cover image Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather

Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather

Benjamin Taylor. Viking, $28 (192p) ISBN 978-0-593-29882-4

Memoirist Taylor (Here We Are) examines in this solid critical biography the ideas and passions that animated the life and work of novelist Willa Cather (1873–1947). Taylor emphasizes the importance of place to Cather and contends that her family’s move to Red Cloud, Nebr., from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley when she was nine proved “profoundly” formative, inspiring the setting for several of her novels and exposing her to a diverse array of immigrants who led her to view America “as a gathering of peoples from elsewhere.” Taylor offers a matter-of-fact overview of Cather’s career, noting that The Song of the Lark (1915) fictionalized the life of singer Oliver Fremstad while dramatizing Cather’s own artistic aspirations and that A Lost Lady (1923) marked the maturation of the novelist’s style, defined by psychological depth and “meanings evoked but not belabored.” Taylor demonstrates a willingness to take Cather to task for her antisemitism and astutely contextualizes Cather among her contemporaries, arguing that she stands out among the era’s modernists, who wrote skeptically about the “deceptiveness of ideals,” because of her “unguarded admiration” for the “antique virtues: valor, loyalty, fulfillment of some high destiny.” It’s a strong overview of Cather’s bibliography that’s as concise as her best novels. (Nov.)