For decades, Willa Cather has been a peculiar enigma in 20th-century American literature: beloved by ordinary readers for vivid evocations of frontier life in novels like "O Pioneers!" and "My Antonia," but walled off from personal scrutiny by some of the tightest archival restrictions this side of J.D. Salinger.
Cather was believed to have destroyed most of her letters, and sternly ordered that her surviving correspondence never be published or quoted from, a wish her executors adhered to unbendingly, even as it fueled sometimes rancorous debate about her sexuality.
But next month, nearly seven decades after Cather's death in 1947, the doors of her interior life will be thrown wide open with the publication of "The Selected Letters of Willa Cather," an anthology of 566 of the roughly 3,000 letters that turned out to have survived, scattered in some 75 archives.
For scholars it's a major literary event, a chance at last to fully flesh out our understanding of a major writer often seen as a remote bluestocking in big skirts and old-fashioned hats. Cather, the letters reveal, was a powerfully engaged literary businesswoman who corresponded with H.L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other notables of the day and once playfully took those skirts off, as a charming youthful letter recounts, to clamber down a windmill tower in a thunderstorm.
The letters do not yield steamy intimate detail. But they do make clear that Cather's primary emotional attachments were to women, Cather experts say, while also laying to rest what the volume's editors, in interviews, called a persistent literary urban legend: that of the fanatically secretive author eager to erase any record of shameful desire.
"There's really no evidence for the idea that she wanted all her letters destroyed," said Andrew Jewell, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, who is an editor, with Janis Stout, of the new collection, published by Alfred A. Knopf. "It's just one of those pieces of gossip that has taken hold in published scholarship."
Cather did want to be known solely by her novels and stories, and took obsessive care over their presentation: quibbling with her publishers over margin widths, forbidding excerpts for anthologies and banning movie adaptations. ("My decision about dramatization," she wrote after a disappointing 1934 adaptation of "A Lost Lady" starring Barbara Stanwyck, "is absolute and final.") Edith Lewis, her companion of nearly four decades and first executor, even stood firm against paperback editions until the 1960s.
Stout and Jewell, in their preface, acknowledge that publication of the letters "flagrantly" violates Cather's wishes, expressed in a will that partly expired in 2011 with the death of her nephew and second executor, Charles Cather. But publication, they argue, now advances the deeper purpose of Cather's restrictions: cementing her status as a literary artist.
"These lively, illuminating letters will do nothing to damage her reputation," they declare. Instead, they reveal her as "a complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being."
In overturning Cather's wishes, the editors have not just time but also critical mass on their side. Twenty years ago, a few hundred of her letters were known to have survived. By 2002, when Stout, then a professor at Texas A&M University, published a research guide summarizing all known letters, she had tracked down more than 1,800.
That book, expanded online with Jewell's help, only flushed out more correspondence, including previously unknown caches from Cather family members who had kept their distance from scholars.
"It may be that they didn't understand how valuable these letters would be," Stout said, noting in particular a rich trove of some 350 intimate family letters donated to the University of Nebraska in 2007 by descendants of Roscoe Cather, Willa's beloved brother.
Stout and Jewell, sensing a possible change in the legal climate, began drawing up a book proposal about five years ago. After Charles Cather's death in 2011, the copyrights passed to the Willa Cather Trust, a partnership of the Cather family, the University of Nebraska Foundation, and the Willa Cather Foundation, an educational organization in her hometown of Red Cloud, Neb. The ban on quotation and publication of the letters was quickly dropped, along with the ban on film adaptations.
"I think it's quite elegant," Guy Reynolds, an English professor at the University of Nebraska and a board member of the Cather Foundation, said of the arrangement. Most royalties will "support public access to Cather's material."
The lifting of the letters ban, scholars say, will also be a huge boon to Cather scholarship, which has been hindered by an inability to quote even a single word of what Cather said about her private life, let alone agree on what she actually meant.