New book shatters secrecy surrounding Willa Cather's personal writings

April 17, 2013, 6:30 a.m. ·

(Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

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A new book released yesterday upends decades of secrecy surrounding the correspondence of famed Nebraska author Willa Cather. Before, scholars weren’t even allowed to quote from her letters …. now, anyone and everyone can explore her most intimate words.

More than 100 people gathered at a theater on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus to celebrate the release of a new anthology of letters from Nebraska author Willa Cather – 566 letters, to be exact, starting when Cather was age 14 and ending a week before she died.

None of them have been published before.

Ed Bates of Lincoln was there, waiting in line to buy a copy of the book. He said reading Cather’s letters will hopefully provide some extra context for her novels, “and maybe a better understanding of what she was writing about, and the settings, that kind of stuff,” he said. “It’s always fun to know what was going on in the author’s life when you read the books.”

Paring it down

"Selected Letters of Willa Cather" editors Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout pored over more than 3,000 letters before settling on the 566 that made it into the finished book. How did they cut it down?

"It was not easy, of course," Stout said. "But we started out by thinking, 'What are our goals?'"

She said a big thing she and Jewell focused on was disproving the conception of Cather as one-dimensional.

"And we wanted to show how multi-dimensional she was," Stout continued. "We chose the letters that we thought most belonged, and then of course we said, 'Oh my gosh, we have way too many!' And then we had to star paring back, and that's the hard part."

Being immersed in someone else's intimate thoughts and correspondence for so long was a "distinctive experience" said Jewell, who took a faculty leave of absence for six months to work on the book full-time.

"I was spending a lot of hours every day just reading and working on the letters. And the weeks when I was working on Cather's high times .... (when she was) really excited and confident, I noticed my own mood responding to that," he said. "And likewise later on, when she was sick, when she was aging, when here family and friends were dying and she had a pretty dark state of mind ... I found myself responding to that, too, and somewhat sharing in her emotional life, and .... being really affected by it."

The enthusiastic response to Cather’s letters might seem surprising when you think about the fact that Cather herself was steadfastly opposed to their publication.

Andrew Jewell is editor of the Willa Cather Archive at UNL and is co-editor of the book, together with Janis Stout. In the book’s preface, the two say they’re aware they are “flagrantly” disregarding Cather’s wishes.

“It is definitely true that she said in her will that she prefer the letters not be published,” Jewell said matter-of-factly. “But she did, as one commentator said, know that the future couldn’t be kept off forever, and her will sort of allows for this decision that’s been made.”

After all, he said, she left the final decision up to her executors – which, with the passing of Cather’s nephew Charles, fell to the Willa Cather Trust, who promptly dropped the ban on quoting or publishing her letters.

What about the story that Cather was so opposed to her letters reaching a wide audience that she tried destroy them all?

“Frankly, so many have survived – 3,000 are known to exist now and more are probably out there – that it seems there’s no evidence for any claim of systematic destruction of letters,” Jewell said, adding with a laugh, “either she didn’t do it at all or she was terrible at it.”

He pointed out that Edith Lewis, Cather’s long-term partner, even donated various letters to academic institutions.

Jewell and Stout read and re-read all 3,000 of those letters; were there any shocking revelations or surprises? For example, while most Cather scholars and experts agree Cather was a lesbian, the nature of her relationship with Lewis and the amount that her sexuality affected her work has been a point of contention.

“There aren’t, you know, explicit kind of descriptions of the nature of their relationship in here,” Jewell said. “Instead, what you get is Edith Lewis’ perpetual presence in Cather’s life in many different ways. When Cather sent graduation gifts to her nieces, it would be from Aunt Will and Ms. Lewis.

“So what is there is a sustained sense of a life shared, and to me that’s powerful evidence in understanding their relationship.”

In fact, only one letter from Cather to Lewis has been found, Jewell said – and she talks about astronomy.

“Cather’s traveling and she’s describing what she’s seen of Venus and Mars in the sky,” he said. “But it’s so lovely and tender, and it feels like an intimate letter, even though it isn’t about intimate details.”

Willa Cather

Listen to Jewell reading a letter from Cather to her brother Roscoe, dated Nov. 28, 1918, shortly after "My Antonia" was published:

In some ways, Jewell said, there will be hundreds of surprises for readers in the details and language and phrasing, seeing as the vast majority of Cather’s personal writing hadn’t before been published. He said his favorite aspect of the letters is how Cather’s personality really shines through; while acknowledging Cather could be “prickly,” he said her letters show a woman who was also lively and vivacious.

“There’s such a warmth and affectionate nature to her, that I think people will, in some ways, just like her better after they read these letters and see this side to her.”

Co-editor Stout agreed, saying, “She actually had a sense of humor, though people have not always thought that.”

The two have received only one piece of hate mail … well, apart from being called “cheeky blighters” by one online commenter and having their actions equated with a sign of “cultural decay” by another.

But Jewell said he’s confident in their decision.

“I feel quite comfortable that this is the right thing to do,” he said. “I think Cather’s wishes were honored for decades, and now we’ve got to a point in time - 65 years after her death, after the death of almost everyone mentioned in the letters, her family, everyone is gone – that any reason she had for banning the publication no longer exists.”

But debates like this are perhaps a dying breed … or, at least, they’ll be fairly different in the future. After all, how many honest-to-goodness stamped-envelope letters do most young authors send these days?

“I think when you get to know a cultural figure or an author of any time period, how they’re presented to the world and how they’re understood and what evidence they leave behind is always going to be dependent on that time they lived in,” Jewell said. “So maybe 100 years from now, editions of people’s emails – or whatever it’s called in a hundred years – will not seem crazy.”

Even Cather’s collection includes more than just ink on paper.

Stout’s favorite letter is a note Cather sent to a playwright friend, Zoe Akins.

“She said, ‘I started to write you on a piece of birch bark like kids do, but it was too hard to write on.’ So then she writes about the weather, various things, she writes about her writing that she has underway,” Stout recounted. “And then, in the file, is the piece of birch bark.

“I think that’s just a great treasure.”

For fans of the author, Jewel and Stout’s book contains 700 pages of such treasures. The book was released internationally yesterday.