Saturday, November 03, 2012

Prairie Lit: J. Hyatt Downing's A Prayer for Tomorrow & Willa Cather's A Lost Lady

Armed with a new notebook, I sat in the Special Collections room of the library and skimmed a few chapters of J. Hyatt Downing's novel, A Prayer for Tomorrow. I intended to read the whole book.  I even took a few notes.  

Published in 1938, Downie's uneven novel about prairie life has been compared to Willa Cather's luminous novel, A Lost Lady. In an article in 
The Willa Cather Newsletter & Review, "J. Hyatt Downing's A Prayer for Tomorrow:  Cather's A Lost Lady, Dakota Style," Mary Ruth Ryder explores the ways in which Downing, a novelist who grew up in Hawarden, Iowa, the hometown of the novelsit Ruth Suckow, apparently borrowed elements from Cather's novel for his successful first novel. The story lines are similar:  in A Prayer for Tomorrow, Downing's teenage hero, Lynn McVeigh, is smitten with the banker's wife, Cynthia Carr, who feels stifled in a small town in South Dakota.  In Cather's A Lost Lady, published in 1923, Niel, the judge's nephew, admires Mrs. Forrester, the charming wife of a banker and railroad man who feels stifled in her beautiful house on the edge of the small town of Sweet Water, Nebraska.

And then the bloodline of the books becomes more complicated.  A Lost Lady, which I just reread,  owes something to Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, published in 1920.  In Main Street, Carol Kennicott, a librarian in St. Paul, marries a doctor and moves to Gopher Prairie, where she desperately tries to bring culture and improvements.  She has more resources than the shallow Marion Forrester, who desperately needs dancing, flirting, and parties. Yet both the well-read Carol and the flibbertigibbet Mrs. Forrester are sympathetic characters, because we understand their distress and restlessness in the dull small towns.

I lasted about 45 minutes reading A Prayer for Tomorrow.  I cannot check it out--it is in the Special Collections room, though why I can hardly say--so I will have to order it via interlibrary loan.  It is not that it is a bad book, but it certainly is not a good book.  It is certainly not good enough to have to read in the library under indifferent lighting.   I'll tell you what I like about it:  the description of the prairie.  No one can understand the beauty and the bleakness of the prairie without living here, and it took me 10 years to see it.  And the desolation of Lynn and his mother, terrified by the temperamental itinerant Mr. McVeigh, is not the kind of thing we usually read in novels about the valiant pioneers, unless they're by Willa Cather. 

It is with a shock of recognition that I read about Lynn's impressions of the prairie, a sea of grass, which he first sees from the train on his way from Iowa to the Dakotas, where his ne'er-do-well father has decided to become a cattleman.  In a small railroad town, the owner of the hardware store tells Lynn about the violation of the landscape and the changing of the West, not for the better, with farmers moving in with the promises of cheap land from the government.

"But I can tell 'em one thing:  if they ever plow up the grass, they'll be destroyin' a better crop than they can plant.  Once they plow here, she won't come back.  She's gone."
Willa Cather Memorial Prairie
And this is exactly what happened.  Now prairies are designed and planted to restore the original landscape.  We go to parks to see the prairie.  The Willa Cather Prairie is an example of one such project.

Here is a link to The Willa Cather Foundation website.


Tony S. said...

Hi, I spent a long time writing a fairly long comment for this article yesterday and it seemed to pass, but is gone now.
My main point was how much I like Willa Cather and if you had ever heard of Zona Gale, a writer from Wisconsin in the 1920s, whose novel 'Miss Lulu Bett" is very good.

Frisbee said...

Tony, I'm sorry your comment got lost. I find it very difficult to post at Blogger anyway with all the letters and blurry numbers to type in, and one person has had so much trouble she sending me her comments by email now. There must be some glitch.

Thank you for the recommendation of "Miss Lulu Bett." I can get this free on my Nook, and that is a strong recommendation for me!

Cather is great: I'm glad you like her.