1. What is the historical background of the novel?
Cather based the story on her memory of the Garbers of Red Cloud, Nebraska. Silas Garber (1833-1905) had been a captain in the Union army and a builder for the Burlington railroad. He was a founder of the town of Red Cloud, president of the Farmer’s and Merchant’s Bank there, and the fourth Governor of Nebraska (1875-1879). His wife, Lyra (1855-1921), was the model for Marian Forrester, and like Marian, was twenty-five years younger, his second wife from California. Their house in Red Cloud was a social center, and the Garbers were the prominent people of Red Cloud when Willa Cather lived there in her youth. She loved Mrs. Garber, but unlike Marian Forrester, Lyra Garber was a faithful wife. When Cather read Lyra Garber’s obituary, she took a nap, and woke up with the idea of the novel.
Red Cloud, the model for Sweet Water, borders the Republican River on the hunting grounds of the Pawnee, Omaha, and Otoe tribes. It was founded in 1871 on Garber’s homestead and named in honor of the Lakota Indian Chief. The Republican River Valley was producing good harvests and needed a way to move its crops to market. The Burlington Missouri rail line between Omaha and Denver reached there in 1878, and at one time eight passenger trains passed through daily bringing settlers west. Cather’s grandfather arrived at the Divide, a plateau north of Red Cloud, in 1883.
American railroads were the main industrializing force in the West between the Civil War and the twentieth century. They employed thousands of workers and provided the capital for land development. The railroad officials, such as the fictional Cyrus Dalzell, President of the Colorado and Utah Railroad, were wealthy barons, and were the royalty that the Garbers, like the Forresters, entertained. In the 1880s Red Cloud hoped to be an important junction point to Denver. This was not to be as other rail lines bypassed Red Cloud and left it a lesser town.
Garber’s Bank failed in the panic of 1893, and he, like Forrester, backed the depositors’ money and went broke. Many of Cather’s characters are historical but also composites of more than one person. Another possible model for Captain Forrester is Charles Elliott Perkins, President of the Burlington Railroad, who had spent his life building rail lines and communities, and saved a bank in Lincoln from failing by pumping his reputation and money into it. Cather fictionalizes real people who made an impression on her youth, as the Forresters did on Niel in the story.
2. What is the importance of class distinctions?
Though the railroads were an important tool in the spread of democracy, providing opportunity for all kinds of adventurous settlers to move west and try their luck, Cather shows there were two classes of people who went west, “the homesteaders and hand-workers who were there to make a living, and the bankers and gentleman ranchers who came from the Atlantic seaboard to invest money and to ‘develop our great West’” (I, Chpt. I, p.10).
Mrs. Forrester is gracious to everyone, but she upholds and recognizes the distinctions, even among the boys. She is aware that young Niel Herbert is Judge Pommeroy’s nephew and that George Adams is the son of a gentleman rancher. The others were “just little boys from the town” (I, Chpt. II, p. 15), sons of shop keepers and immigrants. The boys elect George to speak to Mrs. Forrester, since he knows polite language. Niel’s dead mother was a lady, but he is ashamed of what his home has become since his father brought his Cousin Sadie “a poor relation” from Kentucky to run the house (I, Chpt. II, p. 31). He identifies with his uncle and stays with him when his father leaves town. He wants to copy the manners and culture of his uncle and the Forresters.
Ivy Peters is also aware of class distinction, coming from a poorer background, determined to get the best of the Forresters, who are his social superiors. He hunts on their land when it is forbidden and later takes over the property, treating the Forresters rudely. He happily reports to Niel that “the Forresters have come down in the world like the rest” after the bank failure. He says the Captain “had the delusion of grandeur” (II, Chpt. I, p. 111).
In the beginning, Mrs. Forrester entertains others of her class, “the railroad aristocracy” (I, Chpt. I, p. 9) like Cyrus Dalzell, or the Ogdens. Niel loves to be in the “cool and dusky” Forrester mansion as a boy. The house with its “heavy curtains” and “massive walnut furniture” (I, Chpt. II, pp. 30-31) is like a palace to him. The Forresters have a cook, “Bohemian Mary,” one of the immigrants. When they have parties, Black Tom, the Judge’s servant, is sent over. Niel gravitates to this refined upper-class lifestyle where the lady of the house wears jewels, and the Captain knows how to carve at table.
After the Captain’s death, Mrs. Forrester has a party with all the lower-class young men in town who wouldn’t know good china from dimestore dishes. She is aging and poor now but wants an audience of any kind. Niel is upset, not just that Mrs. Forrester has lovers, but that she has lower-class lovers, unworthy of her. Frank Ellinger, for instance, is known to drive his prostitutes out in public. Her relationship with Ivy Peters is the last straw. He is an ugly and vicious man, without morals or manners, and though a lawyer, is unscrupulous enough to make money by robbing others. Mrs. Forrester may have lost her money, but in Niel’s eyes, she needn’t have lost her class, which he associates with refinement. Ivy Peters’ victory over the Forresters indicates a change in American culture towards money as the only measure of respect and privilege.
3. How does Cather portray the stages of civilization?
Cather’s notion of the successive stages of civilization has something in common with Romantic ideas, such as Rousseau’s, that people who have a relationship to the land have purer and stronger character. Her experience of the settlers of the West who risked everything for their dreams, worked hard, and helped their neighbors, is idealized in O Pioneers, My Antonia, and A Lost Lady. The first generations are the dreamers; the succeeding generations are the selfish parasites living off the original sacrifice of others: “The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but not hold” (II, Chpt. I, p. 112) In A Lost Lady, the Captain’s generation—the Judge, the Captain, Cyrus Dalzell, and all the immigrant farmers are the original courageous dreamers. Even though there are two classes of dreamers, the investors and the workers, they co-operate to bring a community together. The Captain as the bank official, provided the means for the common man to realize his dream as well. He did not make them pay for the mistakes of the bank directors.
Ivy Peters is one of the smart young men who comes later to capitalize on the Captain’s efforts: “Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything. They would drink up the mirage . . . the great brooding spirit of freedom” (II, Chpt. I, p. 112). Marian Forrester changes her allegiance from one generation to the other, one set of values to the other, and this is another reason Niel disapproves of her. At the Ogden dinner party, she proudly asks the Captain to tell his philosophy of how to dream success. Later she tells Niel that he will miss the boat if he does not go for money: “Money is a very important thing. Realize that in the beginning . . . “ (II, Chpt. II, p.120).
Niel, however, values what is gone more than the modern replacement. He basks in “the afterglow” of the pioneer (II, Chpt. IX, p.178) that he holds in his heart. He makes himself of that generation by keeping faith with the Captain, nursing him, sacrificing his own time to honor the man he admires: he found “a kind of solemn happiness in his vigils” (II, Chpt. V, p.150). The engravings in the Forrester house, the rituals of tea and holidays, the set of the Bohn classics the Judge brought from the University of Virginia, and in which Niel read about what great men had “felt and lived”(86) are the proper flowering of the primary layer of civilization that has gone before—of the dreamers. Reading this literature “that gave him a long perspective” (I, Chpt. VII, p. 87) makes Niel decide to be a dreamer too, an architect, a builder, like the Captain.
4. What does it mean that Marian Forrester is “lost”?
Some have suggested that Niel Herbert is prudish for seeing Marian as lost, or that Cather, a lesbian, is disturbed by Marian’s sexuality. In an interview, Cather said Niel “isn’t a character at all; he is just a peephole into that world.” The portrait of Marian Forrester is the important focus of the novel, designed to evoke a person she loved and wanted to show honestly.
“Lost” therefore mostly means she is gone now, a memory. It also obviously refers to her sexual infidelity to the Captain, but it means something deeper than that. In every way she is contrasted to the Captain who is in possession of himself. He is constantly compared to mountains, elephants, ballast, images that are heavy and grounding. He has “a conscience that had never been juggled with. His repose was like that of a mountain” (I, Chpt. IV, p.52). He is a big solid man. He does not drop Marian when he carries her out of the mountains. He does not drop the investors in his bank when it fails. He can calm riots: “When he laid his fleshy, thick-fingered hand upon a frantic horse, an hysterical woman, an Irish workman out for blood, he brought them peace” (I, Chpt. IV, p. 52).
