Dec. 7 was Pearl Harbor Day.
By BRIAN BURNES
The Kansas City Star
It also was Willa Cather’s birthday.
The Lawrence Public Library observed its 140th anniversary by inviting Andrew Jewell, editor of the online Willa Cather Archive, to discuss the recent publication of more than 500 of the Nebraska author’s letters.
Since Cather’s death in 1947 at age 73, the known universe of Cather correspondence has grown to include more than 3,000 letters held by about 75 different archives.
Because of instructions in Cather’s will, scholars could study the letters but not quote from them. That led to academics artfully paraphrasing the letters and summarizing their sentiments.
“Cather biographies are missing that vibrant, witty and affectionate personal voice,” said Jewell, associate professor of digital projects at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries.
“The lack of that voice led to a sense of Cather as a distant and removed figure.”
The 2011 death of the author’s nephew and literary executor ultimately led the Willa Cather Trust to allow publication.
Jewell, with Janis Stout, served as co-editor of “The Selected Letters of Willa Cather,” published in April.
Scholars long have examined Cather’s writings for clues to her relationships, intimate or otherwise, with women. One 1938 letter, written after the death of friend Isabelle McClung Hambourg, may speak to that as well as the fatigue Cather then was feeling.
“You cannot imagine what her death means to me,” Cather wrote her brother Roscoe.
“No other living person cared as much about my work, through 38 years, as she did. As for me, I have cared too much, about people and about places — cared too hard. It made me, as a writer. But it will break me in the end.”
Adversity dominated Cather’s later years, Jewell said.
“She was in physical pain and also was distraught by World War II. She began to believe the world she knew was not going to survive. I believe she felt she wouldn’t be understood by a generation so different from her own, and she didn’t want to be evaluated based on her quick, in-the-moment, letters.”
It’s also possible Cather knew that particular verdict already had been rendered.
“People say I have a ‘classic style,’” Cather wrote in that same 1938 letter. “A few of them know it’s the heat under the simple words that counts.”
For more about Cather’s legacy, visit the Willa Cather Archives at cather.unl.edu.
To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to email@example.com.