Book Review

Bright Medusas

We’ve heard a lot more about Willa Cather during this past year than we usually do, partly because 2023 marked her 150th birthday. That number is not always cause for fireworks, but Cather has an excellent media team at the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Perhaps more to the point, 2023 was also the centenary of Cather’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The book for which she won was One of Ours, now considered by most to be an untypical and less successful novel, though that detail says more about the prize committee and the rear guard action against the onslaught of The New that was going on in literature at the time, than about Cather. In 1923, six years since the inception of the Pulitzers, the Novel award had gone twice to Booth Tarkington, once to Edith Wharton, once to someone called Ernest Poole, and twice was not awarded at all. It looks as if the prize people were flailing for American writers with decent sales and a narrative strategy that wouldn’t scare the horses. Whatever their reasoning, and regardless of the prize having gone to a lesser book in the author’s oeuvre, as so often happens, the anniversary has brought deserved attention to one of the great American novelists of the twentieth century, including this spare and elegant homage from Benjamin Taylor.[1]
Although the Cather nuts among us are puzzled that she is not taught, and therefore read, as much as, say, Hemingway or Fitzgerald, Cather has actually had plenty of biographical and scholarly attention since her death in 1947. Within six years, her lifelong companion and literary executrix Edith Lewis had brought out Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record (Knopf, 1953), and her friend Elizabeth Sergeant produced Willa Cather: A Memoir (Lippincott, 1953). That same year, Knopf published E. K. Brown’s Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, a work authorized by Lewis and finished by Leon Edel when Professor Brown died young and in harness. In 1970, James Woodress contributed Willa Cather: Her Life and Art, a wonderful if briefish study, to something called the Pegasus American Authors series. In 1986 Oxford University Press published Sharon O’Brien’s Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, and the 1980s also saw both a full-length biography from Woodress from the University of Nebraska Press and a definitive full treatment from the British critic and literary biographer Hermione Lee (Willa Cather: Double Lives) from Pantheon. Cather has also in recent decades been the subject of considerations at various lengths by Joan Acocella, Vivian Gornick, Toni Morrison, Katherine Anne Porter, Phyllis Rose, and Eudora Welty, among others. Clearly, she has always been a writer’s writer.
This attention poured forth in spite of the fact that Cather did not make it easy. She protected her privacy in life, especially from the curiosity of those who did not know her personally. Also, as with many writers, the more years of solitary work Cather logged the greater became her disinclination for spending time with people she didn’t know and did not wish to. To those who wanted to know her, or to think they knew her, she was as clear and fierce in her desire to be discoverable only in her work, not in her person, as any writer of her century except perhaps J. D. Salinger. She personally destroyed all her own letters to Isabelle McClung, the most treasured friend of her young life. She asked other correspondents to return or destroy her letters as well, but few did, and many thousands survive. Under the terms of her will, however, they could be examined by scholars in the various repositories around the country that held them, but not quoted. She set up a trust to administer and enforce these wishes and others like them, and the embargo held until the last of her administering nephews died, which didn’t happen until 2011.
In a 2013 piece in The New Yorker about the end of the embargo, Joan Acocella is graceful and sharp on the unintended consequences of Cather’s policy. As Taylor puts it, “paraphrase is a poor substitute for Cather’s stylistic verve,” and indeed it is. But more important is the fact that some scholars including, in Acocella’s view, Sharon O’Brien, have made damaging mistakes in trying to convey Cather’s meanings in their own words, particularly in their wish to ferret out (for their own reasons, not for love of Cather’s achievement) the nature of her warmest private relationships. Acocella quotes a 1989 essay in which Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a pioneer of queer theory, argued that The Professor’s House seethed with indignation against heterosexism. One proof: in that novel, the ship on which Professor St. Peter’s family crossed the Atlantic was the Berengaria. Sedgwick’s triumphant analysis:


Berengaria, ship of women: the {green} {aria}, the {eager}{brain}, the {bearing} and the {bairn}, the {raring}{engine}, the {bargain} {binge}, the {ban} and {bar}, the {garbage}, the {barrage} of {anger}, the {bare} {grin}, the {rage} to {err}, the {rare} {grab} for {being}, the {begin} and {rebegin} {again}.


