Willa Cather's «Lucy Gayheart» and Franz Schubert's «Winterreise»

A Study in Intertextualtity

by Marianne Davidson (Author)
Monographs 200 Pages


This monograph restores Willa Cather’s «Lucy Gayheart» from superficial attention and dismissive criticism. Departing from textual evidence, it reads the novel in the light of its own intertext: Wilhelm Müller’s and Franz Schubert’s «Winterreise» (Winter Journey). The identification of startling parallels between the eligist of the American pioneer period and representatives of literary and musical German romanticism elicits new subtexts and insights. Novel and song cycle share themes such as the blending of memory, desire and imagination or a tragic vision of life offset by the search for transcendental meaning. Conclusively, both works result in ambivalence by oscillating between romanticism and modernism.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Romanticism: An Attempt at Definition
  • 3. Wilhelm Müller: An Extraordinary Poet behind an Ordinary Name
  • 4. Franz Schubert: Creator of the German Lied
  • 5. Willa Cather: A European-American
  • 5.1. Notes on American Culture
  • 5.2. Willa Cather in Context
  • 5.3. From East to West: Cather’s Reculturation
  • 5.4. From West to East: The Emergent Writer
  • 5.5. The Work: Where Europe and America Meet
  • 6. Willa Cather and Franz Schubert: Parallels in Aesthetics
  • 6.1. Art as a Form of Escapism
  • 6.2. Modernism
  • 6.3. Aesthetics of the Schubert Song
  • 6.4. Aesthetics of the Intangible
  • 7. Winterreise (Winter Journey)
  • 7.1. Rejected Love
  • 7.2. The Wanderer
  • 7.3. Failed Socialization
  • 7.4. Duality of Nature
  • 7.5. The Journey Motif
  • 7.6. Winterreise as a Work of Art
  • 8. Lucy Gayheart
  • 8.1. Intertextuality
  • 8.2. Divided Selves
  • 8.2.1. Lucy
  • 8.2.2. Clement Sebastian
  • 8.2.3. Harry Gordon
  • 8.3. Configured to Cohere
  • 8.4. Unlived Love
  • 8.5. Isolation
  • 8.5.1. Lucy: Caught in Marginality
  • 8.5.2. Harry’s Desocialization
  • 8.5.3. Sebastian: Life in Transit
  • 8.6. Lucy’s Visions of Nature
  • 8.7. Interlacing Journeys
  • 9. Conclusion: From Romanticism to Modernism
  • Bibliography

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1. Introduction

A contextualization between a twentieth-century American novelist, Willa Cather, and two representatives of German romanticism, Wilhelm Müller and Franz Schubert, seems to be a rather unusual undertaking. However, the distance between them is shortened by Cather’s life and work having been strongly impacted by European culture. This was not so much on account of her ethnicity as her familiarity with European immigrants on the one hand, and her awareness of and personal preference for certain cultural values, on the other. Especially German music, like the operas of Richard Wagner, accompanied her throughout her whole life, while in her later years German art songs took precedence, possibly because their aesthetics paralleled her own.

So when in the 1930s Cather wrote Lucy Gayheart, a novel about a young musician, its focus on the development of an artist imbued with the author’s own artistic propensities was to be expected. Yet this was not the case, in fact Cather herself, physically and mentally fatigued, did not hold her own work in very high esteem. She may have anticipated its dismissal as a rather sentimental romance with stock characters in stock situations. Besides, in the aftermath of the 1929 Depression American literature and the criticism it spawned embraced the notion that it was the harsh economic and social realities of American life which called for fictionalization. Consequently, Lucy Gayheart came to be considered as retrograde in content, form and style. Given the fact that Cather’s penultimate novel is her densest in terms of musical, literary and herewith philosophical intertext, it is rather surprising that academia did not appreciate its scope of erudition. Perhaps, the ideational complexities of German romanticism informing Franz Schubert’s songs and song cycles were beyond the critical perimeter. Without the attempt to explore the correspondences between text and intertext significant subtext kept lying dormant.

A move in this direction was made by Richard Giannone with his study Music in Willa Cathers Fiction (1968), in which he approaches Cather’s narratives by connecting them with their musical references. A more profound reading of Lucy Gayheart, however, fails to materialize because Giannone’s interpretation of Schubert’s Winterreise – his use of the definite article before the word seems symptomatic – runs counter to what text and music express. They do not affirm life as a paramount force but convey a modernist vision of the human condition being marked by a sense of isolation and aporia. Given Giannone’s premise ← 11 | 12 → the novel is bound to be understood as the vehicle of an affirmative and rather pleasing message.

