Early December marks 150 years since the birth of American novelist Willa Cather. Could this be the motivation for Benjamin Taylor’s “Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather”? No doorstop, it’s all of 192 pages; this succinct biography is a terrific introduction to the life and work of the Pulitzer Prize winner. But don’t come looking for radical new insights. Taylor’s thorough, thoughtful study is more of a sincerely informed primer or devoted guide than a vigorous cultural analysis.
Though Taylor’s vivid and fleet-footed biography is by no means exhaustive, he dispels any perception that Cather is a stale artifact of America’s pioneer past. Cather is a fascinating literary figure whose exceptional life and work spans a highly transitional period of American history.
The United States wasn’t yet 100 years old when she was born, yet she lived through the two World Wars and both traveled and lived all over the United States. Taylor writes, “What sets her apart from her younger contemporaries — Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos — is that [her] idealism about American possibility was unironic.” That dream of opportunity carried her through the obstacles of circumstance. She left her native Virginia with her family at age 9 to live in Red Cloud, Neb., on the frontier until she left for college in Lincoln. Cather then spent her early adult life as a critic, teacher, and journalist in the Midwest and Pittsburgh before becoming a novelist in her middle age, enjoying the life of a cosmopolitan New Yorker. Her life story is itself an American mythology.
Early on, cast among immigrants in Nebraska, “[s]he heard a babel of languages and observed ways of life very different from her own. . . They seem one key to her deeper theme: the nation as a gathering of peoples from elsewhere, adding Americanness to some earlier identity.” Taylor sees this “grafting of later onto earlier” as “the central trope in her work — and the transformations of westwardness and escape from old trammels her chief theme.”
And while Taylor notes that Cather “did not make of herself a myth, as had Whitman and Frost,” I think she benefited from the fact that, on the surface, “her life did not have the beautiful and dire shape of a parable.” This is a woman who silently lived with her same-sex partner for decades and simultaneously maintained a long-term friendship with a married woman that was grounded in something decidedly more complicated than platonic affection. Hers was a remarkably queer life behind closed doors. Beyond that, she carried within her always the experience of life on the prairie along with her memories of her Confederate Virginian ancestors. It comes as no surprise that she would wear her lesbianism as a somewhat open secret; she contained multitudes. Throughout her life she drew from her keen awareness of others and otherness to write eloquently about people from numerous regions and historical moments.
Neatly moving from one chapter of Cather’s life to the next, then from novel to novel, offering backstory and context, Taylor reminds you of what you loved of her work while encouraging you to pick up the books you may not have read.
But throughout his biography, one isn’t struck by a new discovery or pressing urgency to write this book. There appears to be no new source material to spur a new evaluation. And while Taylor notes the fact that, during her time as a critic, Cather is critical of Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality in spite of her own closeted sexuality, he doesn’t follow up with strong critiques of her complicated relationship to Judaism (vacillating between antisemitism and exceptionalism) or her views on race.
This nagged at me because I know that Cather inspires larger conversations that speak to our contemporary moment. Over a year after reading Margo Jefferson’s 2022 memoir “Developing a Nervous System,” I’m still thinking about Jefferson’s experiences reading and teaching Willa Cather. In the early 1970s, after Jefferson had “been utterly uninterested in Cather’s novels before literary feminism spurred [her] curiosity and admiration,” she “cleaved” onto Cather’s heroine Thea Kronborg from Cather’s “Song of the Lark.” Jefferson notes Cather’s greatest gift is “to merge exacting observations with luminous perceptions.”
Applying her critical scalpel to Cather’s place in the canon, Jefferson acknowledges that despite Cather’s rich experience and imagination, she’s “impaired by Confederate Southern mythmaking; warrior angst; aristocratic elegy; belligerent disdain; wanton nostalgia,” as “Blacks weren’t part of the usable past or aspirational future Cather was constructing for American art and culture.” In order to better explore Cather’s work, Jefferson, too, went back to the journalism that Cather wishes we’d all forget about. She brings this research to a close reading of “Song of the Lark” matched by her experience teaching it to a student body largely composed of white women. Here, Jefferson unpacks Cather’s “abjection, [her] compensatory drives, [her] erotic and emotional needs; how [she] made [herself] into a vessel that could contain longing and rapture; desire never assuaged but never renounced.”
This tension demonstrates the complicated roots of Cather’s ever-vibrant work, and discussing them only helps one better understand our American history and culture. While Taylor’s tribute to Cather offers a more conventional portrait, it speaks to Cather’s sustained place in American letters. May he, Margo Jefferson, and others continue to debate and celebrate the legacy of her work.
CHASING BRIGHT MEDUSAS: A Life of Willa Cather
By Benjamin Taylor
Viking, 192 pp., $29
Lauren LeBlanc is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her Substack newsletter is https://laurenleblanc.substack.com.