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MHS grad engaged in publishing Cather's letters - Daily Leader Extra : Local News

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MHS grad engaged in publishing Cather's letters

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Posted: Thursday, May 23, 2019 2:24 pm

A graduate of Madison High School gained experience on Wednesday night in preparation for speaking at an international seminar in Virginia next month.

In her presentation, "Encoding Prose: The Complete Letters of Willa Cather," Simone Droge spoke about the challenges posed by the research project and fielded questions from the audience. In June, she and fellow research assistant Gayle Rocz will present "Unveiling Cather" at the 17th International Willa Cather Seminar in Winchester, Va.

"I hope it will be received well," Droge said told those who attended her presentation at the Madison Public Library.

Willa Cather was an American writer known for her novels about pioneer life in Nebraska. She studied at UNL, which maintains the Willa Cather Archive (WCA). Droge noted this is both a physical space and a digital space.

Droge has received funding through UCARE -- the Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience at UNL -- to participate in the research project. Her role includes transcribing Cather's letters, encoding the letters for the WCA, and answering research questions.

"I couldn't read a single word when I started. It looked almost like a foreign language," Droge shared.

A handwritten letter used to illustrate this showed Cather's penmanship was somewhat cramped. As often as not, her letters were not clearly formed and words looked more like wavy lines than an effort to communicate.

Once a letter has been transcribed, it is encoded, a technical process which creates a standard format for the letters on the WCA website. Droge showed an example of this and provided a brief description of the process.

"I think of it as Russian dolls. They're all inside each other," she said.

The goal is to represent the text as accurately as possible, including corrections which were made in the original letters.

"Cather makes lots of mistakes," Droge explained.

The letters are then annotated by scholars involved in the research project.

"It is not an analytical project," she said. "It's just purely informational. It's meant to be accessible to anyone who loves Cather."

Droge spoke briefly about one of the ethical issues related to publishing the letters -- Cather had specifically stated in her will that she did not want her letters published. She tried to burn her extensive correspondence prior to her death, but around 1,500 letters remain.

Initially, they went to her literary executor, Edith Lewis, and then to her nephew, Charles Cather. In 2009, the literary trust that Willa Cather created ceased to exist and in 2018, the letters entered the public domain.

The first letters were published in January 2018, and to date, nearly 1,300 have been published.

"I know she would hate what we do," Droge said.

Prior to publication of the letters, only scholars with the funds to travel could study the letters. With publication of the letters, they will be more accessible.

While working on the project, Droge said she and fellow research assistant Rocz have come to some conclusions about Cather. Neither has studied Cather extensively. In fact, prior to beginning work on the project, Droge's familiarity was limited to having read one short story in high school.

"She was very assertive," Droge said.

She was demanding of her publishers, and very clear in her expectations. Cather also sustained a network of friendships with other writers, and was a source of support and encouragement to other female writers.

"Cather was a bit of a hypochondriac," Droge said. "She talks about being ill a lot."

Droge indicated it wasn't uncommon for her to speak about an illness at length.

"She loved candy," Droge shared.

To illustrate this point, she used a quote from a letter that Cather wrote while in Toronto during a period when alcohol sales were limited. "Candy is unquestionably a solace in a city where two percent beer is at once the best and worst one can do," Cather wrote.

Droge said the letters also show what Cather was thinking as she wrote some of her novels.

In response to questions, Droge talked about the advantages of having both a physical archive and a digital archive. For example, the physical archive includes letters which were written to Cather, but are not being published online.

She indicated that even having transcribed numerous letters by Cather she would not be able to recognize a good forgery. She also explained the presentation she will be making at the seminar next month.

"We're talking about accessing Cather's voice as non-Cather scholars," Droge said. "We needed to find our angle and that was our angle."

She was asked if she would have liked Cather, if transcribing the letters had revealed a person she would have enjoyed as a friend. Droge didn't think so.

"I think I would have respected her. I don't know if I would have liked her," she said, describing Cather as both strong-willed and whiny.

Droge is the daughter of Dakota State University Professor of Biology Dale Droge and Ginny Freitag, a highly esteemed South Dakota artist and retired Madison Middle School art teacher.

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