I am a graduate of Smith College and the University of Pennsylvania and currently am a Professor of English and Program Faculty in Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I also direct the Cather Project in the Department of English and serve as Associate Editor of The Complete Letters of Willa Cather: A Digital Edition.
My relationship with American novelist Willa Cather is long and complicated. My favorite teacher at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the late Mrs. Judith Reese, recommended Cather to me. Cather wasn’t in our junior year American literature curriculum, but Mrs. Reese thought I would like her. At Smith College, I wrote my senior honors thesis on Cather, and then I went straight off to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I dropped in and out of grad school twice, spending my time away from academia working at a rare book and manuscript library and as an intellectual property paralegal at a large law firm. When I finally returned to finish my Ph.D., I became a specialist in nineteenth-century women’s fiction, working on authors whom most general readers have never heard of, like Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Fanny Fern, E.D.E.N. Southworth, Marion Harland, and Augusta Jane Evans. As a young critic, Cather scoffed at most of her female predecessors, including some of the authors I studied (she was particularly caustic about Southworth in this 1901 newspaper column). Although I went to academic conferences on Willa Cather for fun, I only turned my attention to research on Cather as I was finishing up my first book, American Women and Literary Property, 1822-1869 (Cambridge University Press 2005). UNL hired me in 2005 because of my research on Cather’s relationship with Edith Lewis, her partner of nearly forty years. For more about my academic research, check out my faculty profile.
This move and my research have brought me full circle. Lewis was born and (mostly) raised in Lincoln and transferred from the University of Nebraska to Smith College in 1899. Within a few miles of my house in Lincoln are so many sites important to Lewis’s childhood and young adulthood, including the University of Nebraska campus and the location of the house where she spent most of her childhood (the house no longer stands, but I occasionally walk my basset hounds there).
In 1983, when I was a junior at Smith and before I knew who Edith Lewis was, I happened to buy an inscribed copy of her memoir of Cather, Willa Cather Living (1953) at the Smith College Library book sale. Lewis had inscribed it to Willa Cather’s niece, Mary Virginia Auld Mellen, who also graduated from Smith and who left her books to her alma mater when she died in 1983. As Lewis describes in her memoir, she and Cather first met in August 1903 in Lincoln at the home of their mutual friend, Sarah Harris. The Harris House still stands on K Street in Lincoln, not far from the state capitol building. I had my author photos (by Alma Ceretta Photography and Events) taken at the Harris House. Here I am on the front porch steps, holding my inscribed copy of Willa Cather Living (you can also see me in front of the Harris house in the public television documentary about Cather’s letters, “Yours, Willa Cather,” which you can watch here).