walking swiftly with intense direction like a bird flying home

Between Cather and Wharton, I’m a hopelessly divided man. And although I hail from a Mormon polygamist family, and should have no trouble marrying both, I don’t know how to apportion my loyalties. But if I had to choose a first wife—a privileged one—I would choose the windswept and prairie-scented Cather. She’s lovable catherbeyond measure. Have you heard of Lucy Gayheart? I hadn’t. Not until recently. And for an admirer of Cather’s prose, who aspires to more than a passing knowledge of her work, that’s downright embarrassing. The very existence of the Gayheart caught me by surprise. Like learning your spouse of 25 years is a classical pianist. I found a used copy for 50 cents, and good lord am I happy for the discovery! Is it possible that Gayheart is more impressive than The Professor’s House? More tragic than A Lost Lady and grander than My Antonia? So many things to say about this fine novel. I don’t know where to start. No, wait, I do: with nature. If Cather is prairie-swept, Lucy is spring incarnate. Although we first meet Lucy ice skating on the Platte River in winter, she is an elemental force of spring. Always in motion, she is “dancing or skating, or walking swiftly with intense direction like a bird flying home.” Lucy embodies additional qualities of spring, too. She’s sweet, charming, fresh, beautiful and full of irrepressible joy. Her eyes “flash gold sparks like Colorado stone.” That’s a nice touch. And her cheeks are like “the red of dark peonies, deep and velvety.” But as with all things that flourish in spring, another season is in the offing just waiting to lay it bare. So I’ll say something more about Lucy’s fate in the next post. Hint: of time and the river. Ah, yes, the river, the opening and closing scenes…

Postscript. My beloved grandmother, dead now for many years, and who bore an uncanny resemblance to Willa Cather, a very plain, sturdy and highly approachable face, was the second wife in the celestial marriage of my grandfather Clyde. She was not the preferred wife, judging by my grandfather’s journals, a strange and curious read.

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7 Responses to walking swiftly with intense direction like a bird flying home

  1. Kat says:

    Kevin, what a beautiful piece on Lucy Gayheart. You make me want to read it again…and again…and again…and again. I admire the way you frame this essay with your own history. I personally want to marry Christopher Tietjens in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, but Cather is one of my favorrite writers.

  2. Scott W. says:

    The other day I was wracking my brain to come up with authors who write exquisitely about nature; I can’t believe Willa Cather didn’t come to mind. Now she has, thanks to your post. I’ll add this one to the lists (the nature writers and the to be read pile).

    • Hi Scott, Cormac McCarthy, too, among novelists. Peter Mathiessen, a novelist/writer. I’m thinking SHADOW COUNTRY and SNOW LEOPARD, respectively. And Annie Dillard. Those are the ones that come to mind at the moment. Cheers.

  3. Colleen says:

    I still haven’t read any Cather. I am not winning at literature.

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