Seven decades after her death, Willa Cather’s literary imprint is set to expand in a big way as her private musings will become part of the internet age.
On Jan.16, more than 400 letters from her personal correspondence will be published online as The Complete Letters of Willa Cather is launched. New batches of letters are set to be published each subsequent month, with a goal of having 1,500 of the 3,074 known letters online by the fall.
The project was made possible by a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It will be housed by the Willa Cather Archive, a project of Nebraska’s premier Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.
This is the first time Cather’s letters will be easily accessible by mass audiences. The author dictated in her will that her letters never be published. This ban was lifted when ownership of her estate was transferred after the 2011 death of her nephew.
A selection of about 560 researched and annotated letters previously were published in “The Selected Letters of Willa Cather,” a 2013 book co-edited by Andrew Jewell, professor of English and University Libraries. Jewell is co-director of the project to publish all of Cather’s letters online.
Cather, who grew up in Nebraska and graduated from the University of Nebraska, became world famous for her novels that, among other things, depict the rough but rich experiences of the pioneers of the West. Her books are the focus of much research around the world, and new scholarship often mentions her letters. Jewell said scholars around the world are eagerly anticipating the publication of more letters.
“There’s a wealth of knowledge in the letters about her life and her writing process and the characters in life that informed her books,” Jewell said. “We’ve already had a really positive response to preview presentations we’ve given at conferences.”
The letters are held in more than 90 repositories around the world, and scholars historically have had to travel to access them. The largest collection is housed in the Archives and Special Collections at Love Library, which put Jewell in a unique position to publish the 2013 collection of letters.
“While editing the book, we always had the vision that one day there would be a complete collection online,” Jewell said.
The publication of all Cather’s letters will likely renew excitement for her books and introduce a new generation of scholars and fans to her work, Jewell said.
“We’ve approached this project understanding that the interest in these letters is beyond a small group of specialists,” Jewell said. “The team has thought very carefully about how to organize and present the letters, biographers and annotations to make them findable, usable and meaningful to many different people.”
That team is comprised of Jewell’s co-editor Janis Stout, professor emerita at Texas A&M University, Melissa Homestead, professor of English; Kari Ronning, research associate professor of English; Emily Rau, assistant editor of the Willa Cather Archive; three graduate students and three undergraduate students, as well as the technical development team in the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.
The team has been putting each letter through a meticulous research process, which includes writing more than 870 biographies of Cather’s contemporaries that she either corresponded with or mentioned in her letters.
Jewell said the biographical work, led by Homestead and Ronning, has added a richness to the letters, and has been particularly fulfilling.
“Many of these biographies take people who were previously invisible in history and make them visible,” Jewell said. “We’re constantly humbled by what we previously didn’t know, even though we’ve all been working on Cather scholarship for a long time.”
Jewell said the initial NEH grant funded the first 1,500 letters and that the team has applied for additional grant funding that will allow them to publish the next group of 1,500-plus letters, but Jewell expects the project will never be finished.
“The team keeps finding new letters in various places around the world,” he said. “This project is something I expect to always be working on.”