Harriet Beecher Stowe knew better than most that some stories are intrinsically bounded by silence: "Slavery, in some of its workings," she said, "is too dreadful for the purposes of art." It is one of the stories that no one wants to hear and no one knows how to tell, a story whose essential terms have never been admitted into narrative or even into public discourse, a story whose fundamental elements remain entombed in the not-utterable chaos of not-memory and not-recognition. In American culture, accounts of race and gender are linked by more than a metaphor: stunted, perhaps mutilated, both are remarkable as much for what has been omitted as for what has been disclosed. If their authors hope to be received by a general public, they must expect to dissemble- not to tell the whole truth and not to tell it straight. Willa Cather seems to have understood the connection between these two forbidden narratives at a very young age: "She once told of an old judge who came to call at Willow-shade, and who began stroking her curls and talking to her in the playful platitudes one addressed to little girls-and of how she horrified her mother by breaking out suddenly: 'I'se a dang'ous nigger, I is!"' (Lewis 13). How can we understand the complete meaning of this eruption? What untellable story does it intimate? And how is the story finally told (if it is told) in the only Cather novel to examine the "nigger," Sapphira and the Slave Girl?
The tantalizing childhood outburst, rich with intimation but bereft of full disclosure, captures an essential element in both the life and the work. For Cather, the process of withholding information was purposive and pervasive. Sharon O'Brien writes that in the last years of her life Cather set about destroying letters in her possession and urging friends to do the same. In her will she tried to regulate the public's access to her literary and personal texts, directing her executors to refuse radio, film, and dramatic adaptation of her fiction and forbidding publication of her correspondence.... She sought to control interpretations of her life and her fiction in the only way that seemed certain- by reducing or eliminating the evidence on which interpretation could be based. (3)
For half a century scholars have assumed that these strictures were imposed because of the author's presumed lesbianism and her desire to protect herself against salacious prying. O'Brien has speculated that intrinsic elements of the story pertain not to Cather's sexual preferences but to her choice of vocation (given the fact that she was a woman). Whatever its sources and component strains, the reticence of Cather's life extends to her work as well: there is indirect but persistent evidence of danger incompletely escaped, of some forbidden tale that is perhaps disruptive and must be submerged.
Cather's habit of withholding strong closures is one literary echo of her idiosyncratic reserve. Certain elements within her fictional worlds are even more suggestive, such as the unpredictable eruptions of violence and tales of sexual brutality that seem to bear only indirectly, if at all, upon the narrative at hand. And although no single novel of Cather's focuses explicitly upon these dark impulses, virtually none is entirely free from theme. Blanche Gelfant's superb analysis of My Ántonia disinters a chilling subtext in that fiction to account for elements like the tale of Pavel, at once so grisly and so apparently irrelevant. "Cather consistently invalidates sex.... Though the tenor of her writing is normality, [what society has defined as] normal sex stands barred from her fictional world" ("Forgotten" 95). Gelfant has chosen to concentrate upon My Ántonia; however, the unexplained and apparently random intrusions of violence in that novel are piercingly echoed in other works. Thus, in Death Comes for the Archbishop the murderous perversity that defines Pavel's sacrifice of the bride is reenacted by Magdalena's husband: She had married him six years ago, and . . . during that time he had robbed and murdered four travellers who had stopped there for the night.... Magdalena had borne three children since her marriage, and her husband had killed each of them a few days after birth, by ways so horrible that she could not relate it. After he killed the first baby, she ran away from him, back to her parents at Ranchos. He came after her and made her go home with him by threatening harm to the old people. She was afraid to go anywhere for help. (73)
In A Lost Lady the same cold savagery appears in the guise of Ivy Peters, who captures a female bird, takes out his knife, and slits her eyes with the brisk efficiency of long practice (24).
A reader familiar with all of Cather's work cannot fail to become aware of these intrusions of violence, sexual sadism, and pervasive danger. Equally insistent is the identification of some predatory force (never fully explained or explored) with a specifically masculine identity. Choking with disgust, Jim Burden smashes his snake. It was, he recollects, "not merely a big snake . . . a circus monstrosity. His abominable muscularity, his loathsome, fluid motion, somehow made me sick. He was as thick as my leg, and looked as if millstones couldn't crush the disgusting vitality out of him. He lifted his hideous little head, and rattled.... Even after I had pounded his ugly head flat, his body kept on coiling and winding, doubling and falling back on itself. I walked away and turned my back. I felt seasick" (My Ántonia 31-32). In Death Comes for the Archbishop the snake is sacred to New Mexico's natives and is kept "in utter blackness under ribs of antediluvian rock," curled inside a cave that seems to be the womb of the world itself. His presence emits a "fetid odour, not very strong but highly disagreeable," and below him is an ancient, underground river that hums "like a hive of bees, like a heavy roll of distant drums.... one of the oldest voices of the earth" (129-32).
