The Elusive American Dream of Cather and Fitzgerald Essay

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It has been said that F. Scott Fitzgerald first drafted the 1925 masterpiece The Great Gatsby in response to Willa Cathers A Lost Lady.  While Fitzgeralds literary intentions remain a matter of subjective speculation, it is, however, a well-known and documented fact that in 1924 Fitzgerald read A Lost Lady during his initial drafting of The Great Gatsby.  The influence A Lost Lady had upon Fitzgerald was profound enough to compel him to send a letter of praise, requesting permission and forgiveness, to Cather along with an early copy of The Great Gatsby.  This essay sets out to explore this influence.

Cathers presence is veiled but evident throughout The Great Gatsby.  Fitzgeralds use and style of language and contextual content echoes Cather down to the very character structure and moral foundation of each novel evidenced through the first-person narratives of Nick Carraway and Niel Herbert in The Great Gatsby and A Lost Lady, respectively.

While these physical similarities are spotted easily enough, attention must be paid to the subtle manner in which Fitzgerald questions class and social structure as if the very ghost of Niel Herbert were watching his every pen stroke.   In The Great Gatsby, the social structure is distinguished by two neighborhoods the East Egg and the West Egg and by the brooding and stained Valley of Ashes, presided over by T. J. Eckleberg.  The East Egg represents old money, established wealth, which is represented by Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

This correlates with the distinctions between Captain Forresters regional bank, the towns mainstay for generations, and the new national businesses represented by Ivy Peters.  Cather describes this clash through Niel:  There were then two distinct social strata in the prairie States; the homesteaders and hand-workers who were there to make a living, and the bankers and gentlemen ranchers who came from the Atlantic seaboard to invest money and to develop our great West as they used to tell us (Cather 3).  The irony is evident in Cathers tone, as if the homesteaders could never have made the improvements to their own homes unless the coastal business owners came to help.

This clash of cultures is evident in both Cathers and Fitzgeralds characterization of certain individuals.  Ivy Peters is an uncouth, disrespectful young man who feels no reverence for the ailing Captain or his unhappy wife.  Niels first occasion with him is to observe his cruel killing of a woodpecker, foreshadowing his later cruelty to the Forresters.  Clearly the established genteel lifestyle is slipping away along with the lives of Captain and Mrs. Forrester, only to be replaced by a brazen group of Ivy Peters.

  Likewise, Tom Buchanan represents the old money while Jay Gatsby, with his yellow car, huge mansion and ostentations parties, represents the newer tradition of lavish overspending and conspicuous consumption.  Nick notes that Tom and Daisy seem restless, with Tom drifting on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game (Fitzgerald, Ch 1).  Later, Nick comes to understand that Tom is an unfaithful brute, with the same cruel abilities as Poison Ivy Peters.

Through a comparison of both the linguistic style and tone of each novel as well as the direct relationship of the characters Nick Carraway, Niel Herbert, Marian Forrester, and Daisy Buchanan, insight regarding Cathers influence upon Fitzgerald as well as each novels inquiry into the notions of wealth and family value will be made clear.   The main points of observation for Niel and Nick are the female characters Marian, Mrs. Forrester, and Daisy Buchanan.  Niel seems infatuated with Mrs. Forrester as a older icon of the small town wealth and beauty, while Daisy, as the subject of Gatsbys obsession, is more of a peer to Nick at first, about whom he initially notes, I had no sight into Daisys heart (Fitzgerald, Ch. 1).

In many ways, Cather suffered a breakdown and self reinvention of sorts prior to her drafting of A Lost Lady.  Following the 1922 publication of her novel One of Ours which widely received discouraging and unfavorable reviews, Cather suffered both emotional as well as physical distress.  A series of operations which left her in a weakened state coupled with the permanent exodus to Europe of the love of her life, Issabelle McClung, whose relationship Cather describes as a loving friendship, the exact nature of which cannot be determined  would have understandably sapped much of her former vigor and literary confidence (Ambrose, 335).

Understandably, the relationships in Cathers novel seem to fail in the eyes of her narrator. When Niel sees Mrs. Forrester and Ellinger in a compromising position, his idealistic notion of her is shot.  Likewise, Nicks discovery of Myrtle adds to his disregard for Tom.  Their respective infidelities seem to be more violent than affectionate, as if Cather and Fitzgerald both wanted to make a point about doomed relationships.

When Ellinger and Marian consummate their relationship, Cather describes the scene as a juxtaposition of sound and feeling:  When the strokes of the hatchet rang out from the ravine, he could see her eyelids flutter¦soft shivers went through her body (Cather 55).  The idea is that the sound of the axe cutting the wood hints at the severing of their ties eventually, which occurs, when Ellinger marries Candace.

Likewise, Nicks evening with Tom and Myrtle also ends with violence as she taunts him into rage, breaking her nose.  The image of bloody towels upon the bath-room floor, and womens voices scolding, and high over the confusion a long broken wail of pain (Fitzgerald, Ch. 2) prompts Nick to the door.

