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Chicago history: Turn-of-the-century Chicago in Willa Cather’s “Lucy Gayheart”

Much of the first half of Willa Cather’s novel Lucy Gayheart is set in the first few months of 1902 in downtown Chicago.

Written in 1935, the book is an existential novel in which the main characters strive purposefully through life only to discover that the meaning they thought was present and the control they thought they exercised was illusory.

In the context of this, Chicago is a metaphor for human activity and energy and enterprise.


“A very individual map of Chicago”

Early in the novel, Lucy is returning to the city from a visit to her small Nebraska home of Haverford:

Lucy carried in her mind a very individual map of Chicago: a blur of smoke and wind and noise, with flashes of blue water, and certain clear outlines rising from the confusion; a high building on Michigan Avenue when Sebastian had his studio — the stretch of park where he sometimes walked in the afternoon — the Cathedral door out of which she had seen him come one morning — the concert hall where she first heard him sing.

This city of feeling rose out of the city of fact like a definite composition, — beautiful because the rest was blotted out. She thought of the steps leading down from the Art Museum as perpetually flooded with orange=red sunlight; they had been like that one stormy November afternoon when Sebastian came out of the building at five o’clock and stopped beside one of the bronze lions to turn up the collar of his overcoat, light a cigarette, and look vaguely up and down the avenue before he hailed a cab and drove away.

In the round of her day’s engagements, hurrying about Chicago from one place to another, Lucy often came upon spots which gave her a sudden life of the heart, made her feel glad before she knew why.

The buildings Cather describes in this section are still in Chicago; so, too, the bronze lions.

Chicago, 1902


Even more, though, the feel of the city that she describes is something that each resident of the city develops for himself or herself.

In the “city of fact,” each Chicagoan has a “city of feeling,” one that revolves around our relationships with other people, perhaps romantic in nature, or familiar or fearful.


“The tops of tall buildings”

Later, Cather writes that Lucy is “walking across the city toward Michigan Avenue.” In fact, she’s coming from her apartment which seems to be somewhere around roughly Madison Street and the Chicago River. In other words, she is walking across downtown. The city itself was much, much larger.

Her mind had got away from her and was darting about in the sunlight, over the tops of the tall buildings. Exactly at ten o’clock she went into the Arts Building and told the hall porter she had an engagement with Mr. Sebastian.

This is the beginning of what will turn out to be Lucy’s chaste romance with Sebastian. It’s noteworthy that the Arts Building is also still part of today’s Chicago.

On another day, she is early for her Arts Building appointment, so Lucy walks along the lakefront.

There was very little ice in the water that January, and the blue floor of the lake, wrinkled with gold, seemed to be the day itself, stretching before her unspent and beautiful. As she walked along, holding her muff against her cheek on the wind side, it was hard to believe there was anything in the world she could not have if she wanted it.

The sharp air that blew off the water brought up all the fire of life in her; it was like drinking fire. She had to turn her back to it to catch her breath.

This is an experience that most anyone who has been at Chicago’s lakefront in winter will be able to recall.


“Plenty of room to be lonely”

When Sebastian goes away on a short singing tour, Lucy is discouraged and finds solace in Chicago’s streets.

She went slowly across the town, getting a kind of comfort out of the crowded streets and the people who rushed by and bumped into her, hurrying away from the rain. In the city you have plenty of room to be lonely, no one notices, she reflected. And if you were burning yourself up, so was everyone else; you weren’t smouldering along on the edge of the prairie. She thought she had never before seen so many sad and discouraged people. Tramps, wet as horses, stood in the empty doorways for shelter. She passed an old man steaming himself in the vapour that rose from an iron grating in the sidewalk.

The crowds of a big city such as Chicago can be experienced in many ways. Here, Lucy is finding them as lonely and as sad as she feels.

Chicago, 1902

Similarly, the view outside one’s window can be felt many ways, and, on one afternoon, Lucy uses hers as an empty canvas on which to think about her life.

Lucy was sitting in her room looking out at the back of the next building, which came close to her window, — a blank wall painted grey.


“The city gave one freedom”

In another mood, Lucy walking along Michigan Avenue is filled with the possibilities that Chicago brings to her.

She had never loved the city so much, the city which gave one the freedom to spend one’s youth as one pleased, to have one’s secret, to choose one’s master and serve him in one’s own way.

Yesterday’s rain had left a bitter, springlike smell in the air; the vehemence that beat against her in the street and hummed above her had something a little wistful in it tonight, like a plaintive hand-organ tune. All the lovely things in the shop windows, the furs and jewels, roses and orchids, seemed to belong to her as she passed them.

This, in its way, is the opposite of the loneliness of the crowds — a joy at the size and immense possibilities of a city, and all those shop windows as much Lucy’s as anyone else’s.

Or so they seem.


Chicago’s promises

In some ways, Chicago in Lucy Gayheart is the embodiment of life — filled with possibilities and dreams to achieve.

It remains so later in the novel when Lucy is planning to return.

But Chicago’s promises are never kept. Lucy never makes it back to its bump-filled streets and “all the lovely things in the shop windows.”

Blind, brutal Life intervenes.


Patrick T. Reardon


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