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From Cather Studies Volume 10

Daughter of a War Lost, Won, and Evaded: Cather and the Ambiguities of the Civil War

Victory was a shadowed, ambiguous thing. —E. L. Doctorow, The March

Willa Cather's noted contemporary Katherine Anne Porter once wrote, in her essay on the sources of her celebrated novella "Noon Wine," that the "main occupation" of the writer is and must be "endless remembering" (468). For the most part what Porter dwelt on in memory was a powerful cluster of ideas centering on childhood, on family, and on an unstable amalgam of Texas and the South. Inseparably connected with all of those was the Civil War and what it had meant in her life. We could say much the same of Cather herself. She too drew on "endless remembering," once remarking to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant that she began to live as a writer when she "ceased to admire and began to remember" (Sergeant 117). She too, like Porter, wrote largely of childhood and family, the new home and the old home, Nebraska and the South. And she too drew repeatedly on the Civil War and its meaning.

Both Cather and Porter wrote at a time of national reassessment of the war and its heritage. Their personal preoccupations shared in a great national reconsideration. But however compelling these commonalities between the two writers, even more compelling are the contrasts between them with respect to remembrance of the Civil War. Porter, in the essay "Portrait: Old South," identifies herself as "the grandchild of a lost War" (160). The clarity of this self-conception does not admit doubt. Firmly fixed in her mind in earliest childhood, it identifies without question not only her region but also her race, since the war would presumably be seen as "lost"—the South's tragedy—only by southerners who were white. Porter was in fact intensely conflicted about racial relations in the South and her family's role in bringing slavery to Texas. Even so, she was a white southerner sprung from the slaveholding class, and she knew quite well on which side of the break between North and South, between the earlier and the later nineteenth century, her family stood: on the losing side. The degree of her certainty was not unusual for Americans of her generation. Northerners knew that their side had won, and southerners—white southerners, at any rate—knew that theirs had lost. Porter was brought up by her father and paternal grandmother in the ideology of the Lost Cause, a conception of the society disrupted by the Civil War that was reiterated by family members and neighbors throughout her childhood. When she later developed a more nuanced, ambiguous view, it always had to be tested against this foundational ideology.

Cather's remembrance of the Civil War had none of this clarity but was fraught with ambiguity from the beginning. We see this ambiguity throughout her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, which Ann Romines succinctly terms "her Civil War novel." As Romines points out in her historical essay included in the Scholarly Edition of Sapphira and the Slave Girl (315), Cather was a child not of the Civil War but of Reconstruction. Her family lived in occupied territory governed by federal authorities and rules. But as a simple matter of fact this positions her, like Porter, as a (grand)daughter of the Civil War and indeed of a "lost War." The very landscape of the northern Shenandoah Valley, where Cather was born and where she lived for her first nine and a fraction years, had been devastated by the incessant fighting waged all through that region, and the economic effects of the war and Reconstruction were in large measure what drove people like the Cathers to leave Virginia and migrate to the West. Even more important for my purposes here, the Cathers were border southerners, in a very literal geographic sense. Their home was scarcely five miles from the border of West Virginia, carved out of Virginia as a separate state in 1863 because that rugged western section of what had previously been a single state was mainly occupied by people who opposed slavery and supported the Union cause. Like border regions everywhere the strip of territory along the legal border was conflicted ground, divided in its loyalties and attitudes. Willa Cather's family on both sides, paternal and maternal, was dramatically so. Her mother supported the Confederacy, her antislavery father the Union. Her grandfather William Cather and great-grandfather James Cather were equally antislavery, but William supported the North and James the South. Her maternal grandmother, Rachel Boak, reluctantly supported the South because three of her sons fought in the Confederate Army but was in fact staunchly opposed to slavery even though she came from slaveholding parents. Living at the border between Confederacy and Union, they could have served as a case study for Gloria Anzaldúa, whose 1987 book Borderlands/La Frontera eloquently recalls and analyzes the discontinuities and conflicts endemic to the Texas/Mexico border region, asserts the continuity of such multidimensional conflicts among border zones everywhere, and presses such geographic borders to the status of symbol for all kinds of social and psychological differences and conflicts, such as those of gender.

What I am proposing is that these foundational facts of Cather's biography—that she spent her early years in a geographic borderland and grew up in an extended family of conflicted loyalties—contributed directly to the ambivalence and elusiveness of meaning that is so characteristic of her writing. She grew up predictably "bordered" in an inward, mental sense. Civil War remembrance within her own family, a family of storytellers who kept recalling, retelling, and debating their varying Civil War allegiances, served as a kind of schooling in ambivalence. Unlike the young Porter, who from an early age knew herself to have been the offspring of a lost Civil War, the young Cather must have found it very hard to know whether she stood on the winning or the losing side—either or both, depending on whose position among those in the family was uppermost in her mind at a given time.

At the end of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, in the directly autobiographical epilogue, Cather insists with seeming unambiguousness that the war did not leave bad feelings in the local Back Creek community. Yet it is clear that, on the contrary, there was lingering resentment in the community against the Cather family specifically and that this resentment contributed to Willa's parents' decision to join other family members in Nebraska. Ill will among the local people arose not simply because some members of the family had been northern sympathizers but because of the perception, among some in the community, that grandfather William Cather had collaborated with Union occupiers during Reconstruction and had thereby blurred the line between winning and losing the war. William and his wife, plus their son George and his wife, had already left when the family's large sheep barn burned down as a result of what was rumored to be an act of arson. At this point the property was sold, and Charles and Virginia Boak Cather, with their three children, left Virginia by train, bound for the Great Plains—a departure in which the child Willa's personal world "broke in two," long before she wrote that the world in general did so "in 1922 or thereabouts." That break, and her resulting bitter homesickness, were direct results of the Civil War. No wonder the lost South of her childhood and her family roots became one of the great centers of the work of memory in her fiction, most prominently in Sapphira and the Slave Girl but in other works as well, and along with it the divisive and problematic Civil War. No wonder, too, she wrote of it with so ambiguous a combination of directness and evasiveness.

Romines's designation of Sapphira as Cather's "Civil War novel," referred to a moment ago, appears at several points in her historical essay for the Scholarly Edition of this work. Both there and in her more recent essay "Willa Cather's Civil War: A Very Long Engagement" Romines provides an impressively thoroughgoing explanation of ways in which the novel "makes it very clear that a rending conflict is coming and that the issue of slavery, grounded in race, will be at its center" (14). Citing Tomas Pollard's essay "Political Silence and Hist'ry in Sapphira and the Slave Girl," Romines insists that "the political events of the 1850s that culminated in war in 1861 are very much a presence" in the entirety of the novel except for the epilogue, where the war is of course vividly present in memory.

Not everyone, however, has seen Sapphira in these terms. An early reviewer for the New York Times, Charles Poore, wrote that Cather had published "a fine novel about slavery and the South in which the Civil War itself is dropped out as an irrelevance to her work of art." This strikes me as a very strange thing to say. A novel set in Virginia, mostly in 1856, which does not evade but rather foregrounds the divisive injustice of slavery, in which one of the most admirable characters manages to circulate the abolitionist New York Tribune in her border-South community, is surely pointing to the approach of the war in all but name. True, for 264 of the novel's 281 pages (in the Scholarly Edition) the war is not named or witnessed. It marches silently across the text in the twenty-five-year lacuna between the main body of the novel, in 1856, and the epilogue, in 1881. But for a novelist who had, less than a decade earlier (in "The Novel Démeublé"), announced her artistic touchstone of the "thing not named" in so many words on the page but "felt" there (On Writing 41), that is scarcely surprising. The Civil War is powerfully "felt" on the page throughout, and in the epilogue it is explicitly named.

The entire first section of Book IX, "Nancy's Return," is given to a statement of the effects of the war that "came on so soon after Nancy ran away" (267). The narrative voice in this section is a distanced, authoritative third person, much like that we have heard all along except that it is anchored in the twentieth century, the age of the automobile ("today, if you should be motoring through Winchester" [169]). From "today" we look back to 1881, and from there to 1856 and points in between. Only in the second section does the narrative perspective shift to the first person. There we are told that Nancy "wanted to know what had happened during the war, and what had become of everybody" (281). "And so did I," Cather's adult voice adds, forming the bond between adult narrator and child character whose abrupt appearance so emphatically separates the epilogue from what has preceded it. If the war and all it entailed have been a habitual topic of conversation all her life to that point, the conversation has been a selective one, leaving some things unsaid. Now Till speaks of Henry Colbert's freeing of Sapphira's slaves and how hard an effort he made to find a good place for each of them, even for Lizzie and the slatternly Bluebell, and tells about the partially satisfactory relocation of Sampson and the sad ending of Tap. Mrs. Blake, modeled more on Cather's grandmother Boak than on her actual mother, gives an abbreviated report of Martin Colbert's service as a captain in the Confederate cavalry, and his death, and how the family put up a monument in tribute to his memory—despite his having been, as the adults all know but do not say in the child's presence, a troublemaker and good riddance. And someone—the text makes it clear that it could have been anyone, because they all know the story—mentions, as if with a sigh, that Henry Colbert "saw the beginning of the Civil War" but died before its end (283-84).

The war, then, is by no means an "irrelevancy" in Sapphira, as the Times reviewer called it. In the bulk of the novel it is very much like the elephant in the room, there but ignored, and in the epilogue it is directly foregrounded. One wonders if Poore thought the epilogue was not part of the novel and simply didn't read it. Of course, even Cather herself often wrote of the epilogue apologetically, as if it were a last-minute impulse she should have resisted. But in a letter of 26 August 1940, to her brother Roscoe, she told a very different story:

I've tried an experiment in form which most people will not like, and which, I admit, rather gives the show away. The fact (which only a very few people will notice) is that in this case there is a concealed show behind the first show. This second show, coming on the stage in the Epilogue, is the reason for, and the authority for, the first show. Without that literal account of something that happened to me when I was between five and six years old, the whole book would be constructed, not lived, like a hundred other stories of the South and of slavery (Selected Letters 587).

Two months later, on 6 October 1940, she told Roscoe, "Fortunately, I wrote the Epilogue before I wrote beyond the first few chapters of the book—I like to see my end from my beginning" (Selected Letters 591). Clearly, far from being a regrettable impulse, the first-person epilogue was her aim all along.

Surprisingly enough, when Cather sent Alfred Knopf a clipping from Poole's review in an undated letter, she said not a word about its notion of the irrelevance of the Civil War. Why? One explanation is that her purpose at the moment was simply different; she was recommending a brief passage from a review that might make good advertising copy. Another is that the brief note she scrawled to Knopf on the paper to which the clipping was pasted seems to indicate haste. But another reason that may also have contributed to her silence on the reviewer's peculiar reading has to do with the history of Civil War remembrance. Historian David W. Blight explains in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001) that by the 1880s a "reconciliationist vision" had replaced the vengeful waving of the "bloody shirt" that had prevailed in the years immediately after the war. This "reconciliationist vision" became "the desired theme in Civil War literature for both Southern and Northern readers" by the 1880s (Romines, "Willa Cather's Civil War" 12). The movement toward reconciliation actively promoted mutual respect between veterans' organizations for the sake of national unity and a restored economy and for a time dominated the national work of memory. By 1900, displacing the earlier rhetoric of racial justice, this mode of historical and popular reinterpretation "linked arms" with white supremacist purposes, helping to produce the Jim Crow era and a proliferation of lynchings. Hence the history lessons that many of us from the South remember, in which it was claimed that the "cause" of the war was not slavery but a conflict between industrialized and agrarian economies or between a federal vision of America and states' rights. An "emancipationist memory" of the Civil War—a memory in which its deepest meaning was the ending of slavery—was revived and became generally accepted only in the latter third of the twentieth century (Blight 2-3).

