Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mawkish Sentimentality: Cather’s Lucy Gayheart

An observation after reading Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart: unsatisfying novels by classic writers often provide the very worst reading disappointments. I found Lucy Gayheart particularly unsatisfying because I read and enjoyed two or three of Cather’s books, including My Ántonia and Death Comes to the Archbishop, in high school and college. That, of course, was so long ago that I’m not sure if the problem is with my changing tastes or with Lucy Gayheart itself. Probably both.

Lucy Gayheart is the story of a young woman who leaves a small, cold Nebraska hometown to study music in Chicago. Lucy leaves behind her widower father and older sister, both of whom sacrificed to raise Lucy, and her banker beau Harry Gordon. In Chicago, Lucy finds work as an accompanist for singer Clement Sebastian, a well-travelled older man who has a condescending streak. They fall in love. Separate tragedies, which I’ll try not to reveal below, ensue for Sebastian and Lucy.

I’m sure many of my problems with Lucy Gayheart derive from my own reading history: themes of tragic love and music figure into Russian stories like Aleksandr Kuprin’s “Garnet Bracelet” and Lev Tolstoi’s Kreutzer Sonata. Neither of those pieces appeals to me much, either, though I’ve always had a soft spot for Russian sentimentalism, particularly Nikolai Karamzin’s Poor Liza. Liza and Lucy share plenty of themes, too, like tragic love between a younger woman and a more sophisticated man, and a wagon-load of sentimentality. I think those themes work much better, though, in Karamzin’s eighteenth-century story than in Cather’s 1935 novel.

I think my biggest difficulty with Lucy Gayheart is that it feels mawkishly sentimental—oddly, I was thinking of the book as “mawkish,” a word I rarely use, even before I read Harry Gordon reminiscing about Lucy by thinking “She had ruined all that for a caprice, a piece of mawkish sentimentality.” Worse, Cather never convinced me that Lucy and Sebastian could fall in love: Lucy hearing Sebastian sing “When We Two Parted” and then sensing impending doom just wasn’t enough.

Lucy Gayheart has a neat structure with motifs, like ice skating, that run through the whole novel, and Cather creates some fitting contrasts between town and city. A Chicago passage about “the crowded hour in the crowded part of the city” felt particularly lively. Lucy and Sebastian, though, felt anything but lively, too flat and empty as characters to develop into a true couple. Lucy, with her strong stride and love for cold weather, just doesn’t seem the type to melt for a man like Sebastian, in his velvet jacket. Poor Harry Gordon, who marries another woman after Lucy pushes him aside, feels like the most complex figure of all, thinking of Lucy’s choice as mawkishly sentimental but going to great lengths to preserve his conflicting memories of her.

Up Next: Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, which is definitely not a sentimental novel. Or maybe I’ll finally post about Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption.

Image credit: Carl Van Vechten's photo of Cather in 1936; photo received via Wikipedia.

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  1. Mawkish...
    Don't you love it when a great word comes along and you find yourself using it appropriately?
    I've been hung up on "dismissed" and "tangible" reviews are peppered with them. Which may be an improvement over "poignant", which I really wore out.

    Seriously, I get it about classic authors. Tender is the Night was possibly the most disappointing novel ever; I couldn't see how it gets so much status. And the dialogue! I'd rather read a five-year old People magazine...although, they do have similar elements.

  2. Ah, yes, "poignant"! I found myself using it last weekend, at the translation conference when nothing else quite fit to describe the novella I'm translating. And then I used "mawkish" to describe something else.

    It's true what you say about those common elements in classics and People: melodrama is everywhere! So often it's just the treatment/formal aspects that differ.

  3. You might want to read Linda Chown's essay on "Lucy Gayheart" before you dismiss this novel as mawkish and sentimental. The essay is titled "It Came Closer Than That" and appears in Cather Studies, Volume 2.
    Here is a link:
    Rick Wilson