When hearing the name Cather, hungry University of Nebraska-Lincoln students might think of the dining hall with the delicious dessert bar. But, the hall’s namesake, Willa Cather, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author with a history of speculations of a lesbian relationship with her editor, Edith Lewis.
This speculation is explored in “The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather & Edith Lewis,” written by Melissa Homestead, a UNL English professor and director of the Cather Project. In this biographical book, Homestead said she aims to rethink past analyses of Cather’s relationship with Lewis and, using her own research, prove their relationship to be true and important.
“A lot of research that’s been done on Willa Cather is about the fact that she doesn’t represent queer relationships in her fiction and the assumption is that she lived a closeted, lonely life,” Homestead said. “It’s really to rethink Cather’s life by recognizing the importance of her partner.”
“The Only Wonderful Things'' will be released at a virtual book launch on April 1, from 7-8:30 p.m. Sponsored by the Cather Project and the Department of English, Timothy Schaffert, associate professor of English, will lead a conversation with Homestead about the LGBTQA+ themes throughout the book. Any interested attendees can register for the free event through the link on the event page.
“I think for this event, a lot of our focus will be on questions of LGBTQ history and ways of thinking about literature in that context,” Homestead said. “Tim is gay and focuses on queer themes in his fiction. I think we’re going to have an interesting conversation.”
Homestead, who said she has loved Cather since she was in high school, began working on this book 18 years ago. Throughout research in her undergraduate career, Homestead spoke about how she noticed Lewis being dismissed in Cather’s biography. She said this book was inspired by her curiosity about the relationship between Cather and Lewis.
“I just sort of thought, ‘I bet there’s something to [Edith Lewis],’” Homestead said. “I thought she was an interesting person, and I wanted to figure out what I could find.”
Homestead first failed at an attempt to research Lewis during her undergraduate education, which she speaks about in the introduction to the book. Now with more research experience and a Ph.D. under her belt, Homestead said she was better equipped to write the book, but still struggled to conduct her research due to a lack of information.
“There’s one letter from Cather to Lewis that’s known, and five postcards,” Homestead said. “Letters are often a really important part of writing biography, and there isn’t a body of correspondence between these two people. Not having that, it became this hunt through archives, and I did a lot of very atypical research for a literary historian.”
Homestead said she found herself going through census records, looking for information on the pair’s living situation at the registered deeds office and combing other unusual archives to piece together the story.
Despite her challenges, Homestead’s close colleague, Andy Jewell, professor in the University Libraries and the editor of the Willa Cather Archive, said Homestead’s research is one of the strengths of the book.
“I often think of her as an ideal researcher because of how thorough and creative she is,” Jewell said. “I remember once she wanted to understand something about what happened to Lewis’ family and, though she laughed that she was spending days on something that would only be maybe a paragraph in the book, she goes through a deep background and understands things thoroughly before she writes them.”