Sapphira and the Slave Girl continues to be a troubling narrative for contemporary readers and commentators. Among its troubling aspects are questions of Cather's sources for the narrative materials that happened before she was born. Certainly, some of her material derives from family stories and legends, as Cather tells us at the end of Sapphira. But Cather, we know, frequently incorporates other texts in her writing, and Sapphira clearly has affinities with nostalgic plantation narratives. One interesting juxtaposition for Sapphira and the Slave Girl is Letitia Burwell's A Girl's Life in the Virginia before the War (1895), a nostalgic narrative of the Lost Cause of the Old South. A Girl's Life may well have resonated with a young Willa Cather as she began her writing career with nostalgia for the Virginia of her girlhood memory, and it may have stayed with her as she wrote Sapphira. As Merrill Skaggs notes: "Cather's ideas often gestated—or mutated—over years and decades. She kept returning to earlier insights and images to reexamine both her suspicions and her conclusions" (ix). Reading A Girl's Life and Sapphira together helps define Cather's mature attitudes toward her family's and Virginia's antebellum past and illustrates, if not some of Cather's direct sources, common southern stereotypes of plantation life that Burwell celebrates and Cather dismantles through her often ironic text.
The widespread and deeply rooted Burwell family of Virginia, which included some of the state's largest slaveholders, seems clearly alluded to in Cather's naming one of Sapphira's sisters Mrs. Bushwell, who is a large slaveholder in Loudoun County in Sapphira and the Slave Girl. In fact, the family and descendants of Nathaniel Burwell (1759-1814) were among the largest landowners and slaveholders in eastern Frederick County, Virginia, which later became Clarke County, adjacent to western Loudoun County. Nathaniel Burwell controlled over eight thousand acres and owned over two hundred slaves (Hofstra 11). Nathaniel Burwell's legacy lives on in his Carter Hall, begun in 1797 and the present-day headquarters of Project Hope in Millwood, Virginia. Carter Hall is just about thirty miles east of Willow Shade. Letitia Burwell notes Carter Hall as one of the great homes she visited as a child before the Civil War.
A Girl's Life perpetuates a memory of a past Golden Age of plantation life enjoyed by whites and blacks, each according to her own estate. Plantation life, primarily through the heroic efforts of successive generations of plantation mistresses, was marked by high culture, happy familial relations between whites and blacks, and the promotion of Christian well-being among the slaves—all at great financial and emotional sacrifice to white owners. Cather creates an equally vivid matrilineal plantation life in Sapphira but exposes slavery as a selfish economic institution that promotes the often savage brutality of white owners, fails in its pretense to high culture, and mocks the family values and Christianity it pretends to nurture. Burwell writes her book to repudiate assertions that plantation owners were "cruel . . . inhuman wretches" and to demonstrate that they were "noble men and virtuous women" (dedication n.p.). Cather's intentions are to present women and men—black and white—who could be cruel or kind, noble or base, generous or selfish in turn, but always human. Burwell's perspective results in a predictable and nostalgic narrative, Cather's in a complex work of fond memory and harsh criticism.
Nostalgia, as David Anderson (drawing upon the work of Svetlana Boym) argues, always appears against the backdrop of "massive identity dislocations," in periods of "rude transitions rendered by history, in times of fear in the face of electrifying change, and at those transitional points in life when anxiety or 'hypochondria of the heart,' is felt" (107-8). Burwell was victim to a chronic "hypochondria of the heart," perhaps because with the end of her girl's life on the plantation and the defeat of the Confederacy, she and her sister never again were the privileged center of attention, the "princesses" of the plantation (Girl's Life 2). When Cather began writing Sapphira, she was very vulnerable to "hypochondria of the heart," having lost in 1938 both her brother Douglass and her dearest friend Isabelle McClung. In addition the "electrifying change" of another world war in sight surely must have tempted her to reconstruct an ideal, emotionally safe childhood in Virginia, as Burwell did. But Cather forgoes the comfort of an imagined safe harbor against the brutal destruction of an impending cataclysm and, instead, focuses much of her narrative on a vulnerable child, the slave Nancy, who has little hope of building a reservoir of reassuring memories during her Virginia experience. Burwell's recollections of her privileged plantation life falsify its destructive force on slaves; Nancy's nearly mute helplessness in the face of an impending rape bears witness to the savage brutality of slavery.
In their larger structures A Girl's Life and Sapphira are similar. Both are episodic and intend to integrate lives from many social strata into a coherent panorama of plantation life, especially with a view to examining black and white relations. As Burwell puts it, "All plantation reminiscences resemble a certain patchwork, made when we were children, of bright pieces joined with black squares. The black squares were not pretty, but if left out the character of the quilt was lost. And so with the black faces—if left out of our home pictures of the past, the character of the picture is destroyed" (206). The first and major part of each book recalls incidents and characters of plantation life before the Civil War. Burwell emphasizes the harmonious comedy of day-to-day life, while Cather stresses the secrecy and suspicion inherent in slave society. Toward the end of each book there is a brief recapitulation of the effects of the war on the way of life described in the first part of the book. Burwell writes that with all able-bodied men in uniform white women carry on as before, martyrs to the cause of caring for dependent black slaves. Aggressive Union soldiers, Burwell writes, are threats to the women, the land, and the slaves. In contrast Cather notes how Union and Confederate divisions evaporate as neighbors at political odds care for each others' soldiers and protect them from enemy armies. After this section a Confederate hero is valorized: Robert E. Lee in A Girl's Life and Turner Ashby in Sapphira. Then each book closes with a lament for lost times. Burwell speaks for herself and closes with a panegyric for the old slave owners, who, after all, were merely inheritors of the "white man's burden" to Christianize African slaves. Sapphira ends more problematically with Till's reminiscence of old times, especially of Sapphy's mistakes in migrating to Back Creek and allowing the Bushwells to diminish Chestnut Hill. Till's reminiscences of the better life in Loudoun County echo Burwell's of lost plantation life. Till's nostalgia is a consequence of her having been born a slave and labored only as a housemaid. But more important, it seems to me, it reflects her having been raised at Chestnut Hill by a white surrogate mother, Matchem—a kind of white Mammy, I might venture—who with love and discipline helped her recover after the horrific death of her birth mother.
In addition to narrative structures A Girl's Life and Sapphira share many topical interests. Burwell and Cather both write about the privileged white society that saw itself as a displaced English aristocracy. Burwell depicts this aristocracy as valiantly maintaining the traditions of the past, including peer marriages and slavery, while Cather emphasizes the decay and end of such self-aggrandizing history. Burwell recalls visits with women of her grandmothers' generations, whose talk was not only of the hardships of the Revolution but of dancing the minuet and preserving the privileged life of English aristocracy in eighteenthcentury Virginia (32). Parlor talk among these older women sometimes turns to "tracing people back to the remotest generation, and appearing inconsolable if ever they failed to find out the pedigree of any given individual for at least four generations" (36). While Sapphira prides herself on being the daughter of a woman born and bred in England, her pedigree does not guarantee her a suitable husband, nor does it preserve her from a challenging life in the back country, where aristocratic tradition and slavery are scorned. While breeding apparently keeps Burwell's grandmothers spry, healthy, and in old age important influences on their descendants, Sapphira, about sixty years of age, is mostly wheelchair bound, chronically ailing, out of touch with two of her daughters, and blatantly disrespected by her third.
In always looking backward Burwell recalls her Virginia forbears as "model women," ever worthy to be imitated: "I have looked in vain for such women in other lands, but have failed to find them" (34). Burwell insists upon keeping the past alive: "Brought up amid antiquities, the Virginia girl disturbed herself not about modern fashions, appears happy in her mother's old silks and satins made over. She rejoiced in her grandmother's laces and in her brooch of untold dimensions, with a weeping willow and a tombstone on it,—a constant reminder of the past,—which had descended from some remote ancestor" (50). There is an interesting—and complicating—parallel brooch in Sapphira that serves as a fond memorial to the past. This brooch is among the keepsakes that Till stows away in her cabin: "Her chief treasure was a brooch, set in pale gold, and under the crystal was a lock of Mr. Henry's black hair and Miss Sapphy's brown hair, at the time of their marriage. The miller himself had given it to her, she said" (284). Once again Till keeps alive fond memories of plantation life, just as Burwell does. Burwell's reflections on the narrowness of her experiences until adulthood may well provide illumination for Till's attitude: "It was a long time before it dawned upon my mind that there were places and people different from these [on the plantation]. The plantations we visited seemed exactly like ours. The same hospitality was everywhere; the same kindliness existed between the white family and the blacks. Confined exclusively to plantation scenes, the most trifling incidents impressed themselves indelibly upon me" (11). Till's experience and imagination, unlike Burwell's, never extend beyond the plantation. Cather herself, after a much broader education in the world, finds that with the end of the Old South the postwar and postplantation generation is relieved to forego the past: "This new generation was gayer and more carefree than their forbears, perhaps because they had fewer traditions to live up to" (271). Cather rejects the past as sacred and immutable throughout Sapphira. Successive generations of women in Sapphira and the Slave Girl resist and repudiate their predecessors, even while perpetuating their memories. Thus, the strength of will that characterizes Sapphira is inherited by her daughter Rachel, her granddaughter Mary, and her great-granddaughter Willa. Rachel's facilitating Nancy's escape, Mary's taking the broth against medical advice, and little Willa's dictating the scene of Nancy and Till's reunion mark each of them, like Sapphira, as a determined individual who goes against the grain. Sapphira observes to herself about Rachel: "Rachel had always been difficult,—rebellious toward the fixed ways which satisfied other folk" (18-19). But Sapphira's unconventional marriage and migration to Back Creek exemplify her observation of Rachel as rebellious.