QED. For those with eyes to see, Sedgwick tells us, according to Acocella, there is a “maelstrom of lesbian energies churning beneath the surface of The Professor’s House.” She points out dryly that while it must have taken Sedgwick a good while to work out those anagrams, she had not had time to discover that the Berengaria was an actual famous Cunard ocean liner, the very one on which Cather had returned from Europe just before she started work on the novel in question.
To some, particularly perhaps writers in search of subjects, the fact of Cather’s wish for personal privacy seems like a challenge. Was she hiding something that we, clever liberated we, can nose out and exhibit, and then explain why that was a good thing to do?
The Berengaria business seems reason enough for any sane writer to try to protect herself from such posthumous assistance, not that in her own time Cather could have seen that coming. But it’s enough that Cather was a gifted artist in a man’s world in which it was received wisdom that such abilities as hers simply did not occur in women’s bodies. Sinclair Lewis has plenty to say about how much fun it was to be out of step with convention in Middle America at the time (see Main Street, 1920, and Babbitt, 1922), let alone to be also gender nonconforming. For Cather to say, “Just stop looking at me as if that will explain something to you. Look at the work and leave me alone,” seems simply sensible.
The question at hand is why Benjamin Taylor wanted to give us another life of Cather, when the record suggests strongly that she would have preferred that he not. Taylor is himself a skillful novelist, and a memoirist of distinction, and he has an extremely good answer. “A chain of influence runs from Cather to Katherine Anne Porter, from Porter to Eudora Welty, from Welty to Alice Munro,” he writes in his prologue. “Munro’s story ‘Dulse’ tells of a Mr. Stanley so besotted by Willa Cather that his joy in life is to come to Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy . . . where Cather spent many summers, and sit in a folding chair beside her cottage, gazing out, imagining what Willa’s view of the Atlantic would have been before the trees obscured it.” In the story, Mr. Stanley is looking forward with touching zeal to talking with a woman in the neighborhood “who knew Willa, and had conversations with her. She is eighty-eight years old but they say she has not forgotten.”
Leave it to Munro. Who among us has not at some point wanted to touch the hand that touched the hand, be it of Willa Cather or Elvis? For some reason, it’s a profoundly human impulse. “‘What a lovely, durable shelter he had made for himself,’ writes Munro. ‘He could carry it everywhere and nobody could interfere with it.’” Taylor adds simply, “So Cather has been, for me—a lovely, durable shelter. This book arises from a debt of love.”
Taylor also cites the availability of the letters at long last as reason for a new life of Cather, although quotations from the letters take up surprisingly little of the space in this slim volume. He is very much not interested in rummaging in Cather’s emotional sock drawer to produce some tidbit she preferred to keep private. As to comprehensiveness, Hermione Lee’s exceptionally fine and full treatment is right there on the shelves; no need to do that again anytime soon. Taylor seems to me to be aiming at something entirely different, like Godfrey St. Peter in The Professor’s House, and he’s chosen an interesting strategy.
Cather was born in Virginia eight years after the end of the Civil War. She was the oldest of what would eventually be seven children. When she was little, her family lived in the Shenandoah on a farm owned by Willa’s maternal grandparents, the Boaks. These facts and some others about the family and the Shenandoah take up the first paragraph of the first chapter of the book.
In the next paragraph, Taylor turns to Cather’s last completed novel, the little-read Sapphira and the Slave Girl. This is a tip of the hat to a reader’s expectation that a “life” will proceed to some degree chronologically. Sapphira bears on this earliest period of Cather’s childhood by depicting the antebellum world of her grandparents. Taylor’s discussion pretty much consists of these succinct and efficient sentences: “The year of the novel is 1856. Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert, a dropsical invalid, fears that her husband, Henry, is on the verge of having an affair with their ‘half-caste’ housemaid, Nancy, and wishes to sell the girl. Sapphira’s adult daughter—the warmhearted heroine of this otherwise chilly book—arranges for Nancy to escape across the Potomac and on to Canada via the underground railroad.”
From there he moves right along to critical response, choosing Toni Morrison’s reaction to Sapphira from her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. In three lines, he gives us Morrison’s view, and in four lines, his own response to the moral issues Morrison raises. The next equally brief paragraph gives us a glimpse of Cather’s own feelings about the novel, quoting a letter she wrote to Alexander Woollcott in which she says, “In this book my end was my beginning.” Interesting choice, to show us the supposed anti-Modernist invoking T. S. Eliot. She also mentioned to Woollcott that the precipitating story of Sapphira was a real event. When Cather was a child in Virginia, a former slave who had escaped from her great-grandparents came back to visit. Though she couldn’t possibly have understood all the layers of what that visit meant until many years later, she had held it in memory.
Then, after a very brief psychological and personal note, Edith Lewis’ belief that it was the deaths of Cather’s parents that had triggered the novel for her, Taylor is on to the Cather family’s migration to Nebraska, in prose that evokes Cather’s own in its precision and gorgeous evocation of place.
This is biography of an astonishingly distilled kind. Cather herself was considered to belong to no school or movement, but developed a sui generis style characterized by, as Woodress and others expressed it, “severe selection.” Similarly (and for sure by no accident) Taylor is working completely against the current trend for biographers, whose books routinely grow to seven, eight or nine hundred pages, if not multiple volumes. By process of pretty rigorous selection, he brings his lovely and intense study in under 200 pages, including notes, bibliography, and index.
