Willa Cather was here, was queer, get used to it.

Why is it so hard for some people to let Willa Cather be queer, both to herself and the world? In Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather (2023), Benjamin Taylor treats Cather’s sexuality as an enigma. On Cather’s sexuality during her years as a student at the University of Nebraska, for example, he writes, “Willa saw herself as exceptional rather than homosexual. But that she was homosexual is obvious, astounded though she would have been to know it.” He gives some attention to a woman whom he calls Cather’s “great love” (Isabelle McClung Hambourg), as he does to Edith Lewis, the woman with whom Cather lived in New York City for nearly 40 years. However, he also gives great weight to what he describes as Cather’s “antipathy to sexual love” in her fiction (and, by implication, her life). “Sex….is the worm in the apple” he writes, unhappy marriages predominate, and “sexual need is the flaw in human nature. She was against it; her great protagonists rise above it.”

In Maureen Corrigan’s review of Taylor’s book, featured on the front page of Washington Post Books (12 November 2023), she celebrates the recognition Cather is receiving keyed to the 150th anniversary of her birth, and drawing on Taylor, leans into the supposed inscrutability of Cather’s sexuality. Calling Taylor “an especially nuanced commentator on the vexed ‘Was she or wasn’t she?’ question of Cather’s sexuality,” Corrigan suggests that Cather wished to be “done with” sex and carnal desire so that she could devote “sustained effort” into making herself a great artist.

If Cather had lived openly with a man for as long as she lived with Edith Lewis, would anyone find Cather’s sexual identity and the nature of the relationship a mystery? Notably, Taylor’s account of Lewis is scant and error-filled. He fails to mention Lewis’s role as Cather’s editor, shaping her “late style” he so admires, and he closes his book with the debunked idea that Lewis is buried at Cather’s feet (she is at Cather’s side, as she was in life).

By claiming Cather’s queerness, I am not trying to turn her into a role model, nor am I suggesting that the “common readers” who are “ready to explore Cather’s life and work” and to whom Corrigan recommends Taylor’s book must read Cather’s fiction through her sexuality–it is Taylor who does that. An accurate account of Cather’s life is my concern. The letter to university classmate Louise Pound that grounds Taylor’s claim that Cather thought of herself as “exceptional rather than homosexual” is, as he accurately characterizes it, “a profession of love.” However, he also claims that the letter is about “love at its most exalted, above the reach of mere carnality” and that “No other letter like it survives.”

Even though Corrigan characterizes Taylor’s account of this letter as typical of his “rigorous effort to fathom how Cather understood herself,” neither of Taylor’s claims about the letter is accurate. The letter begins with a paragraph of Cather’s comments on how “very handsome” she found Pound in her French couture gown the evening before, and in a later paragraph she says three times how “queer” she felt. “I wanted very much to ask you to go through the customary goodbye formality,” she explains (meaning that when she left a party they both attended, she wanted to hug and kiss Pound), “but I thought it might disgust you a little so I did’nt.” In the following yearning run-on sentence, Cather again expresses her desire for physical contact with Pound the evening before and imagines a time in the future when both of them might laugh at her intense feelings. How is this a letter about “love above the reach of mere carnality”?

Unfortunately, Corrigan is not the only reviewer to point to Taylor’s inaccurate and, frankly, baffling claims about this letter as typical of his astute take on Cather’s sexuality. Certainly, this letter and others Cather wrote in the 1890s suggest that Pound did not reciprocate her feelings, but Cather had most of her life ahead of her, including the years that she lived with Edith Lewis. Is Cather’s beautiful, subtly erotic 1936 letter addressed to “My darling Edith” from which I took the title of my book The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis not a profession of love? A love letter written to a woman with whom she had been living for twenty-eight years at the time she wrote it? In his biography of Marcel Proust, Taylor has no difficulty recognizing Proust’s homosexuality, but lesbians, it seems, are harder to see.

Perhaps Cather’s anti-modernism and childhood and adolescence in Nebraska, both central to Taylor’s reading of her life and fiction, make her queerness seem inscrutable. If, as common wisdom holds, queer folks flee small towns to major coastal cities, and lesbianism is a modern invention, then Cather (despite her own career trajectory away from Nebraska) couldn’t be queer. Such cultural assumptions fail to account for the diversity of Midwestern and rural experience in the past or today. As an adolescent in the 1880s and 1890s in Red Cloud and Lincoln, Cather presented to the world as William Cather, hair cropped short and dressed in boyish or mannish clothing. In 1893, William began to fade as the cropped hair grew long and the feminine-presenting Willa Cather emerged, living as a woman who formed romantic attachments with other women.

In Nebraska today, many of us are here and queer—in Lincoln (where I live and teach) and Omaha, but also in the rest of this largely rural and agricultural state. In June 2023 at the Willa Cather Spring Conference in Red Cloud (population 1,000, half its size during Cather’s years there), the young person ringing up my lunch order at Subway correctly read me and a fellow attendee as out-of-town queer folks and excitedly told us about the pride festival that weekend in Hastings (population 25,000, forty miles to the north). I, in turn, told them that I’d be singing with Queer Choir LNK at Lincoln’s Star City Pride Festival. Omaha, Sioux City, Grand Island, Norfolk, North Platte, and even tiny Aurora (population 4,500, hometown of my queer fiction writer colleague Timothy Schaffert) also have pride festivals.

One hundred and fifty years after Cather’s birth, it’s time to stop the endless recycling of the idea that Cather’s sexuality is a mystery and caviling about evidence. She was here (whether Nebraska, Pittsburgh, New York City, or the many places she traveled), she was queer, get used to it.

A tribute to Simon the Hound

Simon the Hound came into my life in January 2015. My first basset hound, Helen the Hound, had died in September 2014, leaving Laci Basset, adopted in 2011. Simon’s age at the time I adopted him was estimated at 10 to 12 years old. He had been surrendered to the humane society in Muscatine, Iowa, by a gentleman who had had him since he was a puppy and who had become homeless. Simon did not have heartworm, thankfully, but he had a mouth full of rotten teeth. Foster parents for Hound Haven Basset Rescue had him pulled from the pound, and while they fostered him, he had most of his teeth pulled. He didn’t seem to mind. I swear, he just snorted the kibble up his nose.

At the time I adopted him, I had been working on my book for more than a decade, but my contract with Oxford University Press was issued in the spring of 2016, and most of my intensive writing happened after that. Simon’s time with me, then, coincided the writing and publication of my book. After getting me through this process, through submission, production, and publication, and through the darkest days of the pandemic, Simon decided it was time for him to make his exit on September 21, 2021, when he was probably at least 17 years old.

Enjoy some pictures of Simon’s life with me and several other basset hounds. Watch him fade from a redhead with a white snout to being having a nearly pure white head.

Simon in 2015 with Laci, exploring his new back yard.

Simon in 2016 with Tessa Basset, the girl of his dreams.

Simon, Christmas 2016, was a lumberjack and he was okay.

Simon with Roberta Basset on the deck of a cabin in the sand hills of Nebraska, where I took them along for a one-woman, two basset writing retreat at the beginning of my NEH Fellowship year in August 2018.

Simon was, as I said many times, my Velcro hound. He was always under my feet if I was at my sit-stand desk, especially during pandemic isolation. By then, he was very old and would sometimes be sound asleep elsewhere in the house and then wake up and come looking for me in my study. During all those Zoom meetings and classes, I usually used “hide self view,” so I wouldn’t see him on screen approaching from the rear. However, I would know he had appeared because everyone I could see on screen would suddenly smile when they saw a wagging, white-headed basset hound.

Things I missed, part 2

I tormented myself by searching digital newspapers (more and more keep becoming available) and found two new items documenting Edith Lewis’s college years.

First, I often wondered what Edith Lewis did on her vacations in college (traveling back to Nebraska would have been very expensive and time consuming), and lo and behold! There she is in The Landmark, the 30 March 1900 the newspaper of White River Junction, Vermont, on her spring break in 1900 (second semester of her first year): “Edith Lewis, a student at Smith College, is spending her vacation at J. Bugbee’s.” Her father’s sister Ellen married John Bugbee of Hartford, so she was visiting family. Harriet Goodwin, in her senior year in the 1899-1900 academic year, was from Hartford and lived in Hatfield House with Edith Lewis, and I bet they took the train up together. I still think she probably spent time on other holidays in New Haven with Achsah Barlow, but still nice to see her connected to New England family.

Second, I found an item in the 6 September 1901 Meriden (Connecticut) Journal about the wedding of Lucy Morris Ellsworth to Dr. George Mason Creevey, and Edith Lewis was a bridesmaid! Lucy Ellsworth had just graduated from Smith and had lived in Hatfield House with Edith Lewis. Edith had spent the better part of the summer in Nebraska in 1901–no evidence she did so in 1900–and she came back for this wedding. Even more interesting is the fact that Lucy’s father was William Webster Ellsworth, an officer of the Century Publishing Co. So that’s how Edith got a job there in 1903! And that’s the “officer of the company whom I knew” to whom she showed a copy of a Willa Cather story in the summer of 1904 (see p. 66 of my book). Such a nice detail. Wish I’d had that one.

So many cats and dogs in your acknowledgments.

Yes there are. I’ve mostly had four cats and two dogs during all the time I was working on The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis, and I’ve adopted several old dogs, which means lots of turnover. Let me introduce them in order of their adoption.

Isobel, adopted 1988, Morris Animal Refuge in Philadelphia; died 2008 in Lincoln, NE. Isobel was my second cat, and she lived at an incredible number of addresses in Pennsylvania, Alabama, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. She was fully 20 years old when she died, although she didn’t quite make her 20th adoption anniversary.

Gracie, adopted Morris Animal Refuge, Philadelphia, 1993, died 2006, Lincoln, NE. She was part of my multiply-moved, multi-state Morris crew, although no one could match Isobel’s record. Here she was in Oklahoma, learning about the backyard.

Betty, adopted 1995, Morris Animal Refuge, Philadelphia, died 2006, Lincoln, NE. Betty (on the right) was a cat of size (22 pounds at her biggest) and had a very sweet temperament.

Ingeborg, taken in off the streets of West Philly by one of my grad school classmates in 1998, died 2005 in Norman, OK. I have some great pictures of her, but, alas, they have never been scanned.

Brownie the Dog, adopted 2002, Second Chance Animal Sanctuary, Norman, OK, died 2004, Norman, OK; and Marjorie the Cat, taken in off the streets of Norman, 2002, disappeared, Lincoln, NE, 2011. They were different species, and there was a 13-year age difference between them (Brownie was 13 years old when I adopted her), and yet they were soulmates. Brownie was BEST DOG EVER, as even my later dogs would have to concede if they met her. Marjorie remained a semi-feral stone-cold killer.

Florence the Low Rider Mutt, adopted 2004, Ahimsa Rescue of Muldrow, OK, died 2011, Lincoln, NE; and Helen the Hound, adopted 2004 from Ozark Mountain Basset , died Lincoln, NE, 2014. The dynamic duo. Helen was inconsolable when Florence died. She tolerated Laci Basset, but it wasn’t the same.

Magnus, dumped as a kitten on a colleague’s farmette in 2006, died in traffic, 2007. He was never fully domesticated, so there was no keeping him close to home. Alas, that’s why he died so young.

Tom Cat, adopted 2006 from the Capital Humane Society, died 2015. He was a stunted adolescent when I adopted him because he had IBD, and he remained a tiny little man to the end. He was too fond of lounging in front of and in back of cars on pavement (although that’s not how he died–it seems the IBD took him).

Bessie, adopted 2008 from the Capital Humane Society (I met her the same day Isobel died), and she’s still with me, often sitting on my shoulder while I work.

Annabelle, adopted 2008 from the Capital Humane Society, and still with me, being a pain in the ass. She and Bessie have hated each other for nearly 13 years now.

Laci Basset, adopted from the Nebraska Humane Society in 2011 at age eight, surrendered by an older woman in poor health, died 2015. Laci had a very sunny disposition, unless she was competing for food, then she became a wolf.