However, the closest similarity between Cathers novel and Fitzgeralds is the depiction of Daisy Buchanan.  In fact, Fitzgerald, while admittedly a fierce admirer of Cather, wanted to be clear that he did not plagiarize this character.  In a letter to Cather, he insisted that he had actually written his notes for the character weeks before he read A Lost Lady.  He was anxious to show her that hed written his description before A Lost Lady had been published, and sent her copies of his manuscript pages to prove it. She graciously replied that the only way to describe beauty was to describe its effect, and said she saw no instance of plagiarism (Smith).

Marian is Niels epitome of beauty and virtue just as Daisy is that for Jay Gatsby and, to a lesser extent, to Nick.  However, neither women is able to live up to this ideal.  For Marian, her infidelity, flirtatiousness, poor business choices and drinking eventually spoil Niels perfect picture of her.  When he actually discovers her in the arms of Frank, he angrily smashes the roses he had brought her noting, however, that It was not a moral scruple she had outraged, but an aesthetic ideal (Cather 72). Niel has lost his image of the perfect women.  Daisy wears on Nick very early as a spoiled, vacuous woman whose only advice for her little girl is to be a beautiful, little fool.  Her knowledge of Toms affair and her blithe chiding of him seem to indicate to Nick that she does not particularly care.   More importantly, however, is her affect on Gatsby.

Having once been lovers, Daisy moved on when Gatsby went overseas.  His idealistic affection for her never ceases, and his existence seems carved out to meet the one goal of regaining her.  Clearly, this does not happen for him, punctuating the sadness felt by Cather at her friends leaving and perhaps even Fitzgerald himself at his wifes infidelity.

 Toward the end of this dreary year of her life, Cather joined the Episcopal Church, in an attempt it would seem to regain some structure and a solid foundation in which to rebuild her life.  In many ways the religious notions of tradition and the sacred union of marriage are evident in the very construction of A Lost Lady seen through the idyllic family structure embodied by the lifestyle of Daniel (Captain) and Marian Forrester.

      Fitzgerald and his wife had no such religious conversions.  In fact, their behavior mirrored that of Daisy and Gatsby.  Both Scott and Zelda had entered a new period in their lives: both drinking heavily and seemingly to dare each other to ever more reckless and outrageous acts (Prigozy).  It was this extravagant lifestyle that claimed them both Scott to an early death due to alcoholism, and Zelda to a tragic fire in the mental hospital to which she was confined.

The suffering undergone by Cather before the publication of A Lost Lady is also very similar to the personal experiences of Fitzgerald during roughly the same time period.  These sentiments are referenced continually throughout Fitzgeralds The Crack Up, perhaps most notably in the form of an unnamed female voice which adamantly urges By God, if I ever cracked, Id try to make the world crack with me.

Listen!  The world only exists through your apprehension of it, and so its much better to say that its not you thats cracked-its the Grand Canyon (Fitzgerald, 74).  The concept of finding meaning within the chaos, peace throughout the storm, is a mentality which appears to have strengthened and guided each author throughout their own literary and personal struggles.

Whether the narration of this anonymous woman is truly a reference to Cathers voice and thus her influence is truly a matter of speculation.  However the subject matter contains undeniable sentiments of a shared feeling of hopelessness and a loss of faith that fuel each novel.  This loss of faith is mirrored by similar instances in the authors lives.

Evidence of this state of mind is seen in the manner in which Marian Forrester literally unravels as she strays from her husband in favor of spending an increasing amount of time with the unwholesome and sleazy Ivy Peters.  It is in this relationship that Cather depicts the Forrester final fall from grace as the town of Sweet Water, especially Niel Herbert, begin to view this model of tradition and family value with disgust and disdain.

The same presentation of the ideal family life which is much like a shiny red apple riddled with decay at the core is echoed throughout The Great Gatsby, particularly when Tom Buchanan realizes Daisy and Gatsbys relationship:

I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife.  Well, if thats the idea you can count me out¦  Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next theyll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.

Flushed with his impassioned gibberish [Tom] saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization.

Were all white here, murmured Jordan.

I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all

This conversation reveals the hypocrisy that Nick immediately recognizes in all of the people he meets, a hypocrisy which drives him to the opposite coast of the country.  Similarly, the hypocritical Ivy Peters and his continued relationship with Mrs. Forrester also create disdain in Niel.

Perhaps Fitzgeralds unspoken empathy for a lost love is responsible for the construction and demolition of the American dream in The Great Gatsby.  The manner in which Fitzgerald constructs the relationship between Tom and Daisy Buchanan so it can be torn apart with ease hints at the feelings of bitterness and cynicism both Cather and Fitzgerald harbored in their own hearts.

Prigozy, Ruth.  The Romantic Eogists. The Fitzgeralds.  Retrieved 9 April 2007 from


Smith, S.A. Willa Cather: A Lost Lady? Retrieved 9 April 2007 from   

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