Willa Cather’s novels have been loved by readers for a century and have taken a prominent place in literary history. Yet the central relationship of her life, her nearly forty-year partnership with Edith Lewis, has remained invisible. In The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis, described by Alex Ross in The New Yorker in 2017 as “highly anticipated,” I tell the story of Cather and Lewis’s life together for the first time.
Cather has often been described as a distinguished artist who turned her back on the crass commercialism of the early twentieth century and as a deeply private woman who strove to hide her sexuality, and Lewis has often been identified as her secretary. In actuality, Lewis was a successful professional woman who edited popular magazines and wrote advertising copy at a major advertising agency. Crucially, behind the scenes Lewis edited Cather’s fiction. Recognizing Lewis’s role in Cather’s creative process changes how we understand Cather as an artist, while recovering their domestic partnership (which they did not seek to hide) provides a fresh perspective on lesbian life in the early twentieth century United States.
Drawing on years of research into previously-unknown sources, I reconstruct Cather and Lewis’s life together in Greenwich Village and on Park Avenue, their travels to the American Southwest that formed the basis of Cather’s novels The Professor’s House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), their summers as part of an all-woman resort community on Grand Manan Island, and Lewis’s magazine and advertising work as a context for her editorial collaboration with Cather.
In addition to recovering their literary collaboration, I have aimed to tell a human story of two women who chose to live in partnership. I also explain how the Cold War panic over homosexuality caused biographers and critics to make Lewis and her central role in Cather’s life vanish even as she lived on alone for twenty-five years after her partner’s death.
It’s now more than two years after my book was published. Here I am celebrating Cather’s 150th birthday on December 7, 2023.