Discovering Willa Cather & Big Cather News

You know that silly question: if you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one book, what book would it be?  My answer would be anything by Willa Cather.  If I could be picky, I’d do an eenie-meenie-minie-mo between The Song of the Lark, One of Ours, or Death Comes for the Archbishop.

I’d never heard of Willa Cather until one day while browsing the literary journals at my college library.  I wasn’t one of those teenagers forced to read My Antonia in high school.  Occasionally I meet such people at the bookstore where I work. Some love My Antonia but have never read anything else by Cather, and others hate her from the forced consumption and heavy-handed teaching they endured and are skeptical when I try to convince them to give her another shot. 

My undergraduate English Department’s course offerings were geared toward British Literature and I gladly took the required courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc., and then dived into Old English.  For some years I fancied myself a Medievalist and it was my intention to specialize in that area in graduate school.  After discovering the joys of Hemingway one summer, I was hungry for more American Literature.  One day I decided to take the matter into my own hands and spent a day browsing all of the periodicals and journals dedicated to the subject that my library had on hand.  I went through the stacks alphabetically and eventually arrived at Western American Literature.

The one semester that an American Lit course was offered at my college I jumped on it and then couldn’t believe my rotten luck when the professor sat down on the first day of class and announced that our focus would be on the French Writers who influenced American Writers. Seriously?  I contemplated dropping the class but three of my friends were also taking it, so I stuck it out.  I’m glad it did.  Although we didn’t exam how these French Writers impacted even one American Writer by reading one American Novel, the professor’s enthusiasm for French Writers was contagious and I admit to falling in love with Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant that semester.

So there I was happily flipping through back issues of Western American Literature when I came across an essay on Willa Cather.  I don’t remember who wrote the essay or what it was about, but I do remember that a line or a footnote said something about Cather having been a lesbian.  Whoa.  A Great American Writer who I’d never heard about that could have been a lesbian to boot?  Plus she was from Nebraska, of all places, that much-maligned state I visited at least once a year since I was an infant?  I felt like I’d struck a personal gold mine.

It was also on this day that I discovered Susan J. Rosowski who was considered the premier Cather scholar at the time (Sue passed away in 2004).  I ended up going to graduate school at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln because of Sue Rosowski and Willa Cather.  My undergraduate adviser, an Anglo-Saxon Scholar, had not been thrilled about my new-found enthusiasm for Willa Cather.  He twisted his mouth in distaste as he informed me that I could read “Eskimo literature or whatever” after I secured my advanced degrees in Medieval and/or Anglo-Saxon Studies.  There was, however, a solid Medievalist in the English Department at Nebraska that my adviser deemed acceptable, so he relented and wrote a letter of recommendation for me against his better judgement.  His fears were valid: my first semester at Nebraska I ended up getting joyfully ensnared by pre-twentieth century women writers and dropped Medieval studies.

Sue at work in the Cather Archive

Sue Rosowski ended up becoming one of the most influential teachers and mentors in my life.  Her loss to those in the Cather community was tremendous but her influence as a mentor and friend lives on.  During my first year of graduate school Sue encouraged me to submit my seminar paper on Cather to a conference.  I practically swooned when I found out that not only was it accepted, but that I’d be on a panel with Sue. In the ensuing weeks, Sue helped me prep my paper for oral delivery.  There were three of us on the panel.  Sue went first, then me, then another professor.  As Sue delivered her paper, I experienced academic shock-&-awe as I saw the mess that was her paper–it was neatly typed, but it was also literally covered with hand-written notes and arrows.  I was stunned that she was able to give a coherent, interesting paper presentation off of that.  But, then, Sue could just sit and talk about any literary topic and I’d be enthralled.  I, on the other hand, was a first year graduate student with stage fright.  As I recall, I only stumbled once when delivering my paper.  It was one of those experiences where you feel like you’re watching yourself from a distance with the sound turned off.  Sue and my friends assured me later that I did a fine job.

Long story short, I did earn my Masters at Nebraska and then headed further west where I took course work towards a Ph.D. at the University of Nevada, Reno (recommended to me by Sue), but after five years of teaching comp and lit classes, I came to the slow realization that a life in academia was not for me.

One of the reasons I love Willa Cather is that her novels remind me of a time in my life that was full of literary discovery and immersion in a community of enthusiastic literary scholars.  But the reason I was first drawn to her and come back to her time after time is that I strongly relate to both her life and her writing.

Cather Memorial Prairie on March 11, 2011

In March I made the pilgrimage to Red Cloud, NE, Cather’s hometown. Again.  I spent some time wandering around the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie.  It was a sunny day, in the 60s, and the wind was incessant as it almost always is on the plains.  Walking back to the parking area there was a man sitting on the bench watching his little dog explore the area.  We struck up a conversation.  He was a local man, middle-aged, his great-grand father had been one of the first white settlers to the area.  Not a farmer, a cattle man.  Just over there, he pointed back over his left shoulder.  We talked about Willa Cather, of course.  For over a decade every spring this man has opened his home to a Cather enthusiast that attends the annual Cather conference in Red Cloud.  I asked if he has a favorite Cather novel.  I don’t think I was surprised when he said he hadn’t read any of them.  He’d tried, he said, but he isn’t much of a reader.  Yet he knows all about Cather’s life and work and talks about her like a dearly loved neighbor or family member.  Its that spirit of relationship that makes Cather feel so alive to me.

Here’s today’s big Cather News: Part of the manuscript that Cather was working on when she died, and other items, have recently been donated to the Cather Archives by Charles Cather, her nephew.  It was long thought that the manuscript had been destroyed.

Here are two articles on the topic:

Short and sweet article #1:

Associated Press – May 12, 2011 12:05 PM ET
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – A passage from Willa Cather’s unfinished novel “Hard Punishments” is among a new collection of writings and mementos added to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s archives.