Marian, when Niel first meets her, reflects this kind of upper-class stability to him. The cool, quiet Forrester house contrasts to his messy lower-class environment with laundry hanging all over. Marian is seen gliding through the meadow on a summer day in a white dress bringing cookies to the boys in the grove. She tends to Niel’s broken arm. She can discuss books and art with him. She is clever and fires his imagination, making him want to reach higher “to a different world than he had ever known” (I, Chpt. III, p. 45). When he discovers her lovers, he claims he is not morally outraged as much as aesthetically outraged that she gives her lofty being over to lesser people: “What did she do with all her exquisiteness when she was with a man like Ellinger?” (I, Chpt. IX, p.106). With Ivy Peters it is worse; she stoops to flatter a man who treats her with contempt, as though she is his servant. Niel confronts her, “Why do you allow him to speak to you like that?” (II, Chpt. Chpt. III, p. 129). Her drunken abasement on the phone to Frank, which compromises her honor in front of the whole town, is painful for Niel to witness.
Niel finally realizes she is only admirable as the Captain’s wife. It is her ability to comprehend him that gives her “something that could never become worn or shabby; steel of Damascus” (I, Chpt. VI, p. 84). It is as a couple that they mean strength to him: “without him, she was like a ship without ballast, driven hither and thither by every wind” (II, Chpt. VII, p. 161). Marian begins drinking heavily when the Captain loses strength, and she must care for him. She is terrified of being “stranded” at Sweet Water. Yet the Captain knows about her fears and her lovers, and quietly accepts it all with love: “His sanity asked nothing, claimed nothing” (I, Chpt. IV, p. 52). Though poor and an invalid, the Captain keeps his dignity to the end. Marian, however becomes a painted actress in Niel’s eyes, giving in to her fears, willing to sell herself to the highest bidder. Niel wants her rather to be invincible, “the sense of tempered steel, a blade that could fence with anyone and never break” (I, Chpt. IX, p. 106), and that is why he is happy she ends well.
5. Why is this novel so short?
What is Cather’s novelistic style? Until recently, Cather was considered a minor author. Some saw her as merely a regional writer, old-fashioned in her technique, a political conservative. Criticism, using her own statements on her art, has redefined her as a major American author. A Lost Lady and Death Comes For the Archbishop are considered two of her masterpieces. Yet, Cather did not write a bulky Victorian novel, nor a modern experimental novel. She chose a more classic simplicity.
Cather admired French culture and literature, with its precise economy. She was a serious writer, dedicated to her craft, like Flaubert, for instance, author of Madame Bovary (1857), exponent of the mot juste (precise word). Cather was also influenced by the novels of Henry James with their psychological nuance and conflicts of moral character. Like James, Cather favored depth of character over plot. She wrote short stories and poetry, both forms that use compression to create moods and scenes, with the telling detail. Also a fan of drama, she conveyed character in gestures, the way they might look on stage, the Captain carving turkey, or Mrs. Forrester arranging a bowl of roses, that avoid a lot of exposition. She said in a 1925 interview: "I didn't try to make a character study, but just a portrait like a thin miniature painted on ivory. A character study of Mrs. Forrester would have been very, very different. 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.”
In an essay written just before A Lost Lady was published (“The Novel Démeublé”), the author suggests that art simplifies life, and therefore, like a Greek drama, the stage should be bare. In her novel she wants to “throw all the furniture out the window,” to leave the scene bare “for the play of emotions.” Thus, we get a few vivid scenes that remain with us, like the boys picnicking in the grove, or Niel getting disillusioned in the moment he leaves the bouquet of flowers at Marian’s window. The prose is poetic, aiming for clarity but also leaving deliberate gaps. What is left out or merely suggested is important. We are never told exactly why Marian marries a man twenty-five years younger, but the scene where he carries her out of the mountains says it all. Cather wanted to create a response in the reader, “a residue of pleasure” like a melody or a perfume or a painting. Her stories have depth through their use of symbol, image, suggestion, and “verbal mood.”
A Lost Lady: Essay Q&A