It’s been quite a year for Willa Cather – and, therefore, for UNL’s Andrew Jewell.
In April, Jewell, an associate professor in the University Libraries, published “The Selected Letters of Willa Cather.” The book, co-edited with Texas A&M professor emerita Janis Stout, represented the first time that the intensely private Cather’s correspondence were opened up to the public.
The 700-page work received international attention and praise — which reached a crescendo this week, when TIME magazine named “Letters” to its list of Top 10 nonfiction books of 2013.
The magazine’s editors lauded the work, which includes more than 550 never-before-released Cather letters, as “a robust volume that deepens our understanding of the novelist’s witty, tenacious and richly intelligent character. Whether Cather is joking with her family, pressing her publisher for a better dust jacket or despairing of the losses of World War II, her voice comes through on every page as a true American original.”
Jewell said when he learned of the honor, he was a bit surprised that “Letters” was included in the list, which also includes works by well-known writers Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lawrence Wright and Erik Schlosser.
“It’s a bit surreal,” he said. “I see this as a sign of Cather’s importance — through her letters, we were able to remind people about her remarkable life and work. And that is what made the book notable and worthy of this honor.”
Since her death in 1947, Cather's letters had been banned from publication, according to wishes expressed in her will. For years, most scholars thought most of the letters had been destroyed, but about 3,000 are known to exist and are in the possession of universities, museums and archives. Because of the ban, they had only been read by a select few.
With the death of Cather's nephew in 2011, the ban was lifted and Jewell, who had been working with Stout on compiling and summarizing the Cather letters for five years in his work The Willa Cather Archive, was in the position to bring a collection forth for publication. Cather's original publisher, Alfred A. Knopf — now part of Knopf Doubleday — published the new book.
Cather is best known for writing of the difficulties and triumphs of life on the Plains in well-known books such as "O Pioneers!" and "My Antonia." Having spent her formative years in rural Nebraska, her novels were based partly on her life, drawing characters from actual acquaintances from around her hometown of Red Cloud and while attending the University of Nebraska.
After graduating from the university, Cather became a prominent international author, winning the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for "One of Ours.” Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages.
Jewell is an ardent fan and Cather scholar — and so the most pleasing thing since the release of “Letters” has been that fans, scholars and critics are again focusing on Cather. Articles and reviews have appeared in over 60 media outlets, including prominent notices in The New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, The Wall Street Journal and NPR’s Morning Edition, and in magazines as diverse as The New Republic, The American Spectator, and O Magazine.
In many ways, he said, he and Stout are just along for the ride as others discover and re-discover why Cather was so amazing.
“This book has provided an occasion for many to recognize and discuss her greatness as a novelist again,” Jewell said. “We knew that its success depended upon us pushing Cather’s voice to the forefront.”