Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Date of this Version

January 2008


Published in New Letters 74:1 (2008), pp. 154-175. Copyright (c) 2007 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Used by permission.


Last winter, when hundreds of letters written by Willa Cather were donated to the University of Nebraska- Lincoln, the world got its first glimpse of a significant unread text of one of the United States' most accomplished authors. These letters, written over four decades to Cather's brother Roscoe and his family, are remarkable artifacts: meditations on the writing process, anxious descriptions of new ideas, celebrations of professional success, solicitations for financial advice, and gripes about family squabbles. They reveal details of complex and intense familial relationships that Cather's biographers have not understood before, and they provide new details about the development and writing of Cather's novels.

For all of the new information found in the letters of the Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection, the arrival of this correspondence raises an important question. For decades, Cather's critics and biographers have casually referred to her decision, late in life, to destroy all of her letters. The story is typically told somewhat like this: In her last, misanthropic years, Willa Cather, helped by her companion Edith Lewis, systematically collected and destroyed all the letters she could find in order to prevent undignified exposure to the rotting world. Then, to make doubly sure that nothing untoward slipped before the public eye, Cather put a provision in her will to ban all publication of or direct quotation from her surviving correspondence. After Cather died, Edith Lewis, the executor of Cather's estate, continued the efforts and destroyed whatever other letters she could find or buy.

This basic story has been repeated many times, but is it true? We know with certainty that Cather banned publication of her letters in her will-there are legal documents to prove it. But what about the rest of the narrative? Did she seek to reclaim her letters in order to destroy them? If she did, why are so many still around? If she did not, why is that story so often repeated? Where does it come from?

The arrival of the Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection provides physical evidence that, at the least, if Willa Cather and Edith Lewis did try to collect and burn up all the letters, they were very bad at it. Thousands of letters have survived and are available to be read not only in this collection but in repositories around the United States. There are currently around 2,500 pieces of correspondence written by Willa Cather, held in about seventy-five different repositories. The largest stores of letters are at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln, Harvard University, the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and the University of Virginia. Like the new Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection, many of these large collections of letters came to institutions from the hands or families of people to whom Cather remained close until the end of her life, and many of these same people had affectionate relationships with Edith Lewis after Cather's death. If Cather's family and life-long friends would not cooperate in the supposed campaign to destroy the correspondence, who would?