Simon the Hound, adopted from Hound Haven Basset Rescue in 2015 and still with me. Simon is a very grumpy old toothless man, and I love him. He’s on his third consort–quite the lothario–but Tessa Basset was his true love. He is currently sixteen years old and will walk for miles. Here he is in 2019 with my complete book manuscript.

Tess Basset, adopted 2015 from the Nebraska Humane Society in Omaha, died 2017, leaving a huge hole in Simon’s heart. Basset pillow display courtesy of my catalog-shopping mother. Tessa died two weeks before my mom died.

Roberta Basset, adopted from Hound Haven Basset Rescue in 2017, not long after Tessa Basset died and a few days before my mom died. I named Roberta after my mom’s sister. Roberta has the best side-eye and the most freckles of any of my bassets. And even though she was found running stray in rural Missouri, she is a fan of the easy life.

Bob and John, adopted 2019 from the Capital Humane Society. I had been down to two cats for a while, and I planed to keep it that way, but then a hoarder surrendered a whole colony of 84 cats, and BOOM, the floofy gentlemen came home with me. They aren’t littermates, but considering that the entire colony descended from one breeding pair, they might as well be. John can be distinguished by his white bib and boots. They broke up Annabelle’s reign of terror over Bessie.

BONUS, screen shots of all of my current cats Zoom bombing my first virtual book event, a conversation with Alex Ross.

Bob has things to say to Alex

Bessie’s butt.

Annabelle is mad she can’t get into my water because it has a lid on it (that was intentional)

John is interested in what’s out the window, not my book.

Things I missed

I may be able to correct the small factual errors and typos, but there are also things that I failed to incorporate that I wish I had. Nothing that changes anything important about the story I tell, just additional detail I wish I had incorporated.

Edith Lewis’s Smith College Commencement weekend, June 1902

On p. 55, I explain what the elements of the 1902 Smith College commencement weekend were, but nothing is personal to Lewis. Turns out that I had more information but, by the time I wrote about Lewis at Smith College, I forgot I had it.

In 1901, she acquired Essay by Sainte-Beuve, translated with an introduction by Elizabeth Lee, and wrote all sorts of notes on the inside of the boards and the endpapers, including information about her commencement weekend. This book is at the Harry Ransom Center, identified as part of “Willa Cather’s Library” (don’t get me started). Anyway, here’s what she wrote:

Ruth French – Senior Concert

Laura Paxton – Ball. Sermon.

Anna McClintock – Commencement

Ethel Chase and Edith Souther – Class Supper

Lucy Wicker – Ivy Walk

Ruth French, class of 1902, already appears in the book–she was the daughter of one of Henry Lewis’s college classmates, and Ruth and Edith were both officers of Phi Kappa Psi their final semester.

Laura Paxton, Anna McClintock, and Lucky Wicker, all 1902, are also already in the book. They all lived in Hatfield House with Lewis. Paxton already gets a fair amount of weight because of a letter she wrote to Lewis in 1953. Wicker’s letters to her father are a source for details of college life, but I wish I’d known that Lewis knew her well enough to walk with her on Ivy Day (very big deal).

Edith Souther isn’t mentioned in the book. She was from St. Louis, so one of the Westerners in Phi Kappa Psi with Lewis. Ethel Withington Chase, also not mentioned, but a Phi Kapp Psi member with Lewis.

I don’t know what “Ball” there was–I don’t think there was a senior dance? But maybe I’m wrong. I would wager that the “Sermon” Lewis attended with Paxton was Last Chapel.

Grand Manan detail

Too late, I found Cather’s description of the wallpaper in her bedroom in her and Lewis’s cottage on Grand Manan: in 1931 she “had a lovely French landscape paper put on my bed room—all goats and rabbits in a warm yellow background. I love to waken up in the morning and look at my walls with the sun pouring over them” (see the letter here).

Edith Lewis letters to Achsah Barlow-Brewster

Letters from Achsah Barlow-Brewster to Edith Lewis, as well as letters to Lewis from her husband, Earl Brewster, are an important source for the book. So how did I manage not to quote from the two extant letters from Edith Lewis to Achsah Barlow-Brewster? Well, one I knew about but somehow didn’t reference, while the other was filed at Drew University in a way that I didn’t find it, and a copy came in too late. So what’s in them?

