Saturday, November 17, 2012

Always in Motion: Willa Cather's Lucy Gayheart

Willa Cather's Lucy Gayheart is a brilliant short novel, so brilliant that I am astonished it is not better known. Cather's My Antonia, a classic about pioneer immigrants, is often assumed to be her masterpiece because it is canonzied as a high school text.  I would rate Lucy Gayheart, a tragic novel about a young woman from Nebraska studying music in Chicago, on the same plane as, or perhaps even higher than My Antonia.  

I discovered Lucy Gayheart many years ago when I bought the paperback because of a pretty cover. It quickly became one of my favorites. I love this novel partly because of the lyrical prose, and partly because it describes the struggles of a young woman to transcend the narrowness of a small Midwestern town through music.

Divided into three parts, the novel vividly chronicles the brief life of Lucy, a graceful young woman and piano student who suffers a terrible loss and then is lost herself. The first-person plural narrator of the opening chapter tells us that Lucy is dead and still missed, remembered by the people of her hometown, Haverford, Nebraska, "as a slight figure always in motion, dancing or skating, or walking swiftly with intense direction, like a bird flying home."  But this narrator, describing her absences from Nebraska, doesn't quite see her as the ardent young woman she is.

We missed Lucy in Haverford when she went away to Chicago to study music.  She was eighteen years old then; talented, but too careless and light-hearted to take herself very seriously.  She never dreamed of a "career."  she thought of music as a natural form of pleasure, and as a means of earning money to help her father when she came home. 

One cannot be too serious if one is to be accepted in Haverford, and though it is true that Lucy is unselfconscious and unambitious, the narrator does not understand her intensity about music.

But when the narrative switches to the third-person point of view, we see a very different, deeper Lucy.  At home from Chicago for Christmas vacation, she ice-skates joyously on the Platte with her friend Harry, a banker, and on the way home, exhausted in the sleigh, is suddenly revived by the sight of the first star, which "spoke to her like a signal, released another kind of life and feeling which did not belong here."

In Chicago, where her adult life is, Lucy is thankful to retire to her own room above a German bakery, where itinerant salesmen and other independent working people rent rooms.  Here she is not answerable to her neighbors for every move she makes.  Her music teacher, Professor Auerbach, regards her as a prodigy, and has found her work as a temporary accompanist to a great singer, Clement Sebastian.   Spellbound by Sebastian's talent and charm, she admits she is in love with him after she mistakenly believes he  is teasing her about her crush.  Sebastian is married, but he certainly enjoys her worship and their embraces, and he makes plans for Lucy to work with him in New York the next year.

One of Cather's greatest gifts is her description of life in Chicago, where it seems always to be winter.  The weather suits Lucy perfectly; indeed, she doesn't notice it, because it is the musical life, not the conventional small-town ties and skating parties, that matter here. Lucy is close to her professor and to Sebastian, but otherwise delights in casual relationships.  She likes the older people on the periphery:  perennial mother and father figures.   Mrs. Schneff at the bakery ask her "how come" she eats more breakfast now.  "Lucy laughed and told her she was making more money now."  And she considers Giuseppe, Sebastian's music-loving valet, is her friend.  She regards him "as if he were a protector among things that were new and strange." 

Cather is enchanted by music:  she also wrote a novel about an opera singer, The Song of the Lark, and several short stories about musicians and artists in Youth and the Medusa.  Her vivid descriptions of Lucy's reactions to concerts and operas evoke the beauty and passion of music.

Willa Cather
One of the pivotal points is Harry's week's vacation in Chicago, when he assumes Lucy will be free to entertain him.  Although she has enjoyed their trips to the opera and dinner in the past, now she wants to get back quickly to her own life.  When Harry proposes to her, she lets him suppose she is Sebastian's mistress to get rid of him.

But a tragedy drives Lucy home to Haverford, where she has a quiet nervous breakdown.  The graceful, laughing girl is gone.  She lies down in the orchard all day and becomes hysterical when she learns that her sister intends to cut down the trees and plant onions.  Pauline, concerned about Lucy, cancels her plans. 

Harry never forgives Lucy, and she feels that if only he would be her friend, she would be herself again.  And it is Harry's denial of her that causes another tragedy.   The last part of the novel is told from Harry's point of view.

If you are a fan of Edith Wharton, you are likely to admire this novel very much.  It is reminiscent of, but better than, Wharton's small-town masterpiecs, Ethan Frome and Summer.

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