Spring 2001

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Finding an Erotics of Place in Willa Cather's A Lost Lady

by Mark Robison

To discover an erotics of place in Willa Cather's A Lost Lady takes little preparation. One begins by simply allowing Sweet Water marsh to seep into one's consciousness through Cather's exquisite prose. Two paragraphs from the middle of the novel beckon us to follow Neil Herbert, now 20 years old, into the marsh that lies on the Forrester property. This passage, rich in pastoral beauty, embraces the heart of the novel—appearing not only at the novel's center point but enfolding ideas central to the novel's theme:

An impulse of affection and guardianship drew Niel up the poplar-bordered road in the early light . . . and on to the marsh. The sky was burning with the soft pink and silver of a cloudless summer dawn. The heavy, bowed grasses splashed him to the knees. All over the marsh, snow-on-the-mountain, globed with dew, made cool sheets of silver, and the swamp milk-weed spread its flat, raspberry-coloured clusters. There was an almost religious purity about the fresh morning air, the tender sky, the grass and flowers with the sheen of early dew upon them. There was in all living things something limpid and joyous—like the wet morning call of the birds, flying up through the unstained atmosphere. Out of the saffron east a thin, yellow, wine-like sunshine began to gild the fragrant meadows and the glistening tops of the grove. Neil wondered why he did not often come over like this, to see the day before men and their activities had spoiled it, while the morning star was still unsullied, like a gift handed down from the heroic ages.

Under the bluffs that overhung the marsh he came upon thickets of wild roses, with flaming buds, just beginning to open. Where they opened, their petals were stained with that burning rose-colour which is always gone by noon—a dye made of sunlight and morning and moisture, so intense that it cannot possibly last . . . must fade, like ecstasy. (80-81)


In this extraordinary moment, before Neil carries a bouquet of these roses to Mrs. Forrester's window, before Neil hears Frank Ellinger's coarse laughter ring out from Mrs. Forrester's bedroom, before Captain Forrester returns from Denver in financial ruin, for one final moment Neil Herbert imbibes the perfections of the marsh. Close reading of this passage brings into focus two things: first, that Neil approaches the marsh in the role of lover and protector and second, that Cather's use of limited third-person narrative asks readers to depend on Neil Herbert's perceptions. In short, Cather invites readers participate in Neil's dual role.

Because Cather celebrates sublime beauty even as she chronicles an inevitable descent from sublimity, she captures the essence of two eras, creating a tension that draws her readers into modernity even as she enthralls them with the waning age. This novel forms a coming-of-age tale in two senses. The protagonist Neil Herbert is reaching maturity as the frontier is coming into maturity. In the passage above, as in the novel as a whole, Cather places Neil Herbert on the cusp of change, inviting him (and her readers) to discover layers of complexity that imbue the relationship between humans and their environment. What is especially intriguing in this process is Cather's anticipation of ecosystem issues that inform current debates over how best to use land: Can humans choose between molding the land into something more productive or preserving the land in its natural configurations without invoking acute consequence? How exactly should we define a phrase such as "more productive"? Today, when we are quick to fight environmental battles one species at a time in federal courtrooms, it may seem quaint to find Cather holistically measuring the marsh's worth in terms of its effect on humans.

Cather positions the Sweet Water marsh between two environmental stances, one represented by Captain Forrester, the other by Ivy Peters. Reduced to simple terms, Captain Forrester represents a fading noblesse oblige. His action on behalf of his failing bank's clientele, while unquestionably chivalrous, preserves his name at the expense of Mrs. Forrester's future. In simple terms, Ivy Peters represents a rising pragmatism. His actions on behalf of Marian Forrester, while ethically questionable and aesthetically repugnant, undoubtedly preserve her future. But, of course, Cather rarely allows matters to remain on simple terms. For instance, the Captain, who represents the best of the passing era, is also an instrument of the era's demise: even as he preserves the loops and curves of Sweet Water Creek in his wild marsh, he constructs the railroad's straight tracks that will subdue the wilderness. As he tells the guests assembled at his dinner table, "We dreamed the railroads across the mountains, just as I dreamed my place on the Sweet Water" (53).

Captain Forrester's marsh becomes the locus of debate over how land is best valued. In his prime the Captain can preserve the marsh for its aesthetic value, but Cather is careful to show that fulfilling this urge to preserve is a luxury. "Any one but Captain Forrester would have drained the bottom land and made it into highly productive fields," the author tells us. The Captain resists draining the marsh because he values "the way the creek wound through his pasture, with mint and joint-grass and twinkling willows along its banks." Because he is a wealthy man with no heirs, he can "afford to humour his fancies" (9). If the Captain can afford to preserve a marsh, Cather implies there are others who cannot. Cather also takes care to remind her readers of the townspeople's various levels of socio-economic strata, those of the maturing young men in particular. Neil Herbert and his friends represent a cross-section of the town's classes ranging from George Adams, "son of a gentleman rancher" (12) to "rough little Thad Grimes with his red thatch and catfish mouth" (17). Cather shows that the Blum brothers, for instance, depend on the marsh (and other ecosystems) for subsistence more than aesthetics. These economic strata are in flux, however, and the Captain loses his ability to preserve what he loves when financial pressures force him to rent out the land to Ivy Peters, who drains the marsh to produce wheat.