In the letter I had not seen, dated Thanksgiving Day 1923, Lewis wrote to both Achsah and Earl in the wake of Willa Cather’s long visit to the Hambourgs in Paris, which I write about on pp. 134-136. It would have been lovely to quote from this letter, in which Lewis wrote, “I am so happy to have Willa back!” She describes how Cather has a cold and has been babying her as she recovers. Everything in their apartment is somewhat of a mess, “but all this does not matter very much. We have talked about you so much since she came. How thankful I am to have such dear, dear friends. She admires your pictures so much, and say the Exhibition is a splendid success. Oh, I do want us all to be together some time – don’t you think we could have happy times together!”

The other letter is from 1934 (no date), and is actually quoted in an article I wrote some time ago, which you can read here. There, I write about how the letter is from one couple to another couple. The letter is about the Brewsters’ book (a collection of letters) about their friend D.H. Lawrence, and Cather and Lewis were competing over the volume. Lewis also explains that “Our life, Willa’s and mine, has been overshadowed” by Cather’s injury to a tendon in her hand. Lots of things I might have done with this letter but didn’t.

Henry Lewis’s death in 1926

At one point, many details about Edith Lewis’s family in the 1920s were scattered around several chapters, but I ultimately decided they all needed to be in one place, which is Chapter Five (Grand Manan). I mention there that the train bearing Henry Lewis’s coffin may well have crossed New Mexico while Lewis was there with Cather and the family of Roscoe Cather. I feel like I missed an opportunity to put that event in Chapter Three.

Imagine what it felt like for Edith Lewis to find out, in the middle of her Southwestern vacation that her father had just died in California. She had a lovely time in Santa Fe with Willa Cather and with the family of Willa’s brother Roscoe, but I imagine she was also very sad, probably weepy, and they were all trying to comfort her.

Her dilemma was precisely the dilemma that Willa Cather faced in 1931, when her mother died in California and Willa couldn’t get to Nebraska for the funeral because she was on Grand Manan Island. Furthermore, on their way out to New Mexico, Willa’s father, who had heart trouble, had insisted that his daughter stop over in Red cloud (although he didn’t die until the next year). And then, in the fall of 1926, Cather and Lewis met up in Jaffrey, where Cather was writing Death Comes for the Archbishop–certainly, Edith Lewis must have visited Henry Lewis’s grave even if she had not been there for his burial in the summer.

Owning up to some small mistakes

I have found a few small factual errors that are on me, and a number of typographical errors that are on the strange “production flow,” including copy editing process, for my book. None of the factual errors are seriously problematic–they don’t change my interpretation of any significant events. Nevertheless, I hope I’ll be able to correct both factual errors and typos before the book goes into paperback. If not, I’m parking them here for those who might care. And if you find any more errors or typos, please let me know!

Factual Errors

p. 30–Henry and Lillie Lewis did stop paying taxes on their house in 1895, but they didn’t subdivide their lot and sell half of it until 1904. The correct scenario is on p. 79

p. 117–Cather departed for the Southwest from Pittsburgh (see this letter), so she and Lewis did not depart together from New York City. Rather they likely met up in Chicago and went on together from there (as the newspaper reference from Lincoln quoted here demonstrates, they were together by Nebraska).

p. 266–It was Charles Green’s son, not Ralph Beal’s son, who committed suicide in 1939 (see this letter, and thanks to Sheree Fitch for pointing out the error).

p. 343, note 10–The inscription in the Turgenev novel is dated August 1904, not August 1905, so, yes, the gift happened in August 1904, as the body text on p. 66 indicates.


p. 57–The copy editor added a word that created an error, and I failed to reverse the error. “Edith wrote a sentimental ballad about her alma mater and New Hampshire landscapes”– there should be no possessive pronoun before alma mater. She was not writing about her alma mater (Smith College is in Massachusetts, not New Hampshire). Rather, she was writing lyrics for a male graduate of Dartmouth to sing. “To alma mater” was factually and grammatically correct.

p. 146, first full paragraph–Should be “Even though Cather evoked” rather than “evoke”

p. 150, bottom of the page–Willa Cater Living should be Willa Cather Living (obviously).

p. 161, bottom of the page–“Book 4of the novel” should be “Book 4 of the novel” (insert space).

p. 188, bottom of page–“senator’s wives and daughter” should be “senators’ wives and daughters.”

p. 319, first full paragraph–Mildred Bennett’s name is spelled correctly the first time and then misspelled Bennet.

