Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather
by Mary Morris
from Post Road 8
I came to Willa Cather late. It was odd that she escaped me because as a girl and young woman I read books that grew out of my love of the heartland where I am from. I read Twain, Dreiser, and, of course, Laura Ingalls Wilder, but never Cather. In a sense I believe that books come to us at the right time and that’s how Willa Cather came to me. It wasn’t until I was married and living in New Mexico that I read Death Comes for the Archbishop. I was mesmerized by the gift of her storytelling, the cumulative effect of the narrative delivered with grace and ostensible simplicity.
A few years later when I was teaching at Princeton, I started talking about Cather with a friend who said, “But you haven’t read My Antonia?” It was her favorite book in the world and she told me how lucky I was—to read this book for the first time as a grown-up. I read it as one might listen to a person who is slowly coming to discover a life-long friend. Cather grew on me in that way, but it wasn’t until I caught a small squib in the newspaper that my bond was truly, irrevocably, formed.
A newspaper account said that for years Joanne Woodward had been trying to make a film out of the Cather novella Lucy Gayheart. I’d never heard of Lucy Gayheart, but I went out and got it. I opened it and read these lines:
In Haverford on the Platte, the townspeople still talk of Lucy Gayheart. They do not talk of her a great deal, to be sure; life goes on and we live in the present. But when they do mention her name it is with a gentle glow in the face or the voice, a confidential glance which says: “Yes, you, too, remember?”
I settled into my chair with a cup of tea and my dog at my side, because I knew that someone was going to tell me a story about a person’s life filled with all the tenderness and nostalgia I felt for the Middle West and a childhood I too had left behind. From the moment I began Lucy Gayheart, which opens with a touching, but portentous skating scene and ends with one of the most poignant images in fiction, I knew I had come home.
I found myself for days, living in a parallel universe with Lucy and Harry and the town of Haverford, the corrupting Chicago. The heartbreak of disappointment and mistakes that cannot be made right. Then I read the other short Cather novellas—A Lost Lady and Alexander’s Bridge. But Lucy Gayheart was the turning point for me. I had found my American Chekhov.
I realize I am not the first to feel this way about Willa Cather and I feel somewhat naive as if I am stating the obvious. But Cather came to me at a moment when I needed her. I had forgotten what it was that I loved about writing and being a writer. Why I’d begun this in the first place.
What has drawn me into Cather is the clarity of her uncluttered prose—as vast and lonely as the places she writes about. There are no pyrotechnics of language, no tap dancing turns of phrase. It is language stripped to its essentials; everything exists for the purpose of the story. When people speak of Hemingway and Raymond Carver in terms of clean, clear sentences devoted to the telling of the story I do not know why Cather is not mentioned in the same breath.
I have long been a fan of Midwestern Writers and intrigued by their migratory patterns and by the fact that from afar what they write about most is home. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dreiser, Twain, Nathaniel West, and, more recently, Baxter, Dybek, Patricia Hampl. Writers of straightforward, no-nonsense prose whose goal is to create characters we care about who live inside a story we want to hear. It is what writers are supposed to do.
We read these writers. And by that I mean we don’t have to ponder them or explicate them or use the dictionary to understand them. We read them as if someone was stoking a fire or sitting on a front stoop and telling us something we had never heard before. We grow patient and the business of our lives comes to a halt as if we’ve got nothing but time and follow the story as if being led by the hand.
Alberto Moravio once said that life is chaos; only literature makes sense. It’s as if someone has come in and straightened up the house. And for me that someone is Willa Cather •