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From Cather Studies Volume 11

The Trafficking of Mrs. Forrester: Prostitution and Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady

In a letter addressed to her mother, Mary Virginia Boak Cather, on 2 March 1925, Willa Cather, seeking her mother’s forgiveness after a quarrel, reminds her that the last time they had been “cross” at one another was “about poor Mrs. Garber”: “and you see now, don’t you, that I understood her better than you thought I did, and that though I admired certain things, I was never taken in by her” (Letters 367). Cather’s compassionate regard for Mrs. Garber, the inspiration behind A Lost Lady’s Mrs. Forrester, generated tension between Cather and her mother, who seemingly disapproved of Mrs. Garber’s lifestyle following the death of her husband in 1905 when she was left in straitened circumstances, providing meals, in a failed attempt to make ends meet, to railroad workers in her home—an enterprise not befitting a woman living alone in Red Cloud, Nebraska (Dunbier 140–41). Cather’s sympathies for the woman she loved very much in her childhood, however, did not cloud her perspective of the widowed Mrs. Garber’s questionable choices. The publication of A Lost Lady, with its complicated, sexually charged portrait of Mrs. Forrester, confirms that Cather was aware of Mrs. Garber’s compromised social position and was thus not as naive about her as she may have seemed to her mother.[1] While Mrs. Garber’s unconventional survival tactics certainly influenced Cather’s construction of A Lost Lady, this essay is not directly concerned with the Garber biography, but rather with the marketing of female sexuality on the frontier at the turn of the century, and the way in which prostitution informs the characterization of Mrs. Forrester.

A Lost Lady (1923), written in five months and the first novel Cather conceived and produced knowing that Knopf would publish it (Rosowski 177), captures Cather’s conflicted understanding of the way in which the market governs people and property, and explores the specifically challenging role of women within this dynamic on the frontier. Marian Forrester, I argue, is a “woman of exchange” between the social systems of the Old West (Captain Forrester) and the early stages of capitalism (Ivy Peters). Cather’s depiction, through the peephole of Niel Herbert, of the commodification of Mrs. Forrester’s body and land suggests that the sex trade is a by-product of commercial development, confirming Cather’s suspicion of risky business deals and her criticism of the exploitation of female sexuality. Sweet Water is thus portrayed as a town that is all but ruined, like Mrs. Forrester, by the commercialization ignited by the “railroad aristocracy” and completed by the industriousness of men like Peters.[2] The trafficking of Mrs. Forrester is illuminated when read in connection with the alarming rise of prostitution in Colorado, the young state that produced by 1900, after recovering from the Denver Depression of 1893, more industry than all the other states lying between California and the Great Plains due to technical revolutions in the mining industry (Neuschatz 62).

As Edith Lewis notes, Cather first set her story in Colorado,“and wrote it at some length in this setting” before writing things “just as she remembered them,” “but she was still not wholly satisfied with the construction of the story.” Torn between two versions of the novel, Lewis states that Cather came to the conclusion that her first method was right. While most scholars agree that the setting of A Lost Lady mirrors the town of Red Cloud, I claim that the presence of Colorado, as Cather’s first location, pervades the novel, allowing Cather freedom to create a sexually charged narrative that resembles real people and real memories but is not limited to historical or biographical specificities.[3] Reading Colorado, not as the “artificial climate” suggested by Lewis (124–25), but as the site of culture, capitalism, and sex work reveals the ways in which Mrs. Forrester is exchanged in an economy dominated by male purveyors.

Prostitution in Colorado was a direct result of the mining boom and the expanding grid of the capitalist enterprise spreading throughout the state through the introduction of outside capital. Women, as products within this system, were explicitly commodified, assigned prices, and engaged according to their market value. As George Kibbe Turner writes in “The Daughters of the Poor,” published in McClure’s in 1909 when Cather was managing editor of the magazine, mining districts, “the camps of male laborers,” were excellent markets for the trafficking of young women (46). Turner’s article focuses primarily on the way in which corrupt Tammany political power supports “the business enterprise for the marketing of girls . . . developed by men intimate with the political machines of the slums” (58). Yet he expands his investigation of prostitution beyond the boroughs of New York to include both a national and a global critique of “the trade of procuring and selling girls”—a business that is “organized and specialized after its kind exactly as all other business has done” (59), insisting that “there are no boundaries to this business; its travelers go constantly to and fro . . . peering into new places, especially where men congregate on the golden frontier” (48).[4] Prostitutes were brought out West by cadets, “local boys” (59) whom Turner describes as a key figure in the sex industry: “The cadet is a young man averaging from eighteen to twenty-five, who after having served as watch-boy or ‘lighthouse,’ secures a staff of girls and lives upon their earnings” (49). The cadet keeps an eye on marketable and vulnerable women who know little about American economic life, patiently waiting for the right moment to seduce them. Once he takes control of the woman’s mind and body, having convinced her to trust him, the cadet, similar to Peters, employs the woman as “an asset” in order to live “a life of absolute ease” (Turner 59).

Peters, like the stealthy cadet, stalks the Forresters as they “come down in the world like the rest” (Lost 100), taking the first opportunity to exploit the financially desperate Mrs. Forrester and drain the marsh for profit. The effortlessness of Peters’s objectification of Mrs. Forrester is apparent in the way he boasts to Niel about the gains of converting the Forrester wetlands into wheat; in the fact that he is “just mean enough to like to shoot along” their creek more than anywhere else (100); in his careless flirting with Mrs. Forrester, “as if she were a kitchen maid”; in his lacking “the manners of a pig” as he rudely ignores the increasingly ill Captain Forrester (114); and in his “unconcernedly” groping Mrs. Forrester’s breasts while she is making pastry (161). Indulging in the public spectacle of the Forresters’ financial ruin, Peters oversees Mrs. Forrester’s transition from the elegant wife of the princely Captain to a “common woman” who is “sadly broken” (162). The splintering of the Forresters’ property thus mirrors Mrs. Forrester’s own division as she transgresses the boundaries of widowhood, refusing “to immolate herself” upon the death of her husband (161). The cost of her survival is great and requires that she becomes a woman of exchange between the pioneer men of the Old West and a new breed of men like Peters, “trained in petty economics by hard times” (102), whose pimping of Mrs. Forrester prepares her for her next role in South America as the wife of Henry Collins.

The trafficking of Mrs. Forrester from the Great Plains of the Midwest to the frontier of South America in Argentina therefore completes her commodification and connects her to the many “working” women of her time who immigrated to Buenos Aires in order to escape the demoralizing scrutiny and legal sanctions of conservative North America. Turner reports that many cadets and their prostitutes moved to Buenos Aires to form their own colony and would often marry or pretend to marry in order to travel freely as sex worker and manager (46). In the Argentine Republic, the cadet found a market that rivaled the East, transferring women to “slave houses” in the suburbs of Buenos Aires (46), the city in which the exiled Mrs. Forrester is last seen—“a good deal madeup” with her rich, but “stingy” and “quarrelsome” husband (165). Our final sighting of Mrs. Forrester, as the wife of a wealthy but “cranky old Englishman,” textually inscribes her in slippery territory, highlighting the monetary markers of her marriage: furs, maid, valet, estate, “a fine French car,” and “a big stock ranch” (165). As Emma Goldman argued in 1917, “it is merely a question of degree” as to whether a woman “sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men” (20). Goldman’s essay, “The Traffic in Women,” condemns muckraking journalists such as Turner for crusading against indecency while overlooking the industrial system and “Moloch of capitalism” driving women to prostitution (19–20).[5] Cather’s portrayal of Mrs. Forrester, now Mrs. Collins, with its emphasis on the economy of marriage, is more in line with the rhetoric of Goldman than that of Turner. By retiring Mrs. Forrester to Argentina, Cather underscores the relationship between sex, gender, and money, suggesting that the economic inferiority of women requires that they pay for their existence either in marriage or prostitution. While I am not suggesting that Mrs. Forrester’s final years have been squandered in a brothel, I am claiming that she has sold herself to the highest bidder—“like most of the women down there” with dyed hair, plenty of powder and a “little red” (165). The color red, the international color of prostitution, emphasizes Mrs. Forrester’s link to other women on the market and echoes Cather’s use of red in her 1908 poem “London Roses,” which appears at the conclusion of Turner’s article—an appendage of sorts, announcing Cather’s concern for these “Ruddy blooms of corruption.”

Turner’s outcry against prostitution, as Cather noted in a letter to Aunt Franc in January 1910, resulted in a grand jury investigation of the Tammany connection to the “white slave trade” (Letters 128).[6] Not surprisingly, Cather does not expound upon this investigation other than to say that the inquiry was bound to be superficial due to the savoir faire of Tammany Hall. Cather’s commentary on the damaging institution of prostitution, with its “Highways of darkness” and endless “squalor,” thus resides in the poem itself. Read in the context of the female labor market, roses may be interpreted as the “budding and blooming” female bodies of “sweat-sour” sex workers in London’s West End and Trafalgar Square (both known for prostitution), “rubbed in a million hands” and “perfumed with a thousand years.” These same roses, “the Western male’s oldest publicly acceptable tribute” to female sexuality (Skaggs 48), will appear throughout A Lost Lady to tangibly connect the objectification of the female body with Mrs. Forrester, most notably the “prickly bunch” wild roses “with flaming buds” that Niel throws into a “mudhole” upon discovering her affair with Frank Ellinger: “This day saw the end of that admiration. . . . It was gone, like the morning freshness of the flowers” (81–82).

By the time Cather wrote A Lost Lady, in the winter and spring of 1922, between her return from Nebraska and a brief teaching stint at Bread Loaf in Vermont, the national conversation about prostitution had moved away from criminal concerns and was primarily focused on the health risks of the trade and the fact that “uncontrolled venereal disease could decimate an army as surely as casualties in battle” (Connelly 144). As Mark Connelly demonstrates, “Under the Chamberlain-Kahn Act (1918), the government could quarantine for the ‘protection of the military and naval forces of the United States’ any woman suspected of having venereal disease” (144). The presence of a sexually transmitted disease came with the presumption of prostitution; during the war any American woman could legally be detained if the Interdepartmental Social Hygiene Board decided that her lifestyle or sexual behavior indicated that she might be infected with a sexually transmitted disease. The threatening correlation of sex and contagion is nowhere more apparent than when Mrs. Forrester desperately tromps to Judge Pommeroy’s office late at night in the pouring rain to phone Ellinger:

She was watching the telephone as if it were alive. Her eyes were shrunk to hard points. Her brows, drawn together in an acute angle, kept twitching in the frown which held them,—the singular frown of one overcome by alcohol or fatigue. . . . Her blue lips, the black shadows under her eyes, made her look as if some poison were at work in her body. (125)
This monstrous portrayal of Mrs. Forrester is ripe with the imagery and language of madness and disease—the hallucinating, deep-set eyes, the discolored lips, and the wasted, weary features combine to make the sexualized, lovesick Mrs. Forrester a danger to both herself and others. By cutting the telephone wire and quarantining Mrs. Forrester in the judge’s office for the evening, Niel is able “for once” (128) to protect her from the public humiliation and personal dis-ease associated with adultery.

Once the Captain suffers his second stroke, however, Mrs. Forrester’s decline is inevitable. With an invalid husband and financial struggles, she goes to “pieces” while “everything changed” around her and she faced the world with the weary exhaustion of an overworked caretaker, nurse, housemaid—“She was worn out” and numb to the bustling invasion of the Mrs. Beasleys and Molly Tuckers (131–32). Drudging in the kitchen”“half-dressed” and fueled on coffee and brandy,“[a]ll the bars were down. She had ceased to care about anything” (133) as her home and her very existence are exposed in their naked humanity, revealing “nothing remarkable at all” (132). Cather’s portrayal of the vulnerable Mrs. Forrester is at its most moving here, with an amplified sense of injustice toward the town gossips,“so important and pleased with themselves” (132), who eagerly prey on the Forrester place “like ants” (132) seeking the spoils of last night’s dinner. Niel’s outrage at this disgrace and his decision, regardless of what it costs him (135), to “send every one of those women trotting down the lane” (134) in order to care for the Captain himself, reflects Cather’s own disappointment with smallmindedness and her belief that the “strong feeling that comes out of the living heart is the thing most necessary—and most rarely found” (Letters 643).

