When the prohibition on publishing the private letters of Willa Cather lifted Jan. 1, some 70 years after the novelist's death, a new window into works such as "O Pioneers!" and "Death Comes for the Archbishop" opened.
Confiding to friends, family and colleagues throughout her life, Cather describes her process and inspirations, expresses frustrations and doubts, and — researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln say — reveals who she is as a person.
“Through the letters, there are thousands and thousands of details no one knew before,” said Andrew Jewell, editor of the Willa Cather Archive at UNL.
Compiled, digitized and annotated, roughly half of the more than 3,000 known letters penned by Cather will be made available online beginning Jan. 16 as “The Complete Letters of Willa Cather” through UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.
New batches of letters will be added to the database every few weeks, said Jewell, who is leading the project alongside Janis P. Stout. The Cather Archive hopes to complete the project in the next few years.
The quest to shed new light onto Cather’s published works using her unpublished private papers began three years ago with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and in cooperation with the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud.
Researchers tracked down Cather’s letters held by the Houghton Library at Harvard College or in private collections in Vermont and elsewhere across the country to add them to the broad collection kept by UNL’s Love Library.
When they could, the Cather Archive team obtained physical copies in order to recreate them digitally. Other times they were able to retrieve letters already digitized to add them to a vast database they built to track each individual letter throughout the project.
Jewell said the team of 14 editors and contributors carefully and painstakingly transcribed each of the letters — requiring a keen eye to translate Cather’s handwriting — in order to encode the letters to fill a unique web page being built to host the Complete Letters.
As a graduate student, Emily Rau began encoding the letters to appear on the eventual website and tagging potential annotation points within each.
“That was a big learning curve,” said Rau, now an assistant editor at the Cather Archive, explaining that Cather’s use of nicknames meant deciphering the identities hidden within some letters and assigning identification numbers to each.
Editorial assistants and contributors would then draw short biographies of the people, places and works referenced within each letter, finding connections between Cather and the world at large to create a relative encyclopedia that will accompany the letters online.
The technical development team at UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities then adapted an open source annotation software for the project, launching “Annotonia” — a cheeky turn on Cather’s “My Ántonia” — specifically for the Complete Letters project.
A color coding system was used to pinpoint which annotations belonged with certain letters, or to doublecheck how the spelling and grammar in transcriptions matched up with Cather’s handwritten note.
Greg Tunink, who along with Karin Dalziel and Jessica Dussault developed the annotation software and website, said Annotonia was built to allow the content creators to ensure each entry is thorough and accurate, down to every last comma.
“Having 3,000 letters, it can be difficult to go through each and remain consistent,” Tunink said. “We built this interface to give the team the ability to search through the letters and find exactly what annotations need to be attached.”
When the Complete Letters goes live at cather.unl.edu on Jan. 16, literary scholars, Cather fans or the curious will be able to search and sort the letters by people, places or works mentioned, or narrow a range by date.
Individual letters will appear as Cather wrote them through a scanned copy, while a button on the website will allow users to toggle in a transcribed copy for easier reading.
Highlighted words appearing in the entries can be clicked for biographical information or photos of people mentioned, sketches about the places she traveled, or summaries of works she references.
Each detail was thoroughly discussed and debated with the goal of creating a positive experience for users, Dalziel said.
“We wanted to make a resource where more advanced users or casual users can find what they’re looking for without the presentation impeding the experience,” she said.
What the Cather Archive hopes users will find among the letters is new depth to the beloved author that informs readers how she approached her work and just how integrated the stories she told were woven into her life.
Melissa Homestead, a UNL English professor and associate editor on the project, said Cather’s letters during the writing of "Sapphira and the Slave Girl," her final novel published in 1940, illustrate the impact the deaths of a brother and close friend had on her.
"There are years of her writing about the book in her letters, and you sort of understand what it took to get to the final product with all the interruptions, the frustrations and the challenges she was feeling," Homestead said. “That informs your reading of a literary work.”
Or there are letters to publishers, as well as her editor and close confidant, Edith Lewis, tracing the slow transformation of her novels and short stories before they landed in readers' hands.
"If you put the letters together with the pre-publication forms of the stories, you can sort of watch the work and figure out how it's embedded in her life in a concrete way," Homestead said.
Both Homestead and Rau, who read hundreds of the author’s letters before reading most of her novels, said the correspondence lifts the veil on Cather the writer and reveals Cather the person.
“It really set an entry point for me on Cather as a person and not just as an artist,” Rau said. “To see how she would present herself to her mother and then write a mother character is interesting.”
Jewell said the Cather Archive expects an explosion of new scholarship in Cather studies following the release of the letters, as new perspectives provide different interpretations based on her unpublished works.
He pointed to his favorite letter, written in 1938 in the wake of a brother’s death where her voice was vulnerable and self-aware. Cather describes her style as a calm overlay over passionate emotions regarding the subjects of her work.
“It’s an interesting way to have her articulate her work and makes a lot of sense to me as a reader.”
Nic Kite grew up on a small farm in Nemaha County, and has fond memories of going to livestock auctions with his grandfather, where they’d survey everything from a heifer's midsection to its gait in an effort to try to size up its potential value.
A while back, when he was home during a break from studying biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kite had a dinner conversation about a methane gas-reduction effort in California.
