The Quest for Cather

From The American Scholar:

Willa Cather loathed biographers, professors, and autograph fiends. After her war novel, One of Ours, won the Pulitzer in 1923, she decided to cull the herd. “This is not a case for the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” she told one researcher. Burn my letters and manuscripts, she begged her friends. Hollywood filmed a loose adaptation of A Lost Lady, starring Barbara Stanwyck, in 1934, and Cather soon forbade any further screen, radio, and television versions of her work. No direct quotations from surviving correspondence, she ordered libraries, and for decades a family trust enforced her commands.

Archival scholars managed to undermine what her major biographer James Woodress called “the traps, pitfalls and barricades she placed in the biographer’s path,” even as literary critics reveled in trench warfare over Cather’s sexuality. In 2018, her letters finally entered the public domain, allowing Benjamin Taylor to create the first post-ban life of Cather for general readers.

Chasing Bright Medusas is timed for the 150th anniversary of Cather’s birth in Virginia. The title alludes to her 1920 story collection on art’s perils, Youth and the Bright Medusa. (“It is strange to come at last to write with calm enjoyment,” she told a college friend. “But Lord—what a lot of life one uses up chasing ‘bright Medusas,’ doesn’t one?”) Soon she urged modern writers to toss the furniture of naturalism out the window, making room for atmosphere and emotion. What she wanted was the unfurnished novel, or “novel démeublé,” as she called it in a 1922 essay. Paraphrasing Dumas, she posited that “to make a drama, all you need is one passion, and four walls.”

Chasing Bright Medusas is an appreciation, a fan’s notes, a life démeublé. Taylor’s love of Cather’s sublime prose is evident and endearing, but in his telling of her life, context is sometimes defenestrated, too. When Taylor sets an idealistic Cather against cynical younger male rivals, we learn of Ernest Hemingway’s mockery but not of William Faulkner’s declaration that the greatest American novelists were Herman Melville, Theodore Dreiser, Hemingway, and Cather. Taylor rightly notes that Cather’s First World War novel differs from Hemingway’s merely in tone, not understanding; A Farewell to Arms and One of Ours, he writes, “ask to be read side by side.”

. . . .

Not much Dark Cather surfaces in Bright Medusas—a pity, for she was a genius of horror. My Ántonia brims with bizarre ways to die (thrown to ravening wolves, suicide by threshing machine); carp devour a little girl in Shadows on the Rock; and One of Ours rivals Cormac McCarthy for mutilation and gore. Cather repeatedly changed her name and lied about her birthdate, as a professional time traveler must, on the page and in life. She saw her mother weep for a Confederate brother lost at Manassas, rode the Plains six years after Little Bighorn, was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from severely masculinist Princeton, and though in failing health, spent World War II writing back to GIs who read her work in Armed Services Editions paperbacks, especially the ones who picked up Death Comes for the Archbishop, assuming it was a murder mystery. She died the same spring that Elton John and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and David Letterman were born. She is one of ours.

Link to the rest at The American Scholar