Although Cather loved and needed a nest, whether her attic room in Red Cloud or the apartment she shared with Edith Lewis in New York City, she was not primarily one of "A timid, nest-building folk" (67), as Jane Cooper says in her poem "Vocation: A Life Suite Based on Four Words from Willa Cather." She is, rather, a masterly adventurer in narrative. In Sapphira and the Slave Girl, as in her previous novels, passion, or "desire," marks the lives of the major characters, but here the passion spills over to become also the "vehemence" of the intrusive author and her child persona, both of whom desire control of the text even as they admit their reliance on oral stories and community relationships.
Merrill Skaggs argues that in Sapphira and the Slave Girl "perhaps the most daring experiment Cather tries . . . involves narrative point of view" (13). Cather enters the text throughout the novel, most clearly, of course, as Skaggs points out, "in the final pages, [where] she appears as the child she was, when she first heard this story" (13). David Stouck, also recognizing the importance of the child narrator's view in the final chapter, argues that the child's vision, which sees things sometimes dimly and sometimes clearly, reflects on the foregoing text a "dreamlike quality" that "shape[s] our interpretation of the characters and actions in Sapphira's world" (227). 1 will argue that the child's shaping of Sapphira's world can be viewed as a consequence of Cather's using mirror-texts in the novel. I hope to show the manner in which the author becomes one of the characters and part of the plot, which Stouck claims, I think rightly, represents a passion for power (228). More specifically, the mirror-text reinforces the themes of tyranny, rebellion, and reconciliation, which reflect major divisions within society and within individuals, including the authornarrator. The novel reveals a chasm that lies between an anxiety for authority and an impulse toward community, between, in other words, the writer's arrogant stance in creating a world and her reliance on the world in order to create a discourse.
Mieke Bal suggests that "when a mirror-text has been added more towards the end of the primary text . . . the function of the mirror-text is no longer predictive, but retrospective," and the more general the significance of the mirror-text, the more it "lifts the whole narration on to another level." According to Bal, the "embedded text functions as a sign to the reader" (147). In Sapphira and the Slave Girl, the power to control language and text is represented in three forms: a story from 1856, an epilogue from about 1891, and an afterword from 1940. The afterword, although it may not appear to be part of the novel, forms a brief but definitive mirror-text that establishes the conflicting themes of domination by each generation and by written texts and dependence on preceding generations and the oral tradition. The epilogue serves as a second mirror-text, highlighting the personal and cultural power that overturns order and re-forms into a new but still coercive order. The afterward and the epilogue point to the story's insistence on the existence of personal and discursive tyranny and on an individual's and a culture's dependence on community and its language to overturn and to replace that tyranny with its own.
In the afterword, the author claims a role most often assumed by men in the literature she had studied, primarily the classics and the great European novelists such as Turgenev and Flaubert: that of author, creator of fictional worlds. The authorial assumption of a "voice whose nomination is denomination" (Frye 73) in the afterward mirrors the assumption in the epilogue of the role of storyteller by the "I" and the former slave, who retell history from their points of view, and mirrors the characterizations in the story of 1856 of Sapphira and Jezebel, who, although caught in a patriarchal and oppressive society, resist the roles of obsequious wife or slave, carving out powerful niches for themselves. As Skaggs and Stouck indicate, the wielding of power is evident throughout the text and is related, as Sharon O'Brien has argued, to Cather's concern for establishing her identity as a woman artist.
In the afterward, the textual "I," signed "Willa Cather," makes it clear that she controls the naming in the novel -naming the world, the characters, the good, the evil- admitting in the act that the story is, finally, her letter to readers, her creation and responsibility. Willa Cather, as subject, makes it clear that everything is under her control. She has written the book, setting the events in motion by her "vehemence," and she names the characters. Acts of naming recall the biblical act of creation when "God said . . . and there was." To assume the power to name is a radical act, a gesture every bit as arrogant as any her character Sapphira makes. At the same time, of course, she has participated in a conservative project, for by creating representations of people in a written text, she has attempted to fix their destinies.
Moreover, Cather assumes responsibility for her act. At the end of the afterword she writes the name she chose for herself, establishing the authority of the words in the novel's creation as her own. This sign at the end of the novel, the personal signature -"Willa Cather"- reflects back on the entire book the concern for assuming the power to write one's own life. The signature declares that Cather controls the story/text even as Sapphira dominates the discourse of Back Creek. Cather's words shall rule the novel even if she must break into the novel's world to make that clear, and Sapphira's desire shall rule Back Creek even if she Must betray a surrogate daughter. Cather's narrative experiment is also echoed in Sapphira's unprecedented decision to leave Winchester to found her own plantation. Even as Cather and Sapphira resist the texts of their forebears and the roles expected for themselves, however, they also resist the efforts of their descendants to change their texts, Cather by refusing to allow her novels to be made into movies or to have her letters published (Woodress 506) and Sapphira by rejecting Rachel's lifestyle and punishing Nancy's youthful ways. Nevertheless, writers and readers who follow Cather reform her world to their own visions and language, even as Sapphira's daughters and Nancy overturn the mother's rule. Authority is replaced by a new authority. The fear of losing power through revision of signifiers represents a powerful reality.
Cather resists this ongoing revision even as she demonstrates that old texts can be overthrown and that texts develop from the oral as well as the written word, from the folk as well as the landed, from daughters as well as parents, and, by extension, from reader as well as writer. My father and mother, when they came home from Winchester or Capon Springs, often talked about acquaintances whom they had met. The names of those unknown persons sometimes had a lively fascination for me, merely as names: Mr. Haymaker, Mr. Bywaters, Mr. Householder, Mr. Tidball, Miss Snap. For some reason I found the name of Mr. Pertleball especially delightful, though I never saw the man who bore it, and to this day I don't know how to spell it. (Sapphira 2-95)
Although it is important to her that she be able to "spell" the names herself, she admits her debt to her parents for the names. Even though Cather set up her household fifteen hundred miles from her family, she maintained her relationships with friends and family (Arnold 12), relying heavily on the stories of her early years, undoubtedly refreshed during her visits home, as the materials for her livelihood as an adult storyteller. Others' stories make her stories possible, but at the same time, her stories insert theirs into the world of art, fixing a representation that remains after they are gone. Cather wants to control the text, to establish her authority, an oppressive action, but even as she does so, she recognizes the need for others, acknowledging that no one alone creates a text.
The afterword's gentle reflection of the uneasy alliance between insistence on autonomy and dependence on community is mirrored in the epilogue by the violence of hostilities between political entities, a newer one that will replace an older, in a civil war. People kill one another to maintain or to establish the discourses they have chosen; nevertheless, at the same time, they often support one another as neighbors: "When Willie Gordon, a Rebel boy from Hayfield, was wounded in the Battle of Bull Run, it was Mr. Cartmell, Mrs. Bywaters's father [who had never believed in owning slaves], who went after him in his hay-wagon, got through the Federal lines, and brought him home" (274). The description of the war occurs, in fact, after an opening description of the community, but clearly the epilogue presents the divisions as well as the relationships between generations and neighbors, separate from and dependent on one another. Cather's text reveals the natural enmity and affinity in the relationship between author and forebears, between the child and storyteller, between the abolitionists and rebels, and between Sapphira and Nancy.
In the afterword, oral, familial, and community stories are crafted by a female writer into a "new" story of a country. The epilogue reflects this turning over of power from one generation to another (277) by beginning with a war in which a culture with a more egalitarian ideal overturns the older, established order. The war's overturning of privilege is echoed in the novel's opening, too, as Henry Colbert, the more plebeian person in the marriage, opposes his wife, Sapphira, a representative of the older, more privileged plantation order, in her intent to sell her slave girl Nancy. The epilogue gives the novel's ending -Sapphira facing death as a young, aggressive granddaughter is about to move into her grandmother's home- a new dimension as the reader recognizes that the granddaughter's daughter is about to recreate her great-grandmother's story, ordering her life as she, the greatgranddaughter, determines, thus assuming the authority to create a Back Creek that once belonged to the great-grandmother Sapphira.
