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Willa Cather's Letters | Contents of the Initial 2018 Publication | Transcription Principles and Policies

The Complete Letters of Willa Cather is an endeavor to publish, for the first time, the collected correspondence of one of the most significant and widely-read American novelists of the twentieth century. The author of My Àntonia, A Lost Lady, The Professor's House, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and many other celebrated books, Willa Cather was a woman with a compelling personal story, remarkable professional accomplishments, and a courageously independent life; her personal writings are of deep interest to many. The letters, long withheld from publication and even from quotation due to restrictions in Cather's will, provide unparalleled insight into the life, creative imagination, and professional and social context of this extraordinary woman. The project is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and with the cooperation of Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Willa Cather's Letters

Willa Cather's will, executed in 1943, requested that her letters not be published in whole or in part, a request that was honored for over 65 years. In 2009, however, the literary trust created by Cather's will ceased to function, and a new entity was created to manage Cather's literary properties. The Willa Cather Trust, a partnership between the education-centered Willa Cather Foundation and the University of Nebraska Foundation, decided that the time had come to acknowledge Cather's importance to the greater culture and allow her letters to be published. The Trust implemented this change of policy, effective in 2011, in large part because they understood the quality of the correspondence and the meaning it would have for many readers. Like Cather's fiction, which is celebrated for its rich prose style and human perceptivity, the letters, to quote early Cather biographer Leon Edel, “are touched with the cadence, as with the radiance, of her style; they reflect also, as letters can, the directness and generosity and charm of the personality, its courage and steadfastness” (xxiii). Furthermore, and of particular interest to many contemporary literary scholars, the letters reveal Cather's complex network of personal and professional connections, her embedded-ness in her cultural milieu, more directly than any other document. The letters are both striking examples of the direct, well-considered prose Cather is celebrated for and evidence of the psychological and social complexity of Cather's life.

The first publication of the letters appeared in 2013 with The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, co-edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis P. Stout. That volume, featuring only about 18% of the known surviving correspondence, was lightly annotated and arranged chronologically to provide a narrative of Cather's life and development. This digital, complete edition has long been imagined as a follow-up to the print volume, and the response to that volume has underscored the value of that vision.

In 2018, Cather's letters enter into the public domain, allowing for unrestricted publication of these once heavily-restricted documents. Our edition of The Complete Letters of Willa Cather honors the wide range of readers and scholars interested in Cather's work by providing free, open access to the texts of the letters and the treasure of information they contain. As described below, we do this through 1) markup that captures detailed information about the letters, 2) an interface that allows for easy searching through the complete texts and relevant metadata, 3) browsing features, like automated indices of works and names, that help users find material of interest in the corpus, and 4) annotations that make the intellectual content of the letters more accessible to all.

Contents of the Initial 2018 Publication

As the title indicates, The Complete Letters of Willa Cather aims to publish all of Cather's known surviving correspondence, which currently is approaching 3,100 letters. These letters are held in nearly 90 different repositories around the world. Rather than wait until all of the letters are ready for publication in the edition—which we currently believe will be in 2021—we have decided to publish groups of letters as they are completed. Our first group features letters from the largest individual collections of Cather correspondence, letters that have some intellectual coherence through the long relationships they document. Specifically, we are publishing letters Cather wrote to her family, certain old friends, and her publishers. The collections featured in the initial publication are from:

Broadly speaking, the first three repositories are dominated by letters to Cather family members and life-long friends like Carrie Miner Sherwood, and the last two repositories feature the correspondence between Cather and her publishers Houghton Mifflin and Alfred A. Knopf. To learn about the specific letters currently available in the edition, please consult the browsing tools available from the main page of the edition.

Following the completion of the 1500+ letters from these collections, we will next publish letters from the Dorothy Canfield Fisher correspondence (Bailey-Howe Library, University of Vermont), the Elizabeth Sergeant correspondence (Morgan Library), and the Miner family correspondence (Newberry Library and Willa Cather Foundation), followed by the collections in many other repositories.

Transcription Principles and Policies

The core of The Complete Letters of Willa Cather is verified transcriptions of letters encoded in Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) P5 XML markup following the schema developed by the Willa Cather Archive. This encoding standard, which is the best practice in the field, allows the editors both to record detailed information about each letter in the metadata and to construct the edition in the format best suited to long-term preservation.

Three different categories of content have received special attention in Cather's letters: people, places, and works. Each of these categories have authority files, following established TEI protocols, which allow us to connect irregular mentions in Cather's letters to regularized forms. Furthermore, the authority files link content from the edition to international authority services: the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF) and the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names. This effort will allow our edition to better integrate with other digital editions that follow the same protocols, increasing the usability in aggregation tools. Additionally, we will one day be able to draw in data from these authority services—like geographic coordinates—and use it in our representation of Cather's letters (for example, creating interactive maps of places she wrote letters from).

The preparation and publication of transcriptions of Willa Cather's correspondence has two distinct steps:

  1. Complete markup in TEI XML
  2. Transformation of XML data to HTML for display in a web browser

The TEI XML markup is the core data created for this scholarly edition. The reading interface, based on this data, presents a comfortable reading view and a representation of most of the data. Readers can access the XML files from links in the reading view of each letter.

Basic Structure of XML Files

Each individual piece of correspondence is one XML file in the edition, and each file contains a header with information about the correspondence, and body with a transcription of the document.

Each header records the following information about the correspondence:

The header is highly regularized and consistent across the edition. The body, however, varies more broadly, based on the text of the individual item. We have kept extensive guidelines for our markup to train staff members engaging in markup and to keep a record of decisions we make as we encounter new phenomena during the editorial process.

Our guidelines for markup in the body of the letters represent our effort to record as much valuable information as possible in each item of correspondence. Categories of valuable information we record include:

Because we provide readers with high-quality images of each page of correspondence, revealing the material details of the documents visually, we do not use markup to record details of paper type and dimensions, ink type, and spacing of structural elements on the page.

Text Transcription Guidelines

Our policy is to transcribe all text on each piece of correspondence that is contemporaneous to the original letter composition or receipt. This includes:

We do not transcribe:

Reading Interface Guidelines

Our interface is created through transformation of the core XML data into HTML, which is styled using CSS and JavaScript. The interface is designed to present a clean, comfortable reading interface for a wide array of readers. In the styled reading interface we do not try to provide a facsimile of the original document or to recreate the precise layout and material characteristics of the original text; those qualities are best perceived by the interested user in the accompanying image of the document.

We present a transcription of the letter presented with a regularized formatting that follows Cather's dominant patterns (i.e., dateline at the top right, opening salute at the left, closing salute and signature at the bottom right). If an envelope is part of the original document, it is included after the transcription. Core information about each letter follows the transcription.

Our interface allows users to choose a “plain text” or see a more visually-complicated view that exposes letterhead, notes in others' hands, page breaks, overwritten text, and other details. The default view, clearly indicated in the interface, is the “plain” view. Every reader has access to the more complex view and to the core XML data, but we anticipate that most readers will want to experience the letters through a comfortable, “plain” interface. To be clear: the “plain” interface does not “correct” Cather's text, but merely refers to interface design choices that hide details captured in the markup—like page breaks and repetitive letterhead on successive pages—that interrupt reading flow.

Additions, deletions, uncertain readings, and notes are presented in a way designed to indicate their presence without confusing a reader of the text.

Annotations and regularizations are available as popover notes throughout and at the bottom of the page.

Works Cited

  1. Edel, Leon. “Editor's Foreword,” in Willa Cather: A Critical Biography by E. K. Brown and completed by Leon Edel (New York: Knopf, 1953), xvii-xxiv.