Livestock is to blame for about a quarter of methane emissions released into the atmosphere, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and the gas it expels has about 25 times as much impact as carbon dioxide, making it a key contributor to climate change.
But many California dairy farmers decried a plan that would put the onus on them to change or face financial penalties. Derisively labeled the “cow fart tax” in several headlines in the fall of 2016, Kite said everyone at the dinner table agreed that taxing the problem wouldn’t fly in Nebraska, home to more than 6.4 million cattle, 60 to 80 of which are typically on the Kite family farm.
“We all thought it was a silly idea, but we all thought it was a concern,” he said.
This past year, Kite and six other students spent hours upon hours working on two different solutions, and their project was among those awarded a gold medal at an international competition attended by more than 4,000 students in November in Boston.
Rather than taxing farmers or streamlining costly methane digester systems found on some farms, the team aimed at the guts of the problem. And the project used E. coli — the bacteria often associated with contaminated food — as a key part of the solution, for now.
The students — Kite, Tyler Barker, Alexis Krepps, Jessica Harms, Nick Flaxbeard, Logan Uhlir of UNL and Lincoln East High School student Crystal Xu — are the second team assembled at UNL to participate in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, and the school’s first to earn a gold medal. Last year’s inaugural team earned a silver medal for its project, centered around reducing nitrate levels in water.
The annual competition brings together hundreds of teams and thousands of participants, most of them undergrad college students from an array of disciplines, to address key problems with genetically engineered systems. Many teams tackle problems germane to the region from which the students hail.
The team from Ghana wowed judges this year with a project that created a bio-mining organism to allow small-scale gold miners in the country to draw the precious metal from ore without using mercury and other toxic chemicals.
Kite said that as the Nebraska team brainstormed potential projects early in the yearlong process of readying for iGEM, the group agreed — it should be a Nebraska project.
“I think it helps a lot,” he said. “I felt when we went to the competition like we should represent where we come from.”
They come from a state that raises the second-most cattle in the country, behind only far-larger Texas. The team members, majoring in a variety of engineering and scientific disciplines (Xu, the high school student, intends to become a surgeon), addressed an issue that could reduce the state’s environmental footprint, as they stated in their project outline.
Methane is produced in the first chamber of a cow’s four stomachs as it begins the digestive process. A little more specifically, methanogens convert the hydrogen and carbon produced while the cows digest grass and other high-cellulose feed into methane gas, which they then belch into the atmosphere. (The “cow fart tax” headlines were a little off.)
Researchers have been looking for ways to reduce this problem for some time, and one of the ways that’d shown some promise is feeding seaweed to cattle.
"I know," said Krepps, a Nebraska team member. "It's weird, let me tell you."
The compound of note in seaweed is called bromoform, and it inhibits methane production by up to 50 percent. But it also requires a lot of seaweed, which previous research shows might hamper digestion in other ways. And the bromoform produced in seaweed farms has its own hazardous ozone-depleting effects.
So the Nebraska team, in the spirit of the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, thought small. The team used what is referred to in the field as BioBricks — standardized sequences of DNA — to build potentially revolutionary new models.
The team tackled methane emissions in two ways, Kite said: They worked on a process that would reduce nitrate in a cow's rumen to nitrite, which could reduce methane emissions. And in an effort to distill the benefits of seaweed, they proposed taking a gene found in algae and cloning it into a common bacteria that has some negative publicity issues, E. coli.
A key portion of the iGEM competition involves input not only from experts in the field but also from the general public. And Krepps said the public knows quite a bit about the strains of E. coli bacteria that can cause illnesses. But the strain of E. coli the team used is non-harmful and present in the guts of animals and people, Kite said.
The team explained this to groups of people attending free-admission nights at Morrill Hall from the start of July through the end of September, while also surveying them about their thoughts on genetically modified organisms and climate change.
Nearly three-quarters of the team’s survey respondents said they would eat meat from a cow with genetically modified bacteria in its stomach if scientists had proven it safe. Of the same survey population — about a third of the nearly 600 total responses came from other iGEM participants — 42 percent said they’d eat that if it helped stop an issue such as global warming.
A total of 14 people who took the survey said that global warming didn’t exist. Meanwhile, 86 percent of the respondents said it’s an urgent problem that requires immediate action.
Still, team members said they would attempt to use a different strain of bacteria, in part to defuse public concerns, if they continued work on the project.
There will be another iGEM team at Nebraska, team mentor and UNL computer science professor Myra Cohen said. Even though the new teams are able to continue work from previous teams, she said she and other mentors give those selected to participate lots of leeway to come up with their own ideas and then take on the work in the lab.
That Nebraska's second team in existence not only earned a criteria-based gold medal but also garnered a top-six finish out of 313 teams for its safety measures shows the effort members put into the project, Cohen said. Judges, in their comments to the Nebraska team, agreed.
"This is a great project grounded in local concerns and developing some novel ideas," one judge wrote. "Your focus on methane reduction through microbiome modification shows a lot of potential, and is clearly integrated into concerns from both the ranchers and the scientists."
The next team will get started in January, and the bulk of the work takes place in the summer. Krepps, who'd never spent a day of her life in a lab before this, said her advice for those who join is to not be afraid of what they don't know going in.
“It made me feel really independent, and I think I learned more that summer than I learned in school,“ she said.