A Swift, Opinionated Portrait of Willa Cather (She Would Have Approved)

CHASING BRIGHT MEDUSAS: A Life of Willa Cather, by Benjamin Taylor

During the difficult months of 2020, a writer friend and I decided to read Willa Cather’s fiction together. What a good antidote to despair that was. Much of it was rereading, but I’d missed some stories and novels, and I’d never read them sequentially or with a clear sense of Cather’s life. That spring I also delved into several of the biographies, which taught me something about how such books can vary.

Tonally and politically different, written with obvious adoration or apparent dislike, focusing intently on Cather’s work or scrutinizing her private life — so many biographies! From Edith Lewis’s “personal record” in “Willa Cather Living” (1953) to the massive, almost day-by-day accounting of James Woodress’s “Willa Cather: A Literary Life” (1987) and the detailed critical readings of Hermione Lee’s “Willa Cather: Double Lives” (1989), I learned lots about Cather, and sometimes more than I wanted about her biographers. A fresh perspective on Cather’s sexuality came from Sharon O’Brien’s “Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice” (1986), while Joan Acocella provided a witty, abrasive take on academic analyses of Cather’s work in “Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism” (2000).

In the midst of this maelstrom, I often wished I could find a brief, clear introduction to Cather’s life and work — a book that would intrigue and illuminate, without bogging down in scholarly disagreements. Benjamin Taylor, the author of an excellent brief biography of Proust, a short, lively memoir of his long friendship with Philip Roth and two novels, among other works, offers just that with “Chasing Bright Medusas,” his crisp sketch of Cather’s life — a portrait, as she described her vision for one of her own novels, “like a thin miniature painted on ivory.”

Portraying Cather with the sort of swift, opinionated strokes she herself used to create her characters, Taylor offers an elegant literary essay rather than new facts or startling interpretations. “I wish to frame the story as driven by Cather’s antagonism to the times in which she lived,” he states early on. “She believed in luck, particularly her own, and believed in the luck-making power of desire. She had a destiny, devoutly believed in; she swept aside impediments; her goals were vividly before her.”

Others might interpret her life’s journey differently, but a portrait this succinct relies on such sharp generalizations. Brevity exposes a writer’s attitudes; selection and emphasis — I’m thinking here especially of Willa Cather’s fiction — are everything. In a famous 1922 essay, “The Novel Démeublé,” she wrote: “Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there — that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed.”

Whisking through the decades, Taylor propels us from Cather’s birth in Northern Virginia to her family’s move in 1882, when she was 9, to rural Nebraska. From there, it’s on to the town of Red Cloud and through her first years as a wildly talented college student, “acting and dressing more like a boy than a girl, cropping her hair short, going to class in starched white shirts and suspenders, and affecting a low voice,” at the then new University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

During her years as a working journalist, she wrote hundreds of columns for The Nebraska State Journal and, after a move to Pittsburgh, churned out reviews and articles, first for Home Monthly magazine and then for The Pittsburgh Leader — “well over a million words of journalism.” In 1899, she met and formed a deep relationship with “her great love,” Isabelle McClung, moved into McClung’s family house and started teaching high school — while still, somehow, also writing fiction.

Those “years of frenzy,” as she called them. Yet soon enough her fiction entered into the world; “The Troll Garden,” her first collection, was published in 1905. Even while acting as managing editor for the famous magazine McClure’s, she pressed on — although, as she wrote to a friend, “Reading so much poorly written matter as I have to read has a kind of deadening effect on me somehow. I know that many great and wise people have been able to do that, but I am neither large enough nor wise enough to do it without getting a kind of dread of everything that is made out of words.” She published her first novel, “Alexander’s Bridge,” in 1912, immediately recognizing it as a false start; then the one she claimed as her “second” first novel, “O Pioneers!,” in 1913. At 40, she was finally launched.

Big chunks of life occur offstage; details vanish; time is elided. But Taylor knows when to bear down. He deftly conveys the pathos of Cather’s long struggle to establish herself as a fiction writer, and the personal and professional troubles that pushed her toward a new aesthetic in the wake of “One of Ours,” a plump — some would say overstuffed — novel about a soldier during World War I that won the Pulitzer Prize in the spring of 1923 but received some harsh, and to Cather wounding, reviews.

Taylor argues convincingly that the “late style” Cather developed after 1922 — “the breakthrough is to a simplified manner in which earlier preoccupations are dispensed with in favor of a new expressiveness, a new simplicity” — produced what he considers her masterpieces (I agree): “A Lost Lady,”“The Professor’s House,” “Death Comes for the Archbishop”and“Obscure Destinies,” among them.

Spangling the narrative are quotes from Cather’s letters (until they were published in 2013, they could only be paraphrased), which give a sense of her vivid voice. “If only I could nail up the front door and live in a mess, I could simply become a fountain pen and have done with it — a conduit for ink to run through,” she wrote to a friend in 1913, while pounding away on “The Song of the Lark.”

The beating heart of this book isn’t Taylor’s use of the letters, though, but his sure-handed sense of how to shape a propulsive narrative, which aligns with Cather’s own methods. Think of her daring structural leaps in “The Professor’s House.” It takes real confidence, as well as real depth of knowledge, to see clearly the territory of such a complex life and mass of work, and to decide what must be touched on and what must, sadly, fall by the side. Some scholars may take issue with what Taylor chose to include or omit, but for the rest of us — whether new to Cather’s fiction, or longtime fans curious about her life — this is the perfect introduction.

CHASING BRIGHT MEDUSAS: A Life of Willa Cather | By Benjamin Taylor | Viking | 180 pp. | $29

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