Skip to main content
Source File: cat.cs012.xml

From Cather Studies Volume 12

“Down by de Canebrake”: Willa Cather, Sterling A. Brown, and the Racialized Vernacular

“We must go out into the vernacular for tones that haven’t been brought to book. We must write with the ear on the speaking voice. We must imagine the speaking voice.”
“There is something about Negro dialect, in the idiom, the turn of phrase, the music of the vowels and consonants that is worth treasuring.”

It is not usual for Willa Cather’s name to be linked with that of Howard University professor Sterling A. Brown.[1] It is quite possible that Cather never so much as heard of Brown, despite his stature as a leader in the New Negro poetry movement of the 1930s and in the study and discussion of African American folkways and literature. Brown would almost certainly have known of her. The record of his activity as a reviewer and essayist indicates a wide familiarity with what was being published. But my point here is not to suggest any linkage of influence between the two but to propose what John Edgar Tidwell calls, in discussing the more demonstrable connection between Brown and Robert Frost,“a relational strategy called ‘sharing’” (“Two Writers Sharing,” 82). The particular sharing that I want to explore is their interest in the accurate deployment of vernacular speech and specifically their knowledge of a minstrel song popular in the nineteenth century, the ballad “Nancy Till.”

Brown’s interest in racialized vernacular is manifest in the dialect poems for which he has been best known, especially those in his first volume, Southern Road (1932). In Cather’s case, such an interest is clearly evident in Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), a work that draws on memories of her childhood home in Virginia. It was in Virginia that Brown began systematically acquainting himself with black music, aphorisms, and speech during his first teaching stint, at Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg. There, and during brief appointments at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and at Fisk in Nashville, he engaged in what he called “amateur” folklore research.[2] In a talk called “A Son’s Return: ‘Oh, Didn’t He Ramble’” given at his alma mater, Williams College, in 1974, Brown described this process of investigation and learning:

I went South. I taught at Virginia Seminary, where I learned a great deal that I could not learn at Williams. I learned the strength of my people. I learned the fortitude. I learned the humor. I learned the tragedy I learned folktales. I learned folklore. I was like a sponge. I had a good eye. I had a good ear. (A Son’s Return 15–16)
In his capacity as head of the Division of Negro Affairs of the WPA Federal Writers’ Project, Brown was also indirectly involved with the valuable oral history compendium The Negro in Virginia (1940). And he wrote about slave life, the “pithy precision” of the storytelling and aphorisms through which African Americans interpreted their heritage (Henderson 33), and literary treatments of African Americans in essays collected in A Son’s Return (1996) and A Negro Looks at the South (2007). Throughout such writings on folklore and folk traditions, he stressed that accurate preservation of dialectical speech was valuable both for its own sake and as an avenue for understanding the people who used it.[3]

Clearly Cather shared that belief. We see the evidence in her care in recording the speech of the slave characters who populate Sapphira and the Slave Girl and using it as a tool for characterization and for understanding their lives. It is a striking coincidence that the novel in which she celebrated the stories of enslaved and formerly enslaved characters was published in the same year as the Federal Writers’ Project volume where Brown “joined forces” with the noted folklorist John Lomax in the “celebration of slave narratives” (Wright 157). Both Brown and Cather pointedly historicized their representation of a racialized vernacular, he by explaining when and where he learned it through intentional listening, she by insisting on the accuracy of her recollection of speech heard in childhood, plus what she regarded as verification by means of a subsequent visit. It is not incidental that both were admirers of Robert Frost, known for his literary use of the vernacular. For my purposes here, Frost provides a kind of bridge between Cather and Brown. We can only conjecture whether Frost’s artful version of everyday speech, especially in the poems in North of Boston (which Cather would have seen before writing him a fan letter in 1915, though she did not refer to it directly) contributed to her interest in using the vernacular, as it did to Brown’s.[4]

It is generally recognized that Brown’s “distinctive folk-based aesthetic and poetic voice” was secondarily “inspired” by the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, and Robert Frost, with its use of a “plain diction and syntax” (Tidwell and Tracy, “Sterling A. Brown’s Odyssey” 8; Manson 127). Brown acknowledged in a 1974 interview that both Frost and Sandburg were “great influence[s]” from his college days, when he read their work as well as that of Masters and “saw what could happen with the American idiom” (Rowell,“‘Let Me Be’” 305). In his talk at Williams College that same year he added Robinson to the list of those he “learned from” (Brown, A Son’s Return 15). But his emphasis on that occasion was on Frost. Toward the end of his address, he dropped in the seemingly casual remark “I met Robert Frost once” and told about having recited the older poet’s little-known short poem “In Dives’ Dive”:[5]

It is late at night and still I am losing, But still I am steady and unaccusing. As long as the Declaration guards My right to be equal in number of cards, It is nothing to me who runs the Dive. Let’s have a look at another five.
Frost, he said, was surprised that he knew the poem and said that he was “the only person he knew” who did and who “respected it” (19).

Riffing further on the anecdote, Brown ended his talk with a commentary on the poem, singling out the line “Let’s have a look at another five”—that is, another poker hand—and reading it as meaning the speaker “wants . . . his right in the game.” Paraphrasing it as “I’m going to play my hand out with the cards that come,” he said what that amounts to is “a strong statement of a man’s belief in America and in himself” (21). In Tidwell’s words, Brown recognized in Frost’s brief poem “an essential commitment to a democratic vision of America” (“Two Writers Sharing” 85). Clearly he was also pointing out its application to racial equality.

“Let’s have a look at another five” is a characteristic Frostian phrasing in its terseness and its expressive use of everyday speech. He had signaled a commitment to a vernacular poetic language in his first volume, A Boy’s Will (1913 in England, 1915 in the United States), and made it his signature style in his second, North of Boston (1914). In July 1913 he alerted American publisher and bibliophile Thomas Bird Mosher that the poems he was writing for North of Boston “dropped” into an “everyday level of diction” and that same month, hitting upon a phrase he would use repeatedly in talks and writings, told friend and former student John Bartlett that he had “set [him]self” to “make music out of what I may call the sound of sense” (Sheehy et al., Letters 122, 132). The year North of Boston was published, he wrote British poet and art scholar Laurence Binyon about his “satisfaction in having hit on . . . a marked intonation, fresh-caught from the vernacular” (Letters 199). As examples, he mentioned, from “Mending Wall,”“Oh just another kind of outdoor game” and “But it’s not elves exactly” (indicating that the latter would be said “narrowing the eyes”), and from “The Black Cottage,”“Come in; no one will care” (Letters 199). It is because of the plain Yankee speech in much of his poetry as well as the frequency of New England settings that Frost is usually labeled a regionalist—a label variously understood and sometimes debated. Even John C. Kemp, however, who challenges the appropriateness of the regionalist label and questions the validity of Frost’s persona of Yankee poet in his 1979 book Robert Frost and New England, concludes that he drew on “rural speech patterns” for a poetic language that suggested local New England speech without caricaturing it (Kemp 28, 30). It is that quality of suggestiveness derived from overtones of a localized vernacular that was the essence of Frost’s art. Margery Sabin points out in her 2014 reassessment of Frost’s colloquial poetic speech that the wittiness of his work often hinges “precisely [on] the discrepancy between colloquial speech sound” and “artifice” of “situation” (7). We could say much the same of Brown.

It has often been observed that it is through treating the specific that writers achieve what is sometimes called universality of meaning. The specific group that Frost’s imagination most often seized on for the “sentence sounds that constitute life in the speech of all men” (Sabin 4, 9) was New Englanders, especially farmers. The group among whom Brown pursued such sentence sounds were speakers of black vernacular in the rural South. Having sought out “Negro folk speech” at barber shops, bars, and similar gathering places, using his keen and retentive “ear for the spoken word” (Rowell, “‘Let Me Be’” 305; Brown, “A Son’s Return” 15–16), he, like Frost, insisted on the accuracy of his rendition of this chosen speech.[6]

Even so, Brown’s use of dialect has sometimes been troubling for readers. James Weldon Johnson wrote in an introduction to Southern Road that Brown began writing “just after the Negro poets had generally discarded conventionalized dialect” (Tidwell and Tracy, 22) because of its appropriation by white poets and performers for purposes of comic “mimicry” and demeaning “role-playing.” Only a year before, in his introduction to the 1931 edition of The Book of Negro Poetry, Johnson had declared “the passing of traditional dialect as a medium for Negro poets” to be “complete.”[7] Henry Louis Gates has similarly written that in the early 1930s, when Southern Road was published, black dialect was “thought by whites to reinforce received assumptions about the Negro’s mental inferiority,” and middle-class African Americans considered it “an embarrassment” (Review, 59). But Brown’s use of dialect was by no means a perpetuation of “language fostered in minstrelsy”; rather, it was an effort to make “the living speech of African Americans come alive in print” (Gabbin 111, 105; Tidwell, in Rodgers and Hirsch, 170). He sought, through painstaking accuracy of rendition, both to convey his delight in black rural vernacular and to correct earlier abuses.

Johnson acknowledged that Brown also produced “excellent poems written in literary English” but regarded the poems built on the “common, racy, living speech of the Negro” as his “distinctive contribution” (22).[8] In 1934, two years after the publication of Southern Road, Alain Locke agreed as to the authenticity of Brown’s “folk balladry” and its rendition of dialect but insisted that his achievement went beyond accuracy of speech and folklore research to “the deeper idiom of feeling” (24). This was a distinction of great importance to Brown himself. He insisted in “A Son’s Return” (17) that the “rich and wonderful” black vernacular he cared about so intensely was not merely a matter of pronunciations like “dis and dat” but of intonations of feeling such as “Been down so long that down don’t worry me.”[9] The greater subtlety, the interrelation of words and meaning, that Brown was pointing to here was akin to Frost’s sense of the kind of regional vernacular he was pleased to have “hit on”: not mere distortions of pronunciation but the “speaking note” of phrasings in which one can hear the distinctive voice of a particular group, their “sound of sense” (Sheehy et al., Letters 201, 122).

To illustrate the distinction between mere orthographic recording of pronunciation and the authentic “speaking note,” Brown pointed to Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus tales. Perhaps surprisingly, he wrote in his 1966 essay “A Century of Negro Portraiture in American Literature” that Harris’s rendition of Negro dialect was “often meticulously rendered.” He had been “blessed with sharp eyes and ears and [a] retentive memor[y]” that enabled him to benefit, as a writer, from his frequenting of “the Negro quarters” as a child before the Civil War, and as a result he was able to “convey the plausible, surface realism of local color” (emphasis added). The Uncle Remus dialect “rang true.” Nevertheless, he judged the Uncle Remus tales to be invalidated as stories “of the folk, by the folk, for the folk” by their context in the plantation tradition. Though “minor masterpieces,” Harris’s Brer Rabbit tales were embedded in a larger narrative of apologetics for slavery that invalidated them as “genuine” folk speech (“Century” 77). In this way, Brown not only argues for a continuum of language and larger meaning but sets up a tacit contrast between Harris’s work and his own, implying that his was embedded in an appropriate social context and conveyed an accurate sense of African American resistance to injustice.

Recent critics, while acknowledging that Brown’s place in American poetry has largely centered on his use of black dialect, have more often emphasized his versatility in combining the vernacular with standard Anglo-American language and poetic forms. Gates, for example, argues that Brown’s stature as a poet derives from his development of “a new and distinctly black poetic diction . . . by fusing several black traditions with various models provided by Anglo-American poets” (Review 61). Kimberly W. Benston writes of his crossing and recrossing of “boundaries of formal and vernacular expression” in both his personal (often performative) speech and his writing (96). Beverly Lanier Skinner calls his poetry “multi-voiced, polyphonic” and “diversely genred” (187). Most recently, Ben Glaser has turned the idea of “fusion” or the “cross[ing] and recross[ing]” of lines toward a recognition of Brown’s use of a “heterogeneous prosody,” writing that his work is a “prosodic balancing act” (417).

By my count, slightly more than half of the 116 poems in The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, edited by Michael S. Harper, utilize black dialect in whole or in part. Brown moves easily between varying levels of vernacular and standard Anglo-American English, even as he moves easily among forms. This kind of versatility in language and form is evident in his ballads or blues ballads of black folk life.[10] While most of these are in dialect, one of the best known, “Sam Smiley”—about a black soldier in World War I who comes home to blatant injustice—is entirely in standard English, in the voice of the narrating poet. Here are the opening two stanzas:

The whites had taught him how to rip A Nordic belly with a thrust Of bayonet, had taught him how To transmute Nordic flesh to dust. And a surprising fact had made Belated impress on his mind: That shrapnel bursts and poison gas Were inexplicably color blind. (Coll. Poems 45)
In contrast, the short blues ballad “Long Gone” is an example of Brown’s more heavily marked representations of racialized vernacular:
I laks yo’ kin’ of lovin,’ Ain’t never caught you wrong, But it jes’ ain’ nachal Fo’ to stay here long; It jes’ ain’ nachal Fo’ a railroad man, With a itch fo’ travelin’ He cain’t understan’ (Coll. Poems 22)
One of the well-known Slim Greer poems,“Slim in Hell,” is so fully in dialect that even Saint Peter at the pearly gates speaks in southern African American vernacular.

Brown’s dialect may confront readers (white and black alike) with an awareness of being underqualifed to understand fully what he is doing with his variations of vernacular speech. Even if that is true, however, we can grasp what Alain Locke called “the deeper idiom of feeling” in a poem like “Ma Rainey,” first published in the 1930 issue of Folk-Say, edited by Benjamin Botkin. Brown’s poem about the importance of this actual (and celebrated) blues singer to African American audiences draws on the voices of different speakers and also illustrates his fluency in formal (prosodic) variation. The first section of the poem is in short lines bearing traces of humor:

When Ma Rainey Comes to town, Folks from anyplace Miles aroun,’ From Cape Girardeau, Poplar Bluf, Flocks in to hear Ma do her stuf; Comes fivverin’ in, Or ridin’ mules, Or packed in trains, Picknickin’ fools. (Coll. Poems 62)
In the second section (omitted by Botkin from the first publication [Shively 155]), the tone darkens as one of the audience members describes the need that audience members bring to the performance, while metrical stresses are softened and the lines stretch out:
Dey comes to hear Ma Rainey from de little river settlements, From blackbottom cornrows and from lumber camps; Dey stumble in de hall, jes a-laughin’ an’ a-cacklin,’ Cheerin’ lak roarin’ water, lak wind in river swamps. An’ some folks sits dere waitin’ wid deir aches an’ miseries, Till Ma comes out before dem,’ a’smilin’ gold-toofed smiles[11] An’ Long Boy ripples minors on de black an’ yellow keys.
The third section, joining the encompassing narrator’s voice to the voices of audience members in a collective “we,” is a direct invocation to the performer emphasizing the sorrows she addresses as one of “us”:
O Ma Rainey, Sing yo’ song; Now you’s back’ Whah you belong, Git way inside us, Keep us strong. . . . . . . . . . . . . . O Ma Rainey, Li’l an’ low; Sing us ‘bout de hard luck Roun’ our do’; Sing us ‘bout de lonesome road We mus’ go. (Coll. Poems 62–63)
The fourth and final section reports the power that audience members feel in Ma Rainey’s singing:
I talked to a fellow, an’ the fellow say, “She jes’ catch hold of us, somekindaway. She sang Backwater Blues one day . . .
At this point the poem incorporates lines from Bessie Smith’s “Blackwater Blues,” actually a song about the food of the Cumberland River in 1927 but usually linked to the Mississippi River food of the same year when the actions of white officials trying to deal with the crisis were “inhumane and discriminatory” (Shively 161). Many black people lost their homes and even their lives.[12] Upon hearing “Blackwater Blues,”
de folks, dey natchally bowed dey heads an’ cried, Bowed dey heavy heads, shet dey moufs up tight an’ cried, An’ Ma left’ de stage, an’ followed some de folks outside.” (Coll. Poems 63)

In the 1929 issue of Folk-Say Botkin had urged writers to “use folk material to create art” (qtd. Shively 150). “Ma Rainey” is one of the many examples of Brown’s doing so. It is permeated by the kind of orthographic representations of folk pronunciation (“dey,”“left,’”“jes,’” “dataway”) that Brown himself said, in his WPA memorandum to state directors, was not sufficient to convey black speech, but it also draws on expressive folk idioms such as “shet dey moufs up tight an’ cried,”“do her stuf,” and “de hard luck / Roun’ our do.’” These linguistic elements contribute powerfully to the immediacy of emotion in the poem and its tribute to the efficacy of the performer.“Ma Rainey” also illustrates the variability of Brown’s use of folk material, for instance, when the narrator of section IV first uses “the fellow” and then, as his merger with the “us” becomes complete, “de fellow.” It is often difficult to identify such variability in his poems with precision, partly because the compression of his poetic forms doesn’t afford the extended development of characters and thus the scope for seeing individual variations in language that we would have in a novel—for example, in Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, where such shifts in speech according to situation are readily identifiable. One poem where we easily see variability of this kind, however, is in the frequently reprinted “When de Saints Go Ma’ching Home.” The performer’s spoken or sung words are rendered in pungent dialect tinged with comedy, while his thoughts slide into indirect discourse moving between an only slightly infected dialect and standard Anglo-American English. “When de Saints Go Ma’ching Home” might serve, indeed, as a case study demonstrating the variability of African American speech—a point Cather made in a letter that we will examine below and one often made by Brown as well.

In Sapphira and the Slave Girl Cather revised her image as a Nebraska regionalist by returning to the Virginia of her childhood. Until the age of nine, she lived in her paternal grandparents’ house, called Willow Shade, just down the road from the maternal grandmother’s house where she had been born in a hilly rural area near the West Virginia line. That is the setting of Sapphira, which ends with an epilogue set in what is explicitly identified as the house where Willa and her parents lived until they went to Nebraska in 1883.[13] By both its geographic and its temporal setting, then—primarily pre–Civil War, with only the epilogue in 1881—it confronts the issue of slavery: what Cather called “the Terrible.”[14]

Cather gave particular effort to the speech of the slave characters in Sapphira. On August 26, 1940, a week after finishing the final chapter, she told her brother Roscoe that she “went South” halfway through the book to “verify” the speech patterns, “not with a notebook” in hand but solely with her “ear” (Jewell and Stout, Selected Letters 588). She insisted that her slave characters’ speech was rendered accurately. We might reasonably doubt that. Michael North, in The Dialect of Modernism, questions whether “black language” can ever be “portrayed by a white poet” (Preface, n.p.). Even so, like Brown but for a less clearly formulated reason, she referred to the “old Uncle Remus dialect” in telling Roscoe that unlike it, the slaves’ speech in Sapphira was the “true Virginia negro speech,” which had lingered in her brain “like a phonograph record” (Selected Letters 587). She repeated the analogy in writing to Dorothy Canfeld Fisher two weeks later that the “darkey speech” had remained “deep down in [her] mind exactly like phonograph records.”[15] She went on to mock “wise young reviewers” who would probably object to “inconsistenc[ies]” in Till’s and Nancy’s speech without realizing that “all well trained house servants spoke two languages, one with white people and one with their fellow negroes,” though even then, if “very much excited or in sorrow,” they “reverted to the cabin idiom” (Selected Letters 592–93).

The distinction between house servants and field hands is well known. It is acknowledged in the Federal Writers’ Project volume overseen by Brown, The Negro in Virginia, where the contributing author wrote that “house servants took a pride in labor unknown to field hands” (41). The speech of ex-house slave Priscilla Joiner, unlike most other informants, is shown as a polished English uninfected by dialectical orthography (46).

Although Cather referred to “two languages” spoken by house servants, the nature of the slave characters’ speech in Sapphira varies a great deal more than a mere shifting back and forth. Not only is there a contrast between the speech of house slaves and field hands, but some individuals vary their speech according to situation while others, such as Lizzie and Bluebell, do not. Lizzie and Bluebell consistently speak in a heavily marked dialect. When Martin Colbert presses Bluebell for information about Nancy and whether she cares for Henry’s room at the mill, she replies,

’Deed she do. He won’t have nobody else roun’ him. Oh Lawdy no! I dassen’ set foot in de place. Yes sir, Nancy do all de housekeepin’ at de mill. Why, ev’ybody know dat. She carry down his washin’ an’ shine his brass mugs, an’ take him bowkays. Laws, ah don’ know what all she don’ do at de mil-l-l. (SSG 183)
Jefferson, the “capon man” to whom Till had been married of, speaks an equally broad dialect: “Co’se . . . young gals has dese sick spells come on ’em, an’ den dey ain’t got no haid” (SSG 180). We never hear any of them speak any differently.

It is tempting to try to assess the accuracy of Cather’s representation of their dialect by comparing it with dialect recorded in The Negro in Virginia, but accuracy of orthographic representation is not only unknowable without recourse to the speakers themselves, it is unreliable even as a possibility. We have no way of knowing how closely the orthographic record represents actual speech in either book. We only know that Cather believed she remembered and reported it accurately, as did Brown.

Unlike Bluebell, Lizzie, and Jefferson, Sapphira’s husband Henry Colbert’s trusted assistant, Sampson, varies his speech according to situation. Even when the two of them are in a work situation he speaks a less highly infected dialect: “Mr. Henry, little Each hist run down from de house sayin’ de Mistress would like you to come up, if you ain’t too busy” (SSG 51). We note here the easy slurring at the ends of words, such as sayin’ for saying and the common de for the. On an out-of-the-ordinary occasion when he comes outside work hours to request help for Nancy, Sampson mingles formal English (“Not rightly speaking, sir”) with slurred endings, one use of “fo’ sho” instead of “for sure,” and a couple of variants that may be regional more than racial (“cheer” for “chair” and “hepped” for “helped”). His “them” on this occasion is notably not “dem.”

Till, who as housekeeper is a highly ranked house-slave indeed, shows a yet more strongly marked sense of linguistic propriety. Her “carriage and deportment and speech” had been developed through her training “as parlour maid” by an “English housekeeper” named Mrs. Matchem, who had been brought from England by Sapphira’s mother (SSG 33).[16] Till’s speech swings between dialect when speaking to Nancy and clear enunciation in standard grammar when addressing Martin Colbert, Sapphira’s visiting nephew: “The Mistress is waiting for you in the parlour, Mr. Martin. We expected you before this” (SSG 151). When speaking to Sapphira, Till uses an acceptably cultivated level but with comfortable southernisms mingled in: “Yes, Missy. The [not “de”] black cashmere, I reckon? It’s a wonderful nice day outside, Miss Sapphy. It’ll do you good. Now just [not “jis”] you wear the cloth slippers and be easy, Miss Sapphy. Let me wear the kid shoes round the house a few days more an’ break ’em in for you” (33–34). By contrast, when irritated at Jefferson for failure to observe proper decorum, Till slips into a speech pattern bearing out Cather’s statement that even well-trained house slaves addressing members of the white controlling class might revert to “cabin idiom” when “very much excited.” As her “th”s indicate, though, she doesn’t revert far: “I jest don’t know, Miss Sapphy. The last thing I done was to caution that nigger about his boots. When I seen him wrigglin’ his old crooked toes yonder in the gravel, I was that shamed!” (36). We again see the versatility of Till’s speech in the epilogue, where she speaks to Nancy in affectionate dialect, switches to a scarcely infected standard English when addressing Mrs. Blake, and then switches back to a more dialectical speech to Nancy (281–82).[17]

Nancy’s speech varies even more. Before her escape she speaks in a comfortable midlevel way to Rachel Blake and to Till—“Yes’m. This is one of her comp’ny ones. I likes to have ’em nice” (21) and “I knows that [not “dat”] fat Lizzie’s at the [not “de”] bottom of it” (47). She speaks standard English to Martin when trying to exert control and keep him distanced: “Certainly, sir. There’s a door in the hall goes out to the upper porch” (155). When feeling the stress of her departure, she speaks a more heavily marked dialect to Rachel Blake: “Oh, Miz’ Blake, the reticule ain’t mine! Miss Sapphy give it to me yisterday, with three pairs a-her good silk stockings for me to darn. I did mean to darn ’em today, but some way I hist couldn’t git down to it. I been kind-a flighty in the haid like” (228). But she returns from Canada speaking a crisp standard English that the child Willa finds “rather too precise,” such as when she says “his-to-ry” rather than the “right and easy”“hist’ry” that the child is used to. Her speech, the narrating voice recalls, had become too “different from ours on Back Creek” (277). It is an unusual instance of Cather’s representing an alternatively spelled folk-speech as belonging to herself and her family, rather than to class-defined others. The only comparable instance I can think of is when she renders her own first name in the southern way as Willie.

It is unfortunate that, so far as we know, Sterling Brown did not review Sapphira. Nor have I found any reference to the novel or to Cather otherwise in his essays.[18] It is inescapably true that Cather treads very near some of the stereotypes Brown lists and demolishes in his 1933 essay “Negro Character as Seen by White Authors,” particularly the “wretched freeman,” the “comic Negro,” and the “tragic mulatto” (A Son’s Return 150). Yet she also problematizes her picture of slave life—for instance, by making Nancy not an ultimately tragic figure but a victorious one. In the absence of a written record, we can’t guess whether Brown would have admired and appreciated Sapphira, as Langston Hughes avowedly did, or objected to it.[19] Nor do the few letters exchanged by Brown and Hughes in the Hughes Papers at the Beinecke Library, Yale, give any indication that they corresponded about the novel or about Cather’s assurance to Hughes that the “colored people in the book” were all “people whom I have known at one time or another, in Virginia or elsewhere” and some were “people for whom I had an affection in my childhood” (Selected Letters 601). In any event, we can be confident that her representation of slave speech would have been of interest to Brown. He would have found in the novel abundant evidence that she agreed with his rejection of the notion that black vernacular was a monolithic and unvarying speech pattern.

Dialectical language appears in Sapphira and the Slave Girl not only in the speech of the slave characters but in the dialect ballad “Nancy Till.” Cather incorporates the first two lines of the song—

Down by de cane-brake, close by de mill, Dar lived a yaller gal, her name was Nancy Till—
three times. First they are sung by the villain, Martin Colbert (SSG 177). Then they appear not once but twice in the epilogue, where the reminiscent first-person narrator tells us, “Ever since I could remember anything, I had heard about Nancy. My mother used to sing me to sleep with”—and the two lines of the song follow (274). Three pages later, as if to emphasize the song’s importance, the narrator repeats,“Down by de cane-brake, close by de mill, Dar lived a yaller gal—” and curtailing the second line, adds,“That was the picture [of Nancy] I had carried in my mind” (SSG 277). We see Cather make the same claim, that her mother had sung the song to her, in a letter of March 15, 1943, to an unidentified recipient (Selected Letters 615).

“Nancy Till” was indeed a real song, not a folk song but a composed one first published in 1851 for piano and voice.[20] Judging by the fact that the Bodleian Library owns eight different printings with variant lyrics published by 1885, it would apparently have been very popular around the time when the epilogue to Sapphira and the Slave Girl is set, 1881.[21] This indicates that Cather’s statements about her mother’s singing it to her are entirely plausible.

Just how the song about Nancy Till is connected to the character in the novel named Nancy is unclear. The question is raised in the epilogue when Cather-as-narrator recalls that as a child she “never doubted the song was made about our Nancy,” who is in fact referred to as a “yellow girl” (SSG 274, 12), as in the “yaller gal” of the song. That question is never answered in Cather’s letters. My assumption is that she took the names of both Nancy and Till from the name in the song, probably by way of the happy coincidence that her affectionate name for Till’s prototype, Matilda Jefferson, had been “Aunt Till.” As Romines tells us, Matilda Jefferson became a slave of Cather’s maternal great-grandmother, Ruhamah Seibert, by at least 1850 and continued to live on the Seibert property after emancipation (“Historical Essay” 313).[22] The name Jefferson was also used for a character in Sapphira.

As we can see from just the two lines that appear in Sapphira, the ballad “Nancy Till” is in dialect, with such markers as “de” for “the” and “yaller” for “yellow.” These usages and the dialect spoken by the slave characters in the novel stand in sharp contrast to the normative context of Cather’s standard narrative voice, a somewhat elevated Anglo-American English written in a spare or “artful” style (Romines,“Historical Essay” 372). In much the same way, the racialized vernacular in Brown’s poems stands in contrast to the standard Anglo-American voice of other poems and of his essays. Even readers who admire his studied use of dialect might reasonably object to Cather’s on grounds of cultural imperialism in appropriating what rightly belongs to another group.[23]

In addition to the more general sharings we have seen between Cather and Brown—their interest in southern vernacular, their admiration for Frost—“Nancy Till” provides a very specific sharing. Brown also knew the song—well enough to draw on the same two lines Cather quoted in Sapphira for purposes of grim parody. In a poem entitled “Real Mammy Song” he incorporated the same two lines Cather used, changing them in parody to confront readers with the harsh reality of lynching while leaving them readily recognizable. “Real Mammy Song” offers in fact a double parody—first of the song “My Mammy” popularized by Al Jolson in blackface in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer (“Mammy, Mammy / The Sun shines east, the sun shines west / I know where the sun shines best”), then of “Nancy Till.” I will let the impact of Brown’s words provide my ending:

Mammy Sun shines east, sun shines west, Moon shines on de boy She loved de best Cowering in the canebrake Down in the canebrake Close by de mill Dere lies a culluhd boy Terrified and still