Serpents above and below ground. Recurring water as well- rivers, lakes, secret springs and streams-often intimating the very essence of life but also suggesting the regressive pull of a deep, extinguishing void. Are they archetypal symbols of good and evil or real and present dangers? It is almost as if Cather taunts us with these insistent figures only to baffle us by withholding elaboration. What would the "oldest voice of the earth" disclose if it could commit itself to narrative?
Perhaps these puzzles lead us to expect too much of Cather's Künstlerroman, as if the enigmas of her other works (and perhaps of her life as well) could be displaced into the plight of her female artists-examined and clarified. Instead, something very like the opposite occurs. Although The Song of the Lark is in many respects a compelling piece of fiction and Lucy Gayheart is at the least intriguing, neither of them examines the unspoken story of that "dang'ous nigger" girl. Instead, both urge the importance, indeed the overriding necessity, of subjecting unruly impulses and untellable tales to a regimen of disciplined, ordered control. As a result, in Cather's treatment of her female artists there is a certain sterility, a flattening of tone and a foreshortening of possibilities rather than an expansion that can deal with the unresolved complexities of life and work.
It is not surprising, then, that Cather's examinations of art and the artist have a sometimes formulaic component and that in selecting the criteria by which the creative process might be judged she found the theories of Nietzsche both congenial and useful. Those loosely drawn from the Nietzschean philosophy, popularized in American intellectual circles during the first decade of her novel-writing career, were especially serviceable, for they provided two structural assumptions that could stabilize her tentative fictional speculations. First, they postulated a comprehensive paradigm for art and the artist, specifically, the notion that some balance between "Dionysian" power and "Apollonian" order is a necessary condition for great work; second, they argued a persuasive rationale for expunging all particularity-all that is merely "personal"-from the artist's life and work. In Cather's case, the most important of these may have been the second, for it described a model that could address the specific case of the female artist.
For most of her life Cather construed "femininity" as one of the "personal" elements forbidden to artists. The conviction was so strong (and probably so painful) that during adolescence she cropped her hair, cross-dressed, and renamed herself William Cather. The full implications of this remarkable behavior on the part of a respectable young woman at the height of the Victorian era cannot be identified. O'Brien suggests that it was an attempt to "redefine rather than to reject female identity" and that "in a sense, her male impersonation was her first major work of fiction, a text in which she was both author and character" (101, 97). Cather was always entranced by the stage, and her impertinent, flamboyant garb has a very theatrical air, a gesture of costume or of some defiant masquerade that became an ostentatious shield against the defining, possessing male gaze. Withal, some fearful motive seems to lie behind the bravado and inventiveness, for this entire performance has a lingering air of camouflage and disguise. (The realization that in 1888 no fourteen-year-old could have sustained this charade without her mother's complicity merely deepens the mystery.)
Nonetheless, whatever the full story of the brief-lived "William Cather," the brash enactment of this role bespeaks Cather's energy, her remarkable determination to live intensely and to wrest opportunity from an unsympathetic world. It is puzzling, then, that the intensity of such bold defiance is missing from Cather's portrayal of female artists; even in the stronger of her two Künstlerroman Cather's construction of the artist's life seems to have been shaped more by philosophical or aesthetic theories than by the vitality and vicissitudes of a passionate will to "live." Cather herself expressed disappointment with The Song of the Lark, excising about seven thousand words when she revised the novel during the 1930s and writing in an apologetic preface that "the chief fault of the book is that it describes a descending curve; the life of a successful artist in the full tide of achievement is not so interesting as the life of a talented young girl 'fighting her way,' as we say" (5). Perhaps it is true, as Cather asserts, that "success is never so interesting as struggle." However, insofar as that is the case, has not the struggle been futile after all: if the victory is hollow, why engage in the fray? A more incisive assessment might conclude that the mature Thea Kronborg is somehow "empty," that the tale of her life is flawed because the "untellable story" that haunts her creator has been so deeply buried that its presence can be inferred only by looking into the novel's lacunae.
The most notable absence is that of sexual passion. The long history of the female Künstlerroman in America traces a generally unsuccessful attempt to make artistic creativity compatible with marriage or motherhood or some other form of sexual and sensual fulfillment; and following this accepted pattern, critics have noted that Cather inverts usual gender roles in Thea's relationships with men. Yet the truth is that Thea finds the question of whether she will adopt the male or the female role entirely immaterial once she has achieved aesthetic "completion," because marriage itself is of such trivial importance. "Who marries who is a small matter, after all," she dismissively informs Fred (559).
This magisterial indifference reflects the more general reconstruction of time and memory that characterizes Thea Kronborg's nature. If Dr. Archie's longing for "twenty splendid years!" gives voice to the aspirations of ordinary humankind, Thea's extraordinary gifts impel her toward an ultimate reality where nothing matters except the purified power of existence itself-immutable, impassive, and impervious to individual pain and joy. Harsanyi first describes such a life to Thea in his metaphor of the fluid river that is perturbed by neither tragedies nor victories. Eventually Thea will formulate the notion for herself: life defined not by the actual pleasures of everyday existence but by the abstract essence of life- concentrated, depersonalized, and collective. Existence magically independent of clock time and of all the things that time can measure.
