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Hruska Library celebrates 100th anniversary of ‘My Antonia’ with guest speaker

September 28, 2018

Susan Kotera first encountered “My Antonia” in 1966. While only an eighth grader in Brainard back then, today she said she appreciates the positive representation of the Bohemian family depicted within the novel, as she too is of Czech ancestry.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of publication of the famous Willa Cather novel. To commemorate the occasion, the Hruska Memorial Public Library hosted a presentation on Wednesday. Sept. 19, by the editor of Willa Cather Archive, Andrew Jewell. He spoke on the book’s history, the author’s influences and of the archive’s current work digitizing thousands of Cather’s handwritten letters.

Cather moved to Nebraska from Virginia at the age of 9 in 1883. It was from her time in Red Cloud that she got the inspiration for “My Antonia.” The book is widely considered Cather’s first masterpiece. She would go on to win a Pulitzer prize for her novel ” One of Ours” in 1923. Over the years, Cather has been inducted into honorary organizations like the Nebraska Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the New York Writers Hall of Fame.

Jewell spoke to a crowd of around 40 people at the library, speaking of Cather’s childhood and how she later became a professional writer after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1894. He talked about what lead Cather to create the book and it’s impact on the world and on the collection of Cather’s letters the archive had in their possession.

After the presentation, Kotera said she was thinking of rereading the “My Antonia” from what Jewell had to say about the book.

“Well I could tell that his passion and excitement for the letters and her work was really conveyed here,” she said about Jewell’s presentation.

Jewell said he appreciated all who came to hear him speak and thought the audience was appreciative of him.

“I was delighted with the crowd from David City,” Jewell said. “And were clearly responsive to the things in Cather’s letters that I shared with them. It’s always a great pleasure for me to share the work I do with people who are interested in it. I feel like it’s a great gift to be able to do that.”

The archive is home to thousands of letters written to and from Cather throughout her lifetime. The earliest letters are from when she was 14 and go all the way up to her time of death at the age of 73. Jewell said he learned a lot about the author from reading her letters and that it a paints a different picture of her.

“I’ve had the good luck in my job to be able to spend a lot of time reading and researching Cather,” he said.“And I’ve been pleased over time to realize what a quality artists she is, and also a quality person who is complicated and not always pleasant to everybody, but tried to live an honest and sincere and ethical life that carried about things deeply and shared that with others. And I feel like it allows me to spend my professional life with something of real substance and quality.”

In January the first batch of digitized letters were published on the archive’s website. As of today, about a 1,000 letters have been digitized out of over 3,100 the archive posses. Along with scans of the letter are written transcriptions, footnotes and biographies on everyone mentioned in them.

“It’s really the research on each letter that takes the most time,” he said, “because we want to present them with information that makes them make sense to people.”

Jewell said he hopes the free to access digitized letters will be a resource for scholars writing books on Cather, high school English students writing essays on her books pt anyone else looking for a deeper insight into the writer.

While the archive has thousands of letter, Jewell said he believes there are thousands more Cather wrote that are either lost or have yet to be rediscovered. Many of the new letters the archive receives were found in the storerooms of large libraries who were unaware they had them until reorganizing their inventory.

In one example of a found letter Jewell gave, he said one time a UNL alumnus bought a Cather book at a used bookstore, opened it up the book and found one of Cather’s letters inside. He soon donated it to the archive.

“They do widely vary,” Jewell said about the letters. “Some of them are really intimate and share her emotional life in a deep way and some are like quick little business letters. It’s just like how we are with are emails today. Not all of them are going to contain our soul, but a lot of, overtime, you get the accumulativeness of them, you really get the sense of who we are.”

The digitized letters can be viewed online at www.cather.unl.edu.

Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at eric.schucht@lee.net.

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