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From Cather Studies Volume 5

Admiring and Remembering

The Problem of Virginia

"Life began for me," Willa Cather famously said, "when I ceased to admire and began to remember" (Sergeant 107). Literally, of course, life had begun for her in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, in the Reconstruction days of 1873. In the more than nine childhood years Willa Cather lived there, in Back Creek Valley, she found much to admire. According to Edith Lewis, Cather's "Virginia life was one of great richness, tranquil and ordered and serene," free "from all tension and nervous strain" (12). But Cather discovered early that admiration, a largely passive state of acceptance and celebration, was not a mode in which she could grow as a writer. Another of Cather's often-cited Virginia anecdotes, recounted by Lewis, is the story of the "old judge who came to call at Willowshade [sic], and who began stroking her curls and talking to her in the playful platitudes one addressed to little girls." The child "horrified her mother by breaking out suddenly: 'I'se a dang'ous nigger, I is!'" (13). Among its many other implications, this is a story about the dangers of admiration—and of becoming its passive female subject. And it indicates that, even as a small girl, Willa Cather knew another story about Virginia, one that encompassed violence and racial (and perhaps gender and class) tensions.

When the young Willa Cather began to write fiction at the University of Nebraska, Virginia memories were among the first resources she turned to. "The Elopement of Allen Poole," published in a university literary magazine when she was nineteen, is a melodramatic tale that awkwardly tries to represent Virginia mountain dialect; its plot concerns a poor white bootlegger (a common Blue Ridge occupation) who is shot by a revenuer en route to his elopement. The narrator affects an easy familiarity with Southern manners and class conventions: "It takes a man of the south to do nothing perfectly, and Allen was as skilled in that art as were any of the F.F.V.'s who wore broadcloth" (19-20). (An F.F.V. is a member of a First Family of Virginia, as Cather assumed, perhaps erroneously, that her Nebraska readers would know.) But what is most skillful about this story is its precise evocation of a place that the young author has not seen for ten years. Readers of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, published forty-seven years later, will recognize many local particulars—Bethel Church, Timber Ridge (here renamed Limber Ridge), the swinging bridge over Back Creek—and above all the botanical, environmental specificity: "sleepy pine woods, slatey ground. . . . the laurels . . . just blushing into bloom. . . . the fields of wheat and corn, and among them the creek . . . between its willow-grown banks. . . . the mowers swinging their cradles. . . . the Blue Ridge . . . against the sky" (20). In this lucid microcosm, wild and cultivated plants and local geology seem to coexist in a harmonious ecosystem.Yet, as Cynthia GriffinWolff has astutely noted, the story is laced with violence, not only Allen's murder but his fears, as he dies in his lover's arms, that he might have lived to abuse her.

In 1896, Cather made another attempt to use her Virginia sources, with "A Night at Greenway Court," a swashbuckling tale of Lord Fairfax, her great-great-grandparents' patron, whose nearbyVirginia estate she had visited as a child. This story seems a rehearsal for A Lost Lady, with a star-struck youth defending the honor of a lady and a lord by an act of discretion—the refusal to relate the memory of a duel—that costs him a king's favor. Although he is in England and far from Virginia, the young man has no regrets, he says, "for I had kept my friend's secret and shielded a fair lady's honor, which are the two first duties of a Virginian" (61).

The question of what "the first duties of a [displaced] Virginian" might be to her memories of her native state must have been telling toWilla Cather in her early Pittsburgh years, her first extended separation from her beloved Southern family. One of the best stories from those years, "The Sentimentality ofWilliam Tavener," is a probing study of how memories and relics of Virginia affect the domestic equilibrium of a Nebraska family and reinforce the bonds of the wife and husband, both Virginia emigrants. William and Hester Tavener, whose marriage has become so businesslike that they are emotionally estranged, accidentally find that they share childhood memories of a circus back in Virginia and discover a world of affectionate recollections that they can happily share, rekindling their love for one another. However, this happy discovery alters the dynamics of the Tavener household: no longer can the Tavener sons count on their mother to side with them against their father. And Hester Tavener's allegiances to her Virginia past are subtly changed, too. When prairie flies buzz around her sleeping husband's face, she expresses her renewed tenderness for him by removing a piece of mosquito netting from a treasured ornament—a basket of wax fruit made in Virginia by her dead sister—and using the net to protect her husband's face. The small adjustment signals a reordering of priorities, privileging living, narrative memories of Virginia that can be shared over the commemorative admiration of a fixed object. Hester Tavener, too, chooses remembering over admiring—and for her and her children, the choice will have costs and consequences.

These three early stories show how freighted and how intimate Willa Cather's heritage of Virginia memories was. Frederick County, her Virginia birthplace, is a site with a particularly con- flicted history, geography, and economy. It is the northernmost Virginia county; adjacent Berkeley County—home of Cather's maternal Grandfather Boak and many other relatives—refused to join the Confederacy and became a part of West Virginia. To evade the Confederate draft, Willa Cather's Union-sympathizing father and his older brother had only to travel a few miles into neighboringWest Virginia. And within the family circles, Confederate/ Union lines were hard to draw. Grandmother Rachel Seibert Boak was reportedly opposed to slavery, but she sent her three sons to the Confederate army. Aunt Sidney Cather Gore—like her brother, Grandfather Cather—was a Union supporter, but she sheltered Confederate soldiers in her house. In the frequent family discussions of the war, Willa's father always took the Union, "Northern" side. Yet his daughter saw him as quintessentially Southern; when he died, she mourned his "Southern" sweetness and boyishness (wc to dcf).

Willa Cather described her second home, Nebraska, as physically "essentially the same throughout its extent" ("Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle" 1). Virginia, however, is a state of great physical variety, bisected by the Blue Ridge and extending from eastern Tidewater plantation country to western coal mines. The little community of Back Creek Valley, where Cather's ancestors settled, was poised between two geographic and economic regions. In the eastern small-farm region, "slaves were employed on small-scale farm operations, as well as in various industries, such as milling," and the land was suited to profitable farming. Just west of Great North Mountain (the twenty-mile-long mountain adjacent to the Cathers' home atWillow Shade), was Appalachia, where the rocky soil attracted "less affluent" settlers, "subsistence farmers" who struggled for "economic survival" (Kerns, Frederick County 18-20) and were often considered "mountain trash" (Sapphira 33).

In 1913, remembering her departure from Virginia, Willa Cather said that it taught her "how much a child's life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it." While her first impression of Nebraska was as flat and "bare as a piece of sheet iron" (Bohlke 10), her memories of Virginia had the varied and sometimes extreme topography of Frederick County itself. Willow Shade, Cather's childhood home, literally had its back to the economically depressed Appalachian Mountains, and when Grandfather Cather built the architecturally ambitious house in 1851, in a period of agricultural prosperity for the region and for the Cathers, it was a gesture of economic assertion. In her childhood at Willow Shade, young Willa was part of a household that comprised vocal, storytelling representatives of multiple, contesting political and economic positions— including loyal Confederate women (her mother and grandmother), a staunch Union man (her father), poor white Appalachians (Mary Ann Anderson, her children, and others), and African Americans, at least one of whom (Matilda Jefferson) had been, until Emancipation, a slave belonging to Willa's Seibert great-grandparents.

As she depicts herself as a Virginia child in the epilogue of Sapphira, young Willa Cather was repelled by Nancy's precise "Northern" speech. In language as in other matters, Back Creek, Virginia, was the only imaginable standard to her—it embodied "the right and easy way" (284). WhenWilla Cather's family abandoned this densely storied and familiar milieu atWillow Shade for Nebraska, the child was confronted with one of the major tasks of her life. She had to learn how to remember Virginia, how to live and to write with her Southern inheritance. In the first weeks in Nebraska, miserably homesick, she vowed not to eat much until she could get "back to Virginia" for "some fresh mutton" (Bohlke 10). To survive—to keep from starving to death—she had to "cease to admire" Virginia as the only "right way" and right place.

