|Nebraska's greatest novelist,
Willa Sibert Cather (1873-|
1947). H.L. Mencken, the cynic's cynic, said “No romantic
novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one
half so beautiful as My Antonia.”
Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours in 1923, as well as many other awards. Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages.
UNL Associate Professor Andrew Jewell told the Omaha World-Herald that "editing her letters made him find her more attractive than before — her frankness and self-possession and confidence to be herself, her biting humor and an often hilarious prickliness."
Said Jewell, who coedited, with Texas A&M professor emerita Janis Stout, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather:
In her press release about the publication of 550 (of the 700 UNL owns) of Cather's private letters, University Communications writer Deann Gayman did not devote a single word of the 1,081 she wrote to the presumption that Cather was almost certainly gay.
"I respect wanting to keep your personal life personal," he said. "I think she wanted to keep her private life, and the lives of her family and friends, out of the spotlight. But that's not a worry anymore. Now she belongs to history and to our shared culture.
But the World-Herald, which has its ways, wrung a confession of sorts out of Jewell about the 800-lb elephant in the archives of Cather's personal letters.
About 3,000 of Cather's letters are known to exist, in universities, museums and archives.
No steamy love letters are included among the correspondence. But Jewell said two letters, in particular, reinforce the view that Cather's primary emotional relationships were with women. One is “a very tender letter” to Edith Lewis, Cather's companion and apartment mate for nearly 40 years, and another is to Cather's college classmate, Louise Pound.
“She had a 38-year relationship with Edith — it's hard for me to see an explanation of her life that doesn't reflect that she was a lesbian,” Jewell said.
Jewell said he does not believe Cather's wish to keep her letters private was an effort to hide her sexual orientation. Rather, he views her as an exacting artist with a strong business sense. She wanted to be known for her best work, not for her private life.
AKSARBENT is betting that Willa Cather, wherever she is, hopes it doesn't.
In addition to shedding light on Cather's character for the first time, Jewell said the new book might serve another lasting purpose.
"It's likely there are more letters out there floating around in private hands," he said. "We're hoping that this publication will bring more of those to light."