The Death of the American Dream: A Lost Lady and the Progressive Movement
America enjoyed monumental expansion and growth as a nation in the late 19th century, as her citizens pushed boundaries—both geographical and socioeconomical. The young nation expanded laterally as well as vertically, as settlers expanded west and urban cities became industrialized This period of time in American history saw the rise of many inventions, discoveries, and institutions. Most importantly, however, it also saw the rise (and supposed fall) of one of the most influential and enduring movements in American politics.
This epoch, known as the Progressive era in America lasted approximately from 1870 to 1920 (roughly around the time when the world broke in two, according to Willa Cather), and was set against a backdrop of great expansion and growth. Progressivism rose as a reaction to the excesses of Victorianism. Michael McGerr, a Professor of History at the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, writes:
Victorians lived in an industrializing society that generated dismaying extremes of wealth and poverty, tempting new pleasures, alien cultures, and frightening antagonisms. Threatened by these external developments, the Victorians lived with a private crisis of their own—the breakdown of the relationship between middle-class men and women. The result of these simultaneous public and private crises was a gradual but dramatic transformation: over the two generations from the end of the Civil War to the 1890s, the Victorians became progressives, with new views of the individual, society, gender, and pleasure (xiv).
The Progressives pushed for social reform, and many of our current governmental institutions sprung out of the Progressive ideology (social security, welfare, ecological conservation, for instance, as well as many other governmental agencies). The Progressives were also proponents of segregation, prohibition, eugenics, and stricter immigration laws to keep "undesirables" from entering the country. The Progressive era was a mixed bag of successes and failures, and an enduring legacy in American politics, as well as literature.
It is not a stretch to look for Progressive ideology in the writings that were produced during this period of time. Many writers were no doubt influenced by the politics of the time, even an author like Willa Cather who is known as politically and socially conservative.
Cather's A Lost Lady is a story of the death of the American dream set against the backdrop of the American frontier, and was written around the time when the Progressive movement was dying out. The novel acts as a bildungsroman, dealing with the coming of age of the narrator Niel Herbert. Niel objectifies and idealizes Mrs. Forrester, but grows disillusioned and resentful when he realizes she is not the "lady" he had thought her to be. The reader comes to associate Niel's disillusionment with Mrs. Forrester and her decline with the decline of the American West.
Cather wrote A Lost Lady during a time in which "the world broke in two. And I belong with the former half." Cather did not see the modern world as her world. She herself was in the mold of Captain Forrester, or the idealistic Niel, more so than the worldly, modern Ivy Peters. She paints the contrast between these two worlds starkly within the novel.
The old guard, those like Captain Forrester, who built, cultivated and civilized the West, are being pushed out by the new. This can be seen near the end of the novel, when Mrs. Forrester fires Judge Pommeroy and hires Ivy Peters to handle her business. In the final pages of A Lost Lady, Niel happens upon Mrs. Forrester and Ivy Peters in a more-than-friendly embrace; Niel reacts with disgust and angrily storms out of Mrs. Forrester's house and life. Cather writes, "But ever since the Captain's death it was a house where old friends, like his uncle, were betrayed and cast off, where common fellows behaved after their kind and knew a common woman when they saw her (146)". The only one whom Mrs. Forrester never truly leaves behind is her deceased husband, the Captain. After the Captain's death, Mrs. Forrester continues to send flowers to his grave, and after her own death, her second husband carries on the tradition.
The philosophy of Captain Forrester's once-sturdy pioneering generation can be best summed up as, "if you dream it, it will become actuality." Captain Forrester details his philosophy to his friends during a dinner party, stating, " '… my philosophy is that what you think of and plan for day by day, in spite of yourself, so to speak—you will get You will get it more or less. That is, unless you are one of the people who get nothing in this world (44)." Captain Forrester's generation, those who built the West, is made up of people with dreams who got what they wanted because they had dreams. If they did not have dreams, they would not have gotten what they wanted, or their positions in life.
Captain Forrester's ideology bears a striking resemblance to a well-known piece of speechwriting by a Baptist minister who would go on to found Temple University. Russell Conwell, a Civil War veteran and former non-believer, converted to Christianity and became a minister in the Baptist church. Conwell was also a talented orator who traveled, delivering speeches. His most famous speech was known as "Acres of Diamonds." Conwell is reported to have given that particular speech over 6,000 times, and it was finally published in a collection of Conwell's lectures in 1915.
"Acres of Diamonds" begins with the story of Conwell traveling in the Middle East with a talkative Arab guide. The guide tells Conwell the story of Al Hafed, a man who sells his property and goes off in search of diamonds (and, ostensibly, wealth) but ends up dying penniless. Later, the man who purchased Al Hafed's land discovers a diamond mine on the property, and becomes a wealthy man. The guide tells Conwell "had Al Hafed remained at home and dug in his own cellar or in his own garden, instead of wretchedness, starvation, poverty and death - a strange land, he would have had 'acres of diamonds' - for every acre, yes, every shovelful of that old farm afterwards revealed the gems which since have decorated the crowns of monarchs."
Conwell's moralistic tale proved to be quite popular amongst middle-class Americans, who longed for their own wealth and prosperity. They need look no further, Conwell said, than their wealthy contemporaries, such as the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Astors, and others. These families were wealthy, according to Conwell, because they were honest and they had dreams. Therefore, logically, any good, honest American with dreams could become wealthy if he or she wanted it badly enough. This philosophy ultimately failed, because it did not take into account societal inequality, injustice, or environment. Someone who was born into a poor family in a bad part of town was much less likely to make money than someone who had the advantage of being born white and middle class or upper middle class. Despite this, Conwell's speech was very popular and inspirational, and motivated many Americans to achieve their dreams—or at least attempt to.
Ultimately, however, the Progressive era collapsed in the early 1920s. McGerr writes in A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America," … Progressive ideas would linger, occasional progressive legislation would still pass; but the Progressive era was over (313)". The election of Warren G. Harding to the White House in 1920 signified the end of the movement, and the end of an era. Progressivism withered in the face of Republican conservatism, and the movement faced heavy backlash not unlike the backlash the hippie / flower child movement faced in the 1970s and 1980s.
It is not surprising to find that much of the literature produced during the early 1920s and 1930s deals with disillusionment, alienation, and the death of the American dream. Cather, like several authors of her time, holds a mirror to America and shows the nation its face, blemishes and all.
Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady. New York: Vintage-Random, 1971.
Conwell, Russell. "Acres of Diamonds." American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches.
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McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement
in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.