The human relationships that give shape and meaning to a temporal continuum are also inconsequent to the artist thus defined: "life" exists only in isolated, discontinuous moments of artistic fulfillment, and memory as most people understand it is of little value. Thus Thea "recollects" her Moonstone past only through certain unconscious habits of mind, such as the abiding notion that "respectable" women do not live with men unless they are married to them (559). She reenters "her father's front door," but only in dreams while she is sleeping (565); and although once after a performance she passes Spanish Johnny in a crowd "so near that he could have touched her," she fails even to notice him (573).
But the most intriguing theme is Thea's snakes. As a child she had been afraid of them; as an adult she must explore the gorge that "twisted and wound like a snake" in order to be instructed in sacred knowledge. Here in Panther Canyon, Thea will formulate the aesthetic that defines her work: "What was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself?" Here she also discovers the centuries-old remnants of other women's art, delicately embellished pottery that is both a vessel for the "sovereign" water of life and a visible emblem for the "sheath" of art. And here at last, the sinister, sinuous snake is conclusively disempowered: transformed into art, it is rendered lifeless and harmless, arrested forever, "a crested serpent's head painted in red on terra-cotta"(378-79). There is something deeply disquieting about this "Keatsian" transformation, a metamorphosis that is perhaps maiming, an affirmation of "life" that has the air of death about it.
Indeed, the containments and exclusions of Thea's nature are often disturbing, sometimes almost repellant, implying a sense of entitlement that permits her to ignore or discard others with impunity. Early in her career she grows "moody and contemptuous" toward casual acquaintances (who in turn find her "cold, self-centered, and unimpressionable"); and her progress toward artistic fulfillment is marked by an ever-increasing dismissiveness with regard to the emotional claims of others (327, 484-85). The reader can, with difficulty, understand Thea's decision not to come home when her mother is dying; however, it has the peculiar and disturbing sense of being somehow "unwomanly." Her failure to feel remorse or even conflict over the loss of a last meeting with her mother is much more than unsettling: it is either inauthentic or monstrous.
Feminist scholarship has found that the life narratives of women are generally different from men's, manifesting a respect for connectedness rather than exclusion, "continuity and change in configuration, rather than replacement and separation" (Gilligan 48). Kronborg's mature habits of mind and her ways of dealing with the world often seem so explicitly "masculine" by these standards that they almost convey the illusion of a man disguised in woman's garb, a cross-dressing male imposter. (Has William Cather reemerged, then, in some odd, mirror-imaging persona, wearing different, more elegant and sophisticated camouflage?)
Insofar as Thea's fulfillment has transformed her into a priceless, unfeeling vessel, she is radically different from the female artist who created her. By the time Willa Cather wrote The Song of the Lark she had already forged many lasting ties of friendship and passion; and far from discarding the past, she regarded it as an essential element of her art. In a 1921 interview she explained, "I've always had a habit of remembering mannerisms, turns of speech.... The phraseology of [the prairie] people stuck in my mind. If I had made notes, or should make them now, the material collected would be dead. No, it's memory-the memory that goes with the vocation. When I sit down to write, turns of phrase I've forgotten for years come back like white ink before fire" (In Person 20). When Cather's own mother finally entered her last, long infirmity, the author traveled the breadth of the country to be at her side for extended Visits. It is not surprising, then, that even Willa Cather was eventually troubled by the emptychrysalis-quality of Kronborg in her success-purged of time and memory and passion-devoid of the very elements that were most important to her author and most tenaciously "interesting" to Cather's readers.
Cather's next Künstlerroman, Lucy Gayheart is significant principally as a transitional narrative; resonant with Nietzschean notions, it summons them only to disavow them. Although we are asked to believe that Lucy was an artist, it is the exclusively "personal" element of her nature that lingers after death. Her sole aesthetic achievement is a legacy of vivid recollection to unite past with present for those who knew her. The Song of the Lark had renounced the claims of connectedness-time, memory, and continuity; Lucy Gayheart, circumscribed by poignant reminiscence, pays homage to them. It begins: The townspeople still talk of Lucy Gayheart. They do not talk of her a great deal, to be sure; life goes on and we live in the present. But when they do mention her name it is with a gentle glow in the face or the voice, a confidential glance which says: "Yes, you, too, remember?"
And it concludes: Lucy was the best thing [Gordon] had to remember.... When he came out of the house the last intense light of the winter day was pouring over the town below him.... After all, he was thinking, he would never go away from Haverford; he had been through too much here ever to quit the place for good. What was a man's "home town," anyway, but the place where he had had disappointments and had learned to bear them. As he was leaving the Gayhearts', he paused mechanically on the sidewalk, as he had done so many thousand times, to look at the three light footprints, running away. (3, 223, 231)
A sundown novel; a novel about "home," about the girl who ran away but still abides; a novel that celebrates the art of memory, reunion, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is an appropriate prelude to Sapphira and the Slave Girl.
