter end . . . take hold and never let go. . . . It might get a man almost anywhere, she thought" (189). Lucy is said to celebrate Harry's unrecognized worth: "some imagination . . . something flashed out of him" (175). Harry was said to be "deeply . . . moved" as compared with those around him (188). Such praise in the guise of Lucy's thinking exposes Harry's thwarted wish to be respected for depth, strength, and sensitivity.

Lucy Gayheart has often appeared to be a novel of dreamy exaggeration and ill-guided romantic excess. Conceived as product of Harry's uneasy meanderings, however, Sebastian and Lucy serve as projections in Harry's imaginings. That possibility may explain the caricaturelike quality Sebastian and Lucy sometimes present. Near complete lack of sympathy for the world in which they live shapes Harry's versions of them and their life together. Reports of Sebastian's relentlessly ineffective daily life and of his melodramatic death speak therefore as much of Harry's antipathy as they do of Sebastian himself. Conversely, the often saccharine sensitivity of Lucy and her supposed adulation of Harry's qualities, both physical and moral (which became such as to arouse distaste for Lucy in Cather),[18] emerge this way in Harry's biased reconstructions. Given Cather's artistic control and measure, the caricaturelike exaggeration seems as sure an indicator of Harry's narrative centrality as any other feature of the book.[19]

Crosscurrented in this, Cather's sonata to multiple memory, is a belief about artists and art: it is better to remember than to obliterate the past. At first, Harry had sought to obliterate, forget, and passively admire. In nights of recollection, he comes indeed to "remember" something "closer," something in himself more than to admire something external to him. As Lucy seems to have learned from the aging soprano a genuine respect for honest human sentimentality even when filtered through limited talent, Harry comes to recognize something the same in himself (181). In the persons of Lucy, Harry, and Sebastian, the novel explores delicately, yet pointedly, three early twentieth-century perspectives toward art. Sebastian personifies the artist, whose aesthetics divorce him from everyday life; Lucy is the romantic resolutely idealizing the artist's trappings; Harry is the materialist who learns to respect something of the intangible and to get closer to the ineffable in himself and his objects. Harry's musing and shaping of his recollections around Lucy Gayheart's footsteps (Harry's personal objet d'art par excellence) emblemize a material and an art as remote from the art of Sebastian as the earth from the stars. Her footsteps, inexorably fleeting, are also vital, constantly present triggers in the everyday world of powers he had stifled in himself.

Seen with Harry as narrative "trigger," Lucy Gayheart is far more complexly intimate than a record of "an anonymous narrator . . . recall[ing] the image of Lucy" (Woodress 458). During her struggle to revise and compose Lucy Gayheart, Cather delivered a radio speech about modern fiction in which she defines narrative freedom, "When we learn to give our purpose the form that exactly clothes it and no more; when we make a form for every story instead of trying to crowd it into one of the stock moulds on the shelf, then we shall be on the right road, at least" ("On the Novel" 170). In the narrative person of Harry Gordon, Cather comes upon that form, the "right," although most unexpected, mold that uniquely fits this story of Harry's Lucy Gayheart

While Lucy and Sebastian dissolve into near unreal exaggerations, Harry remains a genuine though unenviable man, embedded in an unenviable day-to-day reality. This stymied, small-minded banker who continues in the face of what he dubs "a long grilling" (221) succeeds, narratively anyway, in "living out in the open" (107) and proves in the face of Lucy's devastating accusations that yes, he can move in the direction of going "all the way" (111). That is to say, Harry comes to take seriously more than just the commercial and tangible world, to live in and with his world of intangibles, feeling and understanding in his own contexts. The novel is, as Cather suggested to Robert Frost about The Professor's House, "really a story of 'letting go with the heart'" (Sergeant 215). The person "letting go with the heart" in this novel is Harry. For Harry, such "going all the way" is initially vicarious, a "catching it from Lucy . . . the best thing he had to remember" (223). The "it" Harry finally catches is what the reader comes to know as Lucy Gayheart, a novel that grows out of a conviction that everyday human beings may possess "another kind of sweetness; a sympathy, a tolerant understanding" (181).

