Grave Matters: Willa Cather and Edith Lewis

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on September 9, 2013

Grave marker of Willa Cather.

It is unclear why James Woodress twice chose to refer to Isabelle McClung as the “great love” of Cather’s life. But doing so set the stage for identifying Cather as a lesbian: a lesbian jilted by McClung, who by implication “returned” to the heterosexual fold through her 1916 marriage to the violinist Jan Hambourg. Ostensibly leaving Cather to mourn her “lost love” and settle for the devoted—and implicitly chaste—companionship of Edith Lewis. 

Photo of the grave marker of Edith Lewis

This distortion of Cather and Lewis’ relationship acquired even more contorted embellishments when Woodress and another of Cather’s early biographers, Mildred Bennett, wrongly asserted that Lewis arranged to have herself buried at Cather’s feet, a bizarre twist picked up by other critics who unthinkingly perpetuated this nonsense.[1]

Marilyn Arnold, for instance, repeated this assertion in her 1989 Forward to Lewis’ reissued memoir, of all places, yet no one—not Woodress, not Bennett, not Arnold—cited an authoritative source.[2] Arnold’s description of Cather and Lewis’ grave markers as headstones, however, reveals at least one possible cause for the confusion. Cather’s headstone is a single, large monument bearing Cather’s name, dates, and ends with a quote from My Antonia, an epitaph as fitting for Lewis as it is for Cather: That is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great. The other stone, until the late 1990s lying flat in the ground at the opposite end of the gravesite, is a footstone, its placement and smaller size typical of stones used to note the presence of family members whose names do not appear on the headstone in family plots.

Originally that footstone was not likely to be mistaken for a headstone because it was unmarked, in keeping with the behest in Lewis’ will. Lewis made her request twice, in wills dated 1963 and 1968: she wanted no headstone or marker to be placed on her grave. One of the odd twists in this tale is that no one seems to know who ordered the footstone or ordered it engraved with Lewis’ name and dates or knows exactly when that happened.[3] Arnold asserts that the size and position of Lewis’ engraved “headstone” indicates that her remains “were squeezed in at the foot of the first [Cather’s] grave”—whether, as some have suggested, because Lewis was cremated, or as others have offered, because the plot was too small.[4] But Arnold’s assertion is wrong and the story behind it apocryphal.

The idea of there being no room for Lewis in the gravesite probably originated with the widow of George S. Austermann, whose husband worked out the original burial arrangements with Edith Lewis the day after Cather died. Rightly recalling limitations on available space in the Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire when Cather was buried there, Eleanor Austermann—who attended neither Cather’s nor Lewis’ burial services—misunderstood the result.[5] The arrangements her husband made did create problems for future burials but not in the plot Lewis purchased. The quitclaim deed Edith Lewis signed on June 16, 1947 describes ample room (13 feet by 19 feet) for two caskets to be buried next to each other in the joint Cather-Lewis plot.[6]

Lewis is in fact buried right beside Cather. Lewis’ niece Helen Kathryn Schulte, who along with her mother Helen Lewis Morgan made the arrangements and attended both the funeral and burial ceremonies for Edith Lewis, has stated unequivocally that Edith Lewis is buried “beside her friend Willa Cather.”[7] Charles J. O’Shea, the funeral director who handled arrangements for the Lewis family in New York, has also sworn that Edith Lewis “was not cremated, but was interred according to the instructions in her [1968] will. She was buried in the grave next to Willa Cather.” In New Hampshire, O’Shea’s arrangements were carried out by the Cournoyer Funeral Home, Inc., whose owner Randyl P. Cournoyer noted that they were paid twenty five dollars for meeting Lewis’ body at the cemetery and “arranging for vault and clergyman” for Lewis’ burial in “the Willa Cather-Edith Lewis lot.”[8]

If, as Arnold suggests, the grave markers “symbolize not only the relative worldly prominence of the women but also the probable supporting role one played to the other in the daily drama of living,” then their arrangement at head and foot is doubly misleading.[9] Where Arnold meant to eulogize, however, others have used those symbols to abuse Lewis’ memory with suggestive interpretations. Hermione Lee stretched their meaning to an offensive extreme, joking snidely that Edith Lewis “in the end, would be buried at [Cather’s] feet: not—at a guess—a position that Isabelle McClung would have wanted to assume for eternity.”[10] Not only is Lewis silly in Lee’s estimation, she is forever second-rate.

Even more disagreeable is yet another image of Edith Lewis that gained ascendance among some Cather scholars in the late 1980s. In “Edith Lewis Living,” one of the few published articles to focus on Lewis until the mid 2000s, Patricia L. Yongue conjured up Lewis as a sycophant, as perverse as Cather’s foppish monster of envy in Lucy Gayheart, James Mockford. Like the green-eyed Mockford, whose hold on Clement Sebastian ends in a deadly embrace that literally drags both men to a watery bier, Yongue’s Lewis is also “self-effacing and servile,” jealous and manipulative. Lewis’ relationship with Cather could not have been “warm and sharing—a passion, a union of spirits, at the very least a Sherlock Holmes-Dr. Watson camaraderie” the way, Yongue admits, Lewis recorded it in Willa Cather Living. Instead, just as Mockford had been tortured by Sebastian’s affection for Lucy Gayheart, Yongue says Lewis must have been consumed by “repressed resentment over her subordinate status and silence” and tortured by imagined slights over Cather’s attention to other women. Their story ends, according to Yongue, with Lewis feeling compelled in Willa Cather Living to protect the false fantasy “she nursed,” while secretly gloating over being “for the first time in control of Willa Cather, for the first time able to make her own ‘tiny’ voice heard.”[11]

Two years earlier, in her 1987 review of Sharon O’Brien’s Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, Yongue refused to believe that Cather might have been a lesbian or  “led even the emotional life of a lesbian.” Instead, Yongue oddly insists, Cather “communicates a sympathy for heterosexuality” and was herself asexual, afraid of “risky intimacies.”[12] Such wishful thinking is homophobic balderdash, pure and simple—snide, ignorant, and inappropriate. Understanding the real story of Lewis’ burial—and rejecting the misinformation that for years fed such demeaning stereotypes—helps to correct the record and restore Edith Lewis to her rightful place: next to Willa Cather, in death as well as in life.


[1] Back to Post. Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life, 505; and Bennett, “At the Feet of Willa Cather: A Personal Account of Edith Lewis as Protector,” Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter 33 (Fall 1989), 19-22. Others, ironically Patricia L. Yongue among them, have never doubted that Lewis was buried beside Cather. See Yongue, “Willa Cather’s Aristocrats (Part I)”, Southern Humanities Review (Winter 1980), 55. Woodress originally “disavowed any intention” to suggest in his first biography that Cather was a lesbian, saying in 1981 that “Cather was too much involved with her art and work to invest any time and energy in sex of any kind” (See Helen Cather Southwick, “Willa Cather’s Early Career: Origins of a Legend,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 65 (April 1982), 89) In 1984 Woodress claimed responsibility for unintentionally starting a critical furor and vowed to take another look in what would become his second biography Willa Cather: A Literary Life—at Cather, at new feminist analyses of her works, and at current discussions about her sexuality—to see what merit these new arguments held (James Woodress, “Willa Cather and Her Friends,” Critical Essays on Willa Cather, ed. John J. Murphy (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1984), 90). I heard Woodress make similar claims as featured speaker for the 1984 Spring Conference sponsored by the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Foundation in Cather’s home town of Red Cloud, Nebraska.

[2] Back to Post. Marilyn Arnold, Forward, Willa Cather Living, A Personal Record by Edith Lewis (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989), vii.

[3] Back to Post. According to Melissa Homestead, the townspeople of Jaffrey may have been responsible (September 22, 2010 personal correspondence).

[4] Back to Post. Arnold, vii.

[5] Back to Post.Eleanor Austermann repeated the story to me during a phone interview June 18, 1990. She also thought that Lewis must have been cremated.

[6] Back to Post. Lewis actually signed two quitclaim deeds that day, one for their joint plot and another, acquiring additional land, as a permanent right-of-way for a path. This, along with the Cather-Lewis plot, took a great deal of room from what was already a crowded cemetery, but the Austermann family plot was consequently reduced in size, not the plot Lewis purchased from them. Both quitclaim deeds were filed in Cheshire County, New Hampshire on June 26, 1947.

[7] Back to Post. Perhaps the oddest twist in this tale is its outcome. When Helen Kathryn Schulte, Edith Lewis’ niece, became aware of the confusion about the burial, she told me she wanted people to understand the truth and to grasp the equality of Lewis’ relationship to Cather. For that reason, Helen Kathryn Schulte arranged to have the engraved footstone dug up and placed next to the headstone. Now there are two “headstones” placed side by side, one large and standing upright, one small and lying flat.

[8] Back to Post. Private correspondence and sworn statements in my possession include those by Helen Kathryn Schulte, Charles J. O’Shea, and Randyl P. Cournoyer.

[9] Back to Post. Arnold, x.

[10] Back to Post. Hermione Lee, Willa Cather: A Life Saved Up (London: Virago Press, 1989), 73.

[11] Back to Post. Patricia L. Yongue, “Edith Lewis Living,” Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter 33.3 (Fall 1989), 14. We owe a large debt to Melissa Homestead whose clarifying research on Lewis’ life and contributions to Cather’s manuscripts began to appear in the early 2000s. See, for example, Homestead, Melissa and Kaufman, Anne L., “Nebraska, New England, New York: Mapping the Foreground of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis’s Creative Partnership” Faculty Publications—Department of English, University of Nebraska 77 (2008). Homestead’s articles serve to counter the misinformation and stereotypes offered by critics like Yongue.

[12] Back to Post. Patricia L. Yongue, “Review of Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, Great Plains Quarterly (1987, 1), 212.

6 thoughts on “Grave Matters: Willa Cather and Edith Lewis

  1. I LOVE this, Sue! Thanks for setting the record “straight.” I’m thrilled to know they are buried next to each other. It pains me to think of young people (or anyone) reading all the “homophobic balderdash” that’s been written about Cather and Lewis.

  2. How refreshing to get the facts w/o the snide innuendo & disrespectful projections of those folks who clearly did not do their homework. Thanks Sue.

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