The epilogue forms a second mirror-text that presents the authority of the author and, at the same time, an extended view of the power of the word. Cather controls the epilogue by entering it, using the textual "I," thereby insisting that the story is "true" -after all, she was an eyewitness to Nancy's and Till's reunion. She forces readers into a position of taking her word, of acknowledging her authority.
Within the structure of warring would-be sovereignties, however, lies a cultural space of cooperation. Worlds are created with the help of others, as Mr. Cartmell helps Willie Gordon, or more centrally to the storyline, as Sapphira founds a plantation with land and slaves she inherits from her landowner forebears and with the cooperation of her more democratic husband and her slaves, primarily Jezebel, who is apparently subservient but with a decided sense of her own autonomy: "She meted out justice by giving a slack boy a rough seat in his breeches, and a likely boy a smooth seat" (96-97). Sapphira's ongoing fame relies on those who come before her, live with her, and follow her. This same interdependence is evident in Nancy's story. Her escape is facilitated by Rachel and Henry, she finds a place in her new world with the help of skills she has been taught by Sapphira and her mother, and her story is kept alive by the child, even as the child learns the stories of those who came before her with the help of her parents, Till, and Nancy, whose stories are kept alive today by readers.
The creation and telling of stories is a community endeavor. The "I" of the text, even as it controls the discourse, makes the search for the integration of the individual into a community project. In order for a culture, a family, or an individual to overcome oppression, there must be reconciliation; otherwise, alienation will destroy it: "the Hayfield people, regardless of political differences, came in relays, night and day, and did the only thing that relieved his [Willie Gordon's] pain a little; they carried cold water from the springhouse and with a tin cup poured it steadily over his leg for hours at a time" (2-74). In the epilogue, Till tells the child whom she cares for stories that present both the fallibility of humans and the grace of reconciliation, weaving them into "a personal and cultural identity that has meaning not only for her but for her grandchildren as well" (Jahner 209).
Till had probably honed her storytelling skills in the cooperative tasks of long winter evenings: "One of the regular occupations of the Negro servants, as they sat around the fire on winter evenings, was to cut old materials into narrow strips, sew them together, and wind them into balls, to be made into rag carpets by a neighbour woman, a carpet-maker" (Lewis 8). Scraps were also pieced and made into quilts, usually through the combined efforts of many women. As a young girl Cather had participated in the rituals of quiltmaking, sewing pieces that the old women quilted with lamb's wool from the lambs on the place (Lewis 10-12). She took great pride in these old quilts; one even decorated her bed in her Park Avenue apartment (Sergeant 251). Cather valued the community of storytelling as Walter Benjamin has so aptly described it- "For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to" (91). In the epilogue the child is "allowed to sit with [the women] and sew patchwork" while Nancy draws "her crochet hook in and out," as "sewing and knitting," "baking," and storytelling go on (287-88).
The child learns stories of her family and neighbors from females gathering to share work and from the old woman who sometimes cares for her, and who has cared for her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother. The women engage in the sort of talking usually derogatively called gossip, a type of text reconsidered in fertile ways by Patricia Spacks and Deborah Tannen. Spacks argues that "to dwell on its analogies to literature both focuses attention on gossip's positive aspects and illuminates the dynamics of real texts" (4) and that "perhaps the concept of gossip subliminally recalls ancient belief in the magic of language" (11); and Tannen says that although gossip "can be destructive" (96), it plays important roles in building community and in creating art. Language is power, and in Sapphira and the Slave Girl Cather articulates its power and rescues much of it for women, including the community of female storytellers and herself as author. Susan Rosowski observes that "when we put down Sapphira and the Slave Girl, it is with the sense that Sapphira Dodderidge has remained forbiddingly remote, a 'chilly' character from whom we want to turn, yet one so powerful that we are unable to do so" (233). Sapphira is powerful, but the novel's structure shows that her power is overturned, succeeded by that of "her daughters" and of other women whom she considers her servants. Ironically, they overturn her power in the kitchens and corners to which she has relegated them.