In search of Henry Lewis’s ranch

Very early in my research, I ran across items in the Lincoln papers about Henry Lewis’s “ranch near Kearney,” and I found his name on a small fraction of a section near the town of Amherst in Buffalo County. I turned out to be very, very wrong, however, about both the location of the ranch and its place in the fortunes of the Lewis family in Nebraska.

My earliest research in Nebraska took place in the summer of 2004, when I was still teaching at the University of Oklahoma. Newspapers were not yet digitized, so I was working with microfilm and taking tips from others who had found mentions of the family in the papers. I found a mention a Lincoln newspaper from first decade of the twentieth century that Lewis family had a “ranch near Kearney” and also discovered that Henry Lewis was appointed the receiver of two banks in Kearney in 1894. I drove out to the Buffalo County Historical Society (Kearney is in Buffalo County), and a volunteer pulled out an atlas of the county from 1907 and located Henry Lewis in the index. There was H.E. Lewis named as the owner of a small fraction of a section of land near the small town of Amherst (he’s right about in the middle, the northeast corner of section 21; a section of land is 640 acres):

Well, there you go, the Lewis family ranch. I also knew from Henry Lewis’s Dartmouth College alumni file and from some Lewis family oral history that he was involved in an irrigation project somewhere in central Nebraska, and I presumed it was near this property. I published an article with an image of this atlas page, and thought myself quite clever. Once I moved to Nebraska, when I happened to be out near Kearney, I tried to drive as near as I could to this land, and I imagined Edith Lewis as an adolescent riding her horse over it’s rolling hills.

A few years later, when I happened to be in Kearney again, tried searching property records at the office of the Register of Deeds for Buffalo County. As with the Lewis family house in Lincoln, my goal was to confirm when Henry Lewis bought the ranch and when he sold it. The women who worked there were very helpful, and we found Henry Lewis’s name associated with many properties in Buffalo County, However, there was no record of his name on the property pictured above. It soon became clear that he held this property, and many other Buffalo County agricultural properties, only as a trustee in his role as bank receiver.

So where was Henry Lewis’s ranch? In the meantime, many Nebraska papers has been digitized, and I dove in. I soon discovered that Henry Lewis’s irrigation project was further west, in Elm Creek, which is in Dawson County, one county over from Buffalo County. I hunted up Henry in the Nebraska Secretary of State Records and found that he had incorporated the Farmers Union Ditch Company in 1896 and the Midland Alfalfa Company in 1905. Both specified that their business was carried out in Dawson County. I also found Henry Lewis’s name on an entire section of land in an early twentieth century Dawson County atlas (lower right, with the tracks running through it):

So it was time to travel to Dawson County to find out when he bought that section of land and when he sold it.

As with the story of the Lewis family house in Lincoln, it turned out to be a sad story rather than a triumphant one, and the two stories were intertwined. Henry Lewis had been spending most of his time out in Buffalo and Dawson counties since 1894, attending to his duties as bank receiver in Kearney and to the development and management of the Farmers Union Ditch Company, even though his family lived in Kearney with him for only a year. They lived in Lincoln, and he traveled back and forth on the train. In October 1901, while his daughter Edith was in her senior year at Smith College in Massachusetts, he entered into an installment contract for purchase of the section of land in Dawson County with Charles E. Perkins, president of the Burlington Railroad (Burlington tracks run diagonally across the northern third of the section). Here I am in the Dawson County Recorder of Deeds office in the summer of 2016 (unlike the Buffalo County office, which had digitized its records, Dawson County had not, so there were enormous ledger volumes on rollers and ladders to climb to retrieve them; Amber Harris, who helped me wrangle volumes, took this picture):

Almost immediately, Henry Lewis began a series of complex transactions that testified to the financial precarity of his interests in the land (read my blog post about the house in Lincoln for the ongoing collapse of finances there). In 1905, with some of his friends and associates in Lincoln, he incorporated the Midland Alfalfa Company, which financed operations (alfalfa cultivation and hog feeding) on his Dawson County ranch. His house of cards might have stood if not for the fact that a Dawson County roads crew repairing a bridge in June 1907 wrecked his irrigation ditch, and his income from it disappeared. This is the point in time where I earlier found evidence that I failed to understand–an item about the Lewis family returning to Lincoln after spending the summer “on their ranch near Kearney.” It turns out they were out there because Henry was fighting for his financial life, and he would soon loose.

