NOTE: This post contains spoilers about the novel A Lost Lady
I’m incapable of turning down a good organized read these days. I’ve missed the group discussion dynamic, the “hive mind” of readers with varying degrees of expertise and experience. Discussing books together brings a lot more to the table. To be honest, it usually means I have to do less work. Let someone else think the thoughts and post them. I do my share, but I appreciate others who fill in the gaps. It’s a literary symbiotic relationship.
At the moment, I’m participating in two group reads: Willa Cather’s ‘A Lost Lady’ and Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘The House in Paris.’ These are two very different writers, making them easier to juggle. Cather’s prose is direct and straight-forward, meaningful but not particularly dense. Bowen is a modernist, her style multi-layered, requiring greater depth of study. I can read Cather quickly once through, skimming key passages again if I need to, and feel confident I’ve understood her meaning. Elizabeth Bowen requires much more heavy lifting. I read her chapters sometimes two and three times and there’s still a lot of room for interpretation.
I enjoy them both because they are so different. I read Cather for deeply-rooted, early-20th Century American stories with a narrow focus on specific American regions – mostly the Great Plains and Southwest. She largely writes about the immigrant experience and the dramas of everyday life. Though most of her writing could be classified as somewhat plain – by which I mean without adornment, easily understood – she’s capable of moments of lyrical and poetic beauty, most especially when she writes about the natural world.
I also love Cather because she was a literary badass, gender-fluid before we knew the term, opinionated and ambitious. A writer of short stories and novels, book reviews and non-fiction pieces, Willa Cather was the editor of a major periodical – McClure’s Magazine – credited with originating muckraking journalism, investigative reporting that goes after criminal activity and deceptive practices amongst the wealthy and powerful. There’s so much more I want to know about her.
I’ve finished reading both books, though in the case of Bowen that means I’ve finished passing the words in front of my eyes to find out what happens; with the discussion ongoing, there’s still a long way to go in understanding the nuances. The part of me that loves literary scholarship thrives on writers like Elizabeth Bowen. I could just read her novels for their surface stories, but that’s just not me.
I love a good literary dig. The problem is it can be tiring, one reason my ears perked up when I saw a Twitter summer read poll conducted by the bookish podcast The Mookse and the Gripes, which A Lost Lady won. I’ve read the novel before – last year, over my Great Cather Vacation Adventure in Red Cloud, NE – but I’m an unashamed re-reader. This isn’t a proper, in-depth discussion, it’s more about posting a few thoughts and quotes on Twitter, in advance of the podcast recording sometime this week. They wanted to generate interest and encourage readers to pick up Cather. So far I don’t see a full discussion happening, but the podcast will cover it in more depth with the help of reader comments on Twitter.
A Lost Lady is one of the books set in Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, NE. She changed the name of the place to Sweet Water, but there’s no real attempt at subterfuge. The married couple in the novel, Marian and Captain Forrester, are based on Red Cloud banking family Seward Garber and his wife, Marian Forrester is a young, beautiful woman married to a much older man. She is charming and well-loved, inspiring the adoration of every man in town – if not so much the women. She has an affair, but it’s not ruinous. It’s a thing understood to be true, a rumor no one can absolutely prove, but it’s a very small town. You can’t hide big secrets in small towns. Marian stays with her adoring husband, he says nothing about it, and their lives slide on comfortably until first they fall on hard financial times, and then he suffers a debilitating stroke. Without her solid husband to lean on, Marian’s standing in the community is less secure. From here on she’s living by her wits.
Growing up in Red Cloud, Willa was canny enough to understand the stories told about Mrs. Garber, the bankers wife. To the surprise and dismay of her mother, to whom Cather confessed later, rumors got around and she knew every tale. The town tour I took in June 2021 covered the major players in Red Cloud and in Cather’s life. The place is miniscule. Everyone knew everyone else, which makes it very easy to know their business. I asked the tour guide how the residents took it when Cather used them as characters, if they were angry or confrontational. Quite the opposite, she said. Cather brought fame to Red Cloud, and fame brings tourists who still come to the town in search of the settings and characters from some of her most famous novels. Mrs. Garber must have cringed, but there were no defamation suits. Cather funnelled a lot of her money into Red Cloud, sponsoring buiding initiatives and donating generously. She wasn’t from there, having been born in Virginia, but this was where important formative years were spent. She saw through them and loved them anyway. Willa Cather was adopted as a hometown celebrity and admired for the rest of her life, though she never moved back.
As for contemporary readers of Cather’s novels, F Scott Fitzgerald was a huge fan. Taking a break from revising The Great Gatsby, he read A Lost Lady. The key issue here is – though he later contacted her to explain his side in case she thought he’d committed plagiarism – the Gatsby characters Daisy Buchanan and Nick Carraway closely resemble Marian Forrester and Niel Herbert from A Lost Lady. Once I read his letter to her and a piece about the stuation, I couldn’t un-see the similarities. When he wrote Cather, she replied she’d read his book and loved it. It never occurred to her he may have stolen her work. While I’ll admit I haven’t done my homework, I’m not sure I trust him as much as she did.
I will keep watching Twitter for tweets about A Lost Lady and participate accordingly, but it’s time to channel energy back into Elizabeth Bowen and the other books I’m reading, including a selection of the Booker Longlist 2022 titles. That’s a whole other subject, for another day.