A marriage of minds

Author Melissa J. Homestead

Willa Cather is best known in New Mexico for her 1927 novel about Catholic settlement, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Though she grew up in the Midwest and lived her adult life on the East Coast, Cather vacationed in the Southwest several times between 1912 and 1926. She made four of these lengthy trips with Edith Lewis, her domestic partner of almost 39 years.

“Lewis kept little travel journals. They came to light about decade ago,” says Melissa J. Homestead, author of The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis (Oxford University Press, 408 pages, $39.95). “There’s not a whole lot of text in them. She drew maps; she sketched pots at Mesa Verde. When they stayed with Mabel Dodge Luhan [in Taos], in 1925, she wrote a little schedule of what they did while they were there.”

Homestead’s book isn’t a biography of Cather or Lewis, but an exploration of their creative and romantic partnership, both of which have been downplayed by historians. While many scholars acknowledge that the conservative Cather was a lesbian, most relegate Lewis to the role of secretary. “The Professor’s House [1925] is the first real evidence of her role in Cather’s creative process. It’s a typed draft, and Edith Lewis’s handwriting is all over it. It’s really substantial line editing. It’s editing, not co-authorship, but it’s definitely collaboration.”

As for their long romantic relationship, Homestead says Cather and Lewis weren’t hiding anything. She distinguishes between being discreet and living in the closet. In her research, she found evidence that their relationship was known among family, friends, and professional colleagues. “Can you imagine a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald where his wife, Zelda, is practically invisible? That’s pretty much the kind of the thing you had in Cather’s biography. Even when her sexuality was acknowledged, it was like ‘we don’t know anything about Edith Lewis.’ Some people will say it’s ‘speculation,’ and I just have to say, 38½ years they were living together. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to make 38½ years together into anything other than a romantic partnership.”

Homestead reads from and discusses The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis at noon on Saturday, July 31, at Santa Fe Public Library (145 Washington Ave., 505-955-6781). Admission is free but attendance is limited and masks are required. Register at tinyurl.com/CatherandLewis.

(2) comments

William Craig

According to the National Trust Guide, Cather wrote Death Comes For the Archbishop in the library of Mary Hunter Austin’s house on Camino Monte del Sol (in what is now the Chiaroscuro compound two blocks south of Canyon Road). Several of Mary Austin’s own books were also written there, some with photography in collaboration with Ansel Adams.

Cather is one of four women honored with plaques on the “walk of fame” outside the N.M. Museum of Art on Palace and Lincoln avenues. She is also one of three writers so honored. The other women are the artists Georgia O’Keeffe, María Martínez and Bettina Steinke. The other writers are Oliver La Farge (whose 1929 novel Laughing Boy won a Pulitzer) and Lew Wallace, (whose 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was written while he was territorial governor, and held the all-time bestseller record for decades).

William Craig

Before Edith Lewis, there was Isabelle McClung, to whom Cather wrote hundreds of letters and to whom she dedicated her 1915 novel The Song of the Lark with a verse clearly inspired by her visits to the Southwest:

On uplands,

At morning,

The world was young, the winds were free;

A garden fair,

In that blue desert air,

Its guest invited me to be.

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