As James Woodress states, the period during which Cather wrote A Lost Lady marks the beginning of her “sense of alienation” from American life (336).[7] Despite having finally overcome her financial struggles, Cather felt “let down” by her thirty years of “striving” as a writer, and this discontent would both underscore and fuel her work from this point forward (Woodress 336). For Susan J. Rosowski, Cather’s creative response to her dissatisfactions with the world, specifically with the “vulnerability of something fine threatened by commercialism” (177), as is evident in A Lost Lady, is authoritative and establishes her as a writer with an uncompromising devotion to art, who begins with an emotion that teases her for years until she finds the proper form to put it in (181–88). The obituary notice of Mrs. Lyra Anderson, known in Red Cloud as Mrs. Silas Garber, the wife of a former governor of Nebraska and one of the prominent ladies of the town, served as the catalyst for these emotions, flooding Cather with expressive memories that had been haunting her in the form of a beautiful ghost for twenty years “before it came together as a possible subject for presentation. All the lovely emotions that one has had some day appear with bodies, and it isn’t as if one found ideas suddenly. Before this the memories of these experiences and emotions have been like perfumes” (Bohlke 79). And this is the point: Mrs. Forrester is intangible, the ephemeral embodiment of ideas, of images, of the effect a handsome and powerful woman has on the senses of an impressionable child. She is not, as Cather clearly states, a character study, “but a portrait like a thin miniature painted on ivory. . . . I wasn’t interested in her character when I was little, but in her lovely hair and her laugh which made me happy clear down to my toes” (77). From the outset, Cather acknowledges that this is a story about pleasure and objectification, about desire and sexual energy—a “thin” and diminutive representation of a woman whose physical presence greatly influenced her, as does her loss.

This loss is expressed through the injury, pain, and oppression that pervade the novel: Peters’s ruthless blinding of the woodpecker; the many disappointments Niel suffers over Mrs. Forrester’s transgressions; the destruction of the Forresters’ land; Captain Forrester’s helpless decline; and Mrs. Forrester’s loss of economic mobility, caused by the Captain’s decision to pay his creditors at the Denver bank rather than secure his wife’s future. Captain Forrester’s choice to save his name rather than his wife forces Mrs. Forrester to market her sexuality more and more blatantly as the novel progresses, paralleling her loss of financial security with her loss of decorum: “She seemed to have lost her faculty of discrimination; her power of easily and graciously keeping everyone in his proper place” (145). As the Captain’s wife, Mrs. Forrester was able to maintain outward appearances, to set boundaries and to adhere to the principles of her class, however loosely. But without the Captain, or his money, she ignores, with “hysterical defiance” (148), the divisions of age and class, willfully engaging in the oppressive social relations of what Gayle Rubin terms the sex/gender system.

The sex/gender system refers to the political economy of sex and gender in ways that the term patriarchy does not, indicating the existence of distinct relations and domains of production between sex and the economy (Rubin 39). Patriarchy, according to Rubin, does not “maintain a distinction between the human capacity and necessity to create a sexual world, and the empirically oppressive ways in which sexual worlds have been organized” (40). The sex/ gender system, however, distinguishes social and sexual relations and refers to the specific gender-stratified systems of oppression. For Rubin, Marx and Engels, while providing an analysis of the evolution of commodities (Marx) and demonstrating sex oppression as an integral aspect of capitalism (Engels), do not connect economic systems with sexual systems (36–39). Rubin thus expands upon their work in order to portray the political and economic forces apparent in the “social organization of sexuality and the reproduction of the conventions of sex and gender” (41). One of the most notable aspects of the sex/gender system is the way in which women are exchanged as gifts, placing the oppression of women within a social system benefiting men (45). In this context, women are used as a conduit between men, establishing dominance, creating relationships, and signifying worth. As Rubin notes, the exchange of women is a powerful concept because it places the oppression of women within the specificities of a social system rather than in biology (45).

Fig. 8.1. Jeannie Rogers, prototype for Nell Emerald in A Lost Lady, wearing her infamous emerald earrings. Courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, F-29645.

