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UNL gets Willa Cather materials, including unfinished novel

Charles Cather, an heir to his aunt Willa Cather, has left an estate gift to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that includes manuscripts including the beginning of her last novel, letters, medals and inscribed first editions of her work.

Charles Cather, Willa’s nephew, died March 14 in California, and his personal property relating to Willa Cather was given to the University of Nebraska Foundation. The materials, which were loaned to the foundation from Charles Cather and became a gift upon his death, arrived last December to be catalogued by the university. While the materials have not been formally appraised, the estimated value is $2 million.

“This is a treasure trove of materials that sheds distinctive light on Cather’s working life, and allows us to see just how relentlessly creative she was, even at the end of her life,” said Guy Reynolds, professor of English and director of the Cather Project at UNL.

The collection includes hand-written scenes from Cather’s last, unpublished novel, “Hard Punishments.” This manuscript has not previously been made public.

“The collection holds tremendous significance to Cather scholars, with documents that provide unique glimpses into her creative process,” said Andrew Jewell, editor of the Willa Cather Archive, and associate professor at University Libraries. “Here, for the first time, are early drafts of prose that eventually were transformed into one the greatest novels in American literary history: ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop.’”

The hand-written scenes from her unpublished novel, “Hard Punishments,” were long thought to have been destroyed. Some of the documents from the collection were never known by scholars to have existed, like notebooks full of hand-drawn maps of locations Cather featured in her fiction.

“The Charles Cather collection is an astounding and a wonderful complement to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s other rich Cather collections,” Jewell said.

Items included in the Charles Cather donation:

* Pages from her last unfinished novel
* 1926 notebook and maps from a trip Cather took to New Mexico. The materials are annotated and are the inspiration for her book “Death comes for the Archbishop.”
* Handwritten manuscript of “Death Comes for the Archbishop”
* The William Dean Howells Medal for “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” The medal, established in 1925, is given once every five years in recognition of the most distinguished American novel published during that period. Willa Cather was the second winner of the medal in 1930.
* Several inscribed books she gave to her partner, Edith Lewis
* Photographs
* Letters of advice to her nephew, Charles Cather
* Ledgers detailing what Willa Cather was earning

UNL has the largest Cather archive in the world. The author graduated from the university in 1895 and died in 1947. Her novels, such as “O Pioneers,” “My Antonia” and “Song of the Lark,” recognized frontier life on the Great Plains. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for “One of Ours.”

Katherine Walter, chair of Digital Initiatives and Special Collections for the UNL Libraries, has seen nine of 15 Cather collections come to UNL, including all the significant collections by Cather family members.

“Charles Cather’s gift adds greatly to our knowledge of Willa Cather’s writing and furthers our insight into her circle of friends and family. These close relationships meant much to her as a writer,” Walter said. “With this acquisition, the UNL Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections is now home to 15 Cather collections of extraordinary value to scholars and students, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries’ holdings of Cather’s works are the most significant in the world.”

National coverage: The Chronicle of Higher Education | The Associated Press 1, 2, 3

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