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Willa Cather Foundation - Red Cloud Nebraska (NE)

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Serena's Album

Serena's Album

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  • Rediscovering Serena’s Album

    In February 1887, Serena White of Nuckolls County, Nebraska, received a friendship album entitled Mental Portraits, probably as a 16th birthday gift. These books, also known as autograph albums or confession albums, were enduringly popular in the late 19th century, usually purchased in stationery stores rather than bookstores, and widely given as gifts to women and girls.

    Serena’s album has long been an object of curiosity because one of its more colorful entries was made by a precocious 14-year-old signing herself “Wm. Cather M.D.” This entry by Serena’s classmate Willa Cather was first published in 1951 in The World of Willa Cather by Mildred Bennett, founder of the Willa Cather Foundation. For its fascinating look at the writer in adolescence — and her world — Serena’s album is a treasure; the full scope of that treasure grows clearer when we consider this extraordinary album in its entirety. (For a scholarly perspective on confession albums, and on Cather’s pages in Serena’s album, click here — “Predicting Willa Cather.”)

    Albums like Serena’s gave their users — mostly young and mostly female — the opportunity to put on performances for their friends, trying on identities and experimenting with self-invention and self-concealment. Many of the young people who signed Serena’s album display a youthful bravado that stands out boldly against the sentimental backdrop of the album itself. But there are as many adults in the album as young people, and a good number of males. They, too, are playing roles here, dispensing wisdom, holding forth, being clowns, seeking the reader’s favor.

    Fascinating novelty that it is, Serena’s album, when read with some knowledge of these people’s pasts and the trajectories of their lives, becomes also a document of historical sweep and almost painful immediacy. It has a quality many readers have seen in Willa Cather’s work — human intimacies on the page, opening out onto expanses of time and distance and possibility.

  • Title page

    Serena’s album was a gift — “Presented to Rena White” — from her uncle, J. S. Stevens. He was also one of the first to sign the album.

    Here on the title page, the album’s cover title Mental Portraits becomes The Mental Portrait Album. The epigraph credited to Shakespeare is probably a corruption of a line from Richard II: “Nay, let us share thy thoughts, as thou dost ours.”

    The “autographic confessions” in Serena’s album span the years 1887 – 1900, most of them made before 1890. The entries are each two pages long and presented here in the order they appear in the album, which is not chronological — people selected blank pages randomly when they made their entries. No pages have ever been torn out of the album.

    Serena’s extended family was large and close-knit; her album has a number of entries by her relatives in Iowa, and their friends. There are, in addition, many entries from Serena’s neighbors and friends in Nuckolls County, Nebraska.

    Serena and Florence White

    Serena and Florence.

    Serena, seen on the left in a picture taken some years before she started her album, was born in February 1871, in Illinois, the eldest child of Arthur and Lora White. Her family came to Nebraska between 1880 and 1885; her father farmed near Bostwick in Nuckolls County. After attending school in Superior, Nebraska, Serena went to school in nearby Red Cloud in 1888-1889. There was much visiting back and forth among the girls of Superior and Red Cloud, and it was during this period that many of her new friends signed her album. Serena White lived her entire life in the area, never marrying. She died in 1924.

    Cather scholar Kari Ronning theorizes that Serena came to Red Cloud to continue her studies with J. F. Curran, the very popular Superior High School principal hired that year to be the principal in Red Cloud.

    Serena’s album was preserved by the descendants of her younger sister, Florence White Grosvenor. Florence is seen on the right, around 1900, when she was a teacher. In 1904 she married John H. Grosvenor of Aurora, Nebraska, an attorney, postmaster and political leader. They had seven children. Their granddaughter, Jane Dressler, is the owner of Serena’s album.

  • Preface

    The publisher encourages users to “enliven each page by ‘wise saws’ if not by ‘modern instances’” — good advice, although probably unnecessary. The text here refers to an accompanying sheet of examples “filled out in earnest, or in jest,” but this separate document has been lost.

    The list of questions posed in Mental Portraits is extremely similar to the well-known “Proust Questionnaire,” completed by Marcel Proust as a teenager, in 1886; this was in a friendship album very like Mental Portraits, owned by the writer’s friend Antoinette Faure. The faintly Proustian echoes of the closing words of this Preface provide a hint of the appeal of Serena’s album: it “may serve in after years as a much more direct and pleasing reminder of the traits and peculiarities of friends than any other remembrancer.”

  • Addie Carson


    Addie M. Carson was 24 when she made her entry in Serena’s album in 1887. Before the year was out she would marry Serena’s uncle J. S. Stevens, whom she identifies as her favorite character in romance. They had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood. Addie was a widow by 1920 and in her later years worked as a milliner. She eventually lived in Southern California with her daughter, Genevieve (Mrs. Hal) Cook.

    “Mrs. Holmes,” Addie’s favorite prose writer, was Mary J. Holmes, a highly popular 19th century romance novelist published by the dime-novel publishers Street & Smith. The firm’s publicity machine crowned her “queen of the human heart.”

    We can’t venture an identity for Addie’s favorite composer “Hattie Baker.”


    Addie greatly admires big feet in women and claims as her motto “Look as pretty as you can.” This seems entirely consistent to us.

  • J. S. Stevens


    J. S. Stevens was Serena’s uncle, whose given name was James — the younger brother of her mother, Lora Stevens White. He was a dentist who must have loved his work, considering that he states his pet hobby as “Pulling Teeth.”

    The Mental Portrait Album was a gift from J. S. Stevens to his niece Serena, likely for her 16th birthday (see his inscription on the inside front cover).

    J. S. Stevens and Addie Carson, his bride-to-be, are the first people to make entries in the book, on February 7, 1887, followed the same day by Serena’s cousin Rolla Coffeen.


    J. S. Stevens’ most admired trait in women is “Silence,” which corresponds somewhat uneasily with his chief ambition in life as recorded on the left: “Get Married.” His failure to complete his entry here suggests that he admired silence in man as well as woman.

    J. S. Stevens and Addie Carson were married later in 1887 and continued to live in Shenandoah, Iowa. They had a son, Fayette, born about 1891, and a daughter, Genevieve, born about 1894.

    J. S. Stevens died sometime before 1920.

  • Rolla Coffeen


    With J. S. Stevens and Addie Carson, Rolla Coffeen made his entry in Serena’s album on February 8, 1887 — perhaps the day it was presented to her. Rolla’s entry in the album is the only one marked by two dates: February 8, 1887 and October 26, 1890. The slight inking variations visible on the first page aren’t helpful in determining which parts of the entry might have been made at different times.

    Rolla Coffeen was Serena’s first cousin, born in 1869 or 1870, the eldest son of “Aunt Cinnie” Coffeen and Henry Coffeen; Aunt Cinnie was born Celinda Stevens, the elder sister of Serena’s mother.

    Rolla’s entry states that “High Five” was a favored amusement, “when he wins.” High Five was a form of Pitch popular in the 19th century.


    Rolla reveals more of his interest in card-playing. “Never looking at the card in the bottom of the pack” is the trait he most admires in man. And in a deftly phrased entry, he says the trait he most detests in both man and woman is “not cheating fair.”

    As an adult Rolla Coffeen worked as a clerk, a bookkeeper, and a salesman. He and his wife Blanche, to whom he was married in 1895, had two children, Dorothy and Donald. They continued to live in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

    We lose sight of Rolla for many years in official records, but catch a late glimpse of him in 1930, a widower, lodging in Gridley, California and working as an automobile salesman.

  • Lillian Shepard


    Lillian Shepard and her younger sister Hattie (who also appears in the album) were neighbors of the Coffeens, Serena’s relatives in Council Bluffs. Born in New York, the girls were the daughters of Sylvanus Shepard, a carpenter, and his wife Lucy. Lillian was about 15 in 1887 when she signed Serena’s album.

    Her pick of Longfellow as her favorite poet was a popular one — most of the album signers made the same choice.

    Her pet hobby, “Bananas,” reflects the strain of adolescent humor running through the album.


    Lillian Shepard’s husband Harry Schmidt, ca. 1899.
    Youthful self-possession and confidence animate Lillian’s responses. Perfect happiness is to “Go when you want to,” and her motto is “Look out for no. 1.”

    Regarding her desire if shipwrecked on a desolate island, Lillian doesn’t focus on survival or rescue, but actually specifies the island: “Long Island.” Several other album signers follow her lead, making this question one of the album’s most entertaining ones.

    In 1895 Lillian married Harry Schmidt, a New York City-born photographer, of German parentage. He appears in an 1899 volume entitled Biographies and Portraits of the Progressive Men of Iowa. They had two daughters and continued to live in Council Bluffs.

  • Mrs. J. W. Keifer, Jr.


    Mrs. Keifer was born Julia Lowry. She and her husband, Joseph Warren Keifer, Jr., farmed near Serena’s family in Nuckolls County. They were the parents of two young children when Mrs. Keifer made her entry in Serena’s album; two more would be born in the next several years.

    The tiny settlement known as “Elora” — Mrs. Keifer gives it as her home — was essentially a post office in search of a town, established in 1882 by Mr. Keifer and another settler, and discontinued in 1891. Much of the nearby land belonged to the Keifers. This was the “Republican Valley Ranch” she loved to look at from her porch.


    Mrs. Keifer embraces the role of the kind, wisdom-dispensing grown-up. Yet even allowing for the abundant quoted material and sentimental tone, her responses have an honest and open quality.

    She puts quotes around “Ein treues herz,” — a true heart — suggesting it is part of a lyric. Her detested trait is mercilessness — “Unbarmherzigkeit.” As to qualifications in a partner, “Come and get acquainted with him, then you’ll know.” She quotes from the American poet and satirist John Godfrey Saxe’s “Early Rising” to laud “the man who first invented sleep.” Her motto is from Pope’s “Essay on Man,” a line well-loved by newspaper writers.

    Mrs. Keifer’s father-in-law, J. W. Keifer, Sr., was a notable public figure — a Civil War General in the Union Army, United States Congressman from Ohio, and Speaker of the House. Mr. Keifer, Jr. had served as his father’s secretary before his marriage and would go on to be a member of the Nebraska Legislature.

  • Mrs. R. N. Merriam


    She was Julietta Augusta Merriam, second wife of Rufus Nathan Merriam, whose first wife Lucretia died in 1883. Julietta Augusta Merriam — variously Julia, Juliet, and Juliette — had also been widowed, in 1881, and the large Merriam household included four children from her first marriage to John Henderson in addition to four (or perhaps five) from Mr. Merriam’s first marriage.

    They were neighbors in Council Bluffs of Serena’s relatives, the Coffeens. Mr. Merriam was a grocer with a large business and was an elder in the Presbyterian Church. He died in California in 1905. Julietta Augusta Merriam died in California in 1922.

    Considering the size of her household, we see the sense in her chief ambition in life: “A Happy Home with Modern Improvements.”


    If privileged to make a journey, Mrs. Merriam would choose California. She eventually makes this journey, putting down roots in California probably not later than 1905. While there is no reason to believe she ever visited her preferred desolate island — the Sandwich Islands — her friend Mrs. H. “Aunt Cinnie” Coffeen did.

    Curiously, she names “The Bycycle” as the greatest folly of the 19th century. Mary Miner’s entry includes a jesting reference to riding a tricycle, but this is the album’s only reference to the bicycle.

