'Chasing Bright Medusas' — Benjamin Taylor's new biography of Willa Cather

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday November 14, 2023
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Biographer Benjamin Taylor
Biographer Benjamin Taylor

My mom died just in time, before the tattled tale in the literary world was that Willa Cather was, duh, lesbian. An American literature teacher, Mom taught Cather's "My Antonia" twice a year and read it each time.

It would have curtailed her career — if not yet her life — if she had read Benjamin Taylor's new biography, "Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather" (Viking).

As he did in his study of Proust, still the best in English, Taylor departs from the spent pattern of discussing a subject's homosexuality in a separate chapter, usually last. Instead, he integrates it throughout his biographies, communicating its centrality in the authors' lives.

The two loves of Cather's life were Isabelle McClung and Edith Lewis. "The attraction was immediate," Taylor writes of the first meeting with McClung, in 1899, noting that it took place in the dressing room of actress Lizzie Collier, positing Cather's lifelong love of the theater. McClung eventually married, which Cather deemed "a personal misfortune," but the women remained close.

"The two of them exchanged not fewer than three hundred letters over the years," Taylor writes. When the copies were back in Cather's hands, she burned them all.

Cather initially hired Lewis as a proofreader at the magazine "McClure's," at which Cather came into her own as a writer. They spent the rest of their lives together. "As to appearances," Taylor writes, "the two women gave it little thought. Two spinsters living together in order not to be alone excited little speculation. That the bond was connubial simply did not occur to people."

author Willa Cather (photo: University of Nebraska)  

Sex: she was against it
Taylor comes to the point in a series of observations that culminate in the declaration, "Sex is, as so often in Cather, the worm in the apple." Cather had even commented that Oscar Wilde was "deservedly" in prison. "Civilization shudders at his name."

Cather also had written to Louise Pound that "it was manifestly unfair that 'feminine friendships' should be unnatural." The letter, Taylor says, "prefers to talk about love most exalted, above the reach of mere carnality, herself as exceptional rather than homosexual. But that she was homosexual was obvious, astounded though she would have been to know it."

Discussing the letter, Taylor argues, "The pattern of her life was here being set. Sexual nature is what she intends to rise above." In an attitude Proust himself might have cheered, Taylor adds, "[In Cather], sexual need is the flaw in human nature. She was against it; her great protagonists rise above it."

In the epilogue of Cather's first great novel, "O Pioneers!" Taylor sees nothing short of "the full force of Chather's antipathy to sexual love."

While Taylor is a scrupulous biographer (whose affection for his subject is unmistakable), his emphasis in "Chasing Bright Medusas" is on Cather's writing, the growth of which he chronicles in detail. Today the author is still considered a master of "local color," repainting her own experiences in Nebraska and the prairie states writ large.

Taylor paints his subject rather as a cultured, cosmopolitan traveler who in spirit never left New York. After she first heard the violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin in concert when he was a teenager, the two became friends for life.

In a mere 150 pages of text (the scholarly notes are consigned to the end of the book), Taylor charts the path through virtually all of Cather's major writing, most of it fiction, most of that the famous novels. "The Song of the Lark," a longish novel Cather herself had reservations about, was based on the career of Wagnerian soprano Olive Fremstad. When Fremstad read it she said she could barely distinguish between the two of them.

Taylor's estimation of the novel is considerably higher than the author's, but his larger point is this: "A lasting novel, according to Cather, is something you've lived through, not just a story you've read. 'The Song of the Lark' meets that test."

While, unlike Fremstad, Taylor never loses sight of where the woman Willa Cather, whom he calls "Willa," and her personal experiences leave off and the resulting writer, "Cather," begins. Taylor himself sees mastery in much of Cather's prose, but, if roped into naming "the masterpiece," he concurs with the customary selection of "Death Comes for the Archbishop" as her greatest single work.

But his efforts to elevate lesser known works, such as "Sapphia and the Slave Girl," point not just to the trenchancy of its subject, abolition, but to the high quality of the writing giving words to it. The poet Wallace Stevens said of the book, "We have nothing better than she is."

Willa Cather (photo: National Endowment for the Humanities)  

The perils of art
The initially baffling title of Taylors' study comes from Cather herself. Her first book for the publisher Knopf was entitled "Youth and the Bright Medusas," which, Taylor says, "gathered all the best stories about young people and the perils of art." In a letter to fellow author and sometimes friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Cather wrote:

"You know, better than anyone else, what a long way I had to go to get anywhere. And you know, too, the difficulties of the road. It is strange to come at last to write with calm enjoyment and a certain ease, after such storm and struggle and shrieking forever off the key. I am able to keep the pitch now, usually, and that is the thing I'm really thankful for. But Lord, what a lot of life one uses up chasing 'bright Medusas,' doesn't one?"

Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947. "She was at rest now," Taylor writes, "done with chasing bright Medusas."

He quotes a touching comment by Edith Wilson: "She was never more herself than on the last morning of her life... Her spirit was high, her grasp of reality as firm as always. And she had kept that warmth of heart, that youthful, fiery generosity which life so often burns out."

Cather's general mellowing at the end of a life of almost furious accomplishment, including a kind of peace-making with some kind of divinity, is the subject of the book's touching final chapters. Her arrival at what she deemed a simpler, if not simple, style was for her among her finer achievements.

As she had written of a late tale, "A Lost Lady," "Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there —that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed."

'Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather' by Benjamin Taylor.
Viking, 180 pages, $29. www.penguinrandomhouse.com

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