Jewell assists with new documentary on Cather’s letters

· 3 min read

Jewell assists with new documentary on Cather’s letters

Andrew Jewell
Craig Chandler | University Communications
Andrew Jewell

A new NET documentary about Willa Cather’s letters reveals a new understanding of the famed author, based upon the research of University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Andrew Jewell and fellow Cather scholars at UNL and across the country.

Along with Texas scholar Janis Stout, Jewell was co-editor of “The Selected Letters of Willa Cather,” the seminal collection of Cather’s letters, released in 2013. For decades, many believed Cather’s correspondence had been destroyed upon her instructions after her death. The book, however, contains about 560 letters, roughly one-fifth of Cather’s correspondence known to be in existence.

“Yours, Willa Cather,” a 30-minute documentary that premieres at 9 p.m. Sept. 21 on NET Television, describes facets of Cather’s personality and relationships that weren’t widely known before the letters were made public.

The documentary was written and produced by Christine Lesiak, who also wrote and produced “The Road is All,” a 2005 video biography that was part of the PBS American Masters series.

Cather was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote some of the most unforgettable novels of the 20th century, including the Nebraska-based “My Antonia” and “O Pioneers.” Before her letters were published, she was widely viewed as extremely private and almost secretive about her personal life and creative process.

Indeed, the 2005 documentary described a woman who became “ever more reclusive” as her fame grew, someone who “shared her secrets with only a few trusted confidantes.”

Jewell, who served as a humanities consultant for the latest program, said “Yours, Willa Cather,” uses selections from Cather’s correspondence to dispel that image.

“Cather was a funny and dynamic person, with lots of important relationships in her life,” Jewell said. “To call her unusually private doesn’t fit with all these personal and professional relationships she had with other people.”

Melissa Homestead, professor of English, provided insights for the documentary about what Cather’s letters showed about her feelings about Nebraska, her literary ambitions and her romantic feelings toward women. Homestead has published extensively on Cather, especially about her friendship with Sara Orne Jewett, an important literary mentor early in Cather’s career; and her 38-year domestic partnership with Edith Lewis, a New York magazine editor and advertising copywriter who came from Lincoln. She is co-editor of “The Complete Letters of Willa Cather: A Digital Edition.”

Actress Marg Helgenberger, a Nebraska native known for her role in the “CSITV series, provides the voice of Cather in reading 11 letters featured in the new program. The letters mainly illustrate the author’s friendship with a select group of women.

During the month of September, NET Radio has been airing a complementary series of essays about Cather’s correspondence with figures such as Louise Pound, Jewett, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Annie Pavelka. Remaining essays will air at 9:35 a.m. Sept. 26 and 4:35 p.m. Sept. 27. Earlier episodes are available online.

For an accompanying e-book available free through iTunes, Jewell authored essays telling the stories behind each letter used in the documentary. The 67-page e-book also contains photos of the people and places in Cather’s letters, as well as links to videos with more information about Cather and her letters.

Jewell said the work with Cather’s correspondence continues. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he and several other scholars are to create a digital archive of all of Cather’s letters. Cather scholars are increasingly utilizing the letters in their study of Cather’s work.

For more information about the documentary, click here.

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