This study departs from an interpretation of Winterreise which finds it located between romanticism and modernism and gains new insights into Cather’s novel accordingly. At first, certain preliminary steps have to be taken insofar as important motifs of romanticism informing text and intertext must be identified as well as the parallels in Schubert’s and Cather’s aesthetics. To ensure a more comprehensive interpretative context some light must be shed on whatever in Cather’s and Schubert’s biographies and works connects with the approach of this study. Again, in drawing from the traditional inventory of romantic motifs and imagery, while subverting it, Schubert’s last song cycle expresses an ambivalent if not a tragic and nihilistic vision of human life. Reading Lucy Gayheart in this light elicits subtext of similar meaning. Hence the novel’s supposed conventionality is superseded by surprising complexity, simply unperceived so far.

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2. Romanticism: An Attempt at Definition

Have you always longed for a trip to a romantic island in the South Seas? What about the romantic Lake District in England or a small town along the Romantic Road in southern Germany? Your accommodation can be a hotel blending luxury with romanticism or even a romantic monastery. An island vacation may afford you a romantic walk on the beach, a romantic swim by a waterfall while bathing in romantic moonlight. No matter where your romantic desires will take you, a romantic candle-light dinner with a romantic type, possibly leading to a romantic tryst that fulfills your romantic dreams may be available independently of your whereabouts. It all depends on your heightened sensitivity to the romantic promises of life. Now, how would the tourist industry for one fare without what the word ‘romantic’ so universally and powerfully connotes? Commercialized and subjected to many different purposes, ‘romantic’ and ‘romanticism’ have been misused, overused, corrupted and thereby experienced catachresis if not eventual voiding of meaning. Still, the words would not be in such wide circulation if they did not evoke all sorts of mental and emotional notions and images contingent on individual experiences and needs.

Since a virtual encounter between a “romantic youth” (the wanderer of Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winter Journey) and a “romantic young woman”1 (the female protagonist of Willa Cather’s novel Lucy Gayheart) is to be arranged for here, a more serious yet tentative attempt at definition must be made. Books of reference such as literary dictionaries are certainly useful quarries to be mined and so one finds the information that the German man of letters Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829) was the first to establish ‘romantic’ in literary contexts, defining it as the depiction of emotional matter in an imaginative form.2 Although considered too vague and formless, Schlegel’s definition makes us bear in mind that we are moving into an area where, however bent on clarity we may be, much must be intuited as it cannot be definitely known. But the word had already been used in Germany in the seventeenth century in the French sense of ‘romanesque’, meaning fanciful, bizarre, or chimerical and from the middle of the eighteenth century on in the English sense of gentle and melancholy – a usage which most probably ← 13 | 14 → originated in the influence of early English romanticism on German literature.3 A more etymologically oriented exploration yields the information that ‘romantic’ is derived from ‘lingua romana’, a global term encompassing the vernacular romance languages of the high to late Middle Ages which stemmed from Latin as the medium of high culture and learning, yet, contrasted with it, were purposely used for the genre of courtly romances, i.e. adventures that were not composed in classic meters.

