Every novel and short story written by Willa Cather went through many iterations — from early penciled drafts by Cather herself to typed drafts edited by her partner, Edith Lewis, to printed proofs before publication — and soon, the Willa Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln will make all of these documents available in scanned and digitized form.
The National Endowment for the Humanities has granted $304,000 in funding over three years to build out the Digital Library of Willa Cather’s Manuscripts. The grant officially begins Feb. 3, 2023.
The digital library will include high-resolution images of each document; metadata that connects it to Cather’s other documents and published works; metadata regarding the editorial hands visible on it and other details about its creation; and an expert-authored introduction to each document.
The initiative is a joint venture between the Willa Cather Archive, a project of the University Libraries, and the Cather Project, a unit in the Department of English. The co-directors are Melissa Homestead, director of the Cather Project and professor of English; Andrew Jewell, professor in University Libraries and co-director of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities; and Emily Rau, assistant professor in University Libraries and director of the Willa Cather Archive.
Much like the Complete Letters of Willa Cather, which will publish the final batch of known letters in the coming months, the manuscript library aims to further enrich scholarly research on Cather by making more documents available online.
“We’re broadening the audience for who can understand Cather’s writing process, see the evidence of that process and make meaning of that process,” Jewell said.
Currently, about 4,000 pages comprising 100 documents are known to exist. About half are housed in Archives and Special Collections at University Libraries, and the team has located others at 19 repositories, including the New York Public Library.
“We suspect, as was the case with the letters, that as the word gets out that we’re doing this, we will learn of more,” Jewell said.
Similar to Cather’s letters, many believed most of her manuscripts had been destroyed, Homestead said, but while some of her earlier works are scarce, her later works provide rich examples of Cather’s creative process.
“Although she wrote a letter to her publishers’ son, telling him that she had destroyed all pre-publication forms of her work or asked publishers to destroy them, she was lying,” Homestead said. “There was this idea for years that Cather was so in control of her process that she wasn’t going to let the messy early stages be accessible.”
To date, the earliest novel the team has found pre-publication drafts for is “The Professor’s House,” dated 1925.
“She and Edith Lewis lost their lease on their apartment in 1927, and she didn’t put a lot of things in storage,” Homestead said. “She did probably throw away some of her earlier manuscripts as a result of that move.”
In addition to digitizing the Cather manuscripts, the grant will allow the Cather Archive to make updates that will better connect the various collections for scholars using the archive.
“We want to integrate this into the larger interface of the Cather Archive, to provide a fuller picture,” Rau said. “We can connect the letters that are about these texts, the scholarly editions and more, so you can start to trace how all these documents that we have are connected to each other.”
“Everything will be tied to a landing page and access point where users can really explore all that is available in the Cather Archive related to each text, and we want to create an infrastructure to automate that.”
Eventually, as copyrights expire and Cather’s works become part of the public domain, the final, published versions of all Cather’s novels and short stories will also be included.