Willa Cather in Her Own Words, at Last

In November 1938, buffeted by the death of her dear friend Isabelle McClung Hambourg, Willa Cather poured her heart out to her brother Roscoe in a letter. She sent it from the Shattuck Inn in New Hampshire, a spot Isabelle had first taken her years earlier.

"You cannot imagine what her death means to me," Cather wrote. "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. I feel as if I couldn't go another step."

Many living people have cared a great deal for Cather's work since she sent that cri de coeur 75 years ago. But it has been next to impossible for scholars or anyone else to quote from the thousands of letters the author wrote to Roscoe and other family members, friends, publishers, and other correspondents. Cather died in 1947, and her will made it clear she did not want her letters published or her works dramatized. The Willa Cather Trust, created to manage her intellectual property after her death, enforced her wishes. That restriction put the letters, rich in detail about the writer's creative, personal, and business lives, out of quotable reach.

"All of us Cather scholars have become very skilled in paraphrase," says Ann Romines, a professor of English at George Washington University and an expert on Cather's work. "It was very destructive to Cather scholarship for many years."

Romines and other Cather scholars need paraphrase no more. In April, Alfred A. Knopf brings out the Selected Letters of Willa Cather, a nearly 700-page volume that begins with Cather's teenage years in Red Cloud, Neb., and ends right before her death. Two Cather scholars, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, edited the book, granted permission by the Cather trust after the death, in March 2011, of Charles E. Cather, the author's nephew and last designated literary executor.

For researchers, the arrival of the Selected Letters "is possibly the most important transformation of Cather since she died," says Guy J. Reynolds, a professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and the general editor of the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, part of Nebraska's extensive Cather Project. "It's almost the equivalent of finding a new manuscript. It's going to bring massive documentation into the public realm."

Why did Cather resist the idea that the public might someday see her correspondence? In their introduction to the Selected Letters, Jewell and Stout recount theories that have circulated over the decades. Cather's most intimate attachments were to other women, and some people have speculated that she "sought to conceal a secret buried in her years of correspondence, some sign of an indiscretion or uncontrolled passion," the editors write. "Most scholars, following James Woodress's characterization of her in Willa Cather: A Literary Life, are convinced that Cather was obsessed with her privacy and that the will—together with her supposed systematic collecting and burning of letters—was simply an expression of a personality seeking to control all access to itself."

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