Notes from the 12th International Cather Seminar

The International Cather Seminar Begins Today, June 25th

The first day of the seminar has opened splendidly, from the first plenary session to tonight’s keynote address, “My Willa Cather,” by novelist Bradford Morrow. Our group is international and bridges scholars, writers, and Cather’s common readers. The quality of papers I observed today was impressive, particularly on the topics of urban space, Modernism, and Chicago. Many of us took a break in the afternoon to wander over to Millenium Park, just a few blocks from our seminar site at the University Center on State Street. A group from Mexico was doing sound checks, allowing us to sit and enjoy their preview of a free concert tonight at the spectacular outdoor theater in the park. The sun is setting at this point, city lights now defining the skyline. Lake Michigan is disappearing in the darkening horizon from my eighth story room. All is good in the world.

Westlit readers might be particularly interested in news from the Cather Project at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Andy Jewell, who guides development of the Cather Digital Archive as its editor, gave an informative plenary address entitled “The Professor’s Mouse.” Westlit readers should visit the site at http://cather.unl.edu to enjoy the new additions outlined in this presentation. Foremost among the new features is the Geographic Chronology of Willa Cather’s Life (GeoChron), developed with the help of the Nebraska Humanities Council. One can track Cather’s travels in multiple ways. Andy demonstrated both location and date range searches. Images pulled from the 2600 photos now on the Cather Archive pop up to illustrate her sojourns. Andy noted that his team hopes to add scanned postcards that Cather sent over the years as well as samples of texts that describe Cather’s varied places and spaces. As Andy put it, “the woman was a cosmopolitan woman.” No doubt about it, thanks to GeoChron.

Another fascinating new feature on the Archive is TokenX, a text visualization program. Andy demonstrated this cool tool by creating a word cloud of “Paul’s Case,” showing us that the word “moment” is key in the story (among others). Even a large novel like Song of the Lark can be scanned for stylistic features in seconds (the word “little” is prominent). One can even do an n-gram analysis up to 5-grams, examining Cather’s cherished phrases through her oeuvre. All of her fiction has been keyed into this program, and TokenX allows one to design specific language analyses of Cather’s texts.

57 short fiction texts published before 1923 are now featured in the Archive, and the scholarly edition of Cather’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, One of Ours is now digitized. Moreover, Volume 6 of Cather Studies is available to scholars of Cather and the American West. Particularly wonderful in the short fiction archive were the original illustrations that accompany them as well as the facsimile versions of the 57 stories. Andy also showed us images of the first editions of all Cather’s novels. If you are interested in Cather’s career as an editor and journalist, you can now find her editions of The Home Monthly as well as her articles in the Nebraska State Journal. Andy added that the “vibrant world of theater in 1890s Lincoln” is recreated for all to enjoy.

Later this year, some other additions will appear in the Archive: Sharon Hoover and Melissa Ryan are preparing a bibliography of Cather’s reading. Hannah German is studying translations of Cather’s fiction, and her research will help define Cather internationally. An update of the Calendar of Letters, a collaboration with WLA member Janis Stout, is in the works (400 letters to be added). For those of you eager for the digital versions of Alexander’s Bridge and the 7th edition of Cather Studies, your wait won’t be long. They are coming this fall. Andy says that his group will also be adding features to the scholarly editions that have already been archived. As Andy said, “this project never ends, which is exhilarating and scary.” New features are added regularly, he noted, as the group chases a comprehensiveness that “is the dream and the fantasy” of every digital archivist. The inventiveness, aesthetic beauty, and scholarly integrity of the evolving Cather Archive are impressive, so please take time to look at it and provide feedback to Andy and his team.

I asked Andy if he had any words for the Westlit audience. He emphasized that digital archives can take any focus, not simply an author-centered focus. A digital archive on American regionalism, he added, “could be a great resource.” His archive provides one model for high-standard scholarly work in the digital humanities. He encourages Westlit visitors to envision new emphases and contents.

Finally, to balance Andy Jewell’s visual display in the morning, Bradford Morrow gave a luminous tribute to Cather, family, and creativity. Illustrating the parallels between Cather’s career in the early twentieth century and his own writer’s journey in the late 20th and 21st centuries, Morrow shared photos from the Cather archives and his own family’s records. Interweaving comments on geography, generational stories, and writerly techniques, Morrow offered a meditation on the nature of home and other “scapes” that inform Cather’s and his works of fiction. The verbal and visual tapestry that Morrow presented was loudly applauded and punctuated the end of the day in a deeply satisfying way. His talk will be replayed via the webcasts that the Chicago Public Library maintains. More reflections of the 12th International Cather Seminar to follow tomorrow.

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2 Responses to “Notes from the 12th International Cather Seminar”

  1. westlitblogger Says:

    The Geographic Chronology is amazingly cool. Be sure to clink on the link above in the post (http://cather.unl.edu) to get to The Willa Cather Archive homepage and follow the links to the GeoChron.

  2. Anne Says:

    Please let me know if you are using the Digital Archive or GeoChron in your teaching! We are hoping to have some panel sessions focused on these great resources at the 2011 Seminar in Northampton.


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