From this follows the twofold association Friedrich Schlegel establishes in his Brief über den Roman (1800) (Letter about the Novel), in which he defines the novel as a romantic book in terms of being fanciful, unreal, and adventurous.4 By the same token, whatever is romantic in content and spirit is considered a ‘Roman’ (novel) by Schlegel and so the dissolution of the lines of demarcation between literary forms is not only tolerated but actually desired. Often including intertextual poetry, the novel became the preferred genre of the romantics. The interpolation of songs and poems in Heinrich von Ofterdingen by Friedrich von Hardenberg alias Novalis (1772–1801) could easily be motivated as the novel is about the development of a medieval minnesinger. Joseph von Eichendorff’s novella Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (1826) (From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing) also lends itself very well to this mixture of forms, with the main character’s favorite mode of expression being song and music. Flexibility and cooperation on the part of the reader are expected because he finds himself challenged to explore themes and ideas which interconnect prose and poem, an effort for which he is rewarded by a deeper understanding of both. This moving within the hermeneutic circle of textual detail and whole, proposed by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), an anticipator of romanticism, as an important instrument of literary criticism, is given another dimension by the inclusion of poetic metaphors and symbols, which are essentially unfathomable because they prove resistant to complete elucidation. Conversely, Wilhelm Müller (1794–1825) chose poetry instead of narrative forms to communicate the trajectory of a story. In Die schöne Müllerin (The Fair Mill-Maid) and in Winterreise (Winter Journey) he apparently put more trust into the evocative force of poems to transform past experience into present, thereby enhancing its emotional impact. The former cycle, symmetrically divided into two parts, also evinces a closed dramatic form by moving from exposition to climax and then on to the catastrophe.5 Although in traditional poetics different ← 14 | 15 → literary categories, due to their respective aesthetic and linguistic structures, had been distinguished, Müller’s elimination of borderlines went unchallenged. “Das Leben soll kein uns gegebener, sondern ein von uns gemachter Roman sein.”6 Postulating that “life should not be a novel handed down to us but produced by ourselves,” Novalis takes Schlegel’s appropriation of the novel as suited best to romanticism still further by introducing the idea of self-referentiality of a text insofar as it is shown to be composed and therefore ambivalent in meaning. In Heinrich von Ofterdingen, the main character does indeed accidentally find his own life thematized in a book without title and written in a language he does not understand. “Das Leben – ein Roman”.7 Again, claiming life to be a novel, Novalis makes them interchangeable and open to the seed of deconstruction. “Wer das Leben anders als ‘eine sich selbst vernichtende Illusion’ ansieht, ist noch selbst im Leben befangen.”8 (Whoever views life to be anything other than an illusion that destroys itself, is still caught up in it.) Gaining distance from both, life and literature, is indispensable to what came to be known as romantic irony and anticipates the novel’s great potential for modernity. Also, one can easily imagine the wanderer in Winterreise coming to a similar conclusion and even the young miller in Die schöne Müllerin if he could detach himself from his own misery. This self-awareness emerging with the romantic period (approximately between 1795 and 1830) and making for continuously evolving modernism is seen as the result of a change in the understanding of culture. The notion of culture being circumscribed by timeless norms was already discarded from the mindset of Enlightenment, for which it became something related to place and time and hence negotiable.

As a matter of consequence, the processivity and relativity of any kind of human endeavor are at the core of romanticism as we find it encoded in Novalis’ famous definition of what ‘romanticizing’ means:

Die Welt muss romantisiert werden. So findet man den ursprünglichen Sinn wieder. Romantisieren ist nichts als eine qualitative Potenzierung. Das niedere Selbst wird mit einem besseren Selbst in dieser Operation identifiziert. So wie wir selbst eine solche qualitative Potenzreihe sind. Indem ich dem Gemeinen einen hohen Sinn, dem Gewöhnlichen ein geheimnisvolles Ansehen, dem Bekannten die Würde des Unbekannten, dem Endlichen einen unendlichen Schein gebe, so romantisiere ich es.9 ← 15 | 16 →

Novalis expresses very similar ideas in his description of the sciences:

(Every science follows its star, which is synonymous with its goal. Mechanics is driven by Perpetuo mobili – and tries as its most pressing problem to construct a ‘Perpetuum mobile.’ Philosophy is in search of a primal and singular principle. The mathematician the squaring of the circle. Man – God.)

Obviously, these ideals are all utopian and hence unfeasible, which is beside the point anyway as their importance lies elsewhere. What counts is endeavor, the unrelenting effort to reach the unattainable, at least to approximate it. “In der daraus entstehenden unendlichen Bewegung liegt das Charakteristikum romantischer Theorie.”11 (The resultant interminable movement is what characterizes romantic theory.) “Le but nest rien; le chemin, cest tout.12 So averred the French historian Jules Michelet and before him Hildegard von Bingen. The way being the goal also informs Willa Cather’s pioneer novels although setbacks and frustration are inevitable. As the sina qua non of romanticism, Novalis points out the perennial oscillation between disillusionment and regenerate anticipation. “Wir suchen überall das Unbedingte, und finden immer nur Dinge.”13 (We search for the absolute everywhere and always find things.) Nevertheless, Novalis postulates that this idea of perfectibility is to be applied to man himself by himself. “Die höchste Aufgabe der Bildung ist, sich seines transzendentalen Selbst zu bemächtigen, das Ich seines Ichs zugleich zu sein.”14 (The highest goal of education is to obtain purchase over one’s own transcendental self, to be the ego of one’s ego.) Departing from Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of transcendentalism, the romantic literati come to understand awareness as self-awareness that originates in ← 16 | 17 → a transcendental matrix, an enigma unintelligible and inaccessible to man’s cognitive powers.15 The only approach to this lucus a non lucendo can be through art, which then becomes the most important instrumentality in a heuristic process in which man tries to connect with his transcendental self or with that which ‘hath no bottom’. From the conflation of emotion and imagination – according to Schlegel the hallmark of romanticism – symbols can arise in whose density of meaning the absolute can be found and felt in aesthetic experience sooner than through rational reflection. Once again Novalis subsumed what the romantic movement subscribed to:

Poesie ist die große Kunst der Konstruktion der transzendentalen Gesundheit. Der Poet ist also der transzendentale Arzt. Die Poesie schaltet und waltet mit Schmerz und Kitzel, mit Lust und Unlust – Irrtum und Wahrheit – Gesundheit und Krankheit – Sie mischt alles zu ihrem großem Zweck der Zwecke – der Erhebung des Menschen über sich selbst.’16

(Poetry is the great art form that lends itself to the procurement of transcendental health. Hence the poet is the transcendental physician. Poetry works with pain and titillation, with lust and lack of such – error and truth – health and sickness – it mixes everything for its ultimate purpose – man’s elevation beyond himself.)

But again, the way inward is the way beyond. “Poesie ist die ‘Darstellung des Gemüts’ – der ‘inneren Welt in ihrer Gesamtheit’. ”17 (Poetry is the ‘presentation of the soul’ – ‘man’s interior world in its completeness.’) This is especially true when this world is in flux and upheaval, when emotions are elicited and clash. Then it is not the philosopher, according to Novalis, using the language to establish order and hierarchy, who is called upon here. It is the poet who can draw from the connotative and evocative power of the language as he does not feel bound or restricted by its norms and conventions. His words equal musical sounds in their ability to create magic.18

Under the influence of the musical aesthetics of late romanticism, articulated by Richard Wagner (1813–1883), the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) grants even more preponderance to art as an impelling force. Contravening Christian teachings, which in his opinion condemned man’s artistic activities, Nietzsche considers exactly these as truly metaphysical endeavors. ← 17 | 18 → “Bereits im Vorwort an Richard Wagner wird die Kunst – und nicht die Moral – als die eigentliche metaphysische Thätigkeit des Menschen hingestellt.”19 (In the preface to Richard Wagner art – and not morality – is shown as the genuinely metaphysical activity of man.) Exploring the origins of Greek tragedy, which he sees born of the clash of two principles: the Apollonian and the Dionysian, Nietzsche foregrounds music as the most perfect expression of the latter and the most powerful cultural drive. The very combination of what defines it: tone, melos, rhythm, dynamics, and harmony, expresses man’s “Urschmerz,”20 (primal pain) and hence affects him in an absolutely singular way. Even more than language, music connects with what precedes the principio individuationis under which man chafes and suffers. Articulated in the language of the scholastics: “Die Begriffe sind die universalia post rem, die Musik aber gibt die universalia ante rem und die Wirklichkeit die universalia in re.”21 (Linguistic terms are the universalia post rem, but music conveys the universalia ante rem, and reality is universalia in re.)

So when man allows himself to become the receptacle of the symbolic force of music, it stimulates his lust for life – the obverse side of the “Urschmerz” – which is to be sought, however, not in the appearances of the world but behind them. Staring into the abyss of his individual existence, he yearns for the dispossession of his own self, the price the tragic hero has to pay when he dies vicariously for the audience. “Wir glauben an das ewige Leben, so ruft die Tragödie, während die Musik die unmittelbare Idee dieses Lebens ist.”22 (We believe in eternal life, so the tragedy exclaims, while music – by definition – is the idea of this life.) Nietzsche also finds this metaphysical desire for self-transcendence perfectly expressed in the death by love embraced by Isolde in Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Attaining mythopoetic power, the music makes word and image reveal their deepest meaning.

In des Wonnemeeres wogendem Schwall,

in der Duft-Wellen tönendem Schall,

in des Weltatems wehendem All -

ertrinken – versinken – unbewußt – höchste Lust.23 ← 18 | 19 →

Biographical notes

Marianne Davidson (Author)

Marianne Davidson studied English, American and German literature at the University of Mannheim, Germany, where she also obtained a Ph.D. in these subjects. She taught English and German at High School in Germany and published on Willa Cather and F.J. Turner.


Title: Willa Cather's «Lucy Gayheart» and Franz Schubert's «Winterreise»