The digitization, transcription and annotation of all of Willa Cather’s known letters is nearly finished. More than 2,600 of the 3,200 pieces of correspondence have been published online through the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Willa Cather Archive.
The feat has spanned nearly a decade, with the first letters published in book form, “The Selected Letters of Willa Cather,” in 2013, after the moratorium on their publication was lifted in 2011. The digital humanities project “The Complete Letters of Willa Cather” followed close behind.
Andrew Jewell, project director and co-editor for “The Complete Letters of Willa Cather,” said the remaining letters are in the pipeline for publication and he expects the work to be completed within months.
“Most everything has been transcribed and encoded, and a lot of annotations are finished,” said Jewell, a professor and chair in the University Libraries and co-director of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, which hosts the Cather Archive. “We’re closing in on completion of the edition with just select annotation, review and proofreading remaining. That said, new letters regularly appear, and we intend to continually update the project as materials are discovered.”
To celebrate the achievement, Melissa Homestead, director of the Cather Project and co-editor of “The Complete Letters,” and colleagues hosted a symposium in the Nebraska Union on Oct. 10, where scholars presented new research on the author enabled by the digitization and publication of her letters.
“We are getting tantalizingly close to finishing the nearly 3,200 letters that we have located and will be publishing,” Homestead, professor of English, said. “We’re taking a moment to reflect on Cather’s letters but also Cather and the letters, as some of our presentations today will be about letters to Cather, and Cather’s relationship to letters, not just letters she herself wrote.”
Among the research presented was the topic of Cather and her fandom. Charles Johanningsmeier, Isaacson Chair and professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and John Flannigan, professor emeritus of English at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, Illinois, presented their research on how Cather interacted with her readers and on Cather herself as a reader of other authors.
“I’d like to offer my congratulations to everyone who has played a role in making the complete letters a reality,” Johanningsmeier said. “It seems like just yesterday that I and other Cather scholars could only use those letters of hers that we had personally examined in archives and taken notes on.
“And then, when we wanted to give a paper about them or use them in writing, we had to paraphrase. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all those who, over the past decade, have spent countless hours locating, transcribing and annotating all Cather’s correspondence.”
One of those who worked many years on the letters was Gabrielle Kiriloff, now an assistant professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. As a doctoral student at Nebraska, she was an editorial assistant on the project from 2013 to 2018. As a scholar, she is working with colleagues Mathew Lavin of Denison University and Sean McCollough of Texas Christian University to parse Cather’s letters further using computational analysis. She noted during her presentation, “Patterns and Outliers Across Cather’s Correspondence,” that the collection includes 610,000 words written to more than 500 recipients.
“(Our work) is looking at the letters from a broader, as opposed to a closer, perspective,” Kiriloff said. “My colleagues and I are using computers to study the 3,000-plus letters that have been or are in the process of digitally publishing.
“We’re looking at these as a structured type of information to help us answer questions, to help us understand what she was doing throughout her career.”
Additional research presented explored Cather’s relationships with fellow women artists, specifically Olive Fremstad and Zoe Akins; and personal correspondence, professional correspondence, and the blurred line between them. The symposium ended with a roundtable discussion on digital editing of American women authors, which included Homestead, Jewell, and Emily Rau, editor of the Cather Archive and managing editor of “The Complete Letters.”
The publication of the letters was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and the Cather Project, with cooperation of the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska.