Willa Cather Letters No Longer Off Limits, Thanks to New Anthology
Twenty come from Drew.
In 1926, Willa Cather confided in a letter to a friend that she had been “flirting a little with a story that’s been knocking round in my head for sometime [sic]. Title ‘Blue Eyes on the Platte,’… The natural result of a year of celibacy with the Archbishop.” The witty reference to her acclaimed novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, aside, this letter proves that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist was already plotting what would become Lucy Gayheart (1935).
Until recently, readers could never have enjoyed that delicious quote in print; only a handful of scholars have ever seen the original manuscript in Drew’s library. Cather had famously restricted publication of her correspondence, a ban that lasted from her death in 1947 until her nephew, Charles E. Cather, died in 2011.
Andrew Jewell, associate professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, encountered the letter—a favorite of his—during his five-year quest to locate and transcribe letters for inclusion in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, published by Knopf on April 16. There are about 3,000 Cather letters known to exist; 566 were selected for this volume.
Jewell and his co-editor, Janis P. Stout, selected 20 of Drew’s 118 Cather letters for the book. “All the letters from Drew’s collection that made it in are there because of their overall importance among all of Cather’s letters, and, of course, Drew has an exceptional collection with many letters of interest,” says Jewell.
At Drew, special collections cataloger Lucy Marks and library conservator Masato Okinaka, who work closely with the Cather material, aided Jewell in his recent research.
Bringing together correspondence, various editions of her books, manuscript notes and ephemera, Drew’s Cather collection is one of the finest in the country, made possible through the donations of Finn and Barbara Morris Caspersen G’91. The former chair of Drew’s board of trustees had been drawn to the author since writing her doctoral dissertation on Cather at Drew in 1990.
The access the book’s publication offers is a boon to Cather scholarship. Professor Laura Winters of the College of Saint Elizabeth, who was mentored by Drew’s Cather scholar, the late Merrill Skaggs, and who now teaches a graduate seminar on Cather at Drew, said the effect will be immediate. The letters—workaday business correspondence or lyrical ruminations on the stars—will better inform an understanding of the author and her relationships.
“It is,” Winters says, “a slightly less guarded, more intimate picture of Cather.”—Rebecca Rego Barry G’01