It took Willa Cather a long time to write her last novel. Edith Lewis noticed "a sort
of fixed determination [in this project that] was different from her ordinary working
mood; as if she were bringing all her powers into play to save this, whatever else
was lost" (184). A great deal already had been lost: both parents were dead, and her
brother Douglass had been stricken unexpectedly by a fatal heart attack in 1938.
Lewis recollects that
she had often been urged to write a Virginia novel; but for a long time some
sort of inhibition-a reluctance, perhaps, to break through to those old memories that
seemed to belong to another life-had deterred her....
I think it was the death of
her father and mother, and the long train of associations and memories their death
set in motion that led her to write Sapphira.... When she did finally begin the
writing. . . , it was with her whole power and concentration. (Lewis 181-82)
I think it was the death of her father and mother, and the long train of associations and memories their death set in motion that led her to write Sapphira.... When she did finally begin the writing. . . , it was with her whole power and concentration. (Lewis 181-82)
Cather's last completed effort, Sapphira and the Slave Girl explores the oldest, deepest things: Virginia, slavery, the untellable story.
Toni Morrison, who, like Mrs. Stowe, understands such stories better than most, has rebuked Willa Cather for using the "serviceable . . . African presence" for her own (empowered white) ends, for appropriating the "slave narrative" to tell someone else's story-in short, for having created a fiction that "leads to the inescapable conclusion that Cather was dreaming and redreaming her problematic relationship with her own mother" (Dark 27, 24). It is a justifiable complaint: the slave narrative is a quintessentially African American form; however, the blacks of Sapphira and the Slave Girl in no way "own" the story. One can carry such observations even further than Morrison is disposed to do. Not only is Nancy too much "a cipher" and "a perfect victim" to make some distinctive imprint upon the tale, as Morrison argues, but her very name, like the name of her mother, bespeaks the author's convenience rather than some intrinsic quality of the young woman herself. Nancy is a generic term, slang for a well-intentioned girl who has been sexually compromised; and Till is not really a proper name at all, but merely a conjunction that denotes temporal connection. In this tale, Cather was to some extent playing with puppets, shadow figures whose significance is essentially metaphoric, and evidently she knew what she was doing.
There is a great deal going on not far below the surface of Cather's last fiction. For example, there is the narrative's gradual revelation of its intrinsically aesthetic interest (and of the canny way this interest is concealed): this is a Künstlerroman in camouflage, and far from being an anomaly, the novel's most remarkable character, five-year-old "Willa Cather" as nascent author, is but the last in the series of female artists who dominate the fiction. The most obvious antecedent for young Willa Cather, perhaps really a shadow self for the little white girl, is the "yaller gal," Nancy Till, whose rumored painter-father is less a source of talent than a flagrant marker for art. "The girl had a natural delicacy of feeling. Ugly sights and ugly words sickened her.... But she was not courageous" (43-44), merely unaware of the danger surrounding her. Persephone-like, she is enraptured by the flowers of spring: "Once.... when the yellow Easter flowers (jonquils) were just bursting into bloom, she had gathered a handful on her way to the mill and put them in one of the copper tankards on the shelf. She thought the yellow flowers looked pretty in the copper. [The miller expressed delight at her nice touch, and] after that, when she could do so unobserved, Nancy often stopped to pick a bunch of whatever flowers were coming on, and took them down to the mill under her apron" (65). She has no motive save innocent affection and the desire to create beauty; yet unintentionally, her gesture stirs the miller's feelings and inspires Sapphira's jealous rage. Thus Nancy's artistic inclination is at the root of her trouble, and her timidity combines with her actual helplessness to become a fatal handicap.
This doubling of artistic daughters (Nancy and five-year-old Willa) is more than matched by the series of artist-mothers. Sapphira is "not unhandy with the pen" (30); however, her principal aesthetic amusement is to manipulate the world like a living drama. Thus the threat of seduction and rape enacted by Martin Colbert's visit becomes "almost as good as a play" for the hostess who has staged it (199). Yet the final moments of Sapphira's play do not take place until twenty-five years later, when, in the last section of the novel, another impresaria, Cather's own ,'mother," produces a memorable scene for her daughter. Moreover, when this concluding scene is combined with Cather's comment about it- "Ever since I could remember anything, I had heard about Nancy. My mother used to sing me to sleep with [the song]" (281)-they commemorate yet a third maternal artist, Willa Cather's literary "mother" and mentor, Sara Orne Jewett. Jewett once remarked that "the thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper-whether little or great, it belongs to Literature" (Cather, Stories 849). No other sentiment has been so often cited as formative for Cather's work. Willa Cather paraphrased it many times herself, and in her last novel she breathed personal meaning into it by reviving those ancient memories from her own life that had "teased the mind over and over for years"- the plight of a "dang'ous nigger" girl and her mother's lullaby "Nancy Till."
Countless things suggest that Cather's last novel had its roots in the earliest days of her life. Woodress asserts that "the idea for a Virginia novel must have been in her mind for a number of years" (481), and even the author herself acknowledged that in the case of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, "her end was her beginning." By 1940 Cather's life had almost completed its ruminative, successful course. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that in this last, most covert Künstlerroman she finally discards the malecentered, Nietzschean theories that had dominated her considerations of the artist for so long and replaces them with the archetypal female myth of aesthetic creativity, the story of Demeter and Persephone.
The signature elements of this tale within the novel are so clear that Cather must have intended the myth to play an explicit fictional role. Book 7, "Nancy's Flight," opens when "the wheat harvest was nearly over," the precise moment in the season's cycle when Demeter and Persephone must be separated (215). Once embarked, Nancy is smuggled along under the pretense that she is a dead body ("I'm carrying a coffin home" 12-341), and although "her mind [is] frozen with homesickness and dread" (237) as the ferryman transports her across the dark river into exile, Rachel's parting words promise reunion: "Good-bye, Nancy! We shall meet again" (239). The intervening period is entitled "The Dark Autumn," and the final section, "Nancy's Return," which begins, appropriately, in March with the advent of spring, is a joyous reconciliation between all the many mothers and daughters whose lives have been described or dreamed by this novel. Making her own private peace with the world of women's ways, Cather also used these mythic elements to announce her work as part of a distinctly female tradition, embracing the implications of an inheritance that she had always tacitly accepted but never before imputed to her artist-heroines.
The implications of the Demeter-Persephone legend are immense. It celebrates the immediate and the personal, not some distant, unchanging realm of inviolate "reality." It accepts the passage of time, as well as loss and pain, confident that reconciliation and regeneration can compensate for them; moreover, it identifies this regenerative power as intrinsically (and uniquely) female. But most important, it insists upon the unalterable connection between past and present, upon the essential role of memory in all the processes of understanding and artistic creativity, upon memory as an essential component in the process of healing.
Within this last novel, our understanding of Sapphira will be fatally compromised unless we acknowledge the force of time and the need to comprehend her within the larger context provided by memory. Dropsical as a toad, Sapphira begins the novel by blandly proposing to sell Nancy Till; and when her husband declines the suggestion, she vents her rage by delivering several blows to the girl offstage ("a smacking sound, three times: the wooden back of a hairbrush striking someone's cheek or arm" ). Thus, when she invites Martin Colbert into her home with the explicit intention of watching Nancy become his helpless victim, she seems little more than a grotesque embodiment of malice. However, although there can be no doubt that many of her actions are vicious-contemptible and thoroughly reprehensible- it is both too easy and too inclusive to construe her as an ultimate source of corruption in the fiction.
Sapphira herself had also been a fugitive. The world of her youth had been cruelly rigid for women, offering no dignified position for an unmarried female of twenty-four, still less a place for an independent, decisive woman with a keen sense of business. Marriage to Henry Colbert, an honest, energetic, "upright" man (4)- above all, perhaps, a man who could say to his wife, "You're the master here, and I'm the miller. And that's how I like it to be" (50)- had been an eminently practical solution. Yet the choice had forced Sapphira to flee: Henry's "plain manners, his calling, vague ancestry, even his Lutheran connections would have made her social position rather awkward.... [so] the bride chose Back Creek for her place of exile because she owned a very considerable property there" (50). Few could have been more courageous, more inventive, more tenacious than Sapphira. As a man she might have held high office or shaped the wilderness into a kingdom; as a woman she must settle for life in a Back Creek, with her own version of a "capon" marriage. What alternative had there been but this sensible accommodation?
Yet the common-sense solution could not address every need, and little by little, time has robbed Sapphira of her handsome vigor without satisfying her need for secured affection and sexual admiration. Once Henry's solicitude has fixed upon Nancy- once he has refused to have the girl sent away- Sapphira all but drowns in the scenarios of betrayal that run through her brain. Exiled and dying, she has exhausted virtually all the options available to her, and her wounded vanity becomes perverted- voyeuristic and vicious.
Since (as Morrison has so aptly observed) Cather's real story has little to do with African Americans, why did the author elect to tell a slave's story? A child of the South before she became a child of the prairie, Cather, like Mrs. Stowe, understood that, especially in the case of women, unutterable tales of violence and sexual abuse lie behind even the most "tellable" story of slavery. Thus while Rachel's realization that "it was the owning that was wrong, the relation itself, no matter how convenient or agreeable" is patently true (137), Henry Colbert's anguished sentiment "Were we not all in bonds?" is probably more germane to the central concerns of this novel (110). just as the black characters are all really shadow substitutes for "white" concerns, so "slavery" is only a metaphor for some other evil of existence; and to truly heal the wounds of the past, one must recollect even the most "untellable" of its tales.
Oblivious, perhaps, to historical fact, Cather has created a world in which all the women, both black and white, have more in common with each other than any of them have in common with the men of their color. What they share is vulnerability, and the trope "slavery" merely articulates the nature of their peril: in this novel, the eruptions of sexual brutality have finally become central.
The world of Cather's last completed fiction is filled with Edenic beauty-May apples and dogwood and the tangle of wild honeysuckle. Yet violence and violation lurk everywhere in this beautiful world, and the implacable force behind them is sexual: the white males almost to a man are sexual predators, and all the women are their prey. Even Rachel's brief escape into the wider world of Washington turns upon an inversion of this force: Michael Blake "had watched her face in the candle-light. . . . After he rode away, he could think of nothing but Rachel when ever he was alone" (133), and his romantic obsession transforms him into a deus ex machina to carry her off. "She felt for him all that was due to a rescuer and a saviour" (134).
With two daughters who have been "fooled" and only a frail, lame son, Mrs. Ringer
offers the best description of the situation:
Mrs. Ringer couldn't read or write, as she was frank to tell you, but the
truth was she could read everything most important: the signs of the seasons, the
meaning of the way the wood creatures behaved, and human faces....
"It would all
a-been different, Miz Blake, if my Lawndis was a strong man. Then he could
a-tracked down the fellers an' fit with 'em, an' made 'em marry his sisters. But
them raskels knowed my pore gals hadn't nobody to stand up fur 'em. Fellers is
skeered to make free with a gal that's got able men folks to see she gits her
"It would all a-been different, Miz Blake, if my Lawndis was a strong man. Then he could a-tracked down the fellers an' fit with 'em, an' made 'em marry his sisters. But them raskels knowed my pore gals hadn't nobody to stand up fur 'em. Fellers is skeered to make free with a gal that's got able men folks to see she gits her rights."(119, 171)
All girls and women are potential victims, lambs for the wolf of male sexuality. Only the empowered men of their own families can afford these females protection from the ever-present danger, and when such men fail, their women are lost to a wilderness of sexual predators.
Even "good" men (like Michael Blake) have a rakish, wild history. It is more than tolerated: by more than a few it is admired. And Martin Colbert, with the blue tooth punctuating his wide, white smile- a memento from two brothers avenging the sister whom Martin had "fooled"- is in no way an anomaly. "Everyone in the Blue Ridge country and in Winchester knew the story of Martin's blue tooth. Many of them agreed with Sapphira: that Martin deserved what he got, but that spirited young men were wild and always would be" (163)
For Nancy, Martin's entrance marks the end of innocence and the onset of terror.
There are no actual snakes in this Cather novel; the "snake" has taken human form
slithered into the garden. One morning, Nancy appears unexpectedly at Rachel Blake's
"I'm afraid to go up the holler road. . . .
"Afraid? What of?
"No'm, I ain't afraid of no snakes.... Oh, Mis Blake, [Mr Martin'll] shorely ride
up there an' overtake me in the woods! "She hid her face in her hands and began to
cry. "You don't know how it is, mam. He's always a-pesterin' me, 'deed he is. I
has to do his room for him, an' he's always after me. I'm 'shamed to tell you.
He'll be shore to over take me up in the woods." (168)
"Afraid? What of? Blacksnakes?"
"No'm, I ain't afraid of no snakes.... Oh, Mis Blake, [Mr Martin'll] shorely ride up there an' overtake me in the woods! "She hid her face in her hands and began to cry. "You don't know how it is, mam. He's always a-pesterin' me, 'deed he is. I has to do his room for him, an' he's always after me. I'm 'shamed to tell you. He'll be shore to over take me up in the woods." (168)
The Double S ravine where they meet (countrymen loved to trill the sound: "I'd jist got as fur as the Double e-S-S") hisses the danger that Martin represents (171), just as the two s's entwine Sapphira and Slave Girl in serpentine horror.
Most terrifying of all, of course, is the snake that stirs in Henry Colbert's vitals, because Henry is, or ought to be, the embodiment of empowered, protective male authority, the sentinel to ward off sexual violation from the women of his house: "Now and then the actual realization of Martin's designs would flash into his mind. The poison in the young scamp's blood seemed to stir something in his own. The Colbert in him threatened to raise its head after long hibernation." He reassures himself that he would never harm Nancy. Indeed, he attempts to avoid her. But the snake within, once wakened, will not subside. Henry "told himself that in trying to keep a close watch on Martin, he had begun to see through Martin's eyes. Sometimes in his sleep that preoccupation with Martin, the sense of almost being Martin, came over him like a black spell" (209). Paralyzed or hypnotized, Henry can do no more than watch with dreadful fascination. Disarmed by his own unruly inclinations, perhaps entranced into voyeuristic enjoyment of a drama in which he declines to participate directly, he cannot-or will not-protect the child from harm.
Thus it is that Nancy must accept Rachel Blake's help and flee to foreign soil, there to endure her many years of exile. Silent years for the purposes of this fiction. Time passes; at length, Nancy returns, and the story can be concluded.
The final book of the novel, "Nancy's Return," is exquisitely lyrical. It celebrates "bridges "-continuity, the resolution of old differences, and the ineradicable importance of "home." If there is "change," it is for the better. Enmity and the predatory snake have been banished; this has become an entirely safe world, and as we move toward the novel's conclusion, it also becomes a world inhabited exclusively by women. (Even the "father" who has driven the stage from the station remains outside the house.)
When Nancy makes her entrance, we can see that she has been transformed: no longer a frightened child, she is a tall, "goldskinned woman" dressed in furs and a turban. She wears "a black silk dress" with a "gold watch-chain," and there is something "smooth and measured in her movements" as she talks about her husband and children and their cottage "at the end of the park" (283-85). This regal Nancy and that frightened girl of the story make a striking double vision. No less striking is the double vision of "Willa Cather" at this point in the novel.
The author has introduced a construct of "herself" into this last section, a child "something over five years old, and . . . kept in bed on that memorable day because I had a cold" (279). Yet if ever the reader could visualize another Willa Cather it would have been in 1940, when she published this, her last novel. Willa Cather was the name on the spine of the book-The Author-by then a famous name. It was the name of a woman who had won a Pulitzer prize, who had received many honorary degrees, who had just completed an "edition" of her work. Cather (The Author) and Nancy (the golden-skinned woman), Cather (the child) and Nancy (the "lissome" yaller gal): undeniable doubles, the two women-the two children that they once had been-reflecting one another.
Bit by bit, the author suggests, Till confided Nancy's tale to the little white girl who became Willa Cather, The Author: it was in Till's cabin that "I heard the old stories and saw Till's keepsakes and treasures" (291). Yet Till's narrative never finds its way directly into the novel. What would it be? What relationship might it bear to the story that the famous author ultimately wrote? What relationship does either story have to the life of The Author, herself a fugitive who lived in exile for so many years and returned in reconciliation at the end to forgive ... What?
Powerfully suggestive as this novel surely is, the deepest narrative of Willa Cather's own life remains obscure. Whatever the tale, it was-for that woman, living in that time and place-an "untellable" story. And thus it remains to the end, except by indirection, untold. Today we would call the account of Nancy's trials a story of abuse. Would Willa Cather's own "untellable" tale be such a story? Sapphira and the Slave Girl may be the only intimation of an answer we will ever get.
Anyone who supposes that America has significantly relaxed the limitations it has always imposed upon the stories of women and blacks should read Toni Morrison's response to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power.
All explanations that have been advanced for this practice, however divergent, share the premise that something has been omitted, that there is some "untold" (and perhaps "untellable") story whose contours must be invoked to understand the story-as-told-between-the-boards and bring it to an adequate conclusion. One appealing argument suggests that Cather "identified men with progress and change, linear time, and an end-determined imagination" and that she "turned around . . . traditional forms to suggest alternatives to the very conventions they represent" (Rosowski, "Subverted Endings" 75, 78). If this is the case, endings that seem unfinished might really be alternate modes of ordering. Rosowski's account of Cather's closures, though advanced in what seems a clear response to arguments like those of Lambert, does not respond completely; it fails in the way that Lambert argues such arguments must always fail, namely, by accepting the symbol for the substance. Take, for example, Rosowski's claim that "the history of Thea [ends] with her leaving the mortal world and entering 'the kingdom of art"' (77). Such a "conclusion" would suffice in lyric poetry because verse does not pretend to have a real-world referent or to correspond to material "actuality." By contrast, in analyzing a novel, one must ask what it means on some quotidian, day-to-day basis for Thea to enter "the kingdom of art" and (presumably) to live there. At the simplest level, some elaboration of this notion is necessary to keep the phrase from designating an empty category and slipping into nonsense; and it is precisely this necessary elaboration that becomes one of the submerged "fictions" that must be invoked to complete the paradigm presented by Rosowski's analysis of the novel.
By contrast, Lambert's account of Cather's unconscious subversion of Antonia's "heroic" status is very persuasive. "She becomes an idea and disappears under a symbolic weight, leaving for [Jim Burden's] friends and companions her highly individualized male children. . . . By the novel's conclusion, Cather has capitulated to a version of that syndrome in which the unusual, achieving woman recommends to other women as their privilege and destiny that which she herself avoided" (689, 688). According to this analysis, insofar as the reader unthinkingly accepts the "fact" of Antonia's mythic heroism, he or she must import stereotypical Earth Mother notions into the fiction to accommodate it and must decline to take account of the actual daily life that is led by a toothless, exhausted, middle-aged farm woman.
Harris's summation of Cather's position is also persuasive. "Clearly, complicated forces were at work inside her psyche. Struggling with the growing awareness of her sexual nature and wishing desperately to be accepted by the male literary establishment, she denigrated women artists in her early newspaper writing and fiction simply because.... like Gertrude Stein, she perceived no other way to claim a place for herself in a writing community dominated by men. Although many of Cather's attitudes about women are confusing, one thing is abundantly clear: [at this point in her career], Willa Cather does not sit comfortably among other American women writers in a female literary tradition" (89). Here the "missing" or "untellable" narrative lies entirely outside of Cather's fictions; it is the possibility of ridicule and exclusion that Cather felt as an always-threatening force upon her life, not because of her sexual preference but merely because she was a woman professional in a world dominated by men.
