The Media Studies Experience: An Afternoon with Willa Cather

We are pleased to feature a guest post by Emily Caldwell, Fourth-Year English major/Media Studies minor and blogger for The Media Studies Experience.

In my second year at UVa, I took Professor Stephen Raillton’s class on Modern American Authors. We read everything from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Richard Wright, but one author I was unfamiliar with up until this point was Willa Cather. That semester, I read her novel O Pioneers! and absolutely fell in love with her storytelling and writing style.

Bust of Willa Cather (Photograph by Emily Caldwell)

Paul Swan, plaster bust of Willa Cather in the Special Collections Reading Room (MSS 10560. Photograph by Emily Caldwell)

A few days ago, I spent the afternoon in the U.Va. Special Collections with some of Cather’s personal items including signed photographs, manuscripts, and letters. It’s safe to say that I fell in love with her even more.

Willa Cather's signature from her letter to (Emily Caldwell)

Willa Cather’s signature from her letter to the Head of the English Department at Mount Saint Mary’s College, February 7, 1940. (MSS 6494. Emily Caldwell)

Envelope and letter of Willa Cather to the Head of the Mount Saint Mary's , February 7, 1940. (Photograph by Emily Caldwell)

Envelope and letter of Willa Cather to the Head of the English Department at Mount Saint Mary’s College, February 7, 1940. (MSS 6494. Photograph by Emily Caldwell)

First of all, the woman can make me laugh. In a letter dated February 7, 1940, to the head of the English Department at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Maryland, Cather defends her  religious beliefs, after having apparently received a letter from a student at the college, and instructs him, through the professor, to not believe everything he reads. Cather addresses the letter, “Dear Sir,” and then says, “I hope you will pardon me for addressing you without knowing your name, but I feel sure that you could handle this rather blustering boy better than I.” I could not help but chuckle to myself in the middle of the library’s dead silent reading room. Apparently this “blustering boy” had read somewhere in a book that Cather was a Roman Catholic convert, judging by her obvious praise of the Church throughout her literature. Although Cather claims that the Roman Catholic Church is “certainly the greatest spiritual power this world has ever known,” she claims that the “answer is very simple” and she is “an Episcopalian because [her] mother and father were, and that Church is home to [her].” Not only did she scold the so-called “blustering boy,” but she requested that slips of paper explaining the facts of her beliefs be put in every copy of Vernon Loggins’s I Hear America, which claimed Cather was a convert to the Roman Catholic Church. From this particular correspondence, it is clear that Cather was not only a sassy and particular woman, but truly dedicated to her religion, and I find both traits admirable.  

The next treasure I found in this collection was a letter from Cather to a Mrs. Ackroyed dated May 16, 1941. Out of all of the things I looked at from this collection, this was my favorite artifact because of the way Cather fondly reflects on her childhood home in Virginia. I was first referred to this letter after looking at a photograph of that home, in Willow Shade, VA.

Cather's childhood home in Willow Shade, VA, n.d. (MSS 6494. Photograph by Emily Caldwell.)

Cather’s childhood home in Willow Shade, VA, n.d. (MSS 6494. Photograph by Emily Caldwell.)

I thought it was peculiar that there was a blue circle around one of the windows on the house. After reading the letter, I found out some interesting facts about Cather’s childhood. In the beginning of the letter, Cather writes, “Your letter has awakened many pleasant memories. Your grandmother, Mary Ann Anderson, was a very special favorite of mine when I was a little girl of five to eight years old and lived in Willow Shade on the Northwestern Turnpike.” Cather continues to explain that when she would get sick as a little girl, she would “watch out of the front windows, hoping to see Mrs. Anderson coming down the road” because her family “usually sent some word to her when [she] was sick, because she was so tactful and understanding with a child.” I then made the connection to the photograph, on which Cather had actually circled the front window she used to sit at to watch for Mrs. Anderson. She recalls, “I several times walked up that beautiful Hollow Road, up to Timber Ridge, to see her in her little house where she lived all alone, and where she was as happy as the day was long.”

