Hidden away in vaults scattered across the United States and Europe, famed Nebraska author Willa Cather’s most intimate thoughts were laid bare in the pages of her personal correspondence.
The pages upon pages of letters, most scrawled in Cather’s distinctive handwriting, were only available to a handful of scholars and fans that sought them out – until now.
More than 550 of Cather’s letters are being opened to the public in a new book co-edited by University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor Andrew Jewell. The volume, “The Selected Letters of Willa Cather,” set for release April 16, presents the author’s letters along with historical and biographical context to guide readers through Cather’s life through her newly released words.
The collection, co-edited by Jewell and Texas A&M professor emerita Janis Stout, is the first of Cather’s personal correspondence ever published and is expected to provide new insights into the author. Unlike her famous novels, in which she used her characters to speak for her, this collection captures Cather’s personality, aspirations, concerns and complexities in her own words, Jewell said.
“When making our selections, we wanted to put together a group of letters that were representative of the whole record, but we also sought to pick the letters that best let her voice and personality come through,” said Jewell, who also edits UNL’s Willa Cather Archive. Cather is perhaps best known for writing of the difficulties and triumphs of life on the Plains in well-known books such as “O Pioneers!” and “My Antonia.”
Having spent her formative years in rural Nebraska, her novels were based partly on her life, drawing characters from actual acquaintances from around Red Cloud, Neb., and while attending the University of Nebraska.
After graduating from the university, Cather became a prominent international author, winning the Pulitzer Prize for “One of Ours” in 1923, as well as many other awards. Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages.
Since her death in 1947, Cather’s letters have been banned from publication, according to wishes expressed in her will. For years, most scholars thought they had been destroyed, but about 3,000 are known to exist and are in the possession of universities, museums and archives. Because of the ban, they have only been read by a select few.
With the death of Cather’s nephew in 2011, the ban was lifted and Jewell, who had been working with Stout on compiling and summarizing the Cather letters for five years in his work with Cather Archive, was in the position to bring a collection forth for publication.
Jewell said he was ecstatic to learn that Cather’s original publisher, Alfred A. Knopf – now part of Knopf Doubleday – was interested in publishing the new book. As both an ardent fan and Cather scholar, Jewell said he was struck by the lively character that came through Cather’s letters.
“People who have been able to read the letters are blown away, because she’s so present in her letters,” Jewell said. “The sense of her personality I’ve gotten from these letters is so wonderful. She seems to have been the kind of person who couldn’t tolerate fakery or insincere emotion, and so she is always vibrantly herself.
“Whether she was pleased with a personal triumph, worrying over her latest novel or annoyed at a sibling, she was always emotionally direct. You can feel her vigorous personality on the page.”
A private person, Cather lacked any interest in being a celebrity, resisting giving public lectures or making public appearances. Jewell said theories have abounded as to why she banned the publication of her letters; he said he believes the reasoning was simply a desire to protect her and her loved ones’ privacy and to allow her body of work to speak for itself.
“I respect wanting to keep your personal life personal,” he said. “I think she wanted to keep her private life, and the lives of her family and friends, out of the spotlight. But that’s not a worry anymore. Now she belongs to history and to our shared culture.
“Her letters were dashed off without being polished, and she was one to work on her writings for years, if necessary, to get them as she wanted them. I don’t think she was hiding a big secret or anything.” Jewell and co-editor Stout spent years reading and transcribing the more than 3,000 letters before paring the collection down for the book.
They said it was difficult to make some of the final selections, but they were careful to include letters they felt would provide readers with fresh information about Cather. The entries span her life from age 14 to just days before her death.
The letters share her thoughts on war and the Great Depression, on other writers and artists and on the difficult questions of living – love, death and work:
“Now I know that nothing really matters to us but the people we love,” Cather wrote her longtime friend Carrie Miner Sherwood very late in life. “Of course, if we realized that when we are young, and just sat down and loved each other, the beds would not get made and very little of the world’s work would ever get done.”
Stout said the letters in the book “show us very clearly Cather’s awareness of, and concern for, many of the public events and issues that were going on around her. The letters show us a person of many dimensions, many interests, a more prickly disposition than her fiction seems to reveal.”
UNL Professor of English Guy Reynolds, a fellow Cather scholar, said the newly published collection of letters would be invaluable to biographers, scholars and fans.
“They will be tremendously important to future biographers, who will now be able to quote directly from a widely available volume,” he said. “They are in themselves wonderful and interesting documents and will expand the readership for Cather.
The historical value of this publication is clear, Reynolds said: “This will be a single volume edition of the correspondence of a major American writer – something to be set alongside the selected letters of Hemingway and Wallace Stevens, for instance.”
In addition to shedding light on Cather’s character for the first time, Jewell said the new book might serve another lasting purpose.
“It’s likely there are more letters out there floating around in private hands,” he said. “We’re hoping that this publication will bring more of those to light.”
– Deann Gayman, University Communications