 1. The one precedent I am aware of is a brief contrast drawn by Patricia Yaeger in “White Dirt: The Surreal Racial Landscapes of Willa Cather’s South,” 145. (Go back.)
 2. Letter to Benjamin Botkin, January 19, 1930, Benjamin A. Botkin Collection of Applied American Folklore (ms 0066). Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries. (Go back.)
 3. John S. Wright comments that it was by way of language that Brown came to a desire for “understanding of people” (163). (Go back.)
 4. Jewell and Stout, Selected Letters, 213. This letter led to an acquaintance with both Frost and his wife. In 1942, when recommending material for an anthology for soldiers being compiled by Alexander Woollcott, Cather suggested that Woollcott consider poems from A Boy’s Will and North of Boston (Selected Letters 613). The Frosts and Cather also had friends in common, Dorothy Canfeld Fisher and Professors George and Harriet Whicher. (Go back.)
 5. According to Tidwell in “Two Writers Sharing” (84), this meeting occurred in 1960. (Go back.)
 6. Authenticity is no longer regarded by scholars as a valid theoretical basis for measuring literary reproductions of speech. See Mark A. Sanders’s Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown. (Go back.)
 7. See Gates,“Dis and Dat” (100). Gates judges that dialect “ceased to be a major form in the Harlem Renaissance” except in the work of Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and,“most effectively,” Sterling Brown because it was so deeply rooted in the offensive conventions of minstrelsy’s “white parody of black sentiment” (102). (Go back.)
 8. That judgment has been echoed through the years, for instance, by Charles Rowell in a 1974 essay, “Sterling A. Brown and the Afro-American Folk Tradition”: “It is through his folk oriented poems that he makes his most significant contribution to the corpus of Afro-American poetry” (134). (Go back.)
 9. Evidence of Brown’s greater valuation of idiom than of orthographic representation of pronunciation is found in a memorandum he wrote when he was editor for Negro fairs with the WPA Federal Writers’ Project, addressed to state directors of the project. Objecting to “excessive use of misspellings, commas, and apostrophes,” he urged that “truth to idiom be paramount, and exact truth to pronunciation secondary.” See Gabbin (73), quoting undated memorandum from Brown to state directors, “General Letters” file, Negro Studies, Federal Writers’ Project, National Archives, record group 69. (Go back.)
 10. Rowell, in “Sterling A. Brown and the Afro-American Folk Tradition,” explores Brown’s use of blues, ballads, and other folk forms; see especially 139–43. (Go back.)
 11. Ma Rainey was known for her conspicuous gold teeth. (Go back.)
 12. Shively cites Davi Evans, “Bessie Smith’s ‘Black-Water Blues,’” (101), making the point that the song became “permanently associated with” the Mississippi food. (Go back.)
 13. Except for the epilogue, Sapphira is set in 1856. Tomas Pollard explores the significance of the time setting in “Political Silence and Hist’ry in Sapphira and the Slave Girl.” (Go back.)
 14. Cather, letter to Viola Roseboro,’ November 9, 1940. (Go back.)
 15. See Ann Romines’s remarkable exploration of the role of memory in Sapphira in her “Historical Essay” accompanying the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, 297–404. Cather’s insistence on authenticity of regional language in Sapphira was anticipated by a similar insistence in a letter to Alfred Knopf of April 19, 1938, relating to a proposed translation of Death Comes for the Archbishop: “you cannot call an arroyo a ditch or a ravine” (Selected Letters 547). (Go back.)
 16. I am grateful to Ann Romines for pointing out the link of Till’s speech, in addition to her skills, to Mrs. Matchem’s tutelage, when a version of this essay was presented at the 2015 Willa Cather International Seminar. (Go back.)
 17. We can guess that part of Cather’s memory of African American speech was provided by the “long talks between my grandmother and Till and Nancy” during Nancy’s visit home, as she told Dorothy Canfeld her “strongest impressions of how things had been in the old days before the War” had come to her (Selected Letters 592). These “long talks” are represented in the epilogue to Sapphira. (Go back.)
 18. Surprisingly, Brown did not comment on Sapphira even in his summarizing article “A Century of Negro Portraiture in American Literature,” published in 1966. If any notes or letters relating to Cather exist among Brown’s papers at Howard University, I have not been able to find them. The papers are at present closed to general research. (Go back.)
 19. See Cather’s reply to Hughes’s “friendly letter” in Selected Letters, 601. (Go back.)
 20. Romines, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, 492n177. The website of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, also indicates that “The Ballad of Nancy Till was not a folk song but a composed one that came out of the minstrel tradition.” See Information about “Nancy Till” and the reference to the Bodleian site were supplied by Judith Gray, reference specialist, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, personal correspondence August 25, 2014. (Go back.)
 21. The date 1881 belies the factuality Cather claimed for it, however, since if she had been a little past five at the time, as the epilogue declares, Nancy’s return would have occurred in 1878 or 1879. (Go back.)
 22. Many other details of the epilogue can be taken as fact. Cather made it clear in letters to her brother Roscoe and others that her account of Nancy’s return was based on an actual memory that she regarded as having changed her “from a baby into a thinking being.” Selected Letters, 591, 592, 619, and an unpublished letter to Viola Roseboro,’ November 19, 1940. (Go back.)
 23. Sapphira is not Cather’s only use of dialect. As early as December 17, 1893, she tried her hand at black dialect in a Nebraska State Journal column (see Curtin, The World and the Parish 9). One of her earliest stories, “The Elopement of Allen Poole,” tries “somewhat awkwardly,” as Romines puts it, to “represent local mountain dialect” in the Blue Ridge of Virginia (“Historical Essay” 329), and several of her poems draw on various ethnic or class-based vernaculars or dialects. See Thacker, Willa Cather, April Twilights and Other Poems. (Go back.)


