December Reminder: The Willa Cather Short Story Project

Our last Cather story of the year for the Willa Cather Short Story Project — “A Death in the Desert” — also happens to be the last story in her 1920 collection, Youth and the Bright Medusa.

“A Death in the Desert” was first published in Scribner’s Magazine in January 1903. Cather included it in The Troll Garden (1905) and revised it for Youth and the Bright Medusa.

Three Inspirations

Adriance Hilgard, the main character of “A Death in the Desert,” was inspired by the composer and pianist Ethelbert Woodbridge Nevin (1862-1901). Cather and Nevin met in Pittsburg and became fast friends. Nevin died tragically young from a stroke at the age of 38. He may have written the song “La Lune Blanche” for her.

Composer and Pianist Ethelbert Woodbridge Nevin at his piano
Nevin at work in Pittsburgh (source)

As for the setting of this story, Cather’s brother lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming and she visited him there twice in the years just before writing “A Death in the Desert.” The train route in this story is the same that Cather took to visit her brother in 1898.

The photo below was taken during one of her visits. It’s one of my favorite photos of Cather. She looks so determined!

Willa Cather driving a handcar in Wyoming 1898
Cather driving a handcar in Wyoming (source)

The title of this story is from Robert Browning’s long poem, “A Death in the Desert.” I have not read the poem, but might give it a go. You can read it here on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

Now, To Read!

I’ll have my reaction post up here on the blog the morning of December 25th and invite you to join in with your reactions and thoughts, whether this month or anytime in the future. If you can’t wait until then, feel free to leave your comments on this post.

Since this will be a wrap of our reading Youth and the Bright Medusa, I’m also wondering what you thought of this collection of stories in general. The stories are:

  • Coming, Aphrodite!
  • The Diamond Mine
  • A Gold Slipper
  • Scandal
  • Paul’s Case
  • A Wagner Matinée
  • The Sculptor’s Funeral
  • “A Death in the Desert”

Do you have a favorite in this group?

If this is your first time visiting, click here to learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project.


  1. That handcar doesn’t look easy to drive by oneself, and just the thought of keeping one’s skirt out of the wheels makes me nervous. *Isadora Duncan’s scarf* but Cather must have managed it!

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