Team to lead NEH-funded project to digitize Cather letters

Team to lead NEH-funded project to digitize Cather letters

Andrew Jewell
Craig Chandler | University Communications
Andrew Jewell

Last year, the private musings of Willa Cather were made available to the masses for the first time in a book co-edited by UNL’s Andrew Jewell.

About 550 of the famous author’s letters were published in “The Selected Letters of Willa Cather.” Scholars and fans greeted the book with excitement, but the volume contained only a fraction of the more than 3,000 pieces of correspondence that Jewell and co-editor Janis Stout had uncovered from various archives and collections around the world.

Thanks to a three-year, $271,980 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, many more will be digitized and put online by the end of the decade.

A new digital scholarly edition titled "The Complete Letters of Willa Cather" will be published online as part of the Willa Cather Archive, a venture of UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. The digital edition of Cather letters is expected to launch in January 2018, when the letters are scheduled to enter the public domain.

Jewell, associate professor in the UNL Libraries, and Stout, professor emerita at Texas A&M, will lead the project. Melissa Homestead, professor of English at UNL, will be an editor on the project and four student researchers at both the graduate and undergraduate level also will be involved.

Cather, who grew up near Red Cloud and graduated from the University of Nebraska, became world famous for her novels that often depicted the rough but triumphant lives of the pioneers of the West. A private woman, especially in her later years, she dictated in her will that her letters never be published. This ban was lifted upon the 2011 death of her nephew, and ownership of her estate was transferred.

When Jewell and Stout started work on editing Cather’s letters several years ago, they shared the goal to eventually find a way to publish all of Cather’s correspondence. A print edition of "Selected Letters" made sense and has been successful -- a paperback issued by Vintage books was released on Aug. 26. However, a print edition of all of Cather’s letters would need to be a multi-volume set that would constantly need to be updated.

“By the time we could finish the set, we would know it would be incomplete, because (newly discovered) letters continue to show up all the time,” Jewell said. “So we need a flexible format – and that is the digital format. I also think that’s how most people will prefer to access the edition.”

The digital editing project will include a full scholarly treatment of the collection, with annotations and multimedia resources attached to each letter. Each letter will be richly edited and will also be able to be data-mined, meaning researchers will be able to access information from them based on many different queries – for example, which letters were written from a certain location, which letters reference certain works, or what day of the week Cather wrote the most.

“We will be working with the growing number of people at UNL who are learning from texts not only by reading, but also through computational analysis,” Jewell said. “It’s exciting to provide a distinctive access that only a digital format will allow and to make the material useful for a wide range of research.”

Though this grant should enable the team to prepare roughly half of all of Cather’s letters, Jewell said he hopes NEH will continue to support the project down the road and to reach the goal of making all of Cather’s surviving letters part of the edition.

“Only a few years ago, very few people knew these words at all. They were hidden,” Jewell said. “I’m very pleased that the letters are now beginning to be out there. People are enjoying their richness and they are driving scholarly interpretation in new ways.”

He doesn’t suspect the edition will ever be truly finished, however.

“We will keep looking -- checking online resources and archives and talking with colleagues and collectors,” he said. “We’ll keep looking, but I’m pretty sure I won’t live long enough to see the end of new letters turning up. And that’s all right.”