In 1902, Willa Cather, who would become one of America's most acclaimed authors, went to Europe for the first time. Long a lover of European culture, her tour of Great Britain and France at age 29 was a momentous event for her. So when Cather scholars first looked at the Philip L. and Helen Cather Southwick Collection and saw a detailed scrapbook of that journey, they knew they were looking at something special. There, pasted onto gray paper, was photograph after photograph of Willa Cather and her companions on the ship, in England, and in France, accompanied by newspaper clippings, postcards, and other mementos. Long recognized as an important moment in her biography, Cather scholars could now sense, for the first time, the details and texture of that tour.
The European scrapbook of the 1902 and 1908 trips is, however, only one of the astounding artifacts that make up the Southwick Collection. The life and works of Willa Cather, the aunt of the donor, Helen Cather Southwick, is documented extensively in both texts and images. Hundreds of snapshots of Cather and her environs, probably taken by her companion Edith Lewis, are an intimate counterpoint to the typical, more formal photographs of her. Also included are dozens of letters written by Cather to her family, letters written by others to Cather, and letters exchanged by Cather's friends and family. Of particular interest are the manuscripts and corrected typescripts of a dozen novels, short stories, and essays, including her celebrated works The Professor's House (1925), Shadows on the Rock (1931), Lucy Gayheart (1935), and Obscure Destinies (1932). For decades, scholars assumed that no manuscript material survived, and this collection significantly altered the historical understanding of many of her works.
Since Willa Cather was an author who based many of her works on people and places she knew well, some artifacts within the collection feel like they have fallen out of the pages of her novels. For example, in My Ántonia, the narrator Jim Burden describes his modest room and includes this detail: "On the blank wall at my left the dark, old-fashioned wall-paper was covered by a large map of ancient Rome, the work of some German scholar." The Southwick collection includes a map of ancient Rome owned by Willa Cather and created by "C. Hoffmann." In looking over the photographs in the collection, one can see snapshots of Willa Cather standing next to a statue of Archbishop Lamy in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the same Lamy who became the prototype of Father Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).
The value of the Southwick Collection is enhanced through the context of other holdings on Willa Cather at the University of Nebraska, which include 14 different collections of letters, books, manuscripts, and other research materials. Finding aids for these collections are available online, and many of the materials, particularly the photographs, are accessible to people around the world on the Willa Cather Archive.
Collection Profile and Overview: Andrew Jewell
Illustrations: University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries, Archives and Special Collections