The physical sensations, daily tempos, comforting spaces, and seasonal rituals in Sapphira and the Slave Girl not only enrich the narrative but reinforce the feeling of importance attached to the history of individuals. Everyone knows and can tell stories of Sapphira's visits to Winchester every March until after Easter (28), of the "regular evening work in winter" of making "fat balls" of "carpet-rags," (39), or of Till and the child making repeated trips to the graveyard (292). Comforting rituals, particulars set in vistas of time and space, occur alongside suffering, creating a whole that envisions, in Paul Ricoeur's words, "a little island of meaning in the universe, an empire within an empire" (321).
Empires are overthrown, however, as the war in the epilogue reminds us. just as the servants and daughters are caught in Back Creek's world, readers are caught in established structures, primarily that of narrative itself, nevertheless, with the help of other texts, they can revise the canon. If, as Beriveniste argues, "the eternally 'present' moment . . . is the moment at which one speaks, the moment 'I' speak" (227), then when the "I" speaks in the epilogue of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, the narration is now and implies the future. The "I" at the beginning of My Ántonia and My Mortal Enemy makes all that follows past, a "thing" already written, choices already made, whereas the "I" of the child at the end of Sapphira and the Slave Girl makes the past also future, a letter to be written, power to create a new community, as the girl will become an author retelling stories, stitching gossip and fabric, shaping the past into a future, in a cycle of storytelling that the reader too resists and perpetuates.
Mieke Bal argues that "when the primary fabula and the embedded fabula can be paraphrased in such a manner that both paraphrases have one or more elements in common, the subtext is a sign of the primary text" (146). In what is usually considered the primary fabula of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, contained mostly in the first eight books, the younger generation, especially Nancy, disrupts the order in Sapphira's world by insisting on creating its own stories, just as the author and the child insist in the afterword and epilogue. Jezebel and Sapphira, representatives of the older order, die as older generations do; however, as matriarchs they set in motion attitudes that take their daughters to freedoms beyond those of their mothers.
The rebellions in the primary fabula, however, like those in the epilogue and afterword, are set in community. Within the limited but dynamic, familial world of Back Creek the narration shows characters constantly responding to their own and to one another's demands, needs, and quirks. The narrator reveals the nature of this interaction by interweaving the voices and views of different characters. When Sapphira goes to town, leaving Nancy and Till to clean the parlor, they become internal focalizers (presenting the ways characters see events), forming with the external focalizer (the omniscient narrator's viewpoint) what Bal designates a double focalization (123-24). We see at the same time their views of who they are and the places in which Sapphira and the dominant society would put them (42-45). The complex relationships of views and narrations allow readers to see the different characters' senses of order and experience within the larger presentation of the novel. Sometimes more than one character narrates along with the external narrator in the same sentence: "There she [Lizzie] told her [Nancy] how Miss Sapphy had married Till off to Jeff because he was a 'capon man"' (43). The external narrator narrates the sentence stated by Lizzie that Nancy recalls or says to herself, so readers see not only what happens but how a character, Nancy in this instance, interprets the experience she gains. "Capon man" would be the term Nancy has heard from Lizzie. Nancy learns a great deal about the world of slave and mistress and the relationships in her own cabin from Lizzie's point of view.
This complex pattern of combinations of narrators and focalizers suggests that the stories individuals would create for themselves change as they gather reflections from others' points of view, not all of which are innocent or peaceful. This structure of narration, which embeds a character's point of view within that of another, showing the way one character's view can create a reality for another, as Lizzie's view of the world comes to define Nancy's, echoes the structure of the novel, in which the story of 1856 is embedded within the child's and author's points of view, which come to define Sapphira's world.
Sapphira often overlooks the interconnections with which the community is built, however. Assuming that she can create her own story, she "acts upon motives which she disclosed to no one" (22). She takes over the "master's" role on her father's plantation when he is ill (24) and after his death establishes her own plantation on a tract of ground he "had never seen" (27). Nor is Sapphira the only woman who asserts power over her own life. just as Sapphira emasculates her husband by founding her own plantation and establishing the rules under which it runs (50), so Jezebel, by biting the thumb of the first mate on the ship that carries her to Baltimore, effectively castrates him (93). Both women's actions set them apart-Jezebel reigns on the upper deck and later in the slave quarters, and Sapphira reigns in the big house at Back Creek. Their granddaughters will come into power after them, however, to insist on their own power. Jezebel's greatgranddaughter Nancy rejects her enslavement to the language of oppression, including that as sexual object. She enjoys the sensations of the sun and breeze caressing her as she picks cherries up in a tree alone- "she ate the ripest ones and dropped the hard ones in her basket," telling Martin she is eating "blackhearts" and refusing to let him pick her (177-81). Finally, she settles in another country, carving out a life for herself in Canada, as Sapphira and Jezebel have done in Back Creek and as the "I" of the epilogue and afterword settles in a home far from her parents as she carves out a life for herself in the world of authorship.
Sapphira mourns as her world is replaced by a more egalitarian one, although she herself has already broken the pattern of the antebellum world, exciting much talk by marrying out of her social circle and moving to unfashionable Back Creek to establish her home (24-25). Her daughter Rachel extends the text of disobedience to established mores when she attempts to serve rather than to rule those around her, even helping one of her mother's slaves to escape so that as a free woman Nancy can have greater control over her life. Ironically, it is Till, Jezebel's granddaughter and Sapphira's housekeeper, seemingly one of the persons most controlled by Sapphira's world (and word), who forms the stories of Sapphira's tyranny, Rachel's service, and Nancy's escape into a new story. Till relates their stories to the child (291-92), who assumes control of the lives and deaths of characters in a world remaking itself out of its ashes.
For the madness of domination and difference explodes into a war in which citizen, neighbor, and brother kill one another. At the center of the novel is the evil inherent in an order in which one person or group would force another to do its will, and a subsequent retelling does not hide it, but reveals that it resides at different levels in the cultural order: in the behavior of a white mistress who is experiencing failing power, in poor whites who fear loss of virility and so beat someone in their midst who boasts differences (12-8-30), with a slave who would deprecate another for her own gain (60-61). The social order often sacrifices those who threaten the order or are considered less important in maintaining it, first of all slaves, but also Mrs. Ringer's daughters, who have children without fathers (120), Lawndis, who cries in an unmanly fashion (129), and Casper, whose "paw's no account" (128) -black, female, simple, or poor. To refuse the social order, however, even as Nancy does for a good, exposes everyone to "explosion" and "arbitrariness" (Kristeva, Reader 204), to life without order, in other words, to war. After war, of course, people reconsolidate into a new oppressive order, such as Reconstruction, Jim Crowism, McCarthyism, or consumerism. The discourse breaks and reforms into a new but, nonetheless, coercive discourse. Sapphira, Jezebel, Till, and the "I" would have their stories define those of others.
One of the things this novel is about is declaring the power of the female word to save one's female self. With such power, one creates evil and good and can overturn and assume power in the social order and in language. Sapphira wields the pen while her husband reads, and Till's husband is castrated while she has the power to tell stories, setting in motion the pen of the child. Bal argues that "the actor who relates the story in which he himself figures saves his life through the correct interpretation of the signs that are presented to him" (Bal 147). The greatest threat to the domination Sapphira represents is, indeed, not her replacement as a desirable female by the young, ripe Nancy (104-6, 180) or even as head of a household (2-67), but the replacement of the power of her word.
The knowledge of the power of the word is evident throughout the story. Sapphira and the community recognize the power of language- she "spoke differently from the Back Creek people; but they admitted a woman and an heiress had a right to" (5). Even the Keysers, illiterate white mountain people, recognize the potential power of language, so they pretend that they are too proud to learn to read and write and punish their cousin Casper Flight for his learning (128-30). Sapphira indicates that Till might come into more power than Sapphira would like when she deliberately hides a letter's address from Till: "Till could read, and the Mistress did not want her to see to whom the letter was addressed" (31). Sapphira writes a letter to effect power, but its message is nullified when "Mrs. Bywaters sent an important letter to David Fairhead" that effectively replaces Sapphira's (222), setting in motion a sequence of events to send Nancy to a place where she can create a new life, even as Sapphira once did.