In September 1908, a Lincoln widow who held the mortgage on the ranch filed suit against him, saying she was owed $9025. Soon, one of Henry’s Lincoln friends filed suit against the Midland Alfalfa Company and requested permission to feed the hogs on the ranch in order to preserve their value as they secured bonds the company had issued to him. In the midst of all this, Henry moved his wife and two youngest children, still living at home, out of the house in Lincoln and to a rented house in Kearney (rents were cheap after the burst of the speculative bubble in Kearney in the early 1890s). And in 1909, the Lewis family left Nebraska, unable to pay their massive debts on either their house or the Dawson County ranch and in the midst of lawsuits filed against them by men who had been Henry’s friends and fellow club members in Lincoln.

I have no evidence that Edith Lewis ever set foot on the Dawson County ranch, although I did (it’s in corn now rather than alfalfa):

I thought the Lewis family moved to New England in triumph, but they moved in desperation. Henry was in his early sixties, with two daughters still in high school, and he was starting over, trying to sell real estate in a community he did not know. Nevertheless, the failure of her family’s fortunes in Nebraska and their move to suburban Boston illuminates Edith Lewis’s life choices after she graduated from college, and especially the fact that she abandoned her dream of literary authorship. My book is about Edith Lewis’s relationship with Willa Cather, but Willa Cather did not dictate all of her life choices.

In search of the house in Lincoln where Edith Lewis spent her childhood

A picture of the home where a person grew up is a standard feature of biography. First, I figured out where the house had been and that it was no longer standing. Then, I set out to find out when her parents bought it and when they sold it. What I found instead was that her father had so much debt that the he signed the house over to his creditors and walked away.

Very early in my research, I found an address for the Lewis family in Lincoln, Nebraska. They were listed in city directories as “at the Southwest Corner of 27th and N.” However, there were a number of structures standing in that vicinity, and I wasn’t sure how to figure out whether one of them was the Lewis House. My friend Courtney told me that I needed to look at old Sanborn maps (fire insurance maps), so one Saturday in the spring of 2014, we biked over to the Nebraska State Historical Society and found this:

I could see that their house had been at the corner with other structures South of it. I could see the outline of their house and information about the number of floors. I could see the large outbuilding in the back and their irregular lot-and-a-half.

Then Courtney and I biked over to 27th and N Streets and verified that the building was no longer there. Instead, there were (and still are) two two mid-century, two-story, limestone-fronted duplexes. Here’s a picture:

Lewis house would have been to the right, where the matching mid-century structures are although probably further back (27th Street is much wider than it was in the 19th century, when the house was build). The Shinn house (see below) is the building to their left with the peaked roof. The small house to the left of the Shinn house is the Brown house, currently the oldest standing residential structure in Lincoln (I discovered this all later).

So what happened to the Lewises’ house? Attempts to find a historic photograph of the house in the collections of the Nebraska State Historical Society failed, and it wasn’t until the summer of 2016 that I figured out how to access residential property records for Lancaster County (where Lincoln is) and spent many days in front of a microfiche reader in a room tucked inside the Register of Deeds office. There, I found the record of their purchase of the house from George E. Church on October 29, 1883. Church had been a professor at the University of Nebraska but was discharged by the regents. From family letters, I knew that the Lewises began renting the house from him about a year before.