Benston, Kimberly W. “Listen Br’er Sterling: The Critic as Liar.” 1998. Tidwell and Tracy, 95–104.
Brown, Sterling A.“A Century of Negro Portraiture in American Literature.” Massachusetts Review 7.1 (Winter 1966): 73–96.
—. Collected Poems. Ed. Michael S. Harper. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996.
—. Letter to Benjamin A. Botkin, 19 Jan. 1930. Benjamin A. Botkin Collection of Applied American Folklore (ms 0066). Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries.
—. A Negro Looks at the South. Ed. John Edgar Tidwell and Mark A. Sanders. New York: Oxford UP, 2007.
—. Sixteen Poems, Read by Sterling A. Brown. Produced and edited by Frederic Ramsey Jr. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1973. FL9794.
—. A Son’s Return: Selected Essays. Ed. Mark A. Sanders. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996.
Cather, Willa. Letter to Viola Roseboro’, 19 Nov. 1940. Papers of Willa Cather, 1899–1949, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville.
—. Sapphira and the Slave Girl. 1940. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Ann Romines, Charles W. Mignon, et al. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2009.
—. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. New York: Knopf, 2013.
Curtin, William M., ed. The World and the Parish, vol. 1, Willa Cather’s Articles and Reviews, 1895–1902. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.
Evans, David.“Bessie Smith’s ‘Black-Water Blues’: The Story behind the Song.” Popular Music 26.1 (2007): 97–116.
Federal Writers’ Project. The Negro in Virginia. New York: Hastings House, 1940.
Gabbin, Joanne V. Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. 1985. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1994.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Review of The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown.” 1981. Tidwell and Tracy, 59–66.
—. “Dis and Dat: Dialect and the Descent.” Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction. Ed. Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto. New York: Modern Language Association, 1978. 88–119.
Glaser, Ben.“Folk Iambics: Prosody, Vestiges, and Sterling Brown’s Outline for the Study of the Poetry of American Negroes.” Publications of the Modern Languages Association of American (PMLA) 129.3 (May 2014): 417–34.
Henderson, Stephen E.“The Heavy Blues of Sterling A. Brown: A Study of Craft and Tradition.” 1981. Tidwell and Tracy, 31–57.
Johnson, James Weldon. “Introduction to Brown, Southern Road.” 1932. Tidwell and Tracy, 21–22.
Kemp, John C. Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979.
Locke, Alain. “Sterling Brown: The New Negro Folk-Poet.” 1934. Tidwell and Tracy, 23–29.
Manson, Michael Tomasek. “Worrying the Lines: Versification in Sterling Brown’s Southern Road.” Tidwell and Tracy, 111–36.
North, Michael. The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth Century Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.
O’Malley, Robert G. “An Annotated Bibliography of the Works of Sterling A. Brown.” Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. Ed. Michael S. Harper. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996. 255–67.
Pollard, Tomas.“Political Silence and Hist’ry in Sapphira and the Slave Girl.” Willa Cather’s Southern Connections: New Essays on Cather and the South. Ed. Ann Romines. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2000. 38–53.
Rodgers, Lawrence, and Jerrold Hirsch, eds. America’s Folklorist: Benjamin Botkin and American Culture. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2010.
Romines, Ann. “Historical Essay and Explanatory Notes.” Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Ann Romines, Charles W. Mignon, et al. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2009. 297–540.
Rowell, Charles H.“‘Let Me Be with Ole Jazzbo’: An Interview with Sterling A. Brown.” 1998. Tidwell and Tracy, 287–309.
—.“Sterling A. Brown and the Afro-American Folk Tradition.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 7.2 (Fall 1974): 131–52.
Sabin, Margery. “The Fate of the Frost Speaker.” Robert Frost in Context. Ed. Mark Richardson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014. 3–13.
Sanders, Mark A. Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1999.
Sheehy, Donald, Mark Richardson, and Robert Faggen, eds. The Letters of Robert Frost. Volume I, 1886–1920. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2014.
Shively, Steven B.“No ‘urbanized fake folk thing’: Benjamin Botkin, Sterling Brown, and ‘Ma Rainey.’” America’s Folklorist: B. A. Botkin and American Culture. Ed. Lawrence R. Rodgers and Jerrold Hirsch. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2010. 149–67.
Skinner, Beverly Lanier. “Sterling Brown: An Ethnographic Odyssey.” 1997. Tidwell and Tracy, 185–92.
Thacker, Robert, ed. Willa Cather, April Twilights and Other Poems. New York: Knopf, Everyman’s Library, 2013.
Tidwell, John Edgar.“Two Writers Sharing: Sterling A. Brown, Robert Frost, and ‘In Divés’ Dive.’” 1997. Tidwell and Tracy, 81–93.
Tidwell, John Edgar, and Steven C. Tracy, eds. After Winter: The Art and Life of Sterling A. Brown. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.
—.“Sterling A. Brown’s Odyssey into the Heart of Blackness.” Tidwell and Tracy, 3–18.
Wright, John S.“The New Negro Poet and the Nachal Man: Sterling Brown’s Folk Odyssey.” 1989. Tidwell and Tracy, 157–66.
Yaeger, Patricia.“White Dirt: The Surreal Racial Landscapes of Willa Cather’s South.” Willa Cather’s Southern Connections: New Essays on Cather and the South. Ed. Ann Romines. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2000. 138–57.