Donation fuels new Cather research

May 7th, 2010 | By | Category: Campus News, May 6, 2010

A renowned Willa Cather scholar has made a substantial contribution to the continuation of Cather studies at UNL.

James Woodress, author of “Willa Cather: A Literary Life,” donated more than $400,000 to the University of Nebraska Foundation, in support of a number of scholarly activities related to Cather’s legacy.


UNL is home to arguably the most vibrant Cather studies program in the country. The University of Nebraska Press publishes the Cather Scholarly Edition, an ongoing collection of essays and research on her life and work. UNL’s Willa Cather Archive,, is an extensive website providing digital editions of Cather texts and scholarship as well as a large amount of unique, born-digital scholarly content.

The Woodress trust will be used in a number of ways.

“We’re going to use the money to support the Edition, to support students, and to support a wide range of scholarly activities here at UNL,” said Guy Reynolds, professor of English and director of the Cather Project. “We want to support undergraduate and graduate students as they work on Cather projects. We also have ongoing interests in digital scholarship and Cather, and we will be looking into ways to support those activities.”

Woodress has had a long, mutually respectful relationship with UNL. Although he was a professor at the University of California, Davis, he maintained close ties with Nebraska, in particular with the late Susan Rosowski, the former director of the Cather project.

“James Woodress is a major Cather scholar, and her best biographer,” Reynolds said. “He became a well-known scholar in this field and he built a career partly out of the materials we have here at UNL. He made a vital connection with Susan and her husband Jim, and his work contains many references to our Cather archives.”

Perhaps the culmination — until now — of the affinity between Woodress and UNL occurred in 1995 when the university awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his outstanding Cather scholarship.

More than 60 years after her death, Cather remains an important figure in American literature. Reynolds notes that Cather wrote many of the most enduring stories of the pioneer West, which make it possible to imagine the lives of pioneers and settlers on the prairie.

“She’s a great poet of landscape, and somebody who really committed herself in responding to and remembering life in the late 19th century on the rural frontier,” Reynolds said. “She was also a wonderful storyteller and a very elegant, clear writer. Her books have remained popular and relevant partly because they have a real stylistic purity and power.”

Over time, Cather’s name has become synonymous with the University of Nebraska. Drawn to Lincoln by the significant collection of her correspondence and writing housed in the university library, as well as the ongoing commitment to Cather scholarship among UNL faculty, many graduate students apply to UNL specifically to study Cather.

“I feel that as a retired scholar, Woodress can see very clearly how money can make a real difference to the ongoing story of literary scholarship,” Reynolds said. “Having been inside the university culture of humanities scholarship, he could see how finance could help graduate students and help the kinds of projects that we work on.

“The main thing about Woodress is, he really embedded himself in the detail of Cather scholarship, and now he’s enabled the Cather scholarship that we’re doing to carry on and deepen and widen.”

— Sara Gilliam, University Communications

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  1. Thank you, James, first for the biography, now for this magnanimity.

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