Less that ten years later, Willa Cather was defining herself as very much a Nebraskan and had taken pains to suppress her Virginia accent (Lewis 18). Thus her adolescent flirtation with the persona of a Confederate soldier (as documented in a famous photograph) and her precise invocation of Frederick County geography in that early story, "The Elopement of Allen Poole," may seem surprising if we do not remember that, although she had lived for ten years in Red Cloud, Cather had grown up in a Virginia household there. Her family kept up a lively correspondence with relatives back in Frederick County and visited back and forth. They took a Virginia newspaper, cooked and organized the household work Southern style, preserved Southern stories and relics (including a Confederate flag, sword, and uniform), and the War Between the States continued to be fought at the Cather dinner table in Red Cloud. A surviving high school theme by Willa's youngest, Nebraska-born sister, Elsie, is evidence of this—it is a comic but ardent tale of an animated umbrella that preserves the honor of the Confederacy. (And it is not so far from her older sister's ode to Virginia "honor" in "A Night at Greenway Court.")

For, as a Southern-born daughter of Reconstruction, Willa Cather grew up in a period when how to remember the nineteenth- century South was a national problem, especially for Southern women and girls. As Catherine Clinton points out, the postwar South was preoccupied with the work of memorializing, and much of that project fell to surviving Confederate women, like Cather's Grandmother Boak, her mother, and their servant Marjorie Anderson. "The cult of the Lost Cause captured the imagination of many Southern women in the wake of the war," and they led "a campaign to re-create the past" (174-75). Numerous women's memorial groups joined together in 1894 to form "the United Daughters of the Confederacy (udc), which became a powerful force in the South during the first half of the twentieth century." The udc "established Confederate memorial days and cemetery celebrations" and "dot[ted] the nation with" monuments intended "to preserve Confederate values and memories." By 1982 there were 1,120 such memorials—more in Virginia (223) than in any other state (182-83, 186). Willa Cather's epilogue to Sapphira, with its description of the Stonewall Confederate cemetery in Winchester, indicates her obvious familiarity with this project. She provides a brief, admiring eulogy to the local Confederate hero Turner Ashby: "Even today [1940] if you should" visit the cemetery on the anniversary of his death, "you would probably find fresh flowers on Ashby's grave. He was all that the old-time Virginians admired: Like Paris handsome and like Hector brave. And he died young. 'Shortlived and glorious,' the old Virginians used to say" (275).[1] The imposing monument to Turner Ashby is a women's project, erected by "the Ladies of Winchester" in the 1880s. Only a few steps away—and perhaps the reason Willa Cather knew the location well—is the much more modest grave of her young uncle, J. W. Boak, a casualty of Second Manassas.

According to Clinton, another brilliantly effective strategy of Reconstruction Confederate women was to rewrite the Southern past, particularly race relations. The intent of this project was again to glorify the past—thus often "relying on a culture of dissemblance and denial"—but also "to demonstrate a tradition of harmony that they hoped could characterize black-white relations in the post-war South" (198). This effort produced a flood of plantation memoirs and novels, popular in both North and South, some of which were found in the Cather library in Red Cloud. In addition, the udc sponsored essay contests at schools and pioneered initiatives (in their words) to "collect and preserve materials for a truthful history of the war," in order "to have used in Southern schools only such histories as are just and true" (183). The Cather children and other children of their generation were the particular targets of such efforts. (And thus the small controversy over little Willa's "hist'ry" book in the Epilogue of Sapphira seems very suggestive.)

Most standard biographical approaches to Willa Cather's career have given short shrift to this complicated legacy of Virginia memories. "The tug of Virginia was weak for her," James Woodress said (31), and Edwin and Lillian Bloom concluded that, "almost until the end of her career," Cather chose "to ignore the South" (7). I would argue, instead, that much of Cather's best fiction before her specifically Southern novel of 1940 is, on some level, engaged with the problem of how to remember and to render the South. For example, the South surfaces in My Ántonia through Jim Burden's early memories and the Virginia landscape of his dreams and in the troubling inset story of Blind d'Arnault, an African American artist who was born a slave. In A Lost Lady, Niel Herbert inhabits a dilapidated Southern household that has been transplanted to the Great Plains, complete with "Black Tom," a servant who is lent to his employer's friends as if he were a piece of disposable property, and a distracted Kentucky housekeeper whose favorite book is a Southern cult classic, St. Elmo. Death Comes for the Archbishop, with its powerfully evoked New Mexico setting, also touches lightly on Southern concerns that Cather would return to probe more deeply in the 1930s. The flirtatious, fair-skinned Doòa Isabella, born in Kentucky and reared in New Orleans, is a type common to postbellum Southern fiction: the aging Southern belle caught between the requirements of her vanity and monetary realities.[2] Two Southern men—the heroic Kit Carson and the murderer Buck Scales— would seem to be opposites, but they share a troubling capacity for interracial violence. And slavery is an important issue in the novel. Archbishop Latour agonizes over how and if to intervene for Sada, a Mexican woman who is held in slavery by a local Southern family named Smith (one of Cather's own family names).[3] His uncertainties about slavery foreshadow those of Henry Colbert in the later novel.

Then, in "Old Mrs. Harris," Cather returned (with the deaths of her parents) to the stuff of "The Sentimentality of William Tavener" and a more nuanced exploration of how Southernness persists—as memory, as cultural baggage and as inheritance—for a Tennessee family (based on the Cathers) who are transplanted to a "snappy little Western democracy," a small Nebraska town.[4] The South of this story is the source of charming manners, unstinting hospitality, and domestic graces, a preindustrial Eden of spinning wheels and potted orange trees with ample space and honor for old women. But it is also a "feudal" culture that has fostered Victoria's cruel self-absorption and permitted the exploitation of the dying Mrs. Harris. In letters, Cather expressed unusual pride in "Old Mrs. Harris." She wrote to Zoë Akins that she was pleased with the way the elements of the story had come together. Akins would be familiar with the types, Cather knew, but she wondered what the story might mean to other readers who were unfamiliar with the South—both its charms and its lies (WC to ZA).

Five years later, Cather was at last at work on a novel devoted entirely to that South, the Virginia that she had spent a lifetime learning how to admire and not to admire, how to remember. Distraught over ill health, the approach of World War II, and the deaths in 1938 of her beloved friend Isabelle Mc- Clung Hambourg and her favorite brother Douglass (her first loss of a sibling), Cather found deep solace in an imaginative "return" to the Back Creek of 1856 and the Willow Shade of her childhood, a world that predated personal loss. In a letter to her editor, Ferris Greenslet, she described this process. Her early memories came back in a "rush," she said, and, although they were weighty, they relieved her grief. She wrote page after page of Virginia customs and manners, and the writing brought her ease and comfort. Then, long-schooled in the rigors of editing, Cather made her cuts. She was delighted to discover, when she put the discarded pages on the scales, that they weighed all of six pounds (wc to fg). When she wrote to another old friend, fellow writer and editor Viola Roseboro', Cather also described Sapphira as an almost devotional act of memory. She had worked to deal with her material honestly and "humbly," she said, without excessive color. Roseboro's approval meant a great deal to her—she was "honored" that Sapphira had the ring of truth for a Southerner in exile, like Roseboro', whose experiences had resembled Cather's own (wc to vr, 28 November 1940).

In other letters too, Cather advised her readers and friends that this book was more a work of memory than a work of fiction. But what did "memory" mean to Willa Cather? Earlier she had implied that it was something more complex and active than admiration. Late in life she wrote to her old friends Carrie and Mary Miner that they were both ensconced safely in her memories, in a small house to which Cather made many happy mental visits and which no outsider could harm or spoil (WC to Carrie Miner Sherwood). Here memory is safety—a shelter protected from the depredations of loss. In Edith Lewis's description of Cather on their 1938 visit to Frederick County, while writing Sapphira, memory becomes an intense effort of will: "The countryside was very much changed. But she refused to look at its appearance; she looked through and through it, as if it were transparent, to what she knew as its reality. . . . All these transformations, instead of disheartening her, seemed to light a fierce inner flame that illuminated all her pictures of the past" (183).

In Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis, Richard Terdiman argues that, in the period between 1815 and 1920, Western culture underwent a "memory crisis," a sense of dislocation from its own past. "Beginning in the nineteenth century the past began to look like a foreign country." The "sense of time's continuous flow and of our unproblematic place within it" were lost. With this crisis came "a massive disruption of traditional forms of memory" and a preoccupation with the institution of history as cultural memory (4-5).

For readers of Willa Cather, Terdiman's "memory crisis" may seem strangely familiar. In 1936, the year she began to write Sapphira, Cather expressed a similar sense of dislocation, famously asserting that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts" and that she was one of "the backward" who had no common ground with readers "under forty" (Prefatory Note v). As a child in Virginia, depicted in Sapphira, young Willa obviously possessed a sense of "time's continuous flow," and the child in the epilogue is supremely confident of her own secure and "unproblematic place" in that continuum. When her parents moved the family to Nebraska, youngWilla Cather's sense of the stability of an "ordered and settled" Virginia life, with its "slow . . . rich and kindly" rhythms (Willa Cather 2), was abruptly broken. She described her first experience of the flat Nebraska landscape, which she later grew to love, as a loss that at first seemed to threaten her very selfhood: "As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything—it was a kind of erasure of personality" (Bohlke 11). For Willa Cather, the move from Virginia may have triggered a "memory crisis" that persisted until the last years of her life.

According to Terdiman, many of the "most striking representations" of memory crisis occur in novels. "It is the novel . . . that most organizes itself as a projection of the memory function and its disruptions. Novels are exercises in the process of memory" (25). Such exercises were very familiar to Willa Cather by the late thirties; Sapphira was her twelfth (and last) novel. But—especially in the memoirlike epilogue—this novel strains the conventions of the form perhaps more than any of Cather's others, especially as it blurs boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Cather wrote to Roseboro', who had said that she cared little for fiction any more, that she hoped her friend would nevertheless like Sapphira, because so little of the book was fiction. Instead, it was mostly a collection of family and local stories—so much so that she could hardly draw a line between the remembered tales and her own inventions (WC to VR, 9 November 1940). The novel's remarkable solidity of specification is the work of memory; geography, botany, architecture, and names (but not their spellings) are carefully rendered. As I have discovered, Sapphira still functions as an excellent guidebook to the strip of territory betweenWinchester's western boundary and Timber Ridge. In such cases, memory is the near-devotional work of patient replication, as Cather's letters reiterate.

But, as the memory crisis necessitates, "memory," if it is to continue to serve us, must also be an act of invention. In Sapphira, it is clearly that. For example, Sapphira and Henry Colbert are obviously based on Cather's great-grandparents, Ruhamah Lemmon Seibert and Jacob Funk Seibert, who owned the mill on Back Creek during the mid-1850s. In the novel, Sapphira dies in 1857 and Henry immediately frees her slaves. In fact, it was Jacob Seibert who died in the late 1850s; his slaves were never freed, but belonged to his wife until Emancipation. At least one of them, Matilda Jefferson (the "Aunt Till" of Cather's Virginia memories) stayed on to work in the household of her former owner, Ruhamah Seibert—who lived into her eighties, dying only six weeks before Willa Cather's own birth. Is Henry's fictional repudiation of slavery a novelist's act of invention, necessitated by the breakdown of memory and Willa Cather's lack of access to her great-grandfather's history? Or does it reflect tales that Cather may have heard about Jacob Seibert from his fond daughter, her Grandmother Boak, or from his slave, Matilda Jefferson? Or is it an attempt to find—or create—something to admire in this strain of her slaveholding maternal Virginia history? The ambivalent character of Henry Colbert seems to be based on an untraceable mixture