The editor of the archives, Andrew Jewell, says Cather died in 1947 before finishing the novel, and scholars believed the incomplete manuscript had been destroyed. He says the collection left by the author’s nephew, Charles Cather, proves otherwise.

Jewell described the passage as a conversation between a boy who had his tongue ripped out for blasphemy and a blind priest who gives the boy absolution. The scene takes place in medieval France.

The passage was among several items unveiled Thursday by the university, which has the largest Cather archive in the world.
Among Cather’s best-known works are “O Pioneers” and “My Antonia.”

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Longer article #2:

Donation of Cather documents, start of unfinished novel, made to UNL

( – Charles Cather, an heir to his aunt Willa Cather, has left an estate gift to the University of Nebraska that includes manuscripts including the beginning of her last novel, letters, medals and inscribed first editions of her work.

Charles Cather, Willa’s nephew, died March 14 in California, and his personal property relating to Willa Cather was given to the University of Nebraska Foundation. The materials, which were loaned to the foundation from Charles Cather and became a gift upon his death, arrived last December to be catalogued by the university. While the materials have not been formally appraised, the estimated value is $2 million. They will be unveiled at an event at 10 a.m. May 12 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Van Brunt Visitors Center, 313 N. 13th St.

“This is a treasure trove of materials that sheds distinctive light on Cather’s working life, and allows us to see just how relentlessly creative she was, even at the end of her life,” said Guy Reynolds, professor of English and director of the Cather Project at UNL.

The collection includes hand-written scenes from Cather’s last, unpublished novel, “Hard Punishments.” This manuscript has not previously been made public.

“The collection holds tremendous significance to Cather scholars, with documents that provide unique glimpses into her creative process,” said Andrew Jewell, editor of the Willa Cather Archive, and associate professor at University Libraries. “Here, for the first time, are early drafts of prose that eventually were transformed into one the greatest novels in American literary history: ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop.'”

The hand-written scenes from her unpublished novel, “Hard Punishments,” were long thought to have been destroyed. Some of the documents from the collection were never known by scholars to have existed, like notebooks full of hand-drawn maps of locations Cather featured in her fiction.

“The Charles Cather collection is an astounding and a wonderful complement to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s other rich Cather collections,” Jewell said.

Items included in the Charles Cather donation:

* Pages from her last unfinished novel
* 1926 notebook and maps from a trip Cather took to New Mexico. The materials are annotated and are the inspiration for her book “Death comes for the Archbishop.”
* Handwritten manuscript of “Death Comes for the Archbishop”
* The William Dean Howells Medal for “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” The medal, established in 1925, is given once every five years in recognition of the most distinguished American novel published during that period. Willa Cather was the second winner of the medal in 1930.
* Several inscribed books she gave to her partner, Edith Lewis
* Photographs
* Letters of advice to her nephew, Charles Cather
* Ledgers detailing what Willa Cather was earning

The University of Nebraska has the largest Cather archive in the world. The author graduated from the university in 1895 and died in 1947. Her novels, such as “O Pioneers,” “My Antonia” and “Song of the Lark,” recognized frontier life on the Great Plains. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for “One of Ours.”

In addition to Charles Cather, many other Cather family members as well as Cather scholars have made significant donations of Cather’s works to UNL, including heirs of Roscoe Cather, Willa’s brother; heirs of George Cather Ray, Willa’s cousin; Philip and Helen Cather Southwick, Willa’s niece and her husband; and Cather scholars.

Katherine Walter, chair of Digital Initiatives and Special Collections for the UNL Libraries, has seen nine of 15 Cather collections come to UNL, including all the significant collections by Cather family members.

“Charles Cather’s gift adds greatly to our knowledge of Willa Cather’s writing and furthers our insight into her circle of friends and family. These close relationships meant much to her as a writer,” Walter said. “With this acquisition, the UNL Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections is now home to 15 Cather collections of extraordinary value to scholars and students, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries’ holdings of Cather’s works are the most significant in the world.”

Clarence Castner, president of the University of Nebraska Foundation, praised the generosity of the Cather family.

“We are grateful to Charles Cather as well as all the Cather family members and scholars who have entrusted us with their priceless Willa Cather gifts over the years,” Castner said. “These are items that simply could not be afforded by a public university if they were auctioned, and they enrich the university greatly.”

A special library event is planned for this fall to showcase the items provided through Charles Cather’s gift. Anyone wanting to see the materials can visit the Archives and Special Collections reading room at Love Library, 13th and R streets, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

I sense another road trip to Nebraska in my future!  Archives are fun.  The new items are on display now if you’re lucky enough to live near Lincoln, NE.  One article announced that there are plans at the archive for a special event this fall that will showcase the new items. I’m there.

What’s your experience with Willa Cather?


  1. Dear Chris,
    Thank you for your work here and in general, to advance WC's incredible body of knowledge, inspiration and life experiences through her novels and stories.
    I was introduced to Cather in a Women's Lit course and fell in love with her writing.

    It is great you were able to work with Sue Rosokowski. I have read some of her work for my papers on WC and she was brilliant.

    I'm considering the spring 2012 conference.
    Back east here, in PA, I haven't come across many “Catherites,” but I suspect I haven't looked hard enough!

    Thanks for the information and great read!
    all peace…

  2. Hi, Jackie! Thanks for your kind words. It's always a thrill to connect with a fellow Catherite! I hope you make it to the conference. I attended it years ago and it was such a good time. Everyone was so friendly and inviting, and hanging out in Red Cloud is always a treat. I'm hoping to make another trip out to Red Cloud this spring/summer (I'm in Chicago), but unfortunately can't make the conference. If you go, I'd love to hear about your experience.
    Happy reading!

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