Edith Lewis lived, worked and traveled with author Willa Cather for nearly 40 years, right up to Cather’s death in 1947, but she’s often treated as a footnote or is non-existent in the written histories of Cather’s life and work.
Melissa Homestead, a Cather scholar at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, has spent part of her career working to change that. She’s currently working on a book about Lewis’ life and work and her relationship with Cather.
Like many writers, Cather followed a specific process to craft her influential novels and short stories. After writing out a first draft in longhand, she punched the manuscripts out on typewriter. She often used carbon paper to make an extra copy, so that she and Lewis both could mark up the pages with notes and revisions.
“Edith Lewis’ handwriting is all over the typed manuscripts, and it’s evident this was a collaboration,” said Homestead, who has studied manuscripts held in the Special Collections of Love Library and additional documents from archives all over the country.
“It really is striking reading these early drafts.”
Homestead said Lewis played a pivotal role in Cather’s success, thanks to her own skills as a writer and editor. Lewis, who was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, became a successful magazine editor and advertising copywriter and in New York.
“There are examples where you can see how Lewis’s edits substantially changed the direction of the narrative or shifted the meaning,” Homestead said.
Homestead’s book on Lewis and Cather, under contract with Oxford University Press and due out in 2020, has attracted attention from scholars and journalists. They include New Yorker writer and music critic Alex Ross, who drew upon Homestead’s research for a piece on Cather that appears in this week’s issue.
Homestead, a professor of English and associate editor of the digital project, The Complete Letters of Willa Cather, said Cather’s almost mythological status in American literature and homophobia have both played a role in pushing Lewis’ role in Cather’s life to the sidelines.
“There’s been this notion of Cather as an autonomous artist, who did everything by herself,” she said. “It’s been hard for people to think about her actually collaborating.”
Homestead’s search for more information about Lewis has led to several important discoveries of forgotten Cather works and previously unknown correspondence.
“The most amazing things keep turning up,” Homestead said.
For example, Homestead’s forthcoming critical essay in American Literary Realism centers upon a 1920 Vanity Fair review Cather wrote on author Martin Nexoe. Homestead found the essay, which had been forgotten, while trying to piece together Lewis’ role in a famous photo shoot of Cather.
On a research trip, Homestead found a new batch of more than 30 letters between Cather and her publishers at Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Homestead will introduce that correspondence in an upcoming issue of the Willa Cather Newsletter and Review. The letters will also be added to the Complete Letters of Willa Cather, which will begin digital publication of all known letters in 2018.
She’s also found evidence of how the shared experiences of Cather and Lewis ultimately informed Cather’s fiction.
“I had long suspected Cather and Lewis’s travels in the Southwest were the basis for ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’ and the central section of ‘The Professor’s House,’ ” she said. “When the Charles Cather Collection came to the university in 2011, it turned out to have a remarkable range of materials related to Lewis, including her travel journals from their Southwestern trips. What I had hypothesized turned out to be true, that the novels reflect their experiences together.”