Preface to A Lost Lady

By Evan Miller

March 24, 2019

Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady is a kind of drawing-room Western that tells a story of decline: the decline of youth, the decline of a certain kind of railroad town, the demise, I guess, of civic virtue and purpose on the former frontier. Gibbon writ small, you might say.

In the center of the story is a lady, or at least a woman who fancies herself as such. A Lost Lady is a short novel that takes place over a near-decade, and in that time, the titular character uses her magnetic personality to draw in her direction nearly every male needle, of every age, in a fifty mile radius.

The story is about aimless men as much as it is about the listless lady on the cover. Go West, young man, said Horace Greeley (supposedly). But what’s a newspaper-believing lad to do when the Western lands are claimed, the Indians are contained, and the golden spike is museum exhibit 48? The old men drink, and the young men drift back East. In some sense the book is Turner’s frontier thesis in reverse.

What’s special about A Lost Lady? The scenes are sketched with a gentle hand, whether it’s boys out fishing, or a scorned lover begging, or rich people eating themselves numb. The characters don’t talk too much, unless they’re hiding something. They feel as if they’re drawn from life, warts and gout and erysipelas and all.

Except for the Lady’s much-older husband, a kind of stoical, self-sacrificing icon from a previous era, the characters are all fundamentally distasteful: manipulative, self-deluding, spiteful. Coming-of-age in this bildungsroman consists of realizing how horrible and sad and alone everyone is. It’s a blue-period Picasso, or rather one of those exquisite rotting-fruit still-lifes that only the Dutch had the temperament to paint. Looks beautiful, at first. But then…

A Lost Lady is a kind of lonely winter treat, a spiked cider, a hypnotic depressant. This is the inevitable ennui after the dopamine-fueled gold rush, an eternal Nebraska hangover that is cured only by death or departure on an anybound Union Pacific. It’s a world without morals, but not in an exciting, axe-murdering kind of way; more like the bored suburban adultery of a John Cheever story. It feels real. Perhaps too real to make any famous-book lists or high-school curricula.

But several months after reading it, I still feel like I was there once, in that railroad town, in that post-railroad era, with nothing to do, nobody to love, nowhere to be. Surrounded by all those awful people, ensconced in their own self-deception.

Let’s read A Lost Lady: book + commentary (YouTube)

A Lost Lady: Vintage Classics (Amazon)

A Lost Lady: full text (eBooks @ Adelaide)


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