TOM COLE: (Reading) I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
These are the lines that open one of the great classics of American literature: Willa Cather's 1918 novel, "My Antonia."
COLE: I was 10 years old then. I had lost both my father and mother within a year. And my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents who lived in Nebraska. I traveled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the hands on my father's old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going west to work for my grandfather.
COLE: (Reading) Jake's experience of the world was not much wider than mine. He had never been in a railway train until the morning we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world. I do not remember crossing the Missouri River or anything about the long day's journey through Nebraska. Probably, by then, I had crossed so many rivers that I was dull to them. The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.
ELLIOTT: Cather scholars will have to journey to the University of Nebraska if they want to read some 400 of her letters her family recently made available to the public. Willa Cather did not want her personal correspondence read. Her will forbids any surviving letters to be reproduced or quoted. But Andy Jewell, a professor at the university, is cataloguing each new letter and summarizing it for his Web site, the Willa Cather Archive.
He joins us now from Nebraska Public Radio. Professor Jewell, thanks for being with us.
Professor ANDY JEWELL (Editor and Co-Director, The Willa Cather Archive): Thanks for having me, Debbie.
ELLIOTT: Before we talk about these letters, I have to clear up exactly how you are supposed to pronounce Willa Cather's name.
Prof. JEWELL: Well, she said herself it rhymes with gather or rather, so she preferred Cather. But the only thing she couldn't tolerate was when it was kay-ther(ph). She couldn't handle that, so Cather is acceptable, I think.
ELLIOTT: Well, we'll try to say Cather, Cather, from now. It's hard after learning it one way, to switch.
Prof. JEWELL: Oh, yeah.
ELLIOTT: Tell us a little bit about these letters. Who were they written to?
Prof. JEWELL: They're written mostly to her brother, Roscoe; his wife, Meta; and Roscoe and Meta's children. And they are a wonderful, intimate account of Cather's relationship to her brother.
We always knew that she said that her brother was an important person in her life, but until you can read it in her own voice, you never really understood the intimacy of their relationship.
You know, she often will refer to something they shared in their childhood together, and that will be the point of reference or metaphor for them when she's talking about writing "My Antonia." She says, I haven't had a new idea since "Sandy Point." And "Sandy Point" is a make-believe town that they played with his children in Nebraska.
She trusts him as someone who knew her from her youth and who also shared her sensibility. In fact, late in her life, as she was finishing the novel, her last novel, "Sapphira and the Slave Girl," she told him about that book and said, I'm telling you this, Roscoe, because you're the only one who gives a damn about what I do. It didn't use to bother me, but now, it does. That's why I think he was a particularly important person in her life, and the letters and their intimacy really reveal that.
ELLIOTT: Much has been made over the years of Cather's relationship with Edith Lewis, the editor who lived with her for 37 years. Do these letters shed any light on their relationship?
Prof. JEWELL: It does, but in a subtle way. What it shows us is that Edith Lewis was an intimate part of Cather's day-to-day life. And you see that in the way she refers to her constantly in the letters and casually, the way one would refer to a spouse or someone they're with everyday. They send gifts together to Cather's family. They're signed both from Aunt Willa and Ms. Lewis.
It's clear that after Cather had died that Edith Lewis kept in contact with Cather's family. She was a part of their lives. She was an intimate part of Cather's life.
ELLIOTT: The narrator in "My Antonia," which we just heard a reading from, is a male character named Jim Burden. There's even one romantic scene that's written from Jim Burden's perspective. Let's listen.
COLE: (Reading) One dream I dreamed a great many times, and it was always the same. I was in a harvest-field full of shocks, and I was lying against one of them. Lena Lingard came across the stubble barefoot, in a short skirt, with a curved reaping-hook in her hand, and she was flushed like the dawn, with a kind of luminous rosiness all about her. She sat down beside me, turns to me with a soft sigh and said, "Now they are all gone, and I can kiss you as much as I like." I used to wish I could have this flattering dream about Antonia, but I never did.
ELLIOTT: Professor Jewell, do these letters reveal anything about Cather's decision to use a male voice as the narrator here?
Prof. JEWELL: They did. There's one letter written early in the conception of the novel "My Antonia" to her brother. And she says, Roscoe, I want to talk to you about this book I'm thinking about, because I'm very nervous, but I feel the story has to be written from a male perspective. It must be a man and a boy who tells the story. And I don't think that women can get away with that very well. And, you know, she says to him, I wish I had the journal you wrote when you went into Yellowstone, because it's just that kind of story.
ELLIOTT: You know, Willa Cather was known for her deep connection to the land and that coming through in all of her work. Is there anything in the letters that speaks to that feeling, that connection to the land back home in the Great Plains?
Prof. JEWELL: You know, the answer is a complicated one because I think she always felt a part of herself in that region of the world. And she never stopped moving around in her life, though she spent - her address was New York for much of her life. She was constantly on the move and traveling, and she connects deeply with all sorts of places, as her novels "Death Comes for the Archbishop" and "The Professor's House" and others reveal, that the American Southwest was a place she also felt was very close to her.
You know, she talked about her writing in terms of caring a lot. In one letter to Roscoe, she says, I've cared so very much. It's made me as a writer, but it'll beat me in the end. And I think part of her feeling for the places and the people is reflected in that caring. She says, I'm called a classic stylist. I have a classic style, but it's really - she said, I could write as mild as May, but if I have heat underneath it, people will know it. People who are savvy will know it. I think that comes true when she writes about the land because when she's in a place, she's in a place.
ELLIOTT: Why was she so protective of her letters? Why didn't she want these published?
Prof. JEWELL: I think she did not want them published because she wanted people who were interested in her to know her through the works that she toiled over: the novels, the short stories, the essays. The letters were things that, you know, she jotted off quickly many a day, and I think she felt that she didn't want to be known as an author of these letters. She wanted to be known as the author of the novels.
And - but now, I think, as years have passed and her place in American letters is so secure, when we read her correspondence, we see, - I've called it the great unread text of Cather's life, because in them, there is such a wonderful line and insights both into her personal life but also just into the world itself.
ELLIOTT: Well, thank you for speaking with us, Professor.
Prof. JEWELL: Oh, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
ELLIOTT: Andy Jewell is a professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. A link to his Willa Cather Archive can be found through our Web site, npr.org. And thanks to NPR's Tom Cole for reading passages from "My Antonia."
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ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.