What I am proposing, then, in part, is that Sapphira and the Slave Girl be read historiographically as a text in which Cather pursues a transitional conception of the meaning of the war. Her patently false insistence that the war "made few enmities in the country neighbourhoods" (268) served the reconciliationist impulse, while her attention to slavery and to the personal situations of individual slaves in the years just before secession positioned the abolitionist view of the war's meaning at the center of the novel. This is particularly evident in her story of how Nancy benefited by escaping and making a new life in a slavefree country.

In connection with what I see as Cather's historiographical strategy, I would draw attention to a moment that occurs early on, in the presentation of Jezebel's respectful funeral. Jezebel is the only slave on the Colbert place who came originally from Africa. Her history is given with a level of detail that reflects laborious research. As Romines points out, descriptions of the Middle Passage in fiction were not "commonplace" in 1940 as they are now (historical essay 356). Yet despite the harrowing nature of Cather's account of Jezebel's capture, transport, and long enslavement, she has Mr. Fairhead attempt to justify it in his funeral sermon by its having afforded her the benefit of the Christian religion (104). This was in fact one of the primary arguments of both Lost Cause ideology and the reconciliationist move that softened ill will toward the South by overlooking racial injustice. Part of the period that Blight designates as the "diehard era" of the Lost Cause—the 1860s through the 1880s (260)—was a major formative period for Cather. As an example of the argument for beneficent slavery, the argument we see taken up by Mr. Fairhead, Blight quotes a passage from Jefferson Davis's 1881 memoir The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: "Generally" the ancestors of African slaves in America "were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, and, sold by heathen masters, they were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity" (260-61). The word "heathen" so emphasized in this passage is also used by Fairchild as he draws a contrast to the "full measure of Christian life" that Jezebel was afforded (104). If some readers find it shocking that Cather seems to make such a defense of slavery without any of the more obvious signs of irony that we might find in other writers' work, we might recall that the context she herself provides for Fairchild's bland reassurance plays a part in setting up our shock, and we might also recall the evidence that she was fully aware of both sides of arguments relating to the Civil War, not only from her research but also from having grown up in a family representing, in Romines's words, "various sides of the controversies surrounding slavery." She must indeed have been "bombarded with conflicting precedents" and "profound differences" that remained "a topic of family discussion during her childhood and adolescence" (historical essay 298; see also "Willa Cather's Civil War"). In my reading of Fairchild's sermon she does ironize his statement, but her irony is another of the "things not named" but felt there. Such tacit irony often, as here, remains ambiguous.

Even if Sapphira and the Slave Girl is perhaps Cather's "most complex engagement with memory" (Romines, historical essay 297), her entire body of work might be characterized as a fiction of memory. It is a memory "haunted," in Steven Trout's words, by the Civil War (118). In her early story "The Namesake" (1907), as in Sapphira, she talks about the traces, results, and emotional penumbra of war. "The Namesake" is indeed primarily about acts of remembering and memorializing the war and constructing an identity in relation to it. Cather had done just that herself, taking on the middle name Sibert in tribute, she said, to her uncle William Sibert Boak, who died of wounds in the war.[1] She could equally well have called her act of self-naming a tribute to her grandmother Rachel Seibert Boak and her family of origin, but she chose to claim an identification with the uncle whose idealized story was told and retold in the family. She underscored this affiliation by posing for a photograph wearing a Confederate cap, presumably from the deceased Uncle Willie's uniform.

Lisa Marcus states that the cap declares Cather's "identification with this uncle and his cause" (103). Cynthia Griffin Wolfe sees this act of costuming as "an explicit alliance with [her] mother on an issue that was sensitive within the family" (201). Yet very little about Cather or her work is ever really explicit. Trout instead problematizes the significance of the cap by asking whether it came from among the family keepsakes at all and pointing out that we cannot be certain whether it was gray or blue (122). Indeed, when this same uncle is commemorated in "The Namesake," he is reconstituted as a Union soldier. Trout also questions whether the initials on the front of the cap are really W.C., as they are usually read. I believe they clearly are, when the picture is shown in correct orientation.[2] Still, they remain puzzling. Who put them there? Why? What do they mean? If, as Trout goes on to suggest, this "ambiguous" donning of the cap signifies a youthful affiliation with the idea of military "comradeship, courage, and sacrifice" more than the Confederate cause itself, what does that say about the fact that Cather's father and uncle managed to evade military service? And if the cap conveys, at some level, a demurral from that evasion, is it a demurral from their failure to serve in the Confederate Army or in the Union Army, after they crossed into West Virginia?

Certainly the Civil War is a less frequent presence in Cather's work than are Virginia and southerners in general, or westerners wanting to go back to the South (as at the end of the short story "El Dorado"). In treating the postwar South and the social and topographical landscape of the Shenandoah Valley, she could draw on personal memory. But she was also quite adept, and almost equally passionate, in drawing on "secondhand memory" (Romines, historical essay 315). It was this kind of memory work, fortified by research, that enabled Cather to incorporate the Civil War into her work at multiple points in her career. Between "The Namesake" and Sapphira and the Slave Girl she invoked the war in "The Sculptor's Funeral" (1905), in the form of a "faded Grand Army suit" (the regalia of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans of the Civil War), and in "Double Birthday" (1929), a story deeply preoccupied with World War I, in the job with the county that the younger of the two Alberts has been given "for the sake of his father, who had been a gallant officer in the Civil War." In A Lost Lady Forrester's honorific title Captain refers to his Civil War service, and in One of Ours old Mahailey, who has trouble grasping new ideas, interprets what she hears about the war in Europe in light of what she remembers from the Civil War.

I would suggest that Cather's memory drew on the Civil War in much the same way as Mahailey's—as an interpretive reference point. I have written elsewhere about Cather's ongoing "war consciousness" with respect to the two world wars, especially World War I. She was keenly attentive to both the world wars. Indeed, her distress over the Great War never entirely abated. But I believe it was her long pondering of the Civil War that provided an emotional and historical context for this later war consciousness related to World Wars I and II. She might not have responded so intensely to those wars of her own time if she had not already heard and thought so much about the Civil War. Trout makes essentially that same argument when he points out that Cather's imagining of combat and its "grotesqueries" in One of Ours (such as the severed hand that keeps reappearing) may have drawn on her prior imagining of dismemberment in the one scene of actual combat in "The Namesake" (136).

The first American war fought within Cather's actual memory—as it was within Katherine Anne Porter's—was the SpanishAmerican War. In 1898, when she was working at the Pittsburg Leader writing headlines and piecing out reporters' transmissions into stories with background, she used the phrase "horrors of war" in a light or facetious manner in a letter to her Lincoln friend Frances Gere (Selected Letters 50). But she never spoke lightly about the Civil War. Its aftermath had broken her life in two and occasioned fissures in her family, The older she grew, the more fully she realized the longevity of the war's horrors and griefs. Yet torn as she was between family allegiances on both sides, plus the extra complication of her beloved father's evasion of service, she was unable to fit these memories and impulses into any simple scheme. (I wonder how she felt, really, when the Union memorial statue was erected in the Red Cloud cemetery in 1906.) When World War I came she was plunged into inner conflict between keeping her mind open about Germany, as S. S. McClure wanted her to do, and denouncing the German war machine's cruelty to civilians, as she did in a letter to her aunt Frances early in the war (Selected Letters 197). Writing to "Aunt Franc" again on the Day of Armistice, 11 November 1918, she praised the outcome of the war as a "glorious" one: "Think of it, for the first time since human society has existed on this planet, the sun rose this morning upon a world in which not one great monarchy or tyranny existed. You remember Emerson once wrote that one day God would say, 'I am tired of Kings'" (Selected Letters 260-61). Yet less than a month later, in a letter of 3 December 1918, to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, she referred to it as "this unjust war" which had brought "unjust suffering" (Selected Letters 263).

