Spring 2006

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Scholar Surprised and "Delighted" to Find Herself Settled in "Cather Country": Interview with Dr. Melissa J. Homestead

by Amber Harris Leichner, Ph.D. student, UNL

Scholar Surprised and "Delighted" to Find Herself Settled in "Cather Country" Joining the faculty of the English Department at the University of Nebraska this fall as an associate professor was Dr. Melissa J. Homestead, who will be teaching courses that include Willa Cather and Her World, 20th-Century Women Writers, and American Literature Survey. Reflecting on her arrival at UNL Homestead said, "I'm delighted to find myself in Nebraska at Willa Cather's university. It's an unexpected turn in my life and my career."

Homestead's latest project, in collaboration with Anne L. Kaufman, focuses on Edith Lewis's influence on Cather's literary career. Recent progress on this project includes a planned trip the J. Walter Thompson Company Archive at Duke University to research Lewis's career in advertising and developing a cordial relationship with Lewis's niece. Homestead and Kaufman currently have an article under review about Lewis's family history and regional affiliations at the time of Cather's meeting of Lewis in 1903. Their work is continually uncovering new information, as Homestead described, "Materials keep turning up, and it's hard to know what else might be out there." She cites as an example of such recently uncovered materials as a cache of Lewis letters which are part of the Brewster family papers at Drew University (painter Achsah Barlow Brewster was Lewis's college roommate), as well as Lewis letters which are part of the Southwick and Rosowski collections at UNL. In both cases, however, the letters date primarily from the years after Cather's death.

Homestead's book, American Women Authors and Literary Property, 1822-1869, which includes chapters on Catharine Sedgwick, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Fern, Augusta Jane Evans, and Mary Virginia Terhune, was recently published by Cambridge University Press. When asked what conclusions she reached in the book, Homestead explained, "By viewing women novelists in the antebellum period through the intersection between copyright law and the married women's property law, I hope to recover the complexity of their engagements with the literary market. They weren't the happy capitalists they have sometimes been dismissed as, but they weren't entirely powerless and ambivalent either - they occupied a complex and contested terrain somewhere in between. Their careers demonstrate that strongly proprietary authorship is not the only way to go -- their status as weak proprietors encouraged their cultural production rather than deterring it."

Homestead says her current work on Willa Cather grows out of the experience of researching and writing this book on 19th-century women authors, but she began reading Cather in the fall of 1980 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, after encountering a college application essay question that she was not sure how to answer: "It said to imagine that it's 1900 and you can invite three people to a dinner party. Who would you invite and why?"

Homestead approached a high school teacher for advice, and the teacher suggested that she read Cather. After reading My Antonia and O Pioneers! and "falling in love" with them, she looked Cather up in an encyclopedia. However, the encyclopedia gave the impression that "with the publication of O Pioneers! in 1913, a middle-aged Cather walked off the prairies fully formed as a novelist," making her an unlikely candidate for a dinner party in 1900. Homestead notes that her students came into the undergraduate Cather class she taught her first semester in Nebraska with the same assumptions - they all assumed that Cather lived out her entire life in Nebraska and that all of her novels were about prairie pioneers.

When asked if she had any special memories of Dr. Susan Rosowski that she would like to share, Homestead recalled the story she told at the Tenth International Cather Seminar during the memorial storytelling session honoring Roswoski: "I first met Sue in 1993 at the International Seminar in Hastings. At the end of the seminar, I was doing my laundry in a Hasting College dormitory before departing on my own tour of Cather's Southwest. I found myself trapped in the laundry room with no means of escape, overhearing a conversation between Sue and a plenary speaker whose lecture had generated heated discussion and made some people unhappy. Sue told the speaker that she had invited her precisely to be provocative and to make people think, that these negative reactions were a sign of success. The seminar certainly succeeded with me -- I left my paralegal position within a year and went back to graduate school because the seminar was so intellectually engaging. Sue was always interested in encouraging people to find new ways to think about Willa Cather."

At the 2004 Cather Scholars' Summit, Homestead and Kaufman got a chance to share the early stages of their research on Edith Lewis with Rosowski, and Rosowski was "delighted" to hear what they had discovered about Lewis's family. "Sue had a way of asking very generous questions," Homestead recalls. "She asked if we had read the Stephen Tennant materials that were part of the new Southwick collection at UNL Special collections, and she described them as 'incredibly sad.' We had wanted to go back to the beginning, not to let this sad and painful episode in Lewis's life shape our understanding of who she was more than 40 years before. But Sue asked if our research couldn't also give integrity to the events of Lewis's life after Cather's death, including the Lewis-Tennant relationship." Rosowski's comments helped Homestead to think about the project in a new way and turned her assumptions on their head.

Homestead also has a positive impression of the recent International Cather Seminar in Red Cloud and Lincoln: "It was wonderful to be in Red Cloud and to just interact with the people of Red Cloud who cherish Willa Cather as one of their own. The Opera House renovation is such an amazing accomplishment for the WCPM [Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial] - the Red Cloud portion of the conference wouldn't have been possible without it." Homestead also appreciated spending part of the conference on the University of Nebraska campus in Lincoln, where she had just relocated before the start of the conference: "UNL is Willa Cather's university, but I'd also like to think of it as Edith Lewis's university!"

Upcoming Cather-related projects Homestead will be involved in at UNL include the Spring Symposium on April 21, a day-long dialogue on Cather, journalism, and periodicals. Susan Belasco, another faculty member of the UNL English Department, will be joining Homestead, along with Kari Ronning and Andrew Jewell of UNL, UNO's Charles Johanningsmeier, an authority on newspaper fiction syndicates and periodicals, and Ellen Gruber Garvey, an expert on early 20th-century women's magazines, from New Jersey City University.

One of the courses Homestead taught during the fall 2005 semester at UNL was Willa Cather and Her World. She was interested to find "so many non-English majors who have been motivated to take the class." Her approach to the course was to pair Cather's texts with those of regional women writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Austin, Ellen Glasgow, and Bess Streeter Aldrich . In one unit, Homestead sought to explore the prairie woman theme and placed Aldrich's novel, A Lantern in her Hand back to back with O Pioneers!. Homestead and her students were particularly engaged by Aldrich's work and were puzzled by dismissals of her as "sentimental." She wonders if others have taught the novels together and why virtually no comparative scholarship has been published on Cather and Aldrich.

Homestead is looking forward to her work at UNL and her continuing relationship with Cather studies. "Twenty-five years after first reading Cather, I'm excited to be teaching, reading, and studying Cather in 'Cather Country.'"