The sex/gender system, as it is appears in A Lost Lady, is constructed through the exchange and circulation of Mrs. Forrester and is instituted through the social relations of the many men of the novel. Mrs. Forrester, as a gift shared between men, both young and old, is converted, based on her market value and the political economy of her marriage, from a “lovely lady” (25) to a “flighty and perverse” widow (145). The Forresters’ home, a house well known from “Omaha to Denver for its hospitality and for a charm of atmosphere” (7), as Skaggs notes, is suggestive of a brothel (48). Once Mrs. Forrester becomes known as the “Merry Widow” who is now “after the young ones,” her comfortable, “well-conducted house” (66) is degraded to a place “where common fellows behaved after their kind and knew a common woman when they saw her” (162). But even prior to the Captain’s death, Mrs. Forrester is sexualized through the gaze of male voyeurs, chatting with Peters, for example, “in her wrapper and slippers, her sleeves rolled up and her throat bare” (112). Niel is “annoyed” and “irritated” by Mrs. Forrester’s informality: “It was one thing to greet the president of the Colorado & Utah en déshabillé, but it was another to chatter with a coarse-grained fellow like Ivy Peters” (112). The repetition of dishabille here connects to the reader’s first impression of the domesticated yet alluring Mrs. Forrester, who was “attractive in a dishabille, and she knew it,” as she welcomed the Captain’s friends (10). For Niel, it is acceptable, even eye-catching for her to show a little skin, give a little peep to wealthy men, but it is scandalous to expose herself to men like Peters.

Mrs. Forrester was known to greet her husband’s powerful associates, “even the hardest and coldest of his friends,” with “a buttery iron spoon” or “cherry-stained fingers,” and she would often “rush to the door in her dressing-gown, brush in hand and her long black hair rippling over her shoulders” (10). Her sexuality and worth as an object of desire are undeniable. Mr. Forrester is gratified to “hear these gentlemen admire his fine stock” (9) as they approach his house, and he is equally gratified to watch them admire his wife and “leap nimbly to the ground and run up the front steps as Mrs. Forrester came out on the porch to greet them” (10). Following the feminist analysis of Luce Irigaray, who finds the language of Marx far more useful than Rubin does, “the economy of exchange—of desire—is a man’s business” (177). Mrs. Forrester, always “lady-like” in the eyes of great men like Cyrus Dalzell and other “admiring middle-aged men” (Lost 10), is valued here according to her marketability among businessmen; her beauty and charm serve to maintain the Captain’s capital and prestige. As a commodity, Mrs. Forrester “is a mirror of and for man,” giving up her body in order to become a symbol of her husband’s material wealth (Irigaray 177). That she could turn the most sour of men into “animated” suitors vying for her gay attention satisfies Captain Forrester while simultaneously increasing Mrs. Forrester’s value. “The Captain knew his wife better even than she knew herself; and that, knowing her, he,—to use one of the Captain’s expressions,—valued her” (136).

Her value, however, is not inherent to her sex or gender, but is a by-product of the social and economic relations between men. Mrs. Forrester’s status as a commodity is determined “under the watchful eyes” (Irigaray 196) of her many male guardians, be it Niel, the Captain, Judge Pommeroy, Ivy Peters, Frank Ellinger, or Mr. Collins. In Sweet Water specifically, she is valued to the extent that she is more beautiful, more interesting, and more sophisticated than any other woman in town. In her home and in the community, she maintains a monopoly over other women and is rarely in the company of any other female other than her Bohemian cook. According to Irigaray, “The interest of businessmen requires that commodities relate to each other as rivals” (196). This rivalry is most apparent with the “safe” and “pasty” Constance Ogden (128) with whom Mrs. Forrester competes for Ellinger’s attention—a competition she will lose, not because she is less attractive, but because she has less cash. For Niel, on the other hand, whose possession of the “idea” of Mrs. Forrester is indispensable to his growth as a young man, charm will always trump money in the marketization of women: “[C]ompared with her, other women were heavy and dull; even the pretty ones seemed lifeless,—they had not that something in their glance that made one’s blood tingle” (39). To understand Mrs. Forrester’s success as an object of admiration and delight is to understand her in terms of her superiority to other women and the pleasure she ignites in her admirers.

Mrs. Forrester’s tantalizing and overt sexuality, nonetheless, are out of place in the conservative town of Sweet Water: “How strange that she should be here at all, a woman like her among common people! Not even in Denver” had Niel seen women as elegant (39). Torn between the conventional Sweet Water and the more progressive politics of Colorado, specifically Denver, where she spent her winters prior to the Captain’s accident and where her lover Frank Ellinger resides, Mrs. Forrester is subject to a schism that separates her physical, working body from “an envelope that is precious, impenetrable, ungraspable” (Irigaray 176). Her city sophistication, as Niel imagines it, marks her as dominant and unknowable, as “belonging to a different world” (40) than Nebraskan women. Niel is beguiled by her “gay” stories of Colorado “and the young men she kept dangling about her” (75). Following Irigaray, Mrs. Forrester, as a commodity, is divided between two “irreconcilable bodies”—her natural body and her socially valued body, which is exchangeable and an expression of masculine values (180). It thrills Niel to think of the “disparity” between her life in Sweet Water and the glamour and intrigue of her time spent in Colorado; he is fascinated by the contrast, “the magic of contradictions” (75), oblivious to the hard work necessary in creating illusion, and unaware of the sexual and economic systems governing cities such as Denver.

While the inexperienced Niel may be naive about the rowdy ways of Denver, where approximately 480 prostitutes were working in 1882 (MacKell 58), Frank Ellinger certainly is not:

He had, when he was younger, been notoriously “wild,” but that was not held against him, even by mothers with marriageable daughters, like Mrs. Ogden. Morals were different in those days. Niel had heard his uncle refer to Ellinger’s infatuation with a woman called Nell Emerald, a handsome and rather unusual woman who conducted a house properly licensed by the Denver police. Nell Emerald had told an old club man that though she had been out behind young Ellinger’s new trotting horse, she “had no respect for a man who would go driving with a prostitute in broad daylight.” (47–48)
Frank Ellinger and Nell Emerald are the novel’s most salient connections to prostitution, foreshadowing the distorted social order that will prevail in the seller-buyer-consumer culture of the plot. According to Jan MacKell, two main madams ran successful brothels in Denver during the later part of the nineteenth century—Mattie Silks and Jeannie Rogers (fig. 8.1). Although both were attractive and unusual women, Rogers fits Cather’s description of Nell Emerald, as she was known for her fine dress, ever-present emerald earrings, and excellent horsemanship: “In 1880, she was arrested along with madam Eva Lewis for racing their horses through town. The pastime seems to have been popular among prostitutes” (MacKell 60).

Articles about Rogers circulated in the papers, and her connection to the police was widely known: “It was said that the chief of police from St. Louis would come to visit, and Jeannie even had a portrait of him hanging in her brothel” (MacKell 59). The police chief assisted Rogers in opening her Denver house by blackmailing one of Denver’s leading citizens who reportedly donated $17,780 to help construct the establishment that would later become the infamous House of Mirrors at 1942 Market Place. Rogers eventually married Jack Wood, a bartender at the Brown Palace Hotel (the hotel where Frank Ellinger lives), who was fourteen years younger than her and whom she shot when she found him with another woman. When asked why she shot him, police reported that she said, “I shot him because I love him, damn him” (60). Although Wood lived, others connected to Rogers did not. In 1894, Ella Wellington (of Omaha) committed suicide at the House of Mirrors, followed by the overdose of her lover Frederick Sturges; and a string of three unsolved murders of prostitutes occurred, prompting the Denver papers to dub notorious Market Street “Stranglers Row” (66).

Kristin A. Gensmer reminds us that sex work is, and was, a perilous profession subject to economic instability, disease, addiction, violence, and an array of other dangers, making prostitution a high-risk and marginalized form of labor (15). Most studies of Victorian-era prostitution, “discuss sex workers as women who made a rational choice based on the limited professional opportunities available to them” (Gensmer 15). Due to a lack of material evidence, the secrecy of the trade and the media phenomenon of white slavery (Soderlund 5), it is difficult for scholars to make an informed analysis of prostitution and stereotypes often prevail (Gensmer 15). Although the “specific reasons for prostitution likely varied with each woman,” “a need to be self-sufficient coupled with a desire for economic mobility undoubtedly motivated many women” (Gensmer 15). It is this desire, her willingness to use sex in exchange for economic security that connects the enigmatic figure of Mrs. Forrester to the institution of prostitution.

“Money is a very important thing,” Mrs. Forrester proclaims to Niel. “Realize that in the beginning; face it and don’t be ridiculous in the end” (108). Mrs. Forrester’s keen awareness of the power of money echoes Cather’s own preoccupation with financial concerns. As a savvy businesswoman, she was aware of the ways in which a male-dominated economy structures, limits, and controls the financial destiny of many women. Cather worked hard to secure and manage her own finances, and knew where every dollar was earned and spent. When she wrote A Lost Lady, she had just moved from Houghton Mifflin to Knopf,“sensitive to the need to protect her books as well as herself from commercial pressure.” Cather “wanted a publisher who believed in her as an artist” (Rosowski 178), but she also knew that it made good financial sense to be marketed by Knopf as an artist. Cather’s depiction of the trafficking of Mrs. Forrester, when read through the lens of feminist scholars such as Goldman, Rubin, and Irigaray, demonstrates the way in which the female body is exchanged and objectified in accordance with the social economy of the sex/gender system. Reading Mrs. Forrester, her ruin and her renewal, against the background of sex work in Colorado, a state where almost all profits were tied in one way or another to the mining industry, further highlights the way in which capitalism demands that women, to survive economically, in marriage or in work, must market themselves in accordance with their value, talents, and resources. Whereas Cather’s “London Roses” claims that prostitution is “Born of stale earth, fallowed with squalor and tears—” (61), A Lost Lady, written more than ten years later by a more worldly Cather, portrays a compassionate view of the complexities and nuances of women who choose to trade their bodies for financial security, condemning men like Ivy Peters, who seek dominion “over the people who had loved those unproductive meadows” (102), while slyly applauding women like Mrs. Forrester, who did not die with the pioneer but employed their charms and perseverance to embrace “life on any terms” (161).


 1. Mrs. Garber was left with a minimal income after the death of her husband due to the decline of the Garbers’ wealth that began after the failure of Garbers’ Farmers and Merchants Bank in the Panic of 1893; Garber put up his land as security to pay the depositors, leaving his widow financially strained. Although she attempted to maintain the Garber place by serving meals to railroad workers, she eventually rented her home to hograisers and lived in “rented rooms” until leaving Red Cloud and marrying banker Swan Augustus Anderson, the much younger widowed husband of her niece Aileen, in 1915. See Dunbier 140 and Rosowski 195. (Go back.)
 2. Keeping in mind that naming is a powerful act in Cather’s fiction, Skaggs reminds us that “sweet water” in Greek slang is associated with liminal female sexuality: “a strayed woman is said to be of the sweet water” (50). I expand Skaggs’s reading to argue that Mrs. Forrester is viewed as having strayed once she begins trading sex for financial security; she has moved beyond the boundaries of social acceptability and into the murky waters of sex work. (Go back.)
 3. In an interview with Flora Merrill in 1925, Cather recalls A Lost Lady as a “ghost” without form until one day it appeared with bodies and ideas: “It is the difference between a remembered face and having that friend one day come in through the door. She is really no more yours than she has been right along in your memory” (Bohlke 70). (Go back.)
 4. Turner makes unsubstantiated claims linking local prostitution and corruption to a global conspiratorial network, invoking scandal without thorough investigation and ultimately helping to “discredit the entire endeavor of exposure journalism.” See Soderlund 123. (Go back.)
 5. Turner’s exposé had far-reaching implications and was promoted, by McClure’s nonetheless, as “one of the most notable things the magazine ever published . . . largely instrumental in causing legislation dealing with the ‘white slave’ traffic to be passed in many States.” In the months following the article’s publication, “McClure’s found itself blindsided as a debate over the trade’s very existence began to take place in Tammany meeting places, but also in daily newspapers, criminal courtrooms, and in a New York grand jury inquiry into Turner’s claims.” See Soderlund 120–21. (Go back.)
 6. Cather wrote: “There is to be a Grand Jury investigation as a result of our article on Tammany and the white slave trade, but the Tammany people are playing their cards so well that I am afraid the investigation will be a very superficial affair” (Letters 128). Also see McClure. (Go back.)
 7. Woodress cites Prohibition, Isabelle Hambourg’s move to Europe, the failure of the world war, “Communist witch hunts,” and the garish capitalism of the Roaring Twenties as factors leading to Cather’s increasing disillusionment. (Go back.)


Bohlke, L. Brent. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches and Letters. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986. Print.
Cather, Willa. “London Roses.” McClure’s Magazine 34 (Nov. 1909): 61.
———. A Lost Lady. 1923. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. SusanJ. Rosowski, Charles W. Mignon, Frederick M. Link, and Kari A. Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997. Print.
———. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.
Connelly, Mark Thomas. The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1980. Print.
Dunbier, Lonnie Pierson. Lyra and Silas Garber: A First Couple in Frontier History. Santa Fe: Western Edge P, 2002. Print.
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