Sapphira is not the only woman with the power to write her life. Sapphira's daughter Rachel rejects her mother's script of woman as dictator or seductress, attending instead to the words of the disempowered- abolitionists, slaves, mountain people, and children-and writes her own script of woman as ministering angel. Rachel's friend Mrs. Bywaters, the postmistress, writes a letter that not only thwarts the aim of Sapphira's letter (222) but threatens her way of life. Lizzie can disrupt Sapphira's household with her tales, and Till can reconstruct Sapphira's household with hers. Later, as we have seen, "I," as a reflection of the "Willa Cather" of the afterword, assumes Sapphira's power to create Back Creek. Sapphira's words are reported by the slave Till, from whom Sapphira would have kept the letter hidden, and the words are structured into a book, signed much like a letter, by a female descendant. Even as Nancy sets out on her own journey to establish her own story, Till, the child, and Willa Cather, heirs of Sapphira, replace the power of Sapphira's word with their own.
At the end of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, the "I"/author speaks as a witness to an event, and the author claims "ownership of the discourse that [she] appeared at first to have given to someone else.... [She] envisions [herself] as the actor of speech (and not of a sequence of events), and [she] follows through the loss of that speech (its death), after all interest in the narrated events has ended (the death of, the main character, for instance)." When the reader begins the novel, the story appears to be Sapphira's. Within a few pages, however, Sapphira is seen primarily from others' views, and finally, only from the views of her descendants, including the author. Kristeva claims that the witness is a characteristic of folk tales, the expression of feelings a characteristic of poetry, and ownership a characteristic of novels. In Sapphira and the Slave Girl Cather integrates the threestory, reflection, and novel-into a narrative that "enunciates" the author. The author and the fiction merge, so that the author becomes "in a sense, its rhetorical representation, its other, its inner lining" (Kristeva, Desire 42). In Sapphira and the Slave Girl this inner lining is made concrete by the structure of the novel. just as Sapphira thinks her words will direct the action and signs a letter to that effect, so the author signs the novel at its end, a letter acknowledging complicity in the tale. The epilogue makes clear that the book is a "verbal construction under the control of a subject who speaks" (Kristeva, Desire 57), in this case a female subject with authority from a matrifocal line. Sapphira's narrative stops with her death and the death of the privileged life of slaveholders, but the narrative of the narrative continues.
Sapphira and the Slave Girl represents women with power over their lives: Sapphira to run her household and to maintain a position in the community, Rachel to defy her mother's principles, Nancy to escape from Sapphira's tyranny, Till to spin stories, the "I" to piece the stories into a larger design, and Willa Cather to create a text that marks them all. Further, the "I" implies a you, implicating the reader as receiver of the story, an object, toward which the reader naturally feels resistance since the reader too wants to be a subject. Engaging in criticism, of course, allows the reader to assume that position. The epilogue mirrors the overturning of privilege even to the present, when Cather is taught in classrooms as a major writer, and women, ethnic groups, and regional areas declare that much literature that has been on the margin should be in the mainstream while they use established institutions to effect that change.
John Berger, storyteller and critic, tells us that "the essential tension in a story lies . . . Not so much in the mystery of its destination as in the mystery of the spaces between its steps towards that destination" (Another Way 285). The story of Sapphira and the Slave Girl is divided between the afterward, the epilogue, and the story; between the author, the child, and the omniscient narrator; between the postwar "new" South and the antebellum South. Cather claims to name, to create, assuming a powerful, coercive position. Today a critic becomes the story's oppressor, reducing Cather's text to an essay that selects certain aspects of the text to discuss and relegates others to subordinate status, arguing his or her case from a position of authority, claiming to name Cather, her story, and her structure but only able to do so because Cather's text exists, just as Cather could write because stories existed before her and Sapphira could reign only because a certain society set her up to do so, all dialectical relationships that reflect one another. The tension that lies in the spaces between oppression and cooperation in the story of each character and in the structure of the text becomes "that thing not named," the mystery of the relationship between autonomy and cooperation, oppression and community. The subject of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, it could be argued, is not the author, the child, or the character but the passion with which each pursues her discourse. Language is power, and Cather is passionate in claiming its power for herself. One way she does this is to structure a narrative strategy that acknowledges the faith she developed in her own story and voice and, by reflection, in the stories and voices of the women who came before her and also, ironically, in the voices of those who come after.