The story of Willa Cather is defined by a lifetime of determination, struggle, and gradual emergence. Some show their full powers early, yet Cather was the opposite—she took her time and transformed herself by stages. The writer who leapt to the forefront of American letters with O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918) was already well into middle age. Through years of provincial journalism in Nebraska, brief spells of teaching, and editorial work on magazines, she persevered in pursuit of the ultimate goal—literary immortality.
I often wished I could find a brief, clear introduction to Cather’s life and work — a book that would intrigue and illuminate, without bogging down in scholarly disagreements. Benjamin Taylor...offers just that with Chasing Bright Medusas, his crisp sketch of Cather’s life — a portrait, as she described her vision for one of her own novels, 'like a thin miniature painted on ivory' ... Portraying Cather with the sort of swift, opinionated strokes she herself used to create her characters, Taylor offers an elegant literary essay rather than new facts or startling interpretations ... Big chunks of life occur offstage; details vanish; time is elided. But Taylor knows when to bear down. He deftly conveys the pathos of Cather’s long struggle to establish herself as a fiction writer, and the personal and professional troubles that pushed her toward a new aesthetic ... The beating heart of this book isn’t Taylor’s use of the letters, though, but his sure-handed sense of how to shape a propulsive narrative, which aligns with Cather’s own methods.
Slender, discerning ... Should appeal to anyone — novice or expert — ready to explore Cather’s life and work in the company of a critic so alert to the shimmering subtlety of her style and the hard years of effort that went into crystallizing it ... With great feeling and deeply informed perception, Taylor helps us readers realize anew the sustained effort it took for Cather to meet 'the rest of herself,' in her novels and her life.
This succinct biography is a terrific introduction to the life and work of the Pulitzer Prize winner. But don’t come looking for radical new insights. Taylor’s thorough, thoughtful study is more of a sincerely informed primer or devoted guide than a vigorous cultural analysis ... Though Taylor’s vivid and fleet-footed biography is by no means exhaustive, he dispels any perception that Cather is a stale artifact of America’s pioneer past. Cather is a fascinating literary figure whose exceptional life and work spans a highly transitional period of American history ... Throughout his biography, one isn’t struck by a new discovery or pressing urgency to write this book. There appears to be no new source material to spur a new evaluation.