When, then, did they sell the house? I knew that they moved to Massachusetts in 1909, so I was expecting to find a deed transferring of the property to another family then. Instead, I found that in 1904 they had sold part of their lot to William Shinn, who built a house on it. I also found, however, a bewildering array of documents recorded against the Lewis property, all associated with mortgages and lawsuits. And here, the fact that I used to be a paralegal came in handy. Although the county had custody of the real estate records, the Nebraska State Historical Society had court records, and I dove in:

There were claims by investors who had bought the county’s tax liens against the Lewis property (the Lewises seem to have stopped paying their taxes around 1895; real estate values plunged in the wake of the Panic of 1893 and then drought in Nebraska made things worse, and their situation was hardly unusual). Also, William Shinn tried to claim that they didn’t really have title to the property they sold him, and he stopped paying them what he owed on his installment loan.

In 1906 a court compelled Shinn to pay. Later, however, in an action brought by one of the tax investors, Henry Lewis disclosed that their house and land were worth $2,000 but he had mortgage debt secured by the property totaling $10,000. In April 1909, then, Henry and Lillie Lewis executed a deed in lieu of foreclosure to a New Hampshire banking holding the mortgage debt (Henry was from New Hampshire), and they moved to a Boston suburb.

Based on my early research, I had interpreted this move as a sign of success, but by looking for basic information about the sale of their house, I discovered a very different story of the total collapse of the Lewis family fortunes in Nebraska. This information is important for interpreting the life course of their daughter, Edith, and decisions she made during her early years in New York City, where she moved in 1903 and where Willa Cather moved in 1906. Although it has often been presumed that Willa Cather dictated Edith Lewis’s life choices, she had other reasons to make the choices that she did. The Lewis family’s financial troubles in the first decade of the twentieth century were also a product of Henry’s agricultural enterprises in central Nebraska. My next blog post will be about my search for the Lewis family ranch.

Why did Willa Cather and Edith Lewis burn up all those letters, including their correspondence with each other?

Short answer:

There is no particular reason to believe they did. Just because we don’t know where letters are doesn’t mean that they have been destroyed, and if we don’t know for sure they’ve been destroyed, we can’t attribute motive to any particular person for destroying them.

Longer answer:

Despite what you may have read in books, in magazines and newspapers, or on the internet, there is no evidence that Willa Cather made a regular practice of demanding the return of her letters so that she could destroy them. Likewise, the evidence of Lewis gathering up and destroying Cather’s letters after Cather’s death is very limited. Indeed, she was responsible for the preservation of many letters. I discuss and fully document these claims in an article forthcoming in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature in 2021, but I can offer some examples and details here.

There is one clearly documented instance of Cather’s destroying a significant number of her own letters, namely her letters to Isabelle McClung Hambourg. Isabelle’s husband, Jan Hambourg, sent these letters to Cather after his wife’s death in Italy. There is no evidence, however, that Cather demanded that Jan Hambourg send her these letters.

From this example, some make the leap to Willa Cather and Edith Lewis routinely destroying their correspondence with each other. Cather, however, never faced Lewis’s death, as she faced that of Isabelle McClung Hambourg. Lewis outlived Cather by twenty-five years, so she did face Cather’s death. At the present moment, only one letter and five postcards from Cather to Lewis are known. I derive the title of my book from that one beautiful letter, which you can read here.

Even though they lived together, Cather often traveled without Lewis, so clearly she wrote Lewis more letters than this one. So where are they?

I wish I knew, of course, but I’m not convinced that Cather and/or Lewis destroyed them. The fate of that surviving letter and the postcards is interesting. The letter is in the archive of the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud. It’s not clear how it ended up there, but I feel certain that Lewis herself did not send it there. She opposed the creation in the 1950s of what was then called the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial because she believed that it would not have pleased Cather. So how did this letter exit the Park Avenue apartment which Cather and Lewis shared from 1932 to 1947 and where Lewis continued to live until her death in 1972?

Similarly, how did the five postcards end up in the hands of collectors, who then donated them to libraries? I have some theories, but the continuing existence of these pieces of correspondence suggest that Lewis did not make a bonfire of Cather’s letters to her after her partner’s death. Furthermore, she paraphrased parts of Cather’s 1936 letter in her memoir of Cather in Willa Cather Living, which was published in 1953. This paraphrase suggests that Lewis still had this letter in her possession at least into the early 1950s.