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Chasing Bright Medusas: New Book Reveals Life & Times of Willa Cather

Photo of the book Chasing Bright Medusas, by Benjamin Taylor, which features a sepia-toned photograph of Willa Cather.
J. Schafer

A new book chronicles the life and times of writer Willa Cather. Commentator Rex Buchanan says the book captures the essence of the Pulitzer Prize winning woman who wrote novels of life on the Great Plains.


Few people have written so evocatively about the Great Plains as Willa Cather. Her descriptions of the land and sky in novels like My Antonia and O Pioneers captured the prairie in ways that nobody else ever has.

Cather’s life and work are summed up brilliantly in a slender new biography called Chasing Bright Medusas, by Benjamin Taylor. In only 150 pages, we come to understand Cather and her complex motivations, strong opinions, and her sometimes ambivalent feelings about her childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska, all of which inform her work.

The prairie-focused parts of her writing come from those days in Red Cloud, in the Republican River valley, just across the state line from Kansas. She was entranced by the grass and the wildflowers and those European emigrants that settled there, to the point that she sometimes seemed not to notice that the land had already been occupied by indigenous people, like the one for whom her hometown was named.

As much as Cather is identified with Nebraska--she also went to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln--she’s not from there originally. She was born and spent her first nine years in Virginia, a tree-filled landscape that must have equipped her, readied her to see the grasslands of Nebraska in ways that native Nebraskans did not.

Similarly she later wrote about the American southwest in what may be her greatest work, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and in part of a much quieter book called The Professor’s House. In both cases she describes the landscape and places based on Colorado’s Mesa Verde with the careful, observant eye of someone seeing them for the first time, not someone who sees them every day. Here’s an example from Death Comes for the

Archbishop: “Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world. But here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky.” She might well have been writing about much of Kansas.

I was a long way from the Kansas prairie the first time I read those words “the landscape one longed for when one was away. When I read them, I felt the shock of recognition. Somebody else felt the same way I did about the plains landscape, a landscape that most people disparaged.

Cather left Nebraska for Pittsburgh and eventually New York, where she spent much of productive writing life. She wanted to escape the provincialism and ugliness that she saw growing up, and to pursue her art, a desire she describes well in her novel The Song of the Lark. Clearly she loved the land and some of its people. But she was also repelled by the smallness of that world. It's that old story of a complex relationship to the place we come from.

And so to New York. Taylor helps us understand how a child of the prairie winds up in one of the most urban of settings. And how that journey affected her work. In much the same way, Mark Twain, the son of Hannibal, Missouri, spent some of his most productive years in Hartford, Connecticut. Everybody knows him. Everybody should know Willa Cather too.


A photograph of the book cover for Chasing Bright Medusas, by Benjamin Taylor. The cover features a sepia-toned photograph of author Willa Cather.
J. Schafer
Kansas Public Radio

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, author and director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. He reviewed the new book by Benjamin Taylor about the life and times of Willa Cather. Taylor's book is titled: Chasing Bright Medusas, and is published by Penguin Random House books.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, author and director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey.