Words of advice from Pulitzer Prize winning Aunt Willie

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Willa Cather’s letters have been donated to the university.

Few college students ever receive words of advice directly from one of the greatest writers of all time. Few can boast that such a great writer is blood – in Charles Cather’s case, a beloved aunt.

Willa Cather.

Your Aunt Willie

That’s how she signed letters she wrote to Charles when he was a young man, a student at West Point Military Academy. In one letter – dated Nov. 21, 1945 – her words of advice were not about words or writing. They were about math.

Apparently, Charles had been struggling with it.

Wrote Aunt Willie:

Remember, that you can not trifle with mathematics. The old proverb was, “In mathematics as in war, leave nothing unconquered behind.” If you do not understand a point, hire a coach and peg away with him until you get it. You are not naturally mathematical, any more than I am. You will have to get by on dogged hard work. … Even I, who was so dumb in mathematics, was passed and I shall always remember when the fat and very jolly (rather young) professor wrote on my final examination paper: “You are faithful and persevering even in those studies which are very difficult for you. Success to you!”

Charles died in March in California. The letter is among the treasure trove of his aunt’s items he left in his estate to the University of Nebraska, including handwritten scenes from Cather’s last, unpublished novel, “Hard Punishments,” which had never been made public before.

His gift – potentially worth $2 million or more – was unveiled May 12 at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

The author graduated from the university in 1895. Her novels, such as “O Pioneers,” “My Antonia” and “The Song of the Lark,” recognize frontier life on the Great Plains. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for “One of Ours.”

The University of Nebraska has the largest Cather archive in the world. Besides her nephew Charles, many other Cather family members and Cather scholars have made significant donations of her works to UNL.

“We are grateful to Charles Cather as well as all the Cather family members and scholars who have entrusted us with their priceless Willa Cather gifts over the years,” says Clarence Castner, president of the University of Nebraska Foundation. “These are items that simply could not be afforded by a public university if they were auctioned, and they enrich the university greatly.”

Among the items in the Charles Cather Collection is the prestigious Howells Medal that Cather won in 1930 for her book “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”

“Charles Cather’s gift adds greatly to our knowledge of Willa Cather’s writing and furthers our insight into her circle of friends and family,” says Katherine Walter, chair of Digital Initiatives and Special Collections for the UNL Libraries. “These close relationships meant much to her as a writer.”

You can see that in the words the great author wrote to her young nephew in that letter from 1945, less than two years before she died in 1947:

Mathematics are serious business with you now, Charles. When you do not understand a point perfectly, you must find a good coach who will pound it into you. …

With much love to you and every confidence in you,

Your Aunt Willie

If you also would like to support Cather Studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, please consider donating online to the Susan Rosowski Cather Endowment Fund. The fund is named for UNL English professor Susan Rosowski, the top Cather scholar in the country until her death in 2004 from cancer.

For more information on this fund or other ways to help UNL’s libraries, e-mail Amber Antholz or Josh Egley or call them at 800-432-3216.

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