Setting the differences between Burwell's and Cather's attitudes aside for a minute, there is a tantalizing prototype of Sapphira in A Girl's Life. In Burwell's profile of Mary Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee's wife, Burwell remarks that her crippling rheumatism left her unable to walk for ten years. General Lee calls her his hero and comments: "I have never heard her murmur or utter one complaint." Burwell writes: "With gentleness, kindness, and true feminine delicacy, she had the strength of mind and character a man might have envied" (202). Henry Colbert comes to feel similarly about Sapphira's heroic stoicism in the face of her disabilities. Henry "had seen strong men quail and whimper at the approach of death," but he knew Sapphira would meet death "with that composure which he had sometimes called heartlessness" (263-64). Aristocratic bearing, then, is undiminished by circumstances though the privileges and perks of aristocracy may be destroyed or simply fade away.
Among the aristocratic perks of the Old South Burwell and Cather mention are private carriages as regular conveyances. Carriage scenes in each book provide paradigms of master-and-slave relations and sketch the dynamics of plantation life. The warm reception Burwell receives when returning to the plantation after a short carriage ride is one of the first scenes she describes: "Smiling faces always welcomed us home, as the carriage passed through the plantation and on reaching the house we were received by the negroes about the yard with the liveliest demonstrations of pleasure" (10). Distant journeys by carriage for visiting tours are grand occasions in Burwell and Cather. Visits, Burwell recalls, "were made in our private carriages. . . . Lady visitors were always accompanied by colored maids, although sure of finding a superfluity of these at each establishment" (32). Similarly, Sapphira, with Nancy in attendance, travels to Winchester at Easter time to visit her sister for a week or so; there she meets with other family members who have come west from Loudoun County while Nancy socializes with other maids (70-77). Burwell's coach's driver, with forty years' experience, is "called the 'Ancient Mariner.' He presided on his seat—a lofty perch—in a very high hat and with great dignity." This driver, and others who traveled with Burwell's entourage, were like generals commanding an army. "I smile now to think," Burwell writes, "of their ever being called our 'slaves'" (68). While "[t]o the household it was an occasion" (35) when Miss Sapphy drove out, her private carriage with glass windows and the Dodderidge crest on its door needs repainting. And her driver, the "shrivelled-up old" Jeff—the capon man—is shoeless and wears "all that was left of a coachman's hat." Far from commanding, Jeff, whom Sapphira harshly criticizes for his lack of shoes, is described as scuttling off "like an old rat" and "slouching" about his business (35-36). In Burwell's reconstruction of the past owners and slaves enjoy the fullness of life and its pleasures together; in Cather's owners and slaves are diseased or disfigured and often antagonistic.
Life is harmonious for Burwell because both masters and slaves recognize their appointed roles and fulfill them. Her basic argument is that Providence creates masters and servants: "[F]or as long as the earth lasts there must be human beings fitted for every station, and it is supposed, till the end of all things, there must be cooks, housemaids, and dining-room servants, which will make it never possible for the whole human family to stand entirely upon the same platform socially and intellectually" (141). During slavery Burwell finds this principle of Providential selection evidenced by freed slaves begging to be allowed back on the plantation. For example, when a bedraggled and unrecognizable Old John finds freedom untenable, he escapes to the plantation and begs to have his freedom purchased from him. Burwell's mother provides him a place on the plantation out of kindness and concern. Burwell recalls her girlhood response: "I wondered what was meant by being 'free,' and supposed from [Old John's] appearance it must be some very dreadful and unfortunate condition of humanity" (12). Cather's story of Sampson's refusal of Henry Colbert's offer of manumission echoes Old John's. But Sampson clearly has a large measure of independence as Henry's mill manager, and when he is emancipated he becomes successful and independent.
Burwell, convinced of the rightness of slavery, is always at ease in the company of African Americans. Willa Cather may not be entirely comfortable in her encounters with African Americans (as indicated in her young self's response to Nancy) or her fictional depictions of them, as Toni Morrison asserts. However, Cather disavows nineteenth-century stereotypes, which Burwell subscribes to, of African Americans as savages who need continuous supervision in their belated ascendance toward civilization. Cather sometimes appears to stereotype African Americans, but, as Joseph Urgo argues, these dissonances, or "dock burs in yo' pants," compel us to read more closely the text at hand. While reminding us of the stereotypes, Cather challenges their validity through her careful characterizations of individual slaves and construction of their stories. By fully telling Jezebel's story of capture and passage to America, for example, Cather dispels the stereotype of the lascivious African woman her name suggests. Cather shows us how a young, vital, and independent woman, all of whose male protectors had been killed by slavers, is castigated as a "Jezebel" by an ignorant sailor whom she bites in self-defense. Like her innocent great-granddaughter Nancy, Jezebel is given a sexualized identity because of the insecurities of white owners. These sexualized identities of Africans and African Americans mark them as savages without inherent moral restraint who need the direction of civilized whites to become more fully human. Though Burwell's plantation world is sexless, with black and white relations only implied by the presence of mulatto slaves, she nevertheless finds African Americans always in need of moral direction so they will not backslide into savagism.
Burwell recalls a curious case of a ninety-year-old slave who had quit working at the age of fifty because he believed the estate had fallen from the greatness of past times, and he wished no more association with it: "Not being compelled to work, he passed his life principally in the woods, and wore a rabbit-skin cap and a leather apron. Having lost interest and connection with the white family, he gradually lapsed into a state of barbarism, refusing toward the end of his life to sleep in his bed, preferring a hard bench in his cabin upon which he died" (17). This threat of relapse into less than a civilized state haunts Burwell's stories of the slaves, especially since Africa is a place of complete savagery where, according to Burwell, the natives wear no clothes—they had to be taught to do so by white men—and inhabit holes in the ground like beasts (17-18).
A similar tale to that of the old slave refusing to work occurs in Sapphira in the story of Tansy Dave (203-7), who ceases to work and becomes increasingly savage. Dave mostly inhabits the surrounding forest and usually wears rags. But unlike the old slave Dave does not refuse to work out of a sense of pride and superiority. Denied by the slave system the basic right to choose his own spouse, Dave loses all joy in life and simply prefers not to participate in plantation life. It is hard to imagine in Burwell's world that an able-bodied slave could choose not to work and escape punishment, but then Burwell frequently argues that white owners are the slaves of their slaves. In Sapphira and the Slave Girl this dispensation from work—portrayed as an act of Sapphira's compassion—is Sapphira's emblem of guilt as a slave owner for having robbed the African American slaves of their fundamental humanity. It should be added that Dave's unlikely match with the Baltimore housemaid is no more unlikely than Sapphira Dodderidge's and Henry Colbert's.
Slaves backsliding into their savage ways happens more than once in Burwell's narrative. This reversion is best exemplified in the deathbed scene of Aunt Fanny, a "huge" mulatto cook belonging to Charles Mosby and a stereotype of the kitchen dictator, like Fat Lizzie in Sapphira. As Aunt Fanny is dying, Burwell observes, "Her room was crowded with negroes who had come to perform their religious rites. . . . Joining hands, they performed a savage dance, shouting wildly around her bed. This was horrible to hear and see" (163). Burwell seems especially horrified because Aunt Fanny was "the most intelligent of her race [and] a well-versed Christian," yet she continues to embrace African religion. When questioned about her backsliding, Aunt Fanny comments: "Honey, dat kind o' religion suit us black folks better 'en yo' kind. What suit Mars. Charles mind karn't suit mine" (164).
A similar deathbed scene occurs when Sapphira visits Jezebel. Jezebel is not responsive when Sapphira reads Psalm 23 to her. But when asked if there is anything she would like to eat, Jezebel seemingly reverts to her cannibalistic ways and asks for "a li'l pickaninny's hand." While Nancy exclaims with horror that Jezebel is "out of her haid," Sapphira recognizes Jezebel's ironic resistance to being stereotyped—either as a Christianized slave or as a savage hiding behind a veneer of white civilization. Sapphira chides Nancy, "I know your granny through and through. She is no more out of her head than I am" (89-91). What Sapphira recognizes is Jezebel's self-possession, the enduring strength that kept her free, though in chains in a savage white world. The well-meaning abolitionist Mr. Fairhead, pastor of the Back Creek Baptist church, demonstrates the persistence of white stereotypes of savage Africans at Jezebel's funeral. He remarks that Jezebel's life as a slave has redeemed her "from a heathen land" and brought her to the "full measure of Christian life" (104).
