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Willa Cather had a secret.
She called it "the thing not named" and did her best to take the details to her grave when she died in 1947.
Her Last Will and Testament stated that her letters could not be published or quoted. Her loyal family upheld her wishes until 2011, when her nephew Charles died. After that, her literary property rights were turned over to a trust.
The first 566 of her letters were published in 2013, and another 1,400 or so have been digitized for the online Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska. Having this many of her letters available for the first time totally altered one historian's view of her life.
"This is not the book I set out to write about Willa Cather," Betty Jean Steinshouer said, "but it's the book that the times demanded."
Betty Jean Steinshouer’s lifelong study to portray Willa Cather brought her to hundreds of Chautauqua stages throughout the U.S. and Canada. She visited archives and rare book rooms to read the elusive Cather letters contained in files marked RESTRICTED from Cather’s death in 1947 to the publication of a few hundred in 2013 and the release of more than 3,000 into the public domain in 2018.
“I thought I knew Willa Cather,” she said. “But reading her letters to family and friends, to her publishers, even to strangers and near-strangers, brought so much more about her inner life into focus. Aspects of her personality that had long been a puzzle came clear. I'll never forget recording the audio and hearing that moment of discovery, when she read the dictionary definition of who she was.”
“Long Road from Red Cloud is a fascinating new study of a treasured American author. Steinshouer's lovingly researched book breaks new ground in presenting Willa Cather as a much more complex figure than most of us ever imagined." --Judith Schwarz, Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy: Greenwich Village 1912-1940
"This book is excellent. I couldn't put it down. In describing how Willa Cather's gender identity helped shape her writing, the book covers ground that for various reasons has been largely ignored." --Bob Dorr, retired reporter, Omaha World Herald
"Long Road from Red Cloud is a fascinating new study of a treasured American author. Steinshouer's extensive and detailed research tenderly delves into the self-hood of Willa Cather to reveal a previously unknown dimension of this brilliant, complex and wise soul.” -- Robin C. Tuthill, co-author, Female Pioneers of Fort Myers
“Betty Jean Steinshouer’s beautifully written book, Long Road from Red Cloud, is a brilliant and fascinating exploration of Willa Cather’s mysterious 'thing not named,' a constant in Cather’s life that was a source of both pain and grace. Subtitled Life Lessons from Willa Cather, Steinshouer’s book discloses how Cather integrated both her male and female realities to fully realize her true personhood and become one of the great American authors of the 20th Century. Steinshouer knows Willa Cather well, having studied and embodied her on stage for over thirty years. A Long Road from Red Cloud is not only a celebration of Willa Cather’s remarkable life, but a celebration of the dignity and integrity of our sisters and brothers who are also gifted with the ‘thing not named’.” -- Jimmy Creech, author of Adam's Gift: A Memoir of a Pastor’s Calling to Defy the Church’s Persecution of Lesbians and Gays
"This riveting, erudite study offers a startling but convincing answer to the question of why Willa Cather’s privacy has been so fiercely guarded. Cather scholar Betty Jean Steinshouer reveals a wealth of information from published and unpublished sources, including conversations with people who knew Cather and recently-released letters. Her book sheds astonishing light on this extraordinary writer and her prize-winning work." --Nancy Manahan, Ph.D., Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence