LINCOLN — When Nebraska's Willa Cather scholars played host to her nephew in 2005, little did they dream of the treasures the courtly lawyer would one day offer them.
Charles Cather was visiting Lincoln and Red Cloud, Neb., for a seminar about his famed aunt's writings.
“He was a very old-school lawyer, a very precise kind of gentleman,” recalled Guy Reynolds, professor of English and director of the Cather Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “We booked him into a hotel, treated him with respect and looked after him. We even got his hair cut.”
In 2008, Reynolds got a call from officials at the University of Nebraska Foundation. They wanted to talk to him about Charles Cather.
“It turned out he was working on his will, and he was going to deed some material to the University of Nebraska,” Reynolds said. “At this point, the game changed.”
Reynolds said Cather had mentioned that he had some of his aunt's belongings and papers. But it was only after Cather loaned four bankers' boxes of materials to UNL in December that Reynolds and his colleagues began to realize their significance. The papers became a gift to the university upon Cather's death on March 14 in California.
The papers were valued at $2 million for insurance purposes, Reynolds said, but would bring far more if sold at auction to collectors.
Their real value comes in the insights they will bring to Willa Cather's writing process, her personal life and her career in the final decades before she died in 1947.
“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,” Reynolds said.
Charles Cather became executor of his aunt's estate after the death of Edith Lewis, the author's longtime companion.
The collection includes pages from Cather's final unfinished novel, “Hard Punishments,” set in medieval France.
“We thought the manuscript had been destroyed when Cather died,” said Reynolds. “We had no idea that material still existed.”
Many people had thought Cather stopped writing in her later years, he added, but the new material, most of which dates from the 1930s and 1940s, demonstrates her continued creativity.
Other manuscripts and typescripts include a 5-inch stack of typewritten pages from her last published novel, “Sapphira and the Slave Girl.”
The collection also includes Cather's engagement calendar and an accounts ledger she used to track her earnings and expenses. Reynolds said such items will be revealing about the business of publishing and journalism of the time.
Andrew Jewell, an associate professor of the UNL libraries and editor of an online archive of Cather materials, pulled out some of the items from their new homes in acid-free archivists' boxes Thursday.
They included a couple of notebooks filled with jottings and newspaper clippings.
One small composition book, the sort of thing that might be purchased at a dime store or a train station, contained a chapter of “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” written in pencil in Cather's all-but-illegible, chicken-scratch handwriting.
There's a list of what appears to be possible titles: “Youth's Adventure,” “A Young Adventure,” “Blue Mesa,” “The First Lapp,” “The First Half.”
A sort of prose poem is handwritten on the journal's back page, upside down and from the bottom up, as if the author grabbed whatever paper was close at hand and wrote while inspiration still was hot.
“All this stuff is mixed together,” Jewell said. “It's as if everything in her office was boxed up and brought to another time and place.”
Ann Romines, a George Washington University English professor who edited a 2009 scholarly edition of “Sapphira and the Slave Girl,” said she is eager to begin studying the new materials.
“With Charles' death, we're seeing this wonderful trove. Most of us knew Charles slightly, but I had no idea how extensive the materials were,” she said.
Jewell said Charles Cather's bequest is the third major gift to UNL from the Cather family in the past decade.
The Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection, named in honor of Willa Cather's brother and sister-in-law, was donated by their grandchildren in 2007. The Philip and Helen Cather Southwick Collection was donated to UNL by Cather's niece, Helen Southwick, in 2002 and 2003.
“Having all these collections together creates a very rich environment for Cather research,” Jewell said.
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