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The quest to shed new light onto Cather’s published works using her unpublished private papers began three years ago with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and in cooperation with the Willa Cather Foundation in Red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.”
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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.”