O Revelations! Letters, Once Banned, Flesh Out Willa Cather
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
Published: March 21, 2013
For decades Willa Cather has been a peculiar enigma in 20th-century American literature: beloved by ordinary readers for vivid evocations of frontier life in novels like “O Pioneers!” and “My Antonia,” but walled off from closer personal scrutiny by some of the tightest archival restrictions this side of J. D. Salinger.
Philip L. and Helen Cather Southwick Collection, Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries
Cather was believed to have destroyed most of her letters and sternly ordered that her surviving correspondence never be published or quoted from, a wish her executors adhered to unbendingly, even as it fueled sometimes rancorous debate about her sexuality.
But next month, nearly seven decades after Cather’s death in 1947, the doors of her interior life will be thrown open with the publication of “The Selected Letters of Willa Cather,” an anthology of 566 of the roughly 3,000 letters that turned out to have survived, scattered in some 75 archives.
For scholars it’s a major literary event, a chance at last to flesh out the understanding of a writer often seen as a remote bluestocking in big skirts and old-fashioned hats. Cather, the letters reveal, was a powerfully engaged literary businesswoman who corresponded with H. L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other notables of the day — and once playfully took those skirts off, as a charming youthful letterrecounts, to clamber down a windmill in a thunderstorm.
The letters do not yield steamy intimate detail. But they do make clear that Cather’s primary emotional attachments were to women, while also laying to rest what the volume’s editors, in interviews, called a persistent urban legend: that of the fanatically secretive author eager to erase any record of shameful desire.
“There’s really no evidence for the idea that she wanted all her letters destroyed,” said Andrew Jewell, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, who is an editor, with Janis Stout, of the new collection, published by Alfred A. Knopf. “It’s just one of those pieces of gossip that has taken hold in published scholarship.”