I believe that what we hear in these shifts and inconsistencies are echoes of her ambivalence over the Civil War, which by causing debates within her family had conditioned her to see vast events from more than one perspective. Civil war is, after all, a definitive metaphor for inner conflict, an entity divided against itself. Was Cather the child of a lost war, as Katherine Anne Porter defined herself, or the child of a victorious one? Both. She was also a child forced to see, or to refuse to see, her father as a draft evader, in contrast to a maternal uncle who lost his life in service. Neither in her response to the Civil War nor in her responses to the wars of her own time could she rest comfortably in a simple one-sided view. She veered back and forth between the terms of her enlightened ambivalence.

I would go further, however, and propose that the complexities and ambiguities of the Civil War shaped Cather's mind and memory toward ambivalence in a more comprehensive sense. In almost every aspect of life, and repeatedly in her work, she entertained—and leads her readers to entertain—contradictory positions. She defers easy judgments. We speak of her as a person of ambivalent mind, and we speak of the ambiguity of her work, which looks simple but gets more puzzling and deeper the more we think about it, endlessly forestalling final judgment about her intentions.

To return to Sapphira and the Slave Girl, we can see this kind of ambiguity lurking below the seemingly transparent prose not only in the episode of Mr. Fairchild's sermon, which I cite above, but in facet after facet of the text. Does Jezebel really express nostalgia (or "nostalgia") for cannibalism on her deathbed? How do we balance Sapphira's dignity in dying against her jealousy and vindictiveness toward her slave girl, Nancy? How do we, and how did Cather, judge Henry Colbert, Sapphira's husband, whose powerful misgivings over slavery are for the most part kept to himself, unexpressed? Such questions could be asked of many, perhaps most, of Cather's novels and stories. And Cather's own awareness of the difficulty of making absolute judgments in the face of conflicting circumstances or impulses seems to be conveyed in the verbalized thought attributed to Mrs. Blake, the character in Sapphira and the Slave Girl who represents Cather's grandmother Boak and who serves as the moral center of the novel: "It's hard for a body to know what to do, sometimes. . . . I ought to athought about how much she suffers, and her poor feet. . . . Maybe I ought to have thought and waited" (242-43). But her principled opposition to slavery in general and to the abuse of a particularly winning slave girl, Nancy, in particular, did not allow her to think and wait but led her to act. And the epilogue, though it may equivocate about the persistence of resentments in the Back Creek community, does not allow us as readers to believe Cather judged she was wrong in spiriting Nancy away to freedom.

Both Steven Trout and Ann Romines have written about the culture of memorializing that grew out of the Civil War—the frequency with which communities or women's groups raised money to erect monuments to those who fought. In Red Cloud there was a monument to a Union soldier. In Boston there was the St. Gaudens bas-relief honoring Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment. Throughout Virginia there were monuments to Confederate soldiers and units—including a monument to Confederate hero Turner Ashly at the Confederate Cemetery in Winchester, within sight of the gravestone of Cather's uncle James William (not Sibert) Boak. Cather was familiar with all of these. Her participation in the vast cultural occupation of Civil War remembrance is seen in her fiction, including, most importantly, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. But it is impossible for her to know which side's heroism she wants to commemorate—the side that put an end to a social practice whose evil she tells us about in the story of Nancy Till or the side that fought for a way of life she presents as gracious and mature.

Cather's ambivalence on such matters rarely appears in explicit statement. It enters her texts in quiet ways that unsettle their meanings. In contributing to this characteristic cast of her mind and creative imagination, I suggest, the Civil War was even more pervasively fundamental to her work than has been seen. The Civil War educated Cather, as it did Katherine Anne Porter, in the nuances of ambivalence. To refuse to engage in the work of memory was never an option for either, because the "main occupation" of the writer must always be "endless remembering," and one becomes an artist when one "ceases to admire and begins to remember."


 1. Romines has found that the uncle's name was actually James William Boak (historical essay 312). (Go back.)
 2. As the frontispiece for Cather Studies 6 it is reversed. (Go back.)


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