Willa Cather’s Nobility

REVIEW: ‘Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather’ by Benjamin Taylor

December 24, 2023

Chasing Bright Medusas is a splendid book, elegantly formulated, casually authoritative, admirably concise, offering a balanced account of a writer I believe the best American novelist of the past century.

As its author Benjamin Taylor recounts, Willa Cather did not always receive the most hospitable reception from some of the leading literary critics of her day. But she now no longer needs them, having found full acceptance from that greatest and most stringent of all critics, Time itself, for today, more than 75 years after her death in 1947, her novels and short stories remain immensely readable and significant in a way that Ernest Hemingway's and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s and others once better thought of than hers no longer do. No one sets out deliberately to write for the ages, but Willa Cather seems to have done just that.

Throughout her career, critics attempted to lock Willa Cather away in one or another cage. She was an anti-modernist. She was a traditionalist. A middlebrow. A strictly regional writer of the middle- or southwest. A woman’s writer. Finally, among the leading literary figures of the LGBTQ. She may have been all of those things, but in reality she was more than any of them, singly or combined. She was a novelist with a great subject—perhaps the greatest American subject, that of immigration—who was absolutely up to it. "We have nothing better than she is," wrote Wallace Stevens. "She takes so much pains to conceal her sophistication that it is easy to miss her quality."

Benjamin Taylor announces Willa Cather’s theme early in Chasing Bright Medusas: The effects of immigration, or "the grafting of later onto earlier [is] the central trope in her work—and the transformation of westwardness and escape from old trammels her chief theme." Growing up in Nebraska among Swedes, Czechs, Norwegians, Russians, French Canadians, and others, he adds, "made her cosmopolitan while she was still provincial." Her reverence for life deepened her spirit and eventually her art. At 23 she wrote to a friend: "There is no God but one God and Art is his revealer. That’s my creed and I’ll follow it to the end …"

Willa Cather was born in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia in 1873. Her family moved in 1892 to Nebraska, just outside the town of Red Cloud, where her father tried his hand at farming. Her parents were not notably cultured. She first learned of the pleasures of the mind from a Jewish couple living nearby named Weiner, "whose paintings, and library and collection of Victrola records," as Taylor writes, "were a first taste of contemporary arts and letters." She later studied Greek and Latin with a store clerk named William Ducker, "advancing far enough," Taylor reports, "to read Homer, Virgil, and Ovid."

A superior student, beyond merely precocious, after high school she went off to the University of Nebraska, where she edited a newfound student magazine and began writing for the local press. She soon had a column of her own in the Nebraska State Journal and would later write for the Lincoln Courier. No university had much to offer her. Like all true novelists, she would draw knowledge from the great world. "From childhood," Taylor writes, "Willa was drawn to mature people distinguished by independent judgment, intellectual breadth, and personal originality."

She would also discover that she was homosexual. But a homosexual, as Benjamin Taylor notes, beyond "the reach of mere carnality," for "sexual nature is what she intends to rise above." Few things would Willa Cather, were she alive today, loathe more than being taught in the contemporary university in a course on gay women writers, where today she no doubt often is. Taylor is excellent on Willa Cather’s lesbianism. He recognizes it without dwelling on it, never using it as a lever to pry open the putatively secret meanings in her fiction.

Taylor does, though, strike a secondary theme in his emphasis on Cather’s and her main characters’ apathy toward sex. "Sex, as so often in Cather, is the worm in the apple," he remarks about the unraveling of her novel The Lost Lady. Of The Song of the Lark, to my mind perhaps the best novel ever written about the life of an artist, in this instance an opera singer, Taylor writes: "In what other novel before this one do love, marriage, and reproduction register so weakly." Of an unfinished novel provisionally to be called Claude, he writes that for Willa Cather, "art, not love, is the reliable bliss."

In 1896, now 23, Willa moved to Pittsburgh, where she took a job on a women’s magazine called Home Monthly, moving on from there to work on the Pittsburgh Leader. She also briefly taught high school in Pittsburgh, where she made what would turn out to be a lifelong friendship with Isabelle McClung, whom Benjamin Taylor styles "her great love." She and Isabelle McClung, the daughter of one of the first families in Pittsburgh, would later travel together for three months round Europe. In France, Willa found a spiritual home. Meanwhile, she had discovered her true metier, writing fiction, and begun turning out stories.

She published a book of poems with a vanity press, and then, in 1905, a collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, that, Taylor informs us, was not well received, though it contained three of her most anthologized stories: "The Sculptor’s Funeral," "A Wagner Matinee," and "Paul’s Case." She also signed on as an editor of McClure’s Magazine, a journal known for running both famous muckrakers of the day, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell among them, as well as fiction by Conrad and Kipling, Thomas Hardy and Arnold Bennett. She would become managing editor of McClure’s and later, according to Taylor, ghostwrite Samuel McClure’s autobiography.

Willa Cather published a less than successful novel titled Alexander’s Bridge in 1912 and then, on track now, O, Pioneers! in 1913. "At forty," as Taylor writes, "she had arrived." She would go on to write 10 more novels. One of Ours (1922), a novel about World War I, perhaps the poorest of her novels, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for 1923, reinforcing an old notion of mine that only two kinds of people win Pulitzer Prizes in the arts: those who don’t need them and those who don’t deserve them.

Of Willa Cather’s dozen novels, the best among them are, in order of appearance, O, Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark (1915), My Ántonia (1918), A Lost Lady (1923), The Professor’s House (1925), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), and Shadows on the Rock (1931). In all these, had not Willa Cather’s name appeared on the title page, one could not tell if they had been written by a man or a woman. Like so many great novelists—one thinks of Tolstoy, of George Eliot, of Marguerite Yourcenaur—Willa Cather’s voice in her fiction was androgynous, above and beyond either sex. The narrator of My Ántonia, for example, is male.

In most of Willa Cather’s novels a religious note is struck. Death Comes for the Archbishop, her brilliant novel about two French priests opening up the southwest in America for the Church—"Never," Taylor writes, "had she labored with more confidence and clarity of purpose"—led many of her readers to assume that Cather was herself a Catholic. In a review of the novel in the Catholic journal Commonweal, a critic named Michael Williams wrote of Death Comes for the Archbishop:

Her book is wonderful proof of the power of a true artist to penetrate and understand and to express things not a part of the artist as a person. Miss Cather is not a Catholic, yet certainly no Catholic American writer that I know of has ever written so many pages steeped in spiritual knowledge and understanding of Catholic motives and so sympathetically illustrative of the wonder and beauty of Catholic mysteries as she has done in this book.

Willa Cather was in fact an Episcopalian, but one who had, as Benjamin Taylor notes, "a tranquil belief in God and an enjoyment of religion." He tells us that "she felt sorry for unbelievers, classing them with vegetarians, pacifists, and other crackpots." In The Professor’s House, she has her protagonist, Professor Godfrey St. Peter, remark to a student: "Art and religion (they are the same thing in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had."

In her personal life Willa Cather steered clear of avant-gardists in the arts and left-wingers in politics. She separated herself from the darkness of modernism, the leading movement of the day during her own aesthetic maturity, noting, in her essay "The Tendency of the Modern Novel," that "there is such thing in life as nobility, and novels which celebrate it will always be the novels which are finally read."

If you happen to be looking for persuasive evidence of this exhilarating nobility, found among immigrants, professors, priests, and ordinary people, you need look no further than Willa Cather's own novels.

Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather
by Benjamin Taylor
Viking, 192 pp., $29

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of The Novel, Who Needs It? (Encounter Books).

Published under: Book reviews , Literature