Prairie Swooner

Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather By Benjamin Taylor. New York: Viking. 192 pages. $29.

The cover of Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather

WILLA CATHER WAS A MASTER OF BEGINNINGS. O Pioneers! (1913), her first novel after the false start of Alexander’s Bridge (1912), opens on a provocatively odd note: “One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.” Soon the attention shifts to the “cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky . . . set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain.” It’s a “primal scene made up of negatives,” as biographer Hermione Lee once called it, representing the particular talent Cather had for containing in memory and capturing in print the formidably boundless vistas of her youth. “The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska,” says Jim Burden near the beginning of My Ántonia (1918), while recounting his terrifying youthful arrival on the plains, an echo of Cather’s own childhood journey from Virginia to the vast sea of undulating grass. In the original opening of that novel (she would recast it later when the book was republished in the 1920s), the authorial stand-in, Burden, is introduced as an old friend whom the narrator bumps into aboard a train ripping through the Iowa countryside. “We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said.”

Cather was drawn to what a frame could achieve: she could put words and thoughts in another (usually male) figure’s mouth and pen, she could pile up the negatives, and she could insert a tiny, distancing hiccup of time and space (A Lost Lady: “Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those grey towns along the Burlington railroad, which are so much greyer today than they were then, there was a house well known from Omaha to Denver for its hospitality and for a certain charm of atmosphere”). Her most accomplished melding of form and feeling, The Professor’s House (1925), crawls through a long tracking shot of the ugly, ash-colored three-story structure in question: its creaky steps, the “bumptious wooden balls” on its “awkward oak mantels,” the ancient bathroom slathered ineffectively with paints that are “advertised to behave like porcelain” but don’t, all apt setups for the attic sewing room where an alienated historian of the Spanish conquest, Godfrey St. Peter, will produce his work (and narrowly avoid a kind of gassing suicide by proxy) amid the mannequins and “forms” the family seamstress Augusta uses to produce the dresses for the women of the house. In four or five pages, the house is turned into both metaphor and metonym. If winding up a novel could give Cather fits—Randolph Bourne wrote of The Song of the Lark (1915) that the book should have ended two hundred pages earlier, and, as was usually the case with Randolph Bourne, he was right, and she fussed with the ending again and again in later editions—Cather possessed an inerrant sense of how to begin that never seemed to fail her.

Cather’s fascination with her own beginnings fueled her imagination. The burdens of returning to a lost past and the ambivalent victories of escape are recurring themes in her work. Life on the prairie was always a dire struggle to set down roots, to domesticate a fiercely indifferent landscape. It’s no wonder that the most epiphanic moments in her life and in those of her characters are triggered by the encounter with the traces left by others who struggled similarly—most memorably, the long-abandoned cliff-dwelling complex of the Anasazi in Arizona, which becomes a place of moral and aesthetic rebirth for Thea Kronborg in Song of the Lark and Tom Outland in The Professor’s House (just as it did in Cather’s own life). If, like Jim Burden and Thea, Cather got out of the dusty little hamlet of Red Cloud, Nebraska, at the first opportunity, Red Cloud never left her. “The town would be transubstantiated into Hanover in O Pioneers!, Moonstone in Song of the Lark, Black Hawk in My Ántonia, Frankfort in One of Ours, Sweet Water in A Lost Lady, and Haverford in Lucy Gayheart,” Benjamin Taylor writes in Chasing Bright Medusas, his wafer-slim new biography of Cather. She “kept faith with the genius loci of her youth.” The look back was often melancholy. It’s no surprise that a later section of My Ántonia will see Burden reading Virgil’s Georgics and ruminating on those childhood days with the poet’s Optima dies . . . prima fugit: “the best days are the soonest gone.”

Willa Cather at the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, France, 1920. Wikicommons/Philip L. and Helen Cather Southwick Collection.
Willa Cather at the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, France, 1920. Wikicommons/Philip L. and Helen Cather Southwick Collection.

