English, Department of


Date of this Version

Spring 2008


Published in Western American Literature 43:1 (Spring 2008), pp. 41-69. Copyright © 2008 Western Literature Association.


Who was the woman who could add local color in the form of kolaches (Czech pastries) to one of Cather's Nebraska stories and who could refine (and correct) the details of Cather's depiction of the home of a legendary New England literary hostess? One could search long in Cather biography and criticism and find no traces of the woman capable of making these carefully considered changes to Cather's prose. One can, of course, find many references to Edith Lewis, the woman with whom Cather shared an apartment in New York City for nearly four decades, but that Edith Lewis is largely a cipher. Whether or not Cather biographers and critics are willing to characterize any of Cather's intimate relationships with women as lesbian, they have shown little interest in investigating the details of Lewis's life except as documented in Cather's letters and in Lewis's discreet and self-effacing memoir of Cather, Willa Cather Living (1953). In the absence of information about Lewis, conventional wisdom has it that Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung strongly and substantively influenced Cather's artistic production by serving as grand passion and muse, while the faithful and subservient Lewis attended to the quotidian and clerical details of Cather's life. Cather biographer Sharon O'Brien, for instance, characterizes Lewis as a "loyal mate" and "partner willing to be a 'secondary consideration,'" while she characterizes McClung as Cather's "grand romance," "abiding passion," "her muse" and "ideal reader".

Certainly, Cather's working typescripts have only recently come to light, and most of the biographical scholarship on Cather (including O'Brien's biography) was written without access to--or even knowledge of--these materials. With the evidence of the typescripts in mind, this essay begins the project of reconstructing the authority of the woman holding the editorial pen. For the purposes of this essay, we begin at the beginning, focusing primarily on Lewis's family history and Lewis's life before she met Cather in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1903. Turning to sources such as newspapers, census records, city directories, local histories, genealogies, and college and university archives, and supplementing this research with interviews with Lewis's collateral descendants, we have found a wealth of information about Lewis's family history and early life. We track the movements of her large and mobile extended family across the nineteenth-century West, but we also foreground their departure point for these migrations, New England. We place the young Edith Lewis and her family in the cultural milieu of Lincoln, Nebraska, in the 1880s and '90s, but we also recover her deep New England family history, which profoundly shaped both her Nebraska childhood and her early adulthood when she left Nebraska, first to attend college in Massachusetts and then to seek a career in publishing in New York City.