One factor that critics often overlook (or perhaps find difficult to factor into their assessments) is the extent to which otherwise well-intentioned women writers are bullied into adopting "anti-female" attitudes because of the pressures to conform in a society that is still dominated by male prejudices. Like many other distinguished (and nearly distinguished) woman writers, Cather may have declined to write the full story of the woman writer's anguish not merely because her society might reject it but also because she had never found words adequate to delineate its unique pain.(Go back.)
H. L. Mencken had published The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche in 1908, and shortly thereafter he had passed some time as literary critic for The Smart Set, where he could "push his views of Nietzsche" whenever the occasion to do so arose (Crunden 188).
Nietzsche's well-known description of this paradigm can be found in his account of the "myth-opposing" elements of Greek drama that were introduced by Sophocles (108-9). One might argue that for Nietzsche the successful achievement of the designation "artist" was intrinsically a "de-gendering" one for both males and females. Insofar as we can recognize gender-feminine and masculine-in a social situation, it is a construct, and necessarily one that to some extent compromises the will to power. Perhaps it goes without saying that the possibility of a woman artist was one that Nietzsche never considered; however, his comments about women (and about the feminine principle in The Twilight of the Idols or Ecce Homo or Beyond Good and Evil) leave little doubt that his prototypical artist was male.(Go back.)
So Thea tells Dr. Archie, "'Your work becomes your personal life. You are not much good until it does. It's like being woven into a big web.... It takes you up, and uses you, and spins you out; and that is your life. Not much else can happen to you'" (546).
The various formulations of this "ultimate reality" throughout the novel clearly reiterate Nietzsche's account of the Dionysian force of pure ungoverned aesthetic power- a force that exists beyond the boundaries of both time and memory: "Amid the ceaseless flux of phenomena I am the eternally creative primordial mother, eternally impelling to existence." Although such power, once achieved, must be controlled and shaped by the myth-making Apollonian element, it never descends to a pursuit of subjective pleasure because the fully achieved artist exchanges "self" for those few moments when she is "primordial being itself" (Nietzsche 4).(Go back.)
Certainly this moment when the snake is frozen into
art is meant to rob all "snakes" of power (if not to kill them). Afterwards, Thea
ceases to be afraid, and she can literally begin the upward climb that will
lead her to artistic fulfillment. Fred warns her against too much independence and
ambition, saying, "Go on if you like, but I'm here to enjoy myself. If you meet a
rattler on the way, have it out with him." However, Thea is not daunted by the
She hesitated, fanning herself with her felt hat. "I never have met one."... Thea turned away resolutely and began to go up the wall, using an irregular
cleft in the rock for a path....
Looking up, [Fred] saw Thea standing on the edge of a projecting crag. She waved
to him and threw her arm over her head, as if she were snapping her fingers in the
She hesitated, fanning herself with her felt hat. "I never have met one."...
Thea turned away resolutely and began to go up the wall, using an irregular cleft in the rock for a path....
Looking up, [Fred] saw Thea standing on the edge of a projecting crag. She waved to him and threw her arm over her head, as if she were snapping her fingers in the air. (396-97)
Stouck has observed the grand movement of Cather's work: "It was the author's conviction in later years that not art but only life truly matters in the end. Consequently Willa Cather's last fictions occupy that paradoxical, but not uncommon, position of works of art pointing to their own devaluation" (290).
Stouck does not comment upon the way Cather merged life and art- transformed certain everyday events in these later fictions into works of "art"; and nowhere is this process more clearly demonstrated than in Cather's last two novels.(Go back.)
The inescapable truth of Toni Morrison's accusation that Cather was using the black characters as a convenience to tell some "white" story of importance to herself is nowhere clearer than in the dynamics of the novel's conclusion. The unmentioned "artist" of the final section is Till, whose story, from which all else devolves, is nonexistent in terms of this fictional world because it is never disclosed, save indirectly. The principal focus of the last section ought to be Nancy and Till. It is they, after all, who have been reunited after two and a half decades of separation; and in every true slave narrative, when such a reunion takes place it is (of course) the feelings of the principals that take center stage. Yet here the blacks are entirely subordinated to the whites, whose stage -directions they so obediently follow. We do not know their feelings-presumably we are not supposed to care!-and the novel has been structured so that most readers are not liable to notice the omission. In my judgment, this omission is the most glaringly racist element in the novel: it is not malicious, merely dismissive of the African American characters, who function throughout the novel only as shadow figures for the still untellable stories of the story's unself-consciously empowered white teller.
The structure and emphasis of the fiction thus compel us to conclude that Cather has told Nancy's Till's story, not for its intrinsic interest, but only because it is an adequate disguise for the story she really wants to tell: an otherwise "untellable" tale of white mothers-and-daughters. This is precisely the kind of appropriation, subordination, and displacement that Cather herself rebelled against (in the case of women) for her entire life!(Go back.)