In general Burwell presents a harmonious slave-plantation world in which white owners carry the heaviest burden—to bring their always "merry hearted" charges (3) to full Christian humanity. It is a world in which cruelty to slaves happens somewhere else and where white solicitude for the happiness of black dependents is almost boundless, and servants—never called "slaves"—often exploit masters, but never do masters exploit servants. Burwell's is also a world without conflict, emotion, and humanity. While Cather represents that stereotypical world, she reveals beneath its surface the irreducible human identity of masters and slaves, an identity formed not by race or institutions but by suffering and loss. She also reveals the cruelty and despair fostered by slavery. Rachel Blake captures this contrast as she meditates on her mother's character, in observations that might well describe Letitia Burwell and her society: "Mrs. Colbert, though often generous, was entirely self-centered and thought of other people only in their relation to herself. She was born that way, and had been brought up that way." Rachel then recalls all of the kindnesses her mother does for her servants—"She liked to see them happy." Rachel's list is a summary of Burwell's narrative of how slave owners feed, clothe, nurse, and otherwise indulge their "servants." But Rachel suddenly realizes—as Burwell never could: "No, it ain't put on she believes in it, and they believe in it. But it ain't right" (218).
After the war is ended and slavery is abolished, Letitia Burwell continues to extol the virtues of the old plantation life and to worry about the plight of the hapless freed slaves, most of whom, she believes, are ill equipped for independence. Nevertheless, it is a great relief to their former owners "no longer to have responsibility of supporting them. This would, indeed, have been impossible in our starving condition" (84). Nostalgia, the bittersweet memories of a world unrecoverable, intensifies in the final chapters (18-20) of Girl's Life, which closes with a hagiography of Robert E. Lee, a personal friend of Burwell. She recounts a story told by Lee, this "soldier of the Cross," of a solitary journey he took through "the most desolate mountain region" of Virginia after the war. As he came upon two little girls playing, they began to run away, until Lee said, "If you could know who I am, you would know that I am the last man in the world for anybody to run from now" (197-98). The children protest that they do know him from a picture their mother has, and they are running away because they are not presentable to him as they are dressed. Burwell comments: "It was gratifying to him to find that even in this lonely mountain hut the children had been taught to know and revere him" (198). Lee, Burwell is certain, will be revered as long as there is a Virginia. Cather's Confederate hero, Turner Ashby, is more commonplace—a local hero, he died young in the war and is ritually remembered on 6 June, the Confederate Memorial Day (269). More strikingly, there is a contrast to Lee's apotheosis as a symbol of a dead past in the epiphany of Nancy as a promise of a vibrant future. To little Willa Cather in remote Back Creek Valley Nancy's story was known to her "[e]ver since [she] could remember anything" (274). As Nancy is remembered by Cather, she is transformed from an awkward, slouching, and inarticulate slave girl into a "tall, gold-skinned woman" resplendent in dress, manner, and speech (276-78). Clearly, Nancy's once servile manner was not inherent, as Burwell argues, but conditioned. Like her great-grandmother Jezebel she had always been capable of selfpossession, only brutally denied the opportunity to discover it.
The child Willa Cather at the end of the book, as other commentators have pointed out (Morison 28; Yeager 154; Marcus 116-17), resembles her great-grandmother Sapphira. Like Sapphira Cather is ill and needs to be carried from place to place. Like Sapphira she is imperious, demanding to be witness to a staged reunion between Till and Nancy and then finding fault with Nancy for not knowing her place but dressing and speaking better than who she was and better than anyone else in Back Creek. But Cather is the "princess" of the plantation only briefly. The return of a triumphant Nancy invalidates both white nostalgic narratives of beneficent slave life and Lost Cause forecasts of doom for freed slaves. Young Willa's discomfort with Nancy's speech and dress suggests the persistence of white stereotypes espoused by Burwell. But Cather's plantation narrative makes clear the destructive force not only of slavery but also of the persistent stereotypes slavery nurtured. Although Cather's roots are in Virginia, she no longer is a Virginian; though Sapphira's blood runs through hers, she is not Sapphira. Letitia Burwell is content to be buried in the soil of Virginia; Willa Cather, while rooted in Virginia, thrives beyond it.