Family donates hundreds of Willa Cather letters to UNL Libraries
Released on 01/23/2007, at 12:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
A new collection containing a large amount of Willa Cather's personal correspondence was donated to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The collection of more than 350 letters is the largest ever donated and triples the University Archives' collection of Cather letters. The correspondence also opens new doors to Cather's life.
"The letters and other materials donated are previously unknown resources for Cather scholars to study. I firmly believe that the Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection will change the face of Cather scholarship, and the University Libraries are honored to be entrusted with the materials," said Katherine Walter, chair of Digital Initiatives and Special Collections and co-chair of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at UNL.
The Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection, named for Willa Cather's brother and sister-in-law and donated on behalf of their grandchildren to the University of Nebraska Foundation, contains some 358 letters, 38 postcards, 35 photographs and 77 books. Two of the grandchildren, Patricia Schreiber and Kathryne Shannon, delivered the materials to the UNL Libraries in person earlier this month.
The donors said they were very happy to donate the collection to UNL and make it a part of the premier collections of Cather in the UNL Archives and Special Collections. Thirteen collections relating to Cather are now housed in the University Archives.
Schreiber shared her hope that this collection will renew interest in Cather and will motivate more people to read Cather's books. Shannon said she believes the collection as a whole would bring Cather back to life in a more personal way and that the love, care, and affection that Willa Cather had for her brother and his family, and their love for her, would be revealed.
Willa Cather (1873-1947) graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1895 and went on to write a number of essays, short stories and novels that drew upon her life in Nebraska, Virginia and her travels. She won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel about World War I: "One of Ours." Some of her other novels include: "O Pioneers!" "My Antonia," and "Death Comes for the Archbishop." More about Willa Cather can be found by visiting the Willa Cather Archive at http://cather.unl.edu.
Guy Reynolds, professor of English at UNL, director of the Cather Project, and general editor of the Cather Scholarly Edition and Cather Studies, called the gift "an extensive collection of national significance and weight."
Until this collection came to light, scholars knew of only three letters to Cather's brothers in existence -- one in Red Cloud and two at UNL, said Andrew Jewell, assistant professor of digital projects and editor of the Willa Cather Archive online resource.
Upon receipt in January of the new materials, University Archives staff pored over the trove of letters, discovering that the vast majority of them were written by Willa Cather to her brother Roscoe, his wife and daughters. In addition there are letters from Willa to her sister Elsie, from Willa's close friend Edith Lewis to the Roscoe Cather family, and assorted letters to Willa from family members.
Cather's letters often give detailed accounts of her life, work and opinions.
"Once Cather scholars begin to use this collection as a resource, we could see a revised biography of Cather, and numerous essays, books, and dissertations added to the volumes of Cather scholarship already in existence," Jewell said.
Also in the collection are personal documents written by Margaret Cather Shannon, one of the daughters of Roscoe and Meta Cather, of her memories of "Aunt Willie" and a biography of her mother, Meta Elizabeth Schaper. Meta was a University of Nebraska alumna who started at the university in 1899 at age 15. She lived in Havelock, Neb. (now part of Lincoln), graduated from NU in 1903 and worked at Havelock High School. She met Roscoe Cather while teaching and they married July 27, 1907, in Havelock.
This information is just the first nugget in a priceless literary collection, according to Jewell and Mary Ellen Ducey, associate professor of libraries, university archivist and special collections librarian.
"We knew Roscoe was married, but few scholars even knew his wife's name. Now, not only do we know her name but we know something about her life and we are discovering how close she was to Willa," Ducey said.
The discoveries have just begun. The next step for the University Archives and Special Collections staff is to move the collection into archival folders and boxes and to create the finding aid to the collection, which lists the letters and other materials and make that available via the UNL Libraries Web site (http://iris.unl.edu).
Plans are also under way to update and digitize the University of Nebraska Press's work, "A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather." Janis Stout, editor of the original calendar, is co-editing with Jewell the digital version which lists all known letters by Cather with the date written, location, the person to whom the letter is addressed, and a paraphrased summary of the content of each letter. The Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection will significantly expand the new digital edition.
Instructions outlined in Willa Cather's will do not permit the publication of any of her personal correspondence. Scholars from around the nation and world can visit the UNL Libraries to use the materials in a Cather collection. The reading room of the University Archives and Special Collections (Love Library, Room 29) is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
An event is being planned for April to bring Cather scholars to campus for a day of discussion on the new collection.
The University of Nebraska Foundation is an independent, nonprofit organization raising private gifts to support the University of Nebraska for more than 70 years. More than $87 million was provided last year for students, faculty, academic programs, research and campus capital improvements. More information is available at www.nufoundation.org.
The links below are to four JPEG images, three of photos in the Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection, one of the donors, Patricia Schreiber and Kathryne Shannon. The images are:
* Willa Cather with her brother Roscoe Cather's daughters, Virginia and the twins Margaret and Elizabeth.
* Meta Schaper Cather, wife of Roscoe Cather, sister-in-law of Willa Cather.
* Roscoe Cather, brother of Willa Cather.
* Donors Patricia Schreiber and Kathryne Shannon.
CONTACTS: Joan Barnes, Development and Outreach Librarian, (402) 472-6987;
Katherine Walter, Chair, Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, (402) 472-3939;
Joan Giesecke, Dean of Libraries, (402) 472-2526
Associated Media Files:
- Willa Cather and nieces (Archives and Special Collections, UNL Archives)
- Meta Schaper Cather, sister-in-law of Willa Cather (Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries)
- Roscoe Cather, brother of Willa Cather (Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries).
- Donors Patricia Schreiber (left) and Kathryne Shannon (University Communications photo by Tom Slocum)