Taylor is interested in those beginnings—who wouldn’t be?—but he underlines the various ways Cather transformed herself over time in a long and winding career. “Temperament is established early and does not change. But what is most striking about Cather’s life is the catalytic role of experience on temperament.” Her knack for the magic of beginnings extended to her talent for reinventing herself, no more so than in response to the traumatic reception of One of Ours (1922), the World War I novel that made her famous and won her a Pulitzer Prize but flopped with the critics. (In a letter to Edmund Wilson, who had called the novel “a pretty flat failure,” Ernest Hemingway said the war had been “Catherized” and said her experience of combat came from the battle scenes in Birth of a Nation. “Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere.”) When she later wrote that the world broke in two in 1922, it wasn’t just the triumph of literary modernism she had in mind. Henceforth, she would purge her writing of its furnishings, as she averred in her essay “The Novel Démeublé,” in favor of “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.” Clarified in her ambitions, she fought through her stalemate and produced the three very different middle-period masterpieces of crystalized structure and tragic vision—A Lost Lady (1923), The Professor’s House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)—that remain her most formally triumphant works.

Apparently pegged to the 150th anniversary of Cather’s birth and more ostensibly to the recent relaxation by her estate of restrictions on the use of her letters, Taylor’s book succinctly captures the milieu of the author’s youth and the “years of frenzy” that followed. Born in Virginia in 1873, Cather moved with her family to tiny Red Cloud in 1884, along with a wave of settlers drawn to the plains by the Homestead Act land grab. Her father first tried his hand at hog farming but turned to the less messy world of insurance and real estate. Unlike the Cathers, many settlers were immigrants, most of them from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. (At the time Cather left Red Cloud for college in Lincoln in 1891, first-generation residents are said to have outnumbered native-born in the state by four to one.) As any reader of Cather knows, she drew an extraordinary energy from her Swedish and German and “Bohemian” neighbors, recasting them as the sharply drawn eccentrics who populate her novels. (It’s de rigueur for Cather biographers to point out the “real” sources—the cultivated Jewish family who taught her about opera and painting, the freethinking dry-goods salesman and amateur naturalist with whom she imbibed Latin and Greek and who was found dead with a copy of The Iliad at his feet—that she’d repurpose throughout her career.) Plenty of them went broke and a few went crazy. It’s startling to count the number of suicides and macabre deaths in her books, starting with her first short story, “Peter” (1892), a brief tale of the final minutes of a fiddle-playing farmer who acrobatically employs his toes in order to blow his head off. She seemed to relish the gory details. An eager and brainy child evidently more comfortable in the odd world of adults, who took to dressing as a boy and styling herself William Cather, M.D., she at one point happily assisted the town doctor in amputating a local boy’s leg.

Cather is a figure of fascinating paradox, rife with contradictions, and she never made things easy for her biographers. “When you set out to write about her,” Hermione Lee observed, “you feel she would not have liked what you are doing, and would not have liked you either.” She was an ornery anti-modernist with lousy politics who destroyed what correspondence she could and, once famous, zealously blocked the publication of her early work. She wrote the first great American novel about a woman artist, the indefatigable diva Thea Kronborg, but she regarded most women writers with conventionally chauvinistic disdain (not all, but most). Like George Sand she early on played with male personae in her appearance; like George Eliot (and Sand, of course) she toyed with her name. Her most memorable characters are largely androgynous, or, like Kronborg, embrace an icy sexlessness as a condition of being an artist. The details around her relations with her two great companions—the Pittsburgh daughter of a well-connected judge, Isabelle McClung, who broke her heart when she later married, and her dutiful secretary, Edith Lewis, who wrote the first Cather biography six years after the author’s death in 1947—remain at least somewhat opaque. She spent most of her adult life in New York City, but despite her ardor for the stage and her Greenwich Village address, she kept the city’s intellectual and artistic demimonde at arm’s length. When she chose to escape New York, her destination was a secluded island off the coast of Maine, or a hotel in small-town Jaffrey, New Hampshire, where she preferred to sign the register under an alias. She’s buried in Jaffrey, the grave of the ever-faithful Edith at her feet.

Taylor keeps many of these paradoxes at an affectionately protective distance. Cather, for him, has long been a “lovely, durable shelter,” and his book, he writes, “arises from a debt of love.” Chasing Bright Medusas is less concerned with Cather’s contradictions and proclaims itself as focused instead on how her unique vision and faith emerged from an unlikely hardscrabble background. Becoming a novelist was itself a work of transformation, with an apprenticeship that was lengthy by any standard; she’d produced “hundreds of thousands of words” in various grubby venues before landing in New York as an editor at S. S. McClure’s eponymous magazine, a leading title of the muckraking early 1900s. Along the way, she’d spent as much time in Lincoln and Pittsburgh as she had in Red Cloud, her journalistic career launching when she landed a column (“As You Like It”) as a precocious scribe during her junior year in college. She’d write about “everything,” Taylor notes, “from Eleonora Duse to cooking tips; editors had only to give her a deadline and a word limit and she was off.” Churning out copy for the Pittsburgh Home Monthly, she worked through a host of pseudonyms—Lee lists Helen Delay, Henry Nicklemann, and Gilberta S. Whittle among them—while firing off spirited and opinionated dispatches back home, where her work had already earned her a different sobriquet. An early editor at the Lincoln newspaper recalled the “biting frankness” of that “meat-ax young girl.”

Although her most prominent job had been at McClure’s, Cather was never a student of its exposé journalism; the most fruitful encounter of her subsequent career was her brief friendship with Sarah Orne Jewett, who convinced her to write about what she knew (Cather dedicated O Pioneers! to her). Even early in her career, Cather seemed to stand outside the events of her time, a source of grief among critics who complained she had little to say about life in contemporary America. (Somewhat oddly, Taylor ratifies their view when he writes of his ambition to “frame the story [of her life] as driven by Cather’s antagonism to the times in which she lived. She alone among the moderns wrote with unguarded admiration about the antique virtues: valor, loyalty, fulfillment of some high destiny.”) Taylor has good and interesting things to say about The Song of the Lark in particular, a gateway drug for many Cather addicts, disagreeing with the author’s own later criticisms of the book and declaring it a work of “stunning originality—if not of style then of substance.” He’s especially attuned to her output of short stories, a large number of which were portraits of artists doomed to go unrecognized. He writes at length about the would-be critical catastrophe One of Ours, defending Cather’s choice of writing a book about war whose keynote was grief rather than disgust (“A Farewell to Arms and One of Ours ask to be read side by side”). Even the post-Archbishop historical novels, like the little-loved Shadows on the Rock (1931), Cather’s spiritually haunted tale of the French settlement of Quebec, come in for praise.

The book clocks in at a zippy 155 pages when you subtract the end matter, a marvel of compression until you consider what gets left out. While Taylor is delighted to gainsay the likes of Edmund Wilson, he has curiously little interest in engaging with the critics who refashioned our image of Cather and her fiction in the seminar rooms of the 1980s and ’90s. Her heady remake at a time when her hard-to-deny sexuality and her curiously charged texts helped turn sleepy old Cather Studies into a booming academic industry and made a generation of professors and students question just what lurked under the surface of her purportedly straightforward novels and stories. (That emergent view fueled a famous and ferocious backlash, most memorably expressed in the late Joan Acocella’s biting Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, which savaged a who’s who of gender and queer studies, from Judith Butler to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, for peddling what the New Yorker critic saw as fashionable gibberish.) Acknowledging how “effortlessly androgynous” she was “in her imagination,” Taylor waives away the most interesting questions about her complex creations: “But is androgynous imagination not a feature of all the most cherished novelists—Emily Brontë, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Proust, and so on? They effortlessly inhabit the skins of men and women characters.” Taylor devotes about as much space to the valedictory address Cather delivered to her Red Cloud High School graduating class of three as he does to the latter-day reception of her prose.

Yet there’s something touching about the quaintness of Taylor’s devotion to Cather, a writer’s writer whose example of doggedness might best be appreciated by an adept to the faith. “If only I could nail up the front door and live in a mess,” she once wrote a friend, “I could simply become a fountain pen and have done with it—a conduit for ink to run through.” What a strange desire! Call it a kind of freemasonry.

Eric Banks is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.