Cather then goes on in the letter to talk about her Aunt Marjorie, who she used to visit back in Virginia after her family moved out west to Nebraska. She writes, “I used to always spend many hours with Marjorie in the…sunny kitchen or on the shady back porch. She liked to talk about the old times in Virginia.” As I was reading the letter,  I felt the emotions and nostalgia she poured into this letter. She writes that she wished to “have the croup again” and she “could watch out of one of those windows at Willow Shade and see Mrs. Anderson coming briskly around the turn of the road.”

When I first started digging into this collection of Willa Cather’s artifacts and materials, I thought I would read into some of her personal relationships and see some interesting photographs. However, I never expected to read a touching letter reflecting on her childhood, and how much she wished she could be a child in Virginia again with the people who shaped her life so much. It is a very special moment and feeling to read one of the most brilliant authors I have ever read gush about their time spent in Virginia, my home state and the place where I, too, spent many magical years as a child, learning about the world. I never believed I could relate to Willa Cather so much, and I feel even more honored than ever to go to the University of Virginia, and call Virginia my home state.

Double-signed photograph of Willa Cather, n.d. (Photograph by Emily Caldwell)

Double-signed photograph of Willa Cather, n.d. (MSS 6494. Photograph by Emily Caldwell)  

Detail of Willa Cather photograph, n.d. (Emily Caldwell)

Detail of Willa Cather’s signature on her photograph, n.d. (MSS 6494. Emily Caldwell)

Permission was granted courtesy of Willa Cather’s estate to use quotations from her unpublished letters.

The Media Studies Experience: Plantation Tales and Seeds of Change

We are pleased to feature a guest post by Emily Caldwell, Fourth-Year English major/Media Studies minor and blogger for The Media Studies Experience.

Although I have not spent an extensive time studying Uncle Tom’s Cabin throughout my academic career or my current course on the literature of the South, in the class, we briefly touched on the cultural significance this work had in sculpting the perception of race and racial relations in American society during the late nineteenth century.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly is an American anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe published in 1852. And yes, I was lucky enough to hold a first edition. The novel was a best-selling book in the 19th-century and is credited with fueling the abolitionist movement in the United States throughout the 1850’s.

Cover of the first edition, first issue of Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852.

Cover of volume 1 of the first edition, first issue of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852. (PS2954 .U5 1852b v.1-2. Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Emily Caldwell)

Cover detail of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Cover detail of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (PS2954 .U5 1852b v.1-2. Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Emily Caldwell.)

Spine of the first edition, first issue of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Spine of the first edition, first issue of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (PS2954 .U5 1852b v.1-2. Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Emily Caldwell.)

Being the English Literature book nerd that I am, while I sat holding this text, I thought about how powerful a piece of literature can be as an agent of social change. However, as I looked through the crinkled and age-spotted pages, I noticed many startling passages. Since I’m currently studying Southern Literature, these classic examples racial discourses in America are fascinating to me, and I love studying how these perceptions have changed over time. In the case of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although the novel was meant to be a force for anti-slavery, itl unfortunately introduced and reinforced many black stereotypes including “mammy,” “pickaninny,” and even “Uncle Tom” himself, who is portrayed as the faithful servant who remains loyal to his master despite his endured suffering as a slave.

Title page image from volume 1 of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Title page image from volume 1 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (PS2954 .U5 1852b v.1-2. Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Emily Caldwell.)

However, I also found many promising excerpts that indicated an undertone of great social change on the horizon. In the preface of the novel, Stowe writes,

The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends, under it.

I found it interesting that Stowe does not outright condemn the South for these wrongdoings, but instead said, “…Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer.” Although these words may be familiar to those who have studied the text, it is the fact that this single book, the best-selling book, second only to the Bible when it was published, is a vehicle that planted the seeds for a great shift in American society change. Even Abraham Lincoln joked that Stowe and her revolutionary ideas fueled the Civil War.

As a native Virginian (a designation some might argue today is not truly “southern”), I feel a sense of pride when it comes to where I come from. In my Southern Literature course, we discussed how there is almost a longing for an ideal south that was never really there. There is a sense of pride in what the south represents, yet also a sense of embarrassment and shame for what hateful crimes and prejudices its culture harbored in America. I believe that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a prime example of cultural and literary history that not only began a discourse about the corrupted sociology of the South, but also reinforced disturbing, harmful and misrepresented stereotypes of African American culture that still resonate in our culture today. Although there are some aspects of our country’s history that we would rather overlook or erase altogether, they still compose our own American story.

I feel honored as a student of U.Va. to have access to first-edition copies of some of the most influential texts in the English language and Southern Literature. Literature and physical books themselves are often overlooked as important agents of exchanged thoughts and ideologies, and I can’t help but wonder where our country would be without this and other published plantation tales.

Title page detail of Uncle Tom's Cabin. ( PS2954 .U5 1852b v.1-2. Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Emily Caldwell)

Title page detail of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (PS2954 .U5 1852b v.1-2. Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Emily Caldwell.)

The Media Studies Experience: Let the Experience Begin!

When I received a message from VQR Web Editor Jane Friedman, inquiring if Special Collections would be interested in having a group of students from her spring semester  Media Studies class, Digital Media and Publishing contribute content to our social media, I jumped at the chance.  As a result, Special Collections has gained four enthusiastic, smart, and social media savvy undergraduates, who will share with you many of the fantastic finds they encounter while researching Under Grounds.

The Special

Pictured from left to right: Professor Jane Friedman, and students Emily Caldwell, Garrett Gottesman, Ali Sutherland, and Susan Gravatt.

Allow them to introduce themselves!

Emily Caldwell

My name is Emily Caldwell, and I am a Fourth Year in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. I will graduate this May with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Minor in Media Studies. Outside of my academic studies at the University, I am also a marketing and publicity intern at the University of Virginia Press and have worked there for about a year now. As a typical student with a Liberal Arts Major, I am still unsure of exactly where I will be or what I will be doing after graduation (if anyone is looking to hire an English major who is highly analytical with exceptional written and oral communication skills, let me know). In all seriousness, I am very interested in pursuing a career in the Media or Publishing Industries.

I chose to be in the Special Collections group as part of a semester-long project for my digital media and publishing course because I believe this library, as a whole, is a buried treasure chest, so to speak. It is a resource “hidden” in plain view of U.Va. students, and therefore extremely underutilized. I would love to uncover some of many gems located at Special Collections and make them known to my fellow Wahoos with the hope that they, too, will fully take advantage of the rich history that U.Va. has to offer. As an English Literature/Book Nerd, I am most interested in delving into the University’s literary treasures. I want to examine everything from the papers of William Faulkner, my personal favorite writer, to Walt Whitman’s manuscripts. I am not only deeply fond of these historical texts as literature, but I am fascinated and intrigued by the physical representation of these artifacts and how they lend themselves as historical vehicles.

However, on an even more personal level, I am a Virginian born and raised in Salem, which is about two hours southwest of Charlottesville. I have grown up learning the rich history of my native state, and it is one of the main reasons I chose to attend the University of Virginia. Although not all of the history of Virginia, or the University itself, is pretty or admirable, it is still my history, your history, here for us to discover. The ground we walk on at U.Va. is full of this history, and I mean that literally because a large part of the Special Collections Library is located underground. I look forward to unearthing everything beautiful, terrible, fascinating, honorable, and tragic that has made the University of Virginia the institution it is today.

Emily Caldwell

Photograph of Emily Caldwell, 2012.

Garrett Gottesman

My name is Garrett Gottesman, and I am a Third Year at U.Va. I am currently double majoring in Media Studies and American Studies, in which I am pursuing a concentration in Social Reform. When I heard about the opportunity to do digital media publicity for the Special Collections Library, I knew that it was the perfect opportunity for me. Since being admitted to U.Va., I have been obsessed with its history. I am looking forward to looking at material culture from the University, and I am specifically interested in the Civil War, the Civil Rights Era, and modern pop culture as they pertain to U.Va. This obsession with U.Va. is somewhat ironic when you consider the fact that I am from Austin, Texas and grew up with no information about the University.

As a proud Texan living in Virginia, I am currently learning what it means to have withdrawals from quality Tex-Mex and Barbecue. That being said, I am enjoying the chance to try out the local cuisine and remaining open to the idea that I may not move back to Texas immediately after graduation.

Right now I am still juggling a million career ideas as I get closer and closer to my fourth year. However, my career choice of the week is to do Marketing and Communications for a global nonprofit. I love finding any excuse I can to help others even if it means annihilating what little free time I have. This is most true when my Madison House “little sib” convinces me to come help him with his math homework or when friends ask me to do favors for them. I know how to say no, but I prefer to instead just say yes and roll with it.
I am a passionate explorer and have traveled to over thirty countries on six of seven continents around the world. My most recent adventure was on the 50th anniversary voyage of Semester at Sea which took me to 17 countries along the Atlantic Ocean in 115 days. I am obsessed with the movie Elf, and I could not live with out Swedish Fish. I also have the coolest dog in the world. He is a basset hound named Elvis. Here is the link to his facebook profile.

Garrett Gottesman in front of the Special Collections vault, 2014. (Photograph by Petrina Jackson).

Garrett Gottesman in front of the Special Collections vault, 2014. (Photograph by Petrina Jackson).

Susan Gravatt

My name is Susan Gravatt, and I’m a Fourth Year Media Studies major and Religious Studies minor at the University of Virginia in the College of Arts & Sciences. Since my fourth semester at U.Va., I’ve worked at WTJU 91.1 FM in Charlottesville, Virginia, as an intern, producer, and now a co-host for the station’s public affairs program, Soundboard. I also work with U.Va.’s new student radio station, WTJX, and am an outreach coordinator who builds student involvement through our site, which you can find at: When I’m not at WTJU, you might find me practicing with U.Va.’s salsa club or University Baptist’s collegiate choir, Jubilate.

After graduation, my biggest goal currently is to… have a job! I am currently embarking upon the Notorious Job Hunt and hope to find work in the Northern Virginia area or in Charlottesville. In a perfect world, I would continue to do some sort of creative work in the radio industry, but we will see where that takes me.

Until graduation and the Real World, though, I am enjoying my final semester at U.Va. and looking forward to working in the Special Collection Library. After visiting it a few times as a First Year for a project, I realized how many treasures are buried here and wanted to share them with others online. In the coming weeks, I plan to explore and write about U.Va. and some of the lesser-known stories about Grounds.

Keep checking back, as our team will be bringing you some pretty cool content and posts in the next few months!

Susan Gravatt

Photograph of Susan Gravatt

Ali Sutherland

My name is Ali, and I am from Grundy,Virginia (it’s where West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia meet). I’m a Fourth Year Government major, Media Studies minor, and have many, many, many interests.  I sing, play guitar, and craft A LOT.  I’m a sister of Sigma Delta Tau and am OBSESSED with social media. My dream job would be to either have a record deal or to do social media for a fashion label.  I’m really into history and antiques, so working with the Special Collections Library is going to be super fun.  The guys from Pawn Stars would love it here…

Note: Ali will be contributing to our social media via Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram.  Be sure to follow us and see what fun treasures she finds.

Ali Sutherland

Photograph of Ali Sutherland by Nicholle Goodnight, 2013.

Look out for The Media Studies Experience coming at you all semester long!