Before we examine Ivy Peters' reconfiguration of the landscape, let us return to the marsh—this time to where Cather presents it in the novel's opening chapters. Twelve-year-old Neil Herbert and his friends have brought their lunches to the Forrester marsh for a day of fishing. It is a day filled with sensuous pleasures, and the boys, unable to resist the marsh's allurements, lose sight of their original purpose: "When lunch came they had done none of the things they meant to do. They behaved like wild creatures all morning": shouting, dashing about wading, chasing a snake, "cutting sling-shot crotches, throwing themselves on their stomachs to drink at the cool spring that flowed out from under a bank into a thatch of dark watercress" (14). Here the marsh, in contrast to the phallic poplar trees that border the nearby lane, exudes female fecundity, an impression that Cather intensifies by closely connecting the marsh with Marian Forrester. When Mrs. Forrester, "bareheaded, a basket on her arm, her blue-black hair shining in the sun," brings cookies to the boys, she confesses her own sensuous merging with the marsh: "I wade down there myself sometimes, when I go down to get flowers. I can't resist it. I pull off my stockings and pick up my skirts, and in I go" (15-16). Earlier Cather presents Marian Forrester being "chased by the new bull in the pasture . . . scudding along the edge of the marshes like a hare, beside herself with laughter, and stubbornly clinging to the crimson parasol that had made all the trouble" (11). This image of a maiden being pursued by a minotaur, who enjoys every moment of the chase, solidifies an erotic connection between Mrs. Forrester and the marsh. Marian Forrester's sensuousness charges the marsh with deep allure, and, following Neil's lead, we as readers fall in love with the feminine marsh even as we succumb to Mrs. Forrester's appeal.

In the title to this essay I have used the phrase "an erotics of place," by which I mean something profoundly simple: to love a place deeply by connecting with it physically and spiritually; that is, to merge with one's surroundings so keenly through the senses that one ascends into delight. Emerson captures this transported state in his essay "Nature" with its description of the transparent eyeball. Thea Kronborg, in Cather's Song of the Lark, finds this transcendence while bathing in the stream at the bottom of Panther Cañon. Jim Burden finds it while swimming in the river outside Black Hawk. I first encountered the concept of an erotics of place in the writings of naturalist Terry Tempest Williams, whose essay entitled "Yellowstone: The Erotics of Place" bids her readers to love the land:
. . . to take off our masks, to step out from behind our personas—whatever they might be: educators, activists, biologists, geologists, writers, farmers, ranchers, and bureaucrats—and admit we are lovers, engaged in an erotics of place. Loving the land. Honoring its mysteries. Acknowledging, embracing the spirit of place—there is nothing more legitimate and there is nothing more true. (84)


In her idyllic descriptions of the Forrester marsh Willa Cather commands such a response. Through Marian Forrester's interaction with the landscape the reader is invited to love the marsh both sensuously and sensually. But not everyone is susceptible to loving the land in this way, and Cather teaches this truth in a brutal manner. Into the boys' Edenic marsh picnic walks the marplot, Ivy Peters, carrying "himself with unnatural erectness, as if he had a steel rod down his back" (18).

There is much to dislike in Ivy Peters. He is ugly; he is a social climber with little respect for his betters; he is mean-spirited. His arrival perverts the pastoral into pornography through an indelibly obscene action. What reader does not instantly abhor Ivy Peters for carving with surgical precision into the eyeballs of the female woodpecker? In this brutally detailed scene the author fashions Captain Forrester's polar opposite. The Captain passively preserves nature while Ivy Peters actively maims it. However, in a truly amazing literary feat, Cather manages to rehabilitate this loathsome character by the end of the novel.

Ivy Peters is not merely a villain. He performs positive deeds which further illustrate Cather's theme of passage into the modern age. He rescues Mrs. Forrester when others cannot: Frank Ellinger cannot wait for Marian's eligibility; Neil Herbert cannot bring himself to drop his romantic ideals. Indeed, Neil grows to resent Mrs. Forrester because "she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged" (161). While Neil is not trained for the sort of rescuing that Mrs. Forrester requires, Ivy stands prepared. Neil attempts to rescue a fading ideal; whereas Ivy, who scorns such ideals, rescues a person. Judge Pommeroy praises Neil for entering the "clean profession" of architecture and avoiding law practice "in this new business world that's coming up." He cautions Neil, "Leave the law to boys like Ivy Peters" (89). Thus, Peters is left to play the hero, and, on one level, he succeeds. But his success is tainted. And what Cather seems to ask is whether we are willing to accept a Pyrrhic victory. The victory that Peters achieves on Marian's behalf destroys the marsh and tramples upon those who attempt to live the old way—honorably and cleanly. Mrs. Forrester insults Judge Pommeroy by taking her assets out of his care and placing them with Peters, who invests her money (with her knowledge) in shady land deals.

But, as Cather reveals, Ivy Peters' dealings with Mrs. Forrester are not simply a matter of pragmatics over gentility. Ivy Peters' actions toward the marsh are freighted with heavier meanings. According to Neil, Peters has drained the marsh "quite as much to spite him and Mrs. Forrester as to reclaim the land. . . . By draining the marsh Ivy had obliterated a few acres of something he hated, though he could not name it, and had asserted his power over the people who had loved those unproductive meadows for their idleness and silver beauty" (101-02). Draining the marsh is tatamount to rape. Ivy Peters hates the feminine. When he interrupts the boys' picnic, he sneers that picnics are for girls. He detests a feminized Captain who will not allow guns in the marsh. Peters swaggers too vehemently that the Forresters "have come down in the world" (100) and exults that they are now dependent on him. Ivy Peters is driven to ravish the feminine marsh because he is capable of doing so and because leaving the marsh intact affronts his masculinity. Peters' actions also forge a link between the marsh and Mrs. Forrester. Just as he must dominate the marsh, he must also dominate the woman. Fondling her bosom (not in the intimacy of love but simply to assert himself), compromising her person because she is beholden to him, Peters has finally brought her to his level.

By constructing a dichotomy between Captain Forrester and Ivy Peters, Cather gives us Hobson's choice between a pure but ultimately unsustainable love or a perverted love which pollutes what it cannot ultimately possess. And all the while Cather shows us a world that is slipping from the former to the latter love. Holding a fond farewell gaze on the disappearing pioneer age, she accepts the inevitable approach of a modernity that she finds disillusioning: The Old West had been settled by dreamers, . . . a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters . . . . They would drink up the mirage, dispel the morning freshness . . . . The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable bits, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest. All the way from Missouri to the mountains this generation of shrewd young men, trained to petty economies by hard times, would do exactly what Ivy Peters had done when he drained the Forrester marsh. (102)


The pioneers who developed the West are gone, their heroics having brought both gain and loss. Their passing leaves the fractured land in the hands of efficient men of small spirit.

But we must not forget the wheat. The marsh is lost, yet in its place grow wheat stalks, waving in the wind, producing grain—and gain. Ivy Peters reports that the wheat field is "quite profitable," allowing him to pay the Forresters a good, and much needed, rent (100). Here, Cather embraces the conquered land's productivity even as she mourns the passing of wilderness beauty, injecting an ambivalence that forces us to ask: In this novel, what exactly has been lost? Neil's naiveté? A particular configuration of the landscape? Marian Forrester, who resurfaces in Buenos Aires, is lost only to Neil, and when we realize this fact, we begin to question all of the assumptions that we have fabricated based upon Neil's point of view. Cather has placed in her novel the tools to deconstruct an edifice she has encouraged readers to create. Throughout the novel Cather's narrative point of view follows Neil Herbert's so closely that the reader does not sense until quite late that the author has subtly undercut her character's stance. Neil desires both the marsh and Mrs. Forrester to remain pristine, and we are led to share these desires. But Cather reminds us that while the marsh is passive, Marian Forrester is not. In a world where social and economic pressures demand that she choose less admirable paths, Mrs. Forrester recaptures her life only by sacrificing aesthetics to pragmatism. Because he seeks to thwart Mrs. Forrester's passage into modernity, refusing to bless her pursuit of life on her terms, Neil dishonors Mrs. Forrester in a way that Ivy Peters does not. We who have paralleled Neil's wishes closely are also in danger of losing sight of Marian's desires and needs. Cather's injected complexity reminds us that the landscape we love as marsh is the same land that produces wheat even if we detest the character who obliterates the marsh and recoil from his motives for doing so.

Terry Tempest Williams writes, "Internal strength is an absorption of external landscape. We are informed by beauty, raw and sensual. Through an erotics of place our sensitivity becomes our sensibility" (86). Because we have learned to love Cather's marsh so intensely, we carry the memory of marsh with us even though it is covered in wheat. But this marsh may return in more tangible ways. If Marian Forrester is not really lost, there may also remain hope for the marsh. A final glimpse of marsh turned wheat field comes in the fourth chapter of the novel's Part Two. Heavy rains have come to the Sweet Water valley, lifting the river over its banks and swelling the creeks. Cather reports that "the stubble of Ivy Peters' wheat fields lay under water," (121) raising the hope that Peters' intrusion upon the land is merely temporary, that given respite from human meddling, the marsh will reassert itself. I admit that this is my hope more than it is Cather's. But even if this is so, it is Cather who arouses the desire that invites me to hope.

Mark A. Robison teaches at Union College and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Works Cited

Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski with Kari Ronning, Charles W. Mignon and Frederick M. Link. The Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997.
Williams, Terry Tempest. An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field. New York: Vintage, 1994.