Confession: I'd never read Willa Cather before reviewing this book. Always meant to, just never got around to it. My knowledge was mostly limited to: She wrote about the Midwest a long time ago and became well-known later in life.
Fortunately, Cather expertise isn't a prerequisite for reading "Chasing Bright Medusas" and in fact, this "brief and tender biography" (in the publisher's words) is a nice introduction to her life and work.
Benjamin Taylor's slim homage to Cather can be read in an evening or two, and provides just enough detail about each of her works to help a novice decide where to start.
If, like me, you don't know much about her life, it's a groundbreaking one. Born in Virginia nearly 150 years ago in 1873, raised in rural Nebraska, her brilliance was clear at an early age. First in her class of three at Red Cloud High School, she delivered a valedictorian speech titled "Investigation versus Superstition." Not "the best is yet to come?" As Taylor notes, "For its framing of large concepts, its intellectual concepts, its sheer elan, the address would be extraordinary as a college valedictory." Cather was 16.
Taylor summarizes Cather's career in journalism, from the Nebraska State Journal to McClure's magazine in New York, as her work was beginning to be published. While her first novel, "Alexander's Bridge," was set in Boston and London — cities she didn't know like rural America — in her second, "O Pioneers!," she wrote "to her strong suit: the Nebraska Divide."
She discovered what many writers struggle to learn — write what you know. She later observed about young writers, "The things he knows best he takes for granted, since he is not continually thrilled by new discoveries about them."
"O Pioneers!" was published in 1913 to critical acclaim, and as Taylor notes, "At 40, Willa had arrived."
Taylor — a lifelong fan — intersperses Cather's literary journey with her personal life, including her "great love" Isabelle McClung and longtime companion Edith Lewis. Given the social climate of the time, it's unclear if Cather and Lewis were viewed as anything more than roommates.
But Taylor notes that her work contains veiled references to same-sex relationships — along with many depictions of miserable marriages: "So often in Cather, sexual need is the flaw in human nature. She was against it; her great characters rise above it."
Central to the book's appeal are quotations from Cather's letters to family and friends although, sadly, no significant correspondence with Isabelle or Edith remains.
Cather was nearly 50 when she won the Pulitzer Prize for "One of Ours," a novel that divided critics. Ernest Hemingway panned it in a letter to Edmund Wilson, accusing her of stealing the battle scene from "The Birth of a Nation" (although Taylor says, in fairness to Cather, she was not a moviegoer). Whether you've read Cather or not, dishy details like this make "Chasing Bright Medusas" an absorbing read.
After finishing the book, yes, I finally started reading Cather. I decided to begin with her most well-known, "My Ántonia," and was quickly drawn in by her characters and the color of the Nebraska plains. Who knows? I may tackle "Death Comes for the Archbishop" next.
Laura McCallum is an editor at the Star Tribune.
Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather
By: Benjamin Taylor.
Publisher: Viking, 192 pages, $29.