Biographers and scholars know of just one full-length letter from celebrated novelist Willa Cather to her longtime companion, Edith Lewis.
Written in October 1936 while Cather was away in New Hampshire, the letter contains more than 300 words. But, for decades, Cather researchers have drawn most of their conclusions from just one sentence.
“Everything you packed carried wonderfully,” Cather wrote to Lewis. “Not a wrinkle.”
For generations of Cather scholars, Edith Lewis was the woman who packed the suitcases. At worst a lackey. At best a secretary. A mere footnote in the story of Cather’s genius.
But one Nebraska academic is challenging that notion in a new project that asserts Lewis was both a valued collaborator on Cather’s prose and the author’s primary romantic relationship.
Melissa Homestead, an English professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has received a $50,000 fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete work on a manuscript that examines the complex relationship between the two women. “The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis” is due to be published with Oxford University Press in 2020.
“There are two things at the center,” Homestead said of her book. “One is thinking about Cather as engaged — having a collaborative relationship with an editor. The other is thinking about her as somebody who was living a happy and fulfilled life with someone that meant a great deal to her.”
In addition to Homestead’s project, other efforts at UNL are painting a new, more complex portrait of Cather.
On Tuesday, UNL launched “The Complete Letters of Willa Cather,” an online archive that aims to make all of the author’s 3,000 known letters available to the public.
The archive, supported by the NEH and UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities in cooperation with the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, currently holds almost 500 scanned and annotated letters. More will be added to the archive over time, said Andrew Jewell, editor of the Willa Cather Archive at UNL.
Both Homestead’s book and the letter archive “make tons of resources available,” Jewell said. “It is opening up the possibilities for others to look at the same evidence and draw their own conclusions. To argue and be generative of more interpretations of Cather and Lewis and Cather’s work.”
The archive will include decades of missives that Cather wrote to friends and family. She wrote to her father, expressing regret for missing Christmas in 1906. She wrote to her editor, complaining about being charged for extra corrections to “My Ántonia” in 1919. She wrote to an old friend from her university days in Lincoln just before her death in April 1947.
But there’s at least one glaring hole in the narrative: her correspondence with Lewis. Besides the 1936 letter, the only written communication known to exist between the two women are a few short postcards.
Though Homestead believes there were obviously more letters written between the two, the scant paper trail isn’t entirely surprising to her.
“When you live together, you don’t write to each other, right?” she said.
Cather met Lewis, a Lincoln native, in 1903. Cather, living in Pittsburgh, was visiting her college stomping grounds. Five years later, after Cather had moved to New York City, she and Lewis moved in together. They lived and traveled as a pair until Cather’s death 39 years later.
Still, in the past, many scholars have trivialized Lewis’ role in Cather’s life. After Cather’s death, Lewis served as the literary executor of the author’s estate. Because Cather’s will specifically forbade the publication of her personal letters, Lewis won no friends among the early biographers who wrote to her requesting documents and received polite, but firm, rejections.
Historically, academic study has shied away from Cather’s personal story in favor of the writings she left behind. Those scholars who were interested in the woman behind the words often characterized her as a socially aloof artist, forever pining after her literary muse, Isabelle McClung, a close friend from Pittsburgh who eventually married a Russian-Canadian violinist.
There’s never been any room, Homestead said, for someone like Edith Lewis: an ambitious career woman who played an active role in shaping the popular image of Willa Cather.
“I’m giving a very different view of Cather and also recovering the life of an early 20th century career woman,” Homestead said. “(Cather’s) got Edith Lewis there. They’re living in the present and they’re moving forward and they create a life together.”
Lewis worked as an advertising copywriter for J. Walter Thompson, a large ad agency in New York City. Her accounts included Woodbury Facial Soap and Jergens Hand Lotion. And she was committed to her job.
“Did Edith tell you that her company gave her a check for a thousand dollars for a Christmas present, and a month later raised her salary again! You have to deliver goods to make a New York business firm treat you like that, I assure you,” Cather wrote to a friend in 1924.
In fact, Homestead said, there’s evidence that it was Lewis’ career that held Cather in New York. In some letters, she wrote about how she was tired of city life and in others she wrote she wished Lewis would quit her demanding job.
When Lewis wasn’t writing advertising copy, she was diligently editing Cather’s manuscripts. Some biographers have characterized her work as that of a secretary, recording only changes that Cather first dictated to her.
But Homestead has examined original typescripts of some of Cather’s novels and seen Lewis’ hand at work. The hard evidence, she said, points to Lewis as an independent editor who’s helped cultivate the stripped-down style Cather is known for. Take the 1925 novel “The Professor’s House.”
In one scene, Cather describes the central character’s meditation on his life so far: “The most disappointing thing about life, St. Peter thought, was the amazing part that blind chance played in it. After one had attributed as much as possible to indirect causation, there still remained so much, even in a quiet and sheltered existence, that was irreducible to any logic.”
Edits in Lewis’ handwriting pared down the wordy passage to: “All the most important things in his life had been determined by chance, St. Peter thought.”
These editing sessions were an important element of Cather and Lewis’ relationship. Years later, Lewis wrote of days spent together in New Hampshire, reading the proofs for “My Àntonia.”
“These were wonderful mornings,” she wrote. “Full of beauty and pleasure.”
The two women never explicitly labeled themselves as a couple, but they didn’t hide the fact that they were sharing their lives. Looking back, Jewell said, there’s no sense that either woman was living in the closet.
“Not having a label, I think, is part of how they managed to live so openly,” Homestead said. “Was her relationship with Edith Lewis primary and was it emotionally romantic? Yes.”
They wrote about each other in letters. They traveled together. For all intents and purposes, they lived like a married couple, Homestead said.
Just look at the one surviving letter between them.
“My Darling Edith,” Cather begins. She writes about New Hampshire, about how she’s enjoying the clean mountain air and sleeping near woods bathed in moonlight.
That night, she tells Lewis, Jupiter and Venus will be visible in the western sky.
“I can’t but believe that all that majesty and all that beauty, those fated and unfailing appearances and exits, are something more than mathematics and horrible temperatures,” Cather writes. “If they are not, then we are the only wonderful things — because we can wonder.”
To Homestead, it’s clear: “That letter tells me that there is a great intimacy and romantic love,” she said. “That letter is designed purely to give pleasure.”