Spring 2001

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Colloquium honors James and Roberta Woodress

By Michael Schueth
Image of James and Roberta Williams with members of the Cather ColloquiumJames and Roberta Williams with members of the Cather Colloquium

The Cather Colloquium hosted a reception in honor of James and Roberta Woodress on November 21, 2000, while they were in Lincoln for the Thanksgiving holiday. At the gathering, Dr. Woodress discussed his scholarly work on Cather, especially his experience writing his 1987 biography, Willa Cather: A Literary Life.

Woodress began writing on Cather in 1970 with his short biography, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art. The project brought him to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he met Bernice Slote and Virginia Faulkner. With the completion of the critical biography, Woodress thought he "was finished with Cather for good." The 1973 Centennial celebration at UNL, though, bought Woodress back to Cather scholarship, and he began publishing pioneering articles on Cather that revealed her depth and importance to American literature.

When asked about his research methods, especially in compiling material for a biography, Woodress explained to the Colloquium members that he kept research materials on 5 x 7-inch note cards and typed his manuscript on a manual typewriter. Traveling to all the major and minor archives in the country, Woodress methodically read all of Cather's known letters and worked to "turn over all the evidence." He stressed that in this process of researching the biography, he tried his best to look at what the evidence suggested rather than relying on any preconceived notions about Cather that he may have developed over the years. Woodress noted that one of the pitfalls in writing biography is collecting too much research. "You cannot collect everything," he said; "at some point you have to sit down and write it."

In writing the biography, Woodress took pains to capture the language and sense of Cather's letters, which according to her will cannot be published. Woodress read over 1,500 letters in preparing the biography, and while he said his book would have been better if he could have quoted Cather, he notes that in some instances he came very close to paraphrasing the spirit of Cather's language. When asked if there were any particular lines of correspondence that he would have found helpful in preparing his biography, Woodress noted that he wished he could have read more letters between Cather and Isabel McClung. The few letters that have survived make for a "revealing correspondence," he said.

Woodress said he organized his biography around Cather's literary work because she was always writing, and "her biography seemed to naturally flow with her work." Woodress said that he "never tried to get into the head of Cather," and tried not to create a psychological profile of Cather in his biography. "I got a sense of her by reading her books and separated fact from ficiton," he told Colloquium members.

Woodress ended his conversation by suggesting the need for more specific biographical interpretations of Cather's life, especially political and cultural lenses that would give depth and appropriate details to various aspects of Cather's life.

Michael Scheuth is a Ph.D. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and editor of The Mowers' Tree.