My recent completion of Willa Cather’s short novel Lucy Gayheart has had me brooding over the relationship between art and emotion. It is one of Miss Cather’s lesser known works, far more obscure than her famous Prairie Trilogy, and it concerns the brief life of its title character as she falls in love with a great musician. Lucy’s connection to her musical studies shifts from a practical one (so that she can return home and teach) to an emotional one (latching onto Art as a kind of philosophical ideal). So much does she discard the practical for the emotional that she rejects her long-time love interest–a rich, young man–for an older, poorer singer.
Much later in life, as her once-suitor ponders over the life he and Lucy might have had, Harry Gordon considers that “She had ruined all that for a caprice, a piece of mawkish sentimentality” (182). Indeed, if the reader is not carried along by the young Lucy’s enthusiasm for the greatness of Art, he might be inclined to agree with Mr. Gordon. However, his own inclinations are far in the other direction: “[H]e hated a sentimental man,” the novel tells us at one point, “but he could live it through Lucy” (90), indicating some small hypocrisy in his dislike for sentiment. Indeed, earlier in the novel Harry had decided not to marry the plain, rich woman his family approved of, and instead “meant to commit the supreme extravagance and marry for beauty” (19-20). Although arguably this was not a sentimental choice, since he rather selfishly “meant to have a wife other men would envy him” (20). His preservation of Lucy’s childhood home, many years later, belies his claim to freedom from sentimentality.
The musician Lucy falls in love with, Clement Sebastian, is an older performer without roots, always traveling for performances and for the rare visit to his wife in France. Mr. Sebastian has indeed lost much of his life in sentimentality. He has been long estranged from his wife after she treated a young boy they had fostered cruelly, and he bemoans the death of an old friend who had drifted away many years prior. “Now, all in a moment, it came over him that when people spoke of their dead youth they were not using a figure of speech. The thing he was looking for had gone out into the wide air… and he was staring into the empty jar” (65).
Lucy Gayheart, being young, impressionable, and increasingly in awe of Chicago city life after a childhood in the Nebraska farmlands, falls for Sebastian. She loves that the city is a “place where so many memories and sensations were piled up, where a window or a doorway or a street-corner with a magical meaning might at any moment flash out of the fog” (21). Her admiration of Clement Sebastian sprouts after spending an evening at one of his performances:
After this invocation came five more Schubert songs, all melancholy. They made Lucy feel that there was something profoundly tragic about this man. The dark beauty of the songs seemed to her a quality in the voice itself, as kindness can be in the touch of a hand. It was as simple as that–like light changing on the water…. She was struggling with something she had never felt before. A new conception of art? It came closer than that. A new kind of personality? But it was much more. It was a discovery about life, a revelation of love as a tragic force, not a melting mood, of passion that drowns like black water. (25-6)
One might describe Clement Sebastian as a man who has lived a sentimental life to its bitter dregs; Lucy Gayheart as a woman who is mesmerized by that life, and chases it down willingly; and Harry Gordon as a man who flirted with sentimentalism, but peevishly condemns it after it rejects him. Perhaps the only unsentimental person in Lucy Gayheart is Lucy’s older sister Pauline, who is empathetic towards her sister’s plights, but acts as she believes she should rather than as she feels:
Pauline was a much more complex person than her sister: her bustling, outright manner was not quite convincing, for all its vehemence. One felt that it had very little to do with her real feelings and opinions–whatever they might be. She was, so to speak, always walking behind herself…. Indeed, Pauline told herself that she “put up a front”…. Someone had to be “normal” (a word Pauline used very often) and keep up the family’s standing in the community. (142)
Cather provides no simple solutions to the tangle of art, sentimentality, and life she presents. Is it proper to pursue the arts for such emotional reasons? The young who express awe in response to experiencing the liberal arts in their fullness for the first time often become lost in that awe, sometimes destroying their own lives in pursuit of the Muse. One thinks of Flannery O’Connor’s condemnation of sentimentality as a kind of shortcut around real life, but I am not familiar enough with Cather’s own thought to know how much of a rebuke she is actually leveling against her characters. Willa Cather was an Episcopalian, not a Catholic, but I suspect a hatred for sentimentality has more to do with temperament than religion.
Art needn’t be tragic, romantic, or sentimental to be great. On the other hand, what person would ever be attracted to a difficult life dedicated to Art if not for that simple emotionalism that hits him at just the right time in his development? Perhaps sentimentality is the entry way into such a life, but it cannot sustain an artist throughout his entire life, and must eventually give way to something more substantial or else drive him to an early grave “of passion that drowns like black water.”