Sunday, June 10, 2012

More Stories by Willa Cather

Youth and the Bright Medusa was published in 1920 and contained a collection of eight short stories that revolve around themes of fame and fortune, and the great price they extract.

Four of the stories had been previously published in The Troll Garden (Paul's Case, A Wagner Matinee, The Sculptor's Funeral, and A Death in the Desert) so I won't rehash them here (you can see my post about them if you like.)  Of these four, Paul's Case seems to be the most popular, although I infinitely preferred A Wagner Matinee, as it contains that real warmth of spirit and nostalgic reflection that I loved about Cather.

The four other stories had been published in various magazines before appearing in this collection, and are very much opera star/famous girl centered, a little too concentrated a topic for me.  While Cather's writing here is polished, I didn't connect with the characters or the theme as I thought I would, based on how much I loved Song of the Lark - ostensibly about the same topic.

Coming, Aphrodite!
The first story in the collection was my favorite of the four I hadn't yet read.  It was full of vivid scenes, and the characters were unique and interesting, with personality quirks and distinct motivations.  Don Hedger, and unknown painter, finds himself with a new neighbor, Eden Bower, who quickly disrupts the peace and patterns Hedger and his dog had previously enjoyed.  They get to know each other in a rather jolting, awkward manner, trying to get past their differences of temperament.

I enjoyed the trip to Coney Island, and liked Hedger's devotion to his dog...not that I'm a huge dog person, but it added nice dimension to the story.  I didn't much like the whatever happened to so-and-so? way the story ended, simply because Cather seems to like to fall back on that format (similar to how Flannery O'Connor likes to make something terrible happen to her characters at the end of her stories) and I was hoping for something different.  However, that's a minor complaint for a story that was so full and interesting.

The Diamond Mine
Okay, I liked this story too.  It's a rather sad story of a girl who worked her patootie off, finally succeeding at becoming a famous singer, only to be unappreciated and taken advantage of by all of her family, husbands and child included.  When Cressida Garnet happens to be on the same ship as a cousin of her first husband, we are allowed a picture of her her trials as well as a brief spot of happiness she looks back on fondly.

It is sad, but easily conceivable, to see how hard it might be for a hugely famous person to find true, loyal friendship.  Even when Cressida found someone who didn't seem to care so much about her money for once, things didn't turn out well in the end.  And yet she somehow retained hope, through all her family's selfishness and the absence of love or friendship, she may have been tired and hurt, but she didn't become jaded.  Could she have acted differently and still protected her tender heart?  It's nice to think she could have, but I'm not so sure.

A Gold Slipper and Scandal
Both of these stories involve Kitty Ayrshire, an opera singer.  The first relates the story of a disgruntled husband that is coerced in to hearing Kitty perform despite his general dislike for people such as he imagines Kitty to be.  He has to come to terms with his stereotypes and prejudices later when he ends up inadvertently escorting Kitty on her train ride after the show.  In the second story, we get to reflect with Kitty and her friend about a scandal of sorts that had happened years earlier in New York.

I didn't fall in love with either of these stories, but did enjoy the brief discussion in the first story about Leo Tolstoy's "What is Art?" and I discovered that "Scandal" was a favorite story of F. Scott Fitzgerald...a tidbit I found interesting.  I suppose that ties into his interest in the shenanigans of the upper crust?

Youth and the Bright Medusa was the 7th of 19 books in my Chronological Willa Cather Challenge, and 3 of the 4 I wanted to get read this year.  Next up in this challenge is her Pulitzer Prize Winner: One of Ours.


  1. I've only read My Antonia by Cather and these stories sound completely different! I actually think I would enjoy these more, I like the sound of The Diamond Mine in particular.

  2. I loved Willa Cather's O Pioneers! which I read last year. I had no idea there was a challenge on her books, otherwise I would have definitely joined you all!

  3. Cather is a favorite - especially O Pioneers! and My Antonia. I've read a few short stories, but none of the ones you mention... must add this to my list.

  4. Sam, the more I read of Cather's works, the more I'm thinking that My Antonia isn't her best, or even her most representative, work. I've heard a lot of good things about The Professor's House, so I'm interested to see how it compares. (btw, you can read The Diamond Mine online if you're interested:

    booksandreviews, it's just my own personal challenge, so you haven't missed out on anything. The first book of hers I read was also O Pioneers! and I loved it also, and ended up deciding that I'd enjoy reading through her works chronologically. Good to know there's interest though, I might consider putting something together. :)

  5. JoAnn, I tend to have a bit of a hard time with short stories...maybe I read them too quickly? Writing about them afterwards helps me process them, but I tend to be pretty critical. If you like her prairie novels, I highly suggest her story A Wagner Matinee. It reminded me of O Pioneers!


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