  • Ed. M. Short


    Edward M. Short
    Edward M. Short, probably in the 1890’s.
    Edward Marion Short was 25 when he signed Serena’s album. He was admitted to the bar the same year, but he did not go on to practice law. His residence in the Nuckolls County seat of Nelson suggests that his connection with Serena’s family was a geographic one. A graduate of the University of Nebraska, he was a teacher in south-central Nebraska his entire adult life. He died in Franklin in 1952.

    He likes his Dickens. His favorite book is David Copperfield and his favorite character in romance is the gentle Tom Pinch of Martin Chuzzlewit. He also names Dickens as his favorite prose writer.


    Edward Short’s entries touch on topical subjects that would appear in Willa Cather’s work: the temperance movement and the “Free Silver” political issue of the 1890s.

    His advocated reform is “Suppression of liquor traffic.” The temperance movement was very active in the state, although in 1890 Nebraskans had voted down a constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol (it would pass in 1916). Prohibition in Nebraska, for which Cather had no sympathy, provides part of the backdrop for the early sections of One of Ours.

    The greatest folly of the 19th century, in Edward Short’s opinion, is “Fiatism.” This reference to fiat money — money declared legal tender by a government but not backed by reserves — evokes an earlier era’s scorn for “greenbacks,” the floating currency of the Civil War years and after. Edward Short is expressing his disagreement with the populist “Free Silver” movement that came to be associated with William Jennings Bryan. Bryan’s 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech is a pivotal element in Cather’s late story “Two Friends.”

  • M. D. C. Tinkham


    Michael Doctor Coffeen Tinkham was born in Homer, Illinois in 1861 and was related to Serena by marriage (through her uncle Henry Coffeen, his first cousin once removed). He signed Serena’s album in 1889 in Council Bluffs, when they would have both been visiting “Aunt Cinnie” and Henry Coffeen. He worked as a drug salesman and was married in 1895 to Anna Mae Gallagher. They had one son, John Howard Tinkham.

    M. D. C. Tinkham’s home town of Homer, Illinois was an important location for this family. Serena’s mother Lora White, her uncle J. S. Stevens, and their sister Celinda — Aunt Cinnie — were all born in Homer and grew up there. Celinda’s husband Henry Coffeen was a nephew of the town’s founder, Michael Doctor Coffeen. Our M. D. C. Tinkham was this man’s grandson and namesake.


    If shipwrecked on a desolate island, M. D. C. Coffeen would most desire “The Isle of Man.” This reference to an actual place (following Lillian Shepard’s lead) may also be a bit of inspired silliness — how desolate can it be if there’s already a “Man” there? He is another of the album’s temperance partisans, and hasn’t anything good to say about 19th century ladies having their hair shingled. Shingled hair wouldn’t become an accepted fashion for years yet, but was certainly appearing when Tinkham made his entry in Serena’s album (and the young Willa Cather was far from alone in cutting her hair short).

  • Walter Breen


    One of the album’s most intriguing entries. Walter Breen was an Englishman, son of an Irish father and mother born in Java to English parents. Probably born about 1869, he had come to America as a youth and was in business in Omaha. His residence there suggests a connection to Serena’s Council Bluffs relatives. In 1898 he married Elizabeth Atkinson, a widow some years his senior; they lived in the Omaha area and later in Glenwood, Iowa, where together they operated an abstracts and deeds office.

    He names Herbert Spencer as his favorite prose writer and “Darwin” as his favorite book; this dual focus on evolution perhaps explains his favorite animal: “monkey.” His references to Richard Wagner, Caesar, and Alexander the Great, while not duplicating Willa Cather’s own album entries, have a Catherian tone.

    In 1891, Walter Breen must have been among the last writers of the English language still using the long s — the letter form resembling an f. Was this the cultured affectation of an Englishman out West?


    Walter Breen made his entry four years after Willa Cather made hers, and there is no reason to believe they ever knew each other. Their answers, particularly on this second page, are strikingly similar — several are identical (for example, they both cite Cadmus, the mythological Phoenician prince who introduced the alphabet and writing to the Greeks). Imitation is common enough in confession albums, often used as a ploy of self-concealment, but this feels like something else; Walter Breen’s echoing of so many of Cather’s entries — surely a conscious act — feels more like a salute to a kindred sensibility.

    In spots where Cather adopts a jesting tone in her own entry, their responses diverge. For the greatest folly of the 19th century, she says “Dresses & Skirts,” while the very serious Walter Breen says “Prohibition & clericalism.” He maintained this stance throughout his life; in 1933, he would be a delegate to the Iowa state convention to ratify the 21st amendment, ending Prohibition.

  • Mrs. H. Coffeen — “Aunt Cinnie”


    Mrs. Henry Coffeen’s given name can be found in several different spellings, “Celinda” appearing most frequently. She was the older sister of Lora Stevens White, Serena’s mother. They were raised in Homer, Illinois, where Celinda and Henry Coffeen were married in 1869. They lived there and in towns across Illinois and Iowa — Henry Coffeen was a commercial traveler. They had five children, among them the sons Rolla and Courtney, who also signed Serena’s album.

    Aunt Cinnie names “Enock” Arden as her favorite character in romance, referring to Tennyson’s 1864 narrative poem “Enoch Arden.” Notice that her taste in composers runs to the literary.


    In the years after Aunt Cinnie signed Serena’s album, officially recorded traces of her family grow rare and somewhat puzzling. In separate documents, Celinda Coffeen and her husband Henry are each said to have outlived the other.

    Henry probably died in 1914. Celinda Coffeen survived him. An intriguing event in her later life echoes her entries in Serena’s album, where she declares her preference for travel by boat and a wish to go to California; and, if shipwrecked on a desolate island, she desires “an abundance of fruit.” While we know nothing of the circumstances, we know that in 1923, at the age of 78, she was a passenger on the U.S. Grant bound from Honolulu to San Francisco. The U.S. Grant was a U.S. Army Transport ship that also carried passengers. No identifiable member of her family accompanied her.

  • Mrs. Belle C. Barclay


    Belle C. Barclay’s entry in Serena’s album in May 1888 was the earliest from anyone who lived near Serena’s home in Nuckolls County, Nebraska. Little is known of her. Born in New Hampshire, she and her husband John C. Barclay lived in Nelson, Nebraska and were the parents of two children, Clyde and Mary; another child was probably deceased. In 1880 the family had lived in Lansing, Iowa, where John C. Barclay worked as a bookkeeper.

    Her occupation for a summer’s vacation: we suppose this might say “Quick of mind,” but we’re not sure what it means.


    If privileged to make a journey, Belle Barclay chooses Yellowstone Park. Designated a national park in 1872 — the first in the United States — Yellowstone was still a rugged place for visitors at the time Belle Barclay dreamed of going there.

    Belle Barclay is in good company in advocating dress reform, a sentiment that appears repeatedly in the album (just edging out temperance as the most frequently advocated reform). Extravagant bustles and corseting were still common in the mid-1880s, but Belle Barclay and others in Serena’s album point us to the “New Woman” of the 1890s.

  • Lavilla Marsh


    Lavilla Marsh was one of Serena’s Red Cloud schoolmates. She was born in 1872 in Nebraska, the eldest daughter of Alvin Marsh, a dry goods merchant, and his wife Mary. The family included twin sisters Alice and Bessie (born about 1878) and Claudia (born 1881). They left Red Cloud in the early 1890s, probably for California.

    Lavilla married English-born John Dawson in 1901, probably in British Columbia. He worked as a postman and postal clerk (and notice Lavilla’s pet hobby, “Post Office Work”). Lavilla and John Dawson had three children and lived in Los Angeles, California and Klamath Falls, Oregon.

    Lavilla’s favorite prose writer, “Dr. Holland,” is Dr. Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881), popular novelist and poet, co-founder of Scribner’s Magazine and its editor until his death.


    In March, 1889, a few months after making their entries in Serena’s album, Lavilla Marsh and Willa Cather participated in “an entertainment” at the Red Cloud Opera House, performing as “the Peak Sisters.” Amateur theatricals in the late 19th century often included performances by groups calling themselves the Peak Sisters, after a play by that name by Mary Barnard Horne. Album signers Mary Miner and Loua Bellows were also among the performers.

  • May Clark


    May Clark lived near Serena’s relatives, the Coffeens, in Council Bluffs. Her entry in the album on March 14, 1887 is the earliest of anyone outside’s Serena’s family. Virtually nothing is known of her.

    Her favorite character in romance is “A Teacher” — perhaps a nod to her own profession?

    She is one of three people in the album to name Louisa May Alcott as her favorite prose writer. Her pet hobby, “Chestnuts,” could be a bit of deliberate nonsense, or a reference to the traditional British children’s game of conkers, played with the seeds of the horse chestnut tree.


    May Clark frankly states that her attachment exceeding all other endearments is to “Lots of Money.” She’s not alone in this — M. D. C. Tinkham answers this question simply with “Money,” while Lillian Shepard helpfully specifies “Gold and Silver.” For Courtney Coffeen, happiness is “money” and misery is “no money.” We suspect all of these are true words spoken in jest.

    As to modes of traveling, May Clark prefers “The Cars.” This was a common term for railroad carriages; the very earliest automobiles would not appear for another year or so, and the first recorded use of “motor car” to mean a horseless carriage isn’t until 1895, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

  • Willa Cather


    A sensitive reader stumbling upon Mental Portraits for the first time, with no knowledge of its contents or of the lives of the people in it, would still pick out this entry by “Wm. Cather M.D.” as unique and extraordinary. Audacious self-caricature expressed with all the confidence of adolescence, it is a revealing blend of juvenile humor, intellectual curiosity, ambition, and a special gift for spelling.

    The 14-year-old Cather names “Sheakspear” as her favorite book and “Emmerson” as her favorite poet. “Beethoven” is her favorite composer, yet “A Squalling Baby” is her favorite music (her brother James was then 2 years old). In accordance with her ambition “To be an M.D.,” she names “Vivisection” as her favorite amusement and “Sliceing Toads” as her favorite summer occupation.

    Her favorite character in romance, “Tricotrin,” is from Tricotrin: The Story of a Waif and Stray by Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée), published in 1869. As a teenager, Cather hadn’t yet developed the full-throated scorn she would express in the 1890s for Ouida (“mawkish sentimentality and contemptible feminine weakness”).


    In this brash, well-read young person, we recognize traits of the adult Cather (though not the adult Cather’s illegible handwriting). She admires “An Origonal Mind” in man. The fault for which she has the most tolerance is “Passion,” and the fault for which she has the least is “Lack of ‘Nerve.’” She expresses her strong attachment to “Books.” The greatest inventor is “Cadmus,” the legendary Phoenician who brought the written word to the Greeks.

    Not that the adolescent cheekiness goes missing on this second page. Keeping with her career plans, her idea of perfect happiness is “Amputating limbs.” Her desired qualification in a matrimonial partner is “Lamb Like Meekness.”

    She accomplishes a neat trick in most sincerely advocating “Huge Bustles” — as if, yes, huge bustles for everyone! — while in her next answer, more straightforwardly, she declares “Dresses & Skirts” the greatest folly of the 19th century.

    Her succinct motto — “Enjoy, let others weep” — has a hard edge. But perhaps this is a 14-year-old’s version of Jane Austen’s “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can....”

  • Loua Bellows


    Serena’s Red Cloud schoolmates made their album entries in the autumn of 1888, and “your schoolmate” Loua Bellows was the last of these. Born in 1871 in Michigan, she was orphaned early and lived with her grandmother, Catherine Scott Bellows, who moved to Red Cloud about 1883. Loua was active in the social life of Red Cloud’s young people. After her grandmother’s death in 1892 she moved to Minneapolis; she was married in 1899 to Lamont Holden. They moved to Tacoma, Washington, in 1900, and had a daughter. Loua Bellows Holden died in Hennepin County, Minnesota, in 1961.

    Her favorite composer is Sigismond Thalberg (1812–1871), a once-famous piano virtuoso and composer whose flamboyant technique and extensive American tour in the 1850s helped awaken a taste for classical music among popular audiences.

    Loua Bellows’ pet hobby is a common one in her era: doing fancy work. (Willa Cather puts it in her “real misery” category.)


    Dudes come in for criticism from Loua as they do from Cather (who decries “dudeishness”). Loua expands and clarifies the charge: for her, the greatest 19th century folly is “A foppish dude or dudeen.”

    Loua’s motto is one of the 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation, transcribed by the schoolboy George Washington from a contemporary document based on a 16th century original. This text was widely circulated in Washington’s time and after.

  • Shirley Foster

    Shirley Foster was one of Serena’s classmates in Superior. She was born in 1869 or 1870 in Ohio, the daughter of William Foster, a physician, and his wife Catherine (or Katherine) Humphrey Foster. The family, which included a brother, Will, moved to Superior in the mid-1880s.

    In the late 1890s Shirley Foster married James Matchett, a friend from her Ohio days; they lived in Cleveland and had two children. Shirley and her children returned to Nebraska after James Matchett’s death in 1918, living in Lincoln with her widowed mother. Shirley died in 1927. She, her brother and her parents are buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Superior.

  • Courtney H. Coffeen


    Courtney Coffeen, two years younger than Serena, was her first cousin — Aunt Cinnie’s second-born son. His 1896 entry in Serena’s album was one of the last. He worked as a bookkeeper and salesman in Council Bluffs and served in the 51st Iowa Volunteer Infantry in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Years later, suffering from tuberculosis, he spent time in the Battle Mountain Sanitarium in Hot Springs, South Dakota (one of the U.S. National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers).

    His favorite scenery was “Between Guide Rock – Bostwick,” which tells us that he was probably a visitor in Serena’s family’s home in Nuckolls County, Nebraska.

    His favorite prose writer, “Gunther,” is probably Archibald Clavering Gunter (1847-1907), a popular playwright and novelist whose name sometimes appeared as “Gunther.” His 1887 novel Mr. Barnes of New York was enormously popular. (In 1899, Gunter would be one of the survivors of the deadly Windsor Hotel fire in New York City, which Willa Cather drew upon for her story “Behind the Singer Tower.”)


    The greatest wonder of the world, according to Courtney Coffeen, is “Bryan of the glib tongue.” The greatest folly of the 19th century, accordingly, is “Free silver.” When Courtney Coffeen expressed these sentiments — August 30, 1896 — William Jennings Bryan had just been nominated as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the 1896 presidential election. Bryan made the “Cross of Gold” speech just weeks earlier, on July 9, 1896.

  • Mary Miner


    Making her entry on July 22, 1888, Mary Miner was the first Red Cloud resident to sign Serena’s album. Mary was born in Iowa in July 1873, the second daughter of James L. and Julia (Erickson) Miner. She was Willa Cather’s first friend in Red Cloud, and was an important link to the group of girls from Superior. She married Dr. E. A. Creighton on July 28, 1900, and lived the rest of her life in Red Cloud.

    Mary’s favorite book is the just-published Samantha at Saratoga, Or Racing After Fashion, by “Josiah Allen's Wife (Marietta Holley).” Holley was an American humorist whose popular Samantha Allen novels were presented as if written by the heroine’s foolish husband, Josiah Allen.

    Mary Miner’s favorite prose writer is “Mrs. Holmes” — the romance novelist Mary J. Holmes (also favored by Addie Carson). Her favorite composer is the 19th-century German Gustav Lange, whose popular light works such as “Edelweiss” and “Blumenlied” would certainly have been heard in the musical Miner household.


    The cast of Beauty and the Beast.

    Mary Miner grows distracted; she and several of the album’s signers made incomplete entries.

    The fault that Mary willingly tolerates in others is “Manners,” as if she is suggesting that manners, as such, are a social shortcoming. The opposite interpretation is perhaps more likely — she means to say “lack of” manners.

    Cather drew upon Mary for Julia, the musical Harling sister, in My Ántonia, and Mary played the Beast in the production of Beauty and the Beast staged in the Red Cloud Opera House by Cather, the Miner girls, and several others (Cather played the merchant and Margie Miner played Beauty). The production raised $40 to benefit the Red Cloud Benevolent Society.

  • Mrs. Alys R. Stitts


    Alys Reynolds Stitts was the wife of Thomas Stitts, a Bostwick dry goods merchant who had been appointed postmaster in 1895. She was born in Illinois, probably in September 1869, the daughter of Joseph Benjamin Reynolds, a Methodist minister, and his wife Prudence Taylor Reynolds.

    Her favorite book, which she calls The Field of Ardath, is Marie Corelli’s Ardath: The Story of a Dead Self, published in 1889. She also names “Marie Correli” as her favorite novelist.

    At the time Mrs. Stitts wrote, the young journalist and critic Willa Cather was showing no mercy for popular female writers like Marie Corelli. Cather would write of Corelli in 1903, “Among all the estimable women who turn out their two novels a year and eat the bread of toil, there is no second to this inspired and raving sibyl....”


    As the greatest inventor, Mrs. Alys Stitts selects Thomas Edison, who was named in this category more than any other person. The sweeping technological transformations that electric light and power would bring were still mostly in the future for Serena and her friends, but widely discernible.

    For her motto, Alys Stitts quotes the New Testament: “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10, the King James Version.)

  • Lora J. White


    Lora Josephine White was born in Homer, Illinois in 1849, the daughter of Canadian-born Harman (or Harmon) Stevens, a socially prominent physician, and Serena Stanfield Stevens. Lora married Ohio-born Arthur Watson White in 1870. They farmed in Illinois until coming to Nuckolls County, Nebraska in about 1885 with their five surviving children; another child would be born in 1885 in Nebraska. They farmed near Bostwick, Nebraska.

    Lora White’s favored summertime occupation — “a good book, a cozy nook” — may be a paraphrase of a bit of bookseller’s doggerel that had some currency at the time: “O for a book and a shady nook, either in door or out / With the green leaves whisp’ring overhead....” (A couple of pages and a couple of years earlier, Mrs. J. W. Keifer, Jr. was perhaps also evoking these lines.)

    When Serena’s mother made her entry in the album, Serena was 21 years old and had owned Mental Portraits for five years.


    Lora White names “My Mother” as the person for whom she has an attachment exceeding all others. This was Serena Stanfield Stevens, for whom Lora’s eldest daughter was named; Serena Stevens was deceased by the time Lora White made this entry in her daughter’s album.

    Like her sister Mrs. H. Coffeen, Lora White names Elias Howe, developer of the first functional lockstitch sewing machine, as the inventor who has made the greatest service toward progress. In a similarly practical vein, she most sincerely and particularly advocates dress reform.

    Many of the entries in Serena’s album are marked by erasures; Lora White’s more than others.

  • J. H. Bryant


    John H. Bryant was the last person to make an entry in Serena’s album — thirteen and a half years after the first. He was another first cousin to Serena, the son of her mother’s eldest sister, Amanda Stevens Bryant, and her husband John O. Bryant. He was born in 1863 in Homer, Illinois and grew up there; his family made its way to Council Bluffs after 1880. He worked as a clerk and may have been married at one time, but was not living with his wife in 1900 when he made his album entry.

    “B. M. Clay,” whom he names as his favorite prose writer, was Bertha M. Clay, an English writer of romances whose real name was Charlotte M. Brame (other writers wrote under the name of Bertha M. Clay after Brame’s death in 1884).

    We’ll guess that John Bryant’s favorite composer, “Sussie,” is John Philip Sousa.


    In man and woman, the trait John H. Bryant most admires is “Kindness” (his “Do.,” now rarely seen, is an abbreviation for ditto). He names Robert Fulton as the inventor who has done the greatest service toward world progress — a popular choice in Serena’s album. Fulton’s development of the first practical steamboat, almost a century earlier, revolutionized travel for 19th century Americans.

    At the end of his album entry John Bryant shows his geopolitical interests (and perhaps acknowledges that the album’s owner is now an adult). He advocates “The Division of China,” referring to the “Open Door” policies aiming to promote trade opportunities in China for western countries. The greatest folly of the 19th century is “The Retention of the Philippines” — the U.S.’s annexation of the Philippine Islands following the Spanish-American War.

  • Maud Goble


    Maud Goble was part of the Red Cloud set that socialized with the Superior girls; in late December 1888, according to local news accounts, she and Willa Cather and Loua Bellows visited Superior for a dance held in their honor.

    She was born in 1871 or 1872 in Iowa, the daughter of Frederick E. Goble, a bookkeeper, and Cassie Goble. The family, which also included Maud’s brothers Harry and Frank, came to Red Cloud sometime before 1880. Maud married Victor B. Fulton, another Iowa-born Webster County resident, in November 1889; they farmed for a time in the Walnut Creek precinct (amid her favorite scenery) and later lived in Red Cloud.

    Her album responses display the youthful teasing common to confession books, expressed with literal prickliness: her favorite flower is the sand-burr and her favorite animal is the porcupine. She also favors “5¢ novels” and “Young Fops.”


    A family portrait from around 1901 showing Victor and Maud Fulton and their twins Mildred and Donald. Photo courtesy of Don Diane Fulton.

    More teenaged sass from Maud Goble — even with some of the strong flavor of Wm. Cather, M.D.

    In woman, she admires a “Big Mouth,” while in man, “His pocket book.” In a matrimonial partner she desires “Meekness,” as Cather does. Her preferred journey is to Amboy, a tiny Webster County settlement just east of Red Cloud (little more than a railroad flag station, and just an afternoon’s walk away).

    Maud and Walter Fulton’s first child, Winifred, died in 1892 at the age of 2. Their twins, Donald and Mildred, were born in 1893 or 1894. Maud Fulton died of complications of childbirth in 1907 after giving birth to a son, Robert.

  • Harry L. Markell


    An advertisement for the firm run by John Markell and his son Harry L. Markell.

    Harry L. Markell’s connection to Serena’s family is unknown. He was about 24 years old when he made his entry in the album; he and his family had lived some years earlier near Franklin, Nebraska, about 23 miles west of Red Cloud. In 1889-1890 he was in business in Lincoln with his father — “J. M. Markell & Son, Jewelers” — at the address he gives in his album entry.

    By 1895 Harry was married and had begun a career in the YMCA, working throughout the Midwest and West (with an interlude around 1900, when he was a Congregational minister in Rico, Colorado, a silver-mining town in the San Juan Mountains).

    His favorite book is Mental Portraits, the very one we are reading. His favorite poet is Longfellow; favorite prose writer, “Shortfellow.” His favorite composer and character in history are unknown to us. His selection of “Doxology” as his favorite music is in character for a future minister.


    Harry Markell’s most admired trait in man, presented in simple numeric code (A=1, B=2, etc.), is “manliness” (the “do.” at the end means “ditto,” giving us the double “s”). He has also coded his response to the question about his most detested trait; despite the suggestion of Morse code here, our codebreakers have come up empty on this one.

    This playful and slightly baffling performance continues throughout Harry Markell’s entry. The fault he easily tolerates: “Is a gum chewer.” His idea of perfect happiness: “Chewing gum.” His desired traveling companion, as written here, looks very much like “Yum-Yum,” perhaps a reference to the heroine of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, immensely popular at the time. The greatest wonder of the world is “Who I will wed,” which is perhaps a flash of earnestness. The greatest inventor is “The flying Machine Man.” This, too, may have been meant seriously; early aviation pioneers such as John Joseph Montgomery made headlines during this period.

  • Adella L. Hurlbutt


    The Red Cloud Chief for August 16, 1888 noted that “Miss Hurlbut of Alma” was to be the assistant principal of the school for the coming school year; Adella L. Hurlbutt would have had teaching responsibilities as well. She was one of the two Red Cloud teachers who signed Serena’s album (Jennie A. Thomas was the other).

    She names Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh as her favorite book. Her favorite character in history is Pericles, the Athenian statesman who fostered democracy and the arts. “Ione,” her favorite character in romance, is a matter of conjecture, but we’ll guess Adella Hurlbutt might refer to the heroine of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s once-popular The Last Days of Pompeii.

    Her favorite amusement is “Reading Shakespeare with ‘Jennie,’” which is probably a reference to her colleague Jennie Thomas.


    The trait Adella Hurlbutt most admires in woman is “Self reliance;” in a few pages her colleague Jennie Thomas answers “Self-supporting.” Where Willa Cather desires “A Cultured Gentleman” as a traveling companion, Adella Hurlbutt specifies “A Cultured Lady.” She is the soul of practicality in her desire if shipwrecked on a desolate island: “Opportunity of boarding a vessel.”

    In the 1889-1890 school year, the one following Serena White’s year in Red Cloud, Adella Hurlbutt would serve as principal at Red Cloud’s First Ward school; but we don’t know more about her life.

    The two teachers who signed Serena’s album did so on the same day — October 27, 1888 — which makes theoretical sense, as if Serena had brought the book to school that day. The trouble with that theory is that October 27, 1888 was a Saturday.

  • Maud Beal


    Maud Beal was one of Serena’s schoolmates from Superior, although her album entry dates from after their school years together. She was born in Iowa in about 1871, the daughter of Asher Beal and Margaret Beal, who died in 1876. In Superior, Maud lived with her father and Martha Crowell Beal, his second wife, and their children. We know very little of her later life; she lived in Sheridan, Colorado in 1900, and as Maud Anna Lovell, she died in San Diego, California, in 1941.

    Her favorite prose writer, “Agusta Evans,” is Augusta J. Evans Wilson (1835-1909), a highly popular novelist and supporter of the Confederacy, known for St. Elmo and Beulah.

    Maud Beal’s favorite composer is...herself.


    Maud Beal’s idea of misery — “A crying baby or ear ache” — might reflect her situation at home as she was growing up; her stepmother Martha Crowell Beal was the mother of six children, two of whom died at a young age. Maud’s greatest wonder of the world, “That I am yet alive,” strikes a curious note and invites similar speculation.

    The trait most widely detested in Serena’s album is deceit; Maud Beal and several others label it “Deceitfulness,” and it also appears as untruthfulness, “untruthness,” and “lieing.” Maud’s desire if shipwrecked on a desolate island is a mystery — one of the album’s illegibilities.

  • Hattie Shepard


    Hattie Shepard was the younger sister of Lillian Shepard, whose entry appears earlier in the album. They were neighbors of the Coffeens, Serena’s relatives in Council Bluffs. Hattie Shepard married William Martin, a railroad man, around 1896. They had a son, Howard, and continued to live in Council Bluffs.

    Hattie’s favorite prose writer, “E. P. Roe,” was Edward Payson Roe (1838-1888), a popular American novelist and Presbyterian minister. Her favorite composer, “Rev. Croft,” might have been the Englishman William Croft (1678-1727), a composer of church music.

    Hattie’s favorite amusement, “Jack Stories,” come from Appalachian oral tradition, tales of a naïve underdog comically overcoming adversity (Jack’s Old World forbears go back to “Jack and the Beanstalk”).


    Hattie did not date her entry, but probably made it later than 1887, when her sister Lillian made her entry. Hattie was 12 years old then, and this handwriting belongs to an older person. Hattie’s answers have none of the facetiousness and playful posturing that characterize album entries made by teenagers like Willa Cather and Maud Goble, suggesting that Hattie was on the cusp of adulthood when she wrote in the album.

  • Unnamed Person

    This unidentified entry is one of the mysteries of Serena’s album. In the physical book, the placement of these two pages is exactly as seen here; no pages are missing. The handwriting, which appears feminine, doesn’t quite correspond with any other entry in the album. This person — we’ll say “she” — has no tolerance for flattery and pointedly declines to state the qualifications desired in a matrimonial partner. She advocates dress reform and feels that “Seeking for happiness” is folly. Uniquely in Serena’s album, she would like to journey to Palestine.

  • Mabel Martin


    Mabel Martin was born in April 1871 in Illinois, the daughter of Robert and Cornelia Martin. Her father ran a dry goods store in Red Cloud in the late 1880s; her mother was active in the Congregational church and in the social life of Red Cloud. Mabel Martin married Walter C. Jones in April 1892 and they had two sons, Martin and Henry. The family lived for many years in Portland, Oregon, where Mabel Martin Jones was widowed in 1925.

    In her album entry Mabel Martin is all seriousness and piety, with slight glints of light. Her favorite summer occupation is “Rusticating in the Country.” Her pet hobby is “Getting latest style of hair ‘so others say’” (and if what the others say is true or not, she’s not commenting).


    The almost comically stern young Mabel Martin favors “Stability” in woman and “Early hours” in man, while the matrimonial partner of her dreams must possess “Cleanliness.” It comes as no surprise that the person professing these views also sincerely advocates “Temperance.”

  • Jennie A. Thomas


    Jennie A. Thomas was the “Miss Thomas of Nuckolls County” hired to teach the “grammar room” at the school in Red Cloud for the 1888-1889 school year, as noted by the Red Cloud Chief. She was then 23 years old. Jennie had probably been living in Nelson in Nuckolls County with her brother Valorus A. Thomas, who came to Nelson about 1886 and eventually practiced medicine there. They were natives of Crawford County, Pennsylvania, which was near enough to Chautauqua, New York that Jennie would have easily been able to go there to “listen to noted Speakers.”

    She writes that her chief ambition is “To be an honor to my parents and brothers.” Jennie Thomas was the only daughter in a family of eight sons; she was the middle child.


    This young schoolteacher’s most admired trait in woman: “Self-supporting.” Her detested trait, “Policy,” might refer to the word’s now-rare connotation of shrewdness or cunning.

    Jennie Thomas soon returned to Woodcock in Crawford County, Pennsylvania. In about 1892 she married Robert Lang, a fellow Pennsylvanian. Her brother Valorus Thomas and his wife Grace stayed in Nelson; their daughter Nova Elizabeth Thomas Hite taught school in nearby Blue Hill, Nebraska, and was a school principal in Bladen and Nelson.

  • Evelina Brodstone


    Evelina Brodstone, at 13 years old, was the youngest person to make an entry in Serena’s album.

    Evelina — Evelene on her passport and Evelyn after she married — had a life and a career as remarkable as Willa Cather’s. She was born in Wisconsin in 1875, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants Hans and Mathilde Brodstone. The family moved to Superior, Nebraska in 1878, where her father died in 1881. Evelina graduated from high school in Superior at the age of 14 and attended a business school in Burlington, Iowa, after which she took a job with a British-owned meat packing company in Chicago. She moved to the company’s London office in 1897 and eventually became one of the most highly paid women executives in the world. She traveled extensively, becoming the growing firm’s international troubleshooter in places such as Australia, China, and South America. In 1924 she married one of the company’s owners, Sir William Vestey, the first Baron Vestey. Lady Vestey died in 1941 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Superior.


    Evelina Brodstone, Margie Miner (Mary’s sister), and Willa Cather in 1890.

    Evelina Brodstone’s successful business career lends a certain quaint resonance to her stated qualifications in a matrimonial partner: “To be a millionaire.” (Refer also to her chief ambition in life, recorded on the left: “To have $30,000,000.00 left me.”)

    Throughout her life, Evelina Brodstone maintained strong ties of friendship to Red Cloud and Superior. Among other gifts to her hometown she funded a hospital in Superior in honor of her mother; Willa Cather wrote the dedicatory inscription.

  • Thomas Matthews


    Nothing is known of Thomas Matthews, whose entry was one of the last to be made in the album.

    He is the only person in Serena’s album other than Willa Cather to name Emerson as his favorite writer. His favorite composer, “Graham,” is a mystery.


    Thomas Matthews’ advocacy of “woman suffrage” is the only such mention in the album. At the time he wrote, American women had been enfranchised at the state level only in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho.

  • F. Carey Laslett


    The plaque at the First Presbyterian Church in Superior, Nebraska lists him as “Ferdinand C. Laslette,” minister there from March to May, 1899. (The final e on his name begins to appear in records about this time, but the discrepancy between the church’s dates for his service and his own “October 13, 1899” is unexplained.) He was born in England in 1864 and immigrated to the United States in 1884. Before his time in Nebraska — which was probably brief — he had worked as a secretary for the YMCA in Alabama and as a Baptist minister in Kansas and Iowa.

    In his entry in Serena’s album, his dedication to his calling comes through so strongly that one is relieved to read that he also takes his amusements seriously: “Tennis in Summer. Croquet (Parlor) Basket Ball in Winter.” His occupation during summer vacation is also well detailed: “Fishing – Rowing – Swimming – Little Work.”


    Laslett writes as one performing his pastoral duties. Only toward the end of his entry does he sound a scolding tone, in his opinion of the greatest folly of the 19th century: “The average Novel = Fashion = Society so called.”

    At the time he wrote in Serena’s album, Ferdinand Carey Laslett was divorced from his first wife, a physician from Kansas named Elizabeth Shultz Laslett. They were the parents of two sons (the younger of whom was adopted). In 1897, he married Louetta Parsons of Jackson County, Missouri; she would have been the matrimonial partner he alludes to in his entry (“Send personally for the answer”). But by 1901 he was back in England, apparently no longer married, and working as a commercial traveler. He returned to the United States in 1907, with a new wife, Lena. He worked as a minister in Michigan and Oregon.

    Laslett’s entry was the second-to-last made in Serena’s album, in 1899, and is the last one in its pages.

  • Acknowledgements

    Serena’s album has been made available through the generosity of Jane Dressler, a musician and music professor at Kent State University. She is the granddaughter of Florence White Grosvenor, Serena White’s younger sister. The Willa Cather Foundation is also indebted to Jane Dressler’s daughter, Virginia Dressler, Digital Library Programs Librarian at Case Western Reserve University, for creating scans and extensive digital files of the album and related photographs.

    These digital files will eventually reside at the Willa Cather Archive, a partnership of the Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries; University of Nebraska–Lincoln Center for Digital Research in the Humanities; The University of Nebraska Press; and the Cather Project at the University of Nebraska.

    These notes have been prepared by Thomas Gallagher of the Willa Cather Foundation with the assistance of Kari Ronning, a research professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, editor of the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition and co-director of the Willa Cather Journalism Project.

    Photo credits: the Beauty and the Beast photograph and the portrait of Evelina Brodstone, Margie Miner, and Willa Cather are courtesy of the Willa Cather Archive.


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