Friday, June 9, 2017


Willa Cather
Youth and the Bright Medusa

The following are two more stories found in Cather's collection--Youth and the Bright Medusa

"Paul's Case"

The title provides a clue, for this story can be seen as perhaps a medical case or a psychological case or even a criminal case history.  Paul attempts to recreate himself with his lies about his parentage.  Perhaps he is a foundling, abandoned by rich and powerful parents for some reason.  He spends his time trying desperately to prove to all that he is superior to all: to his teachers, to his fellow students, to all about him.  His life is ruled by his desire to live life the way he thinks life should be lived, with every desire met. 

He steals money from his employer one Friday afternoon, knowing that his theft won't be discovered until Monday.  He leaves Pittsburgh for New York where he registers in at an expensive hotel and goes on a shopping spree for clothing.  He returns to the hotel, rests, and then changes into his new clothing.  It is now dinner time.

"When he reached the dining-room he sat down at a table near a window.  The flowers, the white linen, the many-coloured  wine glasses, the gay toilettes of the women, the low popping of corks, the undulating repetitions of the Blue Danube from the orchestra all flooded Paul's dream with bewildering radiance.  When the roseate tinge of his champagne was added--that cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass--Paul wondered that there were honest men in the world at all.  This was what all the world was fighting for, he reflected: this was what all the struggle was about.   .    .    .    .    .  He had no especial desire to know any of these people; all he demanded was the right to look on and conjecture, to watch the pageant.  The mere stage properties were all he contended for."

I must admit that I don't understand Paul, for it seems that he is satisfied just by being able to exist on the periphery of this bright, glittering world.  He does not appear to want to become an active part of it.  Just being able to sit there with the others seems to be sufficient for him.

This story fits the title for Paul is the youth and his dream is the bright and deadly Medusa.

One can surmise that there will not be a happy ending to this tale.


"A Wagner Matinee"
A sad story wherein a well-meant gesture goes sadly wrong. 

One morning Clark received a letter from Nebraska.  His Aunt Georgiana had received a small inheritance and was coming to Boston for the settling of the estate.  He wondered what she would make of Boston after being gone for thirty years.  She had been a piano teacher when she met Harold Carpenter who wooed her and took her out to a Nebraska farm.  He himself had gone out there some years ago and worked for his uncle, so he knew what life on the Nebraska prairies was like.

Thinking to be kind, he purchased tickets for a matinee performance of the music of Wagner, but he wondered if perhaps he should forget about the concert.  Eventually he dismissed that thought and they went.   But. . .

"The first number was the Tannhauser overture.  When the horns drew out the first strain of the Pilgrim's chorus, Aunt Georgiana clutched [his] coat sleeve.  Then it was [he] first realized that this for her broke a silence of thirty years.  .  . . and [he] saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond whee I had learned to swim, its margin pitted with sun-dried cattle tracks; the rain gullied clay banks about the naked house.  .  ."   

And he now remembered that "(f)or thirty years [his] aunt had not been farther than fifty miles from the homestead."

While he lived with them she  taught him "scales  and exercises on the little parlour organ which her husband had bought her after fifteen years during which she  had not so much as seen a musical instrument."  Once, when he had spent considerable time trying to learn a favorite piece, she told him  : "Don't love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken away from you."

She said little during the concert, but he often could see tears in her eyes.  When the performance was over, the audience filed out and the performers put their instruments away.  She still sat there quietly, unmoving.  Finally he spoke to her, and he realized just what he had done when she "burst into tears and sobbed pleadingly, 'I don't want to go, Clark, I don't want to go!'  [He] understood.  For her, just outside the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards, naked as a tower; the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dishcloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door."

John Keats once said:

"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing."
from  Endymion

But, what happens when that "thing of beauty" is lost or taken away?  What happens to that joy?


  1. Fred, I enjoyed your posting nearly as much as I enjoyed reading and teaching "Paul's Case." Without adding a "spoiler," I can say the the final scene and the metaphor for the mind as a picture making machine affect me in profound ways. Yes, Paul wants more but fails to embrace or achieve more is his pathetic tragedy. Of course, those final two words -- pathetic tragedy-- are incompatible, aren't they? I guess I am also fascinated by the story because I grew up in Pittsburgh, once "ran away" to NYC, and dreamed of something beyond my reality.

    1. Tim,

      Thanks for the kind words. I'm not too sure about the incompatibility of pathetic and tragedy, especially in reference to this story.

      I wish I could have sat in on the classes when you taught "Paul's Case." I've never really had an opportunity to discuss the story with anyone.

  2. Great commentary. I have not read Cather but I really want to.

    A Wagner Matinee sounds so poignant. I would like to read it soon.

    1. Brian,

      My favorite novel of hers is _Death Comes for the Archbishop_.

    2. Brian, I second the motion. Death Comes for the Archbishop is to my mind her masterpiece.

  3. "Paul" seems a brilliant conveyance of the late teen-age to early twenties mind... i remember enough of my own life to see that in Paul's character...
    "Wagner" has personal reverberations... having experienced similar events, i'm reminded of what my mother, who was a good pianist and singer, told me once: "i gave up music because i liked it too much..." sometimes it happens that life, indeed, does what it likes with us...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Is it the fear that one may lose something if one loves it too much that causes one to voluntarily give it up before it can be taken away involuntarily?

      I've never been in that situation, I must admit, although I love reading and listening to music a great deal. I don't think about losing them, although it would be devastating if I could no longer read or enjoy music.

    2. the demands of life have a lot to do with it; performance and practice take a lot of time: most of a life, to do the music justice... and other responsibilities may assume an over-riding importance that require attention...

    3. what if you had to give up one of them... (the crux of the question, imo...) which would it be?

    4. Mudpuddle,

      My brother has a degree in music, and he had his own band in Chicago for a number of years. He also taught music.

      However, family responsibilities and increasing financial demands....He also left the field.

    5. Mudpuddle,

      Probably the music, probably. (That is if you mean which would be worse--going blind or going deaf.)

      And you?