Slim though it is, this is no CliffsNotes brief life cobbled together from Wikipedia pages. Taylor has read everything. From her college years in Lincoln, Cather was a working journalist and cultural critic. She published articles, reviews and criticism running to thousands of pages. Taylor seems to have read all of it. She gave interviews and speeches; Taylor has read them too. She ghost-wrote, for love far more than for money, My Autobiography, by S. S. McClure, the crusading but famously difficult editor of McClure’s Magazine who had brought the young Cather to New York. On assignment for Sam McClure, she also effectively wrote a series of articles that became a book called The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science, although the author of record is someone called Georgine Milmine. A working writer has to do what she has to do. (I’m not actually sure Taylor has read that one.)
Taylor’s scholarship is deep and wide, however strictly he selects from what he knows. You may think that his strategy works in biography as it does for Cather in fiction, or you may think it does not. Or you may feel that while the book unfolds riches of taste and knowledge, it isn’t biography at all. I think he signals his true aim with his title. Bright Medusas were for Cather experiences of high art, in poetry, in painting, in literature and in music. Cather calls The Professor’s House, a novel Taylor loves and explicates brilliantly, a novel in sonata form. She loves opera, and opera singers, as is clear in Song of the Lark and all through her letters. About Death Comes for the Archbishop, Taylor quotes a passage from Cather’s posthumously published collection of critical essays, On Writing: “I had all my life wanted to do something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment. Since I first saw the Puvis de Chavannes frescoes of the life of Saint Genevieve in my student days, I have wished that I could try something a little like that in prose; something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition.”
Cather observes that in medieval lives of saints “the martyrdoms . . . are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives . . . The essence of such writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on.”
Taylor writes, “She’d found a medieval method for telling a nineteenth-century story; and preferred to call the book a narrative rather than a novel.” Then he picks out a dazzling example of Cather’s eye for the natural world, a description of wild pumpkins: “It is a vine, remarkable for its tendency, not to spread and ramble, but to mass and mount. Its long, sharp arrow-shaped leaves, frosted over with prickly silver, are thrust upward and crowded together; the whole rigid, up-thrust matted clump looks less like a plant than like a great colony of grey-green lizards, moving and suddenly arrested by fear.”
Rebecca West, in her New York Herald Tribune review of Death Comes for the Archbishop, mentions Cather’s “amazing sensory achievements” in the book. As illustration, Taylor quotes this passage: “At one moment the whole flock of doves caught the light in such a way that they all became invisible at once, dissolved in light and disappeared as salt dissolves in water. The next moment they flashed around, black and silver against the sun.”
Going out on a limb here, because I confess that after weeks of engagement with this complicated little book, I am still not sure what exactly Taylor means to achieve with it, I’m going to hazard that what he’s really after is sharing the bright Medusas he has found in Cather’s work, her moments of heartstopping artistry, quite divorced from the details of her life or her commercial or professional success, or how she felt about her mother or the time she wound up in hospital with an infection caused by her having speared her head with a hatpin. I don’t even know any­more how I know about the hatpin, because I spent so much time with Hermione Lee and Woodress and the famous letters themselves while filling in blanks. Somewhere in there, I read a charming story about the time a young Truman Capote met an arresting older lady at The New York Society Library and spent a good deal of time explaining to her that Willa Cather was his favorite writer and asking which of Cather’s books his new companion liked best before the lady admitted that she was Willa Cather. Or how much Cather hated the second film adaptation of A Lost Lady—so much, as it happens, that she never again permitted any of her works to be dramatized and added language so draconian about it to her will that it made me laugh. Lee again, probably. It was deeply interesting, in a “nose pressed against the glass” way that biography tends to be, but that is not what Taylor’s book is for.
By which I mean to say that this book is not for Cather beginners. It’s too compressed and leaves out too much to be a satisfactory “life.” I think instead, that it is exactly what he says it is in his prologue, “a debt of love,” but that’s not really a category in publishing. You put that on the cover, and Barnes & Noble won’t know where to shelve it. It’s such an unusual thing for one literary writer to do for another, or for a general audience, that it was bound to take an unusual form, yet you have to call it something.
Benjamin Taylor loves Cather at least partly because he himself has a marvelous eye for the very thing that Cather does with such offhand brilliance that no amount of biographical detail will tell you anything about it worth knowing. For those of us who agree with him that those two sentences about the pumpkin vine are gorgeous enough to make you weep, or turn to stone, or whatever myth or metaphor you use for artistic transcendence, this is a book about esthetic miracles you can build a shelter of, that no one can take away from you.


[1] CHASING BRIGHT MEDUSAS: A Life of Willa Cather, by Benjamin Taylor. Viking. $29.00.