About the Book
A collection of short stories by Willa Cather, published in 1920, including ‘Coming, Aphrodite!’, an unforgettable novella of a young artist in New York and his relationship with a girl who hopes to become an opera star, and ‘Paul’s Case’ which reveals the frustration and pain of a lonely youth from the provinces who escapes to New York City for a brief, tragic time.
Format: ebook (156 pages) Publisher: AB Books
Publication date: 11th May 2018  Genre: Fiction, Short Stories
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The collection, first published in 1920, comprises two novellas – ‘Coming, Aphrodite’ and ‘The Diamond Mine’ – and six short stories. The last four stories had previously appeared in an earlier collection, The Troll Garden, published in 1905.
Having finished the book, I was left puzzled by its title since none of the stories shared it (as if often the case with short story collections) or made direct reference to it. However, I was fortunate to come across an image from the first edition of the book in which its publisher, Alfred A Knopf, helpfully describes its theme as “youth’s adventure with the many-coloured Medusa of art”. (The collection is also praised as ‘a new exhibition of the writer’s power and remarkable artistry’.)
My previous experience of Willa Cather’s writing was through books such as My Antonia, and O Pioneers! meaning I associated her with the setting of those novels not the New York that features so prominently in the stories in Youth and the Bright Medusa. However, as I learned, although she grew up in Virginia and Nebraska, she moved to Pittsburgh and then New York, living in the latter for the remainder of her life.
In fact, many of the stories in Youth and the Bright Medusa present a far from pastoral view of frontier life. For example, in ‘The Sculptor’s Funeral’, the coffin housing the body of famous sculptor Harvey Merrick is returned to his home town in Kansas but the townspeople who gather to mark his passing are depicted as rather small-minded. Failing to recognise his achievement in rising from such humble beginnings, they are chided by one of the mourners who reflects, ‘The very name of their town would have remained for ever buried in the postal guide had it not been now and again mentioned in the world in connection with Harvey Merrick’.
The story also contains some striking examples of the author’s closely-observed and often unflinching description of characters. So the sculptor’s father is ‘tall and frail, odorous of smoke, with shaggy, unkept grey hair and a dingy beard, tobacco stained about the mouth‘. The face of the sculptor’s grieving mother is described thus: ‘The long nose was distended and knobbed at the end and deep lines on either side of it; her heavy black brows almost met across her forehead; her teeth were large and square, and set far apart – teeth that could tear’. Conversely the opera singers who populate other stories such as ‘A Death in the Desert’ and ‘Coming, Aphrodite!’ are depicted as radiant and uncommonly beautiful.
The power of music or art to move and enrich is a consistent theme of the stories. In ‘A Wagner Matinee’, the narrator takes his aunt, who first influenced his love of music and is visiting from the small Nebraska town where he grew up, to a concert of classical music. He is amazed by her reaction to it. ‘The deluge of sound poured on and on; I never knew what she found in the shining current of it; I never knew how far it bore her or past what happy islands.’ In ‘Paul’s Case’, a troubled young man who experiences ‘a shuddering repulsion for the flavourless, colourless mass of everyday existence’ finds solace in his work as an usher at Carnegie Hall where the music acts as an ‘orgy of living’. Determined to live the life he believes he was meant to, he indulges in one glorious period of indulgence, never to be repeated.
In three words: Sardonic, acutely-observed, insightful
Try something similar: In A German Pension: 13 Stories by Katherine Mansfield
About the Author
Wilella Sibert Cather was born in Back Creek Valley (Gore), Virginia, in December 7, 1873. Her novels on frontier life brought her to national recognition. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, One of Ours (1922), set during World War I. She grew up in Virginia and Nebraska. She then attended the University of Nebraska, initially planning to become a physician, but after writing an article for the Nebraska State Journal, she became a regular contributor to this journal. Because of this, she changed her major and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English.
After graduation in 1894, she worked in Pittsburgh as writer for various publications and as a school teacher for approximately 13 years, thereafter moving to New York City for the remainder of her life. She travelled widely and often spent summers in New Brunswick, Canada. In later life, she experienced much negative criticism for her conservative politics and became reclusive, burning some of her letters and personal papers, including her last manuscript.
She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943. In 1944, Cather received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an award given once a decade for an author’s total accomplishments. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 73 in New York City.