Lucy Gayheart comes out of the literary 1930s and its interest in average people, figures who are neither artistically oriented nor aesthetically sophisticated. As far back as 1895, Cather had commended what she called "the healthy commonplace," an arena never ignored or deprecated and increasingly present in her later work ("Demands" 409). This orientation toward an average world and its ordinary people decisively shapes Cather's fiction throughout her career, but never more decisively than here in Lucy Gayheart.

Harry, though a small-town banker, is an unexceptional man in matters aesthetic and artistic. In Harry's recollection emerging from everyday material and aesthetic capacity, Cather has made a wholly modern book. It is not a record of unbridgeable aesthetic distances between artist and objects of art but rather a book of the art of the immediacy of everyday living. Cather, though qualifiedly to be sure, accepts tenacious Harry, no sensitive intellect or dreamer of dreams, but one who achieves finally an accommodation to his inner self, in some limited way to his future home town, and thus to the commonplace truths of his everyday life. Lucy Gayheart had earlier mused in pleased wonderment at her own suddenly altered experience of art, when, having just fallen in love herself, she finds herself knowing the music of love in a mysterious new way: "A new conception of art? It came closer than that" (31). For Harry, as for Lucy and Cather, the matter of one's relation to art, life, and memory need be just that-"closer." In this aesthetic reading, the present-tense orientation and its rich "middle distance," coupled with Lucy Gayheart's harmonic development in a series of pictures remembered, remembered closely and often sweetly, reveals Cather's compassionate sense of art, living, and the everyday human capacity to reflect and introspect.

In Cather's writing about writing, to be human is to be more substantial than to be mainly or merely artistic. Lucy Gayheart in 1935 reflects what Cather observed in a late undated fragment: "Art is too terribly human to be very 'great'" (On Writing 125). Lucy Gayheart-Cather's nonmodernist modern novel-presents Cather's respect for and contribution to an evolving, guardedly positive, response to American circumstances that would cultivate involvement, not disenchantment.[20] Such movement toward life identifies Cather as an American incarnation of the lucid "Mediterranean classicism" that Malcolm Cowley extols in his classic reflection about belonging and estrangement.[21] Cowley's term captures the direction of Cather's distinguished career and the ethos of Lucy Gayheart, a novel concerning a struggle to belong substantially in one's life and its settings. Cowley's study also points out a fundamental division, an antinomy characteristic of the period in which Lucy Gayheart grows. "The atmosphere of New York is a hysterical classicism," Cowley observed, "to be distinguished from the classicism of the Mediterranean, which results from sympathy with one's environment instead of rebellion against it" (203). Unlike the "darkening vision" of life that has been imputed to it (Woodress 449), Lucy Gayheart, in its reach and complex depth and its still barely discernible narrator, radiates potent, fertile belief in the possibility of and need for developing that hard-to-come-by and elegantly classical "sympathy with one's environment."


 1. In Writing Beyond the Ending, Du Plessis explores similar structural developments in twentieth-century women's narration-such as revised plots, collective protagonism, and doubled characterization. (Go back.)
 2. The increasingly invoked term chiastic, designating a grammatical figure of crossing or "systematic inversions," proves useful to understanding Lucy Gayheart's multiple crossings in characterization, theme, temporal frameworks. For an example of a literary reading of chiasmus, see Jacobus 247. (Go back.)
 3. Cather seems intrigued by a nexus linking past and future, saying, "Because of the past, we have hope for the future" (Woodress 451). (Go back.)
 4. Lucy and Sebastian's divided "postures" center around their quest for a safe zone associated with hopes for an art that could somehow resolve life "into something simple and noble-yes, and joyous; a joyousness . . . safe from time or change, like that in Schubert's Die Forelle" (76). (Go back.)
 5. Interplay between Sebastian's cultivated distance and Harry's final reconciliation to place rewrites a modernist focus on distance with a recognition of art's potential intimacy. Harry, inceptively, slightly, moves beyond J. Alfred Prufrock's squeamish paranoia. (Go back.)
 6. Lucy Gayheart is full of such inversions, full of enantiodromia, a concept Carl Jung explained as "the conversion of something into its opposite" (5:375). (Go back.)
 7. In Plato's Republic, diegesis designates when the poet "does not even attempt to suggest . . . that anyone but himself is speaking" (638). Diegesis has recently come to be contrasted with telling. (Go back.)
 8. In a recognition uncannily pertinent to Lucy Gayheart, Sergeant observed that to Cather, "in middle life the complex man cannot evade his psychological fate" (Sergeant 182). (Go back.)
 9. Spanish novelist Carmen Martín Gaite speaks of the need for "humankind to get knowledgeable about being in itself, living in the it is in" (VillÁn 23). Such a focus underlies, it seems, Cather's urgency in the 1930s fiction. (Go back.)
 10. My Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in Selected Novels of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martín Gaite considers characteristics of this kind of narration that I term "persona" narration, a narrator who radically modifies extant readings of book 3 as either a "vacillating epilogue" or "coda . . . of regret" (Chown 126-34, Gelfant 130, Woodress 465). (Go back.)
 11. In the context of the thesis of this paper, one may fruitfully distinguish between Cather's aesthetically dense "three-part sonata" and what I earlier referred to as Harry's solemn "three part ode." (Go back.)
 12. This is an excellent example of the persona novel that "adapts the soliloquy to its end; in the novel . . . it is all in that inner world in that recall or remembering which is the persona, the narrator 's memory. Thus, the persona acts in the apparent story at the same time she reviews in the wider story which is the novel. In effect, this is a kind of frame-story in which the frame exists in the inner world of the narrator-perosna" (Chown 128). (Go back.)
 13. For Harry, understanding evolves in contact with and respect for arenas in himself, for instance, in being able to let himself be "wildly happy over trifling things" (223). (Go back.)
 14. Sharon O'Brien suggests that the male narrator in Cather is often associated with an urge to control, the machine, and a distancing mode (see especially 387). In Lucy Gayheart, images associated with Harry Gordon sometimes reveal an unfeeling, overcontrolling mind: his eves are "as cold as icicles" (149) and gleam with "professional geniality" (109). When Harry proposes finally to Lucy in Chicago, he says, "And now isn't it about time we got down to business?" (108). (Go back.)
 15. Readings of Cather often stress connections between what is seen as her narrative doubleness and "well-made" irony (for one example of many, see Stouck, Willa Cather's 59). (Go back.)
 16. In the struggle between material power and his dampered sensitivity, Harry boasts, "He owned the first car in the county," and "bought one car after another . . . lived on the road . . . 'driving like the devil'" (221). Recent feminist studies have explored Harry's ambiguous expressions of ownership in Lucy Gayheart, examined the implications of his having "all the keys" (230). (Go back.)
 17. Book 1 has eleven parentheses in all; book 2 nine; and book 3, four. Study of their placement, tone, and perspective reveals Harry's complex complicity in the recall. (Go back.)
 18. Woodress reports that Cather found "her heroine was a silly young girl and she was losing patience with her" and that "Lucy was not a character that Cather loved" (450, 461). (Go back.)
 19. William Faulkner has called Cather one of "the five best authors" of "modern books" (Blotner 390). (Go back.)
 20. O'Brien has observed that Cather increasingly turned toward roots, toward the world of women and the ordinary people with whom she grew up and came to respect. (Go back.)
 21. Woodress reported that in regular walks in Central Park, Cather's "contact with the earth renewed her sense of belonging in a metropolis in which so much conspired to alienation" (Woodress 454). (Go back.)


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