Willa Cather Describes Erotics of Place in her Novel, A Lost Lady
To discover an erotics of place in Willa Cather's A Lost Lady, takes little preparation. One begins by simply allowing Sweet Water marsh to seep into one's consciousness through Cather's exquisite prose. Two paragraphs from the middle of the novel beckon us to follow Neil Herbert, now 20 years old, into the marsh that lies on the Forrester property. This passage, rich in pastoral beauty, embraces the heart of the novel-appearing not only at the novel's center point but enfolding ideas central to the novel's theme:
An impulse of affection and guardianship drew Niel up the poplar-bordered road in the early light [. . .] and on to the marsh. The sky was burning with the soft pink and silver of a cloudless summer dawn. The heavy, bowed grasses splashed him to the knees. All over the marsh, snow-on-the-mountain, globed with dew, made cool sheets of silver, and the swamp milk-weed spread its flat, raspberry-coloured clusters. There was an almost religious purity about the fresh morning air, the tender sky, the grass and flowers with the sheen of early dew upon them. There was in all living things something limpid and joyous-like the wet morning call of the birds, flying up through the unstained atmosphere. Out of the saffron east a thin, yellow, wine-like sunshine began to gild the fragrant meadows and the glistening tops of the grove. Neil wondered why he did not often come over like this, to see the day before men and their activities had spoiled it, while the morning star was still unsullied, like a gift handed down from the heroic ages.
Under the bluffs that overhung the marsh he came upon thickets of wild roses, with flaming buds, just beginning to open. Where they opened, their petals were stained with that burning rose-colour which is always gone by noon-a dye made of sunlight and morning and moisture, so intense that it cannot possibly last . . . must fade, like ecstasy. (80-81)
In this extraordinary moment, before Neil carries a bouquet of these roses to Mrs. Forrester's window, before Neil hears Frank Ellinger's coarse laughter ring out from Mrs. Forrester's bedroom, before Captain Forrester returns from Denver in financial ruin, for one final moment Neil Herbert imbibes the perfections of the marsh. Close reading of this passage brings into focus two things: first, that Neil approaches the marsh in the role of lover and protector and second, that Cather's use of limited third-person narrative asks readers to depend on Neil Herbert's perceptions. In short, Cather invites readers participate in Neil's dual role.
Because Cather celebrates sublime beauty even as she chronicles an inevitable descent from sublimity, she captures the essence of two eras, creating a tension that draws her readers into modernity even as she enthralls them with the waning age. This novel forms a coming-of-age tale in two senses. The protagonist Neil Herbert is reaching maturity as...