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The American Scholar: The Quest for Cather

The American Scholar: The Quest for Cather

2023-12-16 11:13:36

Willa Cather, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936 (Wikimedia Commons)

Willa Cather, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936 (Wikimedia Commons)

Chasing Vibrant Medusas: A Lifetime of Willa Cather by Benjamin Taylor; Viking, 192 pp., $29

Willa Cather loathed biographers, professors, and autograph fiends. After her conflict novel, Certainly one of Ours, received the Pulitzer in 1923, she determined to cull the herd. “This isn’t a case for the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” she instructed one researcher. Burn my letters and manuscripts, she begged her mates. Hollywood filmed a free adaptation of A Misplaced Girl, starring Barbara Stanwyck, in 1934, and Cather quickly forbade any additional display, radio, and tv variations of her work. No direct quotations from surviving correspondence, she ordered libraries, and for many years a household belief enforced her instructions.

Archival students managed to undermine what her main biographer James Woodress known as “the traps, pitfalls and barricades she positioned within the biographer’s path,” at the same time as literary critics reveled in trench warfare over Cather’s sexuality. In 2018, her letters lastly entered the general public area, permitting Benjamin Taylor to create the primary post-ban lifetime of Cather for common readers.

Chasing Vibrant Medusas is timed for the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Cather’s delivery in Virginia. The title alludes to her 1920 story assortment on artwork’s perils, Youth and the Vibrant Medusa. (“It’s unusual to come back finally to write down with calm enjoyment,” she instructed a university buddy. “However Lord—what quite a lot of life one makes use of up chasing ‘vivid Medusas,’ doesn’t one?”) Quickly she urged trendy writers to toss the furnishings of naturalism out the window, making room for environment and emotion. What she wished was the unfurnished novel, or “novel démeublé,” as she known as it in a 1922 essay. Paraphrasing Dumas, she posited that “to make a drama, all you want is one ardour, and 4 partitions.”

Chasing Vibrant Medusas is an appreciation, a fan’s notes, a life démeublé. Taylor’s love of Cather’s chic prose is obvious and endearing, however in his telling of her life, context is typically defenestrated, too. When Taylor units an idealistic Cather in opposition to cynical youthful male rivals, we be taught of Ernest Hemingway’s mockery however not of William Faulkner’s declaration that the best American novelists had been Herman Melville, Theodore Dreiser, Hemingway, and Cather. Taylor rightly notes that Cather’s First World Warfare novel differs from Hemingway’s merely in tone, not understanding; A Farewell to Arms and Certainly one of Ours, he writes, “ask to be learn facet by facet.”

Taylor is a distinguished chronicler of gayness, who left Fort Price for doctoral work at Columbia, in the course of the crucible of the AIDS years, and taught at Washington College and The New College. His earlier 10 books are slender, the fashion enameled, the gossip wonderful, and he genre-blends with verve, slipping from memoir to journey writing to belles-lettres: a portrait of his buddy Philip Roth, an homage to Naples, a pint-size however illuminating introduction to Proust’s life and occasions. Cather appears a pure follow-up; she and Proust had been contemporaries, Taylor notes, and although “he died at fifty-one, she at seventy-three—each vanquished lesser selves alongside the tough path to success of their goals. Each turned geniuses via traceable feats of will.”

Cather newcomers will respect Taylor’s perceptive readings of main works like The Tune of the Lark and The Professor’s Home; e-book golf equipment and survey programs will cheer. Taylor lengthy taught a university course titled “Different Individuals’s Secrets and techniques,” however right here he shields the privateness of a author he reveres, downplaying her two lengthy relationships, each with girls (although Cather’s companion Edith Lewis is not, as Taylor says, buried at her ft). He additionally mutes a 3rd nice presence in her story: the brilliant Medusa of essential response and public notion. Cather’s life is a biographer’s quicksand, and intercourse is the least of it. She is each an American author of the very first rank and a star handler’s nightmare, this plus-size chain smoker from Nebraska together with her teenage trans years, her ease with weapons, her workaholism (1,000,000 phrases of journalism alone), her southern accent, her filial piety, her utter refusal to bow.

Not a lot Darkish Cather surfaces in Vibrant Medusas—a pity, for she was a genius of horror. My Ántonia brims with weird methods to die (thrown to ravening wolves, suicide by threshing machine); carp devour a bit woman in Shadows on the Rock; and Certainly one of Ours rivals Cormac McCarthy for mutilation and gore. Cather repeatedly modified her identify and lied about her birthdate, as an expert time traveler should, on the web page and in life. She noticed her mom weep for a Accomplice brother misplaced at Manassas, rode the Plains six years after Little Bighorn, was the primary lady to obtain an honorary diploma from severely masculinist Princeton, and although in failing well being, spent World Warfare II writing again to GIs who learn her work in Armed Companies Editions paperbacks, particularly those who picked up Dying Comes for the Archbishop, assuming it was a homicide thriller. She died the identical spring that Elton John and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and David Letterman had been born. She is one in every of ours.

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Cather strode the decks on tough Atlantic crossings and climbed Colorado canyons at nighttime, no bodyguard required, then or now. Her buddy D. H. Lawrence suggested critics of American literature to belief the artist by no means, the story at all times. Cather was splendidly wily at picture administration, however she trusted the reader above all, as ought to we.

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