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The unrecalled past: Nostalgia and depression in the middle novels of Willa Cather

Dix McComas, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Informed by object-relations theory (as formulated by Alice Miller, D. W. Winnicott, and Christopher Bollas), this study explores the emotional impact upon children of parental unavailability in a sequence of four Cather novels published between 1915 and 1923--The Song of the Lark, My Antonia, One of Ours, A Lost Lady. However varied the scenarios or parental absence in these texts (whether inscribed as parents' dying, as parents' relocating and leaving children behind, or as parent's failing to recognize their children's emotional needs), their absence bears strikingly similar consequences in the lives of their children. What may be those children's most far-reaching loss is a psychic one: namely, that of the parental mirror, to adopt the language of object-relations. What recurrently characterizes the adulthoods of Cather's child-protagonists is the quest for a surrogate mirroring-object in which they seek a glimpse of a part of the self that plagues them by its half-detected presence--suggesting that in Cather, realization of self must be preceded by recognition by another. As Cather's protagonists attach themselves to various objects (another family, a social cause, an art), so do they characteristically elide an emotionally injurious past by erecting in its place an idealized past which becomes the object of a most intense nostalgia. This dynamic--by which the image of one's childhood (at the center of which often figure one's parents) is preserved at a cost to the integrity of the self--underwrites depression, as that concept has been defined by object--relations theory.

Subject Area

American literature|Womens studies|Families & family life|Personal relationships|Sociology

Recommended Citation

McComas, Dix, "The unrecalled past: Nostalgia and depression in the middle novels of Willa Cather" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9809367.