Famed Nebraska author Willa Cather, one of the 20th century’s great literary voices, was a prolific letter writer who scrawled her most intimate thoughts to friends, relatives and colleagues.
Terms of Cather’s will concealed these letters from public view for nearly 70 years, until the April 2013 publication of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. The groundbreaking book features more than 550 of Cather’s letters. Co-editors Andrew Jewell of UNL and Janis Stout, Texas A&M professor emerita, present the letters with historical and biographical context to guide readers through Cather’s life.
The book, published by Cather’s former publisher Alfred A. Knopf, has spurred wide public and scholarly interest and is a bonanza for scholars and biographers, who have long sought to understand Cather with a more accurate, fuller perspective.
Unlike her novels, in which Cather’s characters speak for her, the letters capture her personality, aspirations, concerns and complexities directly in her own words, said Jewell, an associate professor of libraries who edits the online Willa Cather Archive for UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.
“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,” Jewell said.
Jewell had been compiling and summarizing the letters for several years in his work with the archive when the ban on the letters’ publication was lifted in 2011 following the death of Cather’s last surviving heir. He and Stout then began working toward publishing a book of the letters for public view.
“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.”
— Andrew Jewell
The letters illustrate Cather’s clever, quick, engaging and sometimes restless mind as she shared her thoughts on war and the Great Depression, on other writers and artists and on the difficult questions of living – love, death and work.
“The sense of her personality from these letters is so wonderful,” Jewell said. “She seems to have been the kind of person who couldn’t tolerate fakery or insincere emotion, and so she is always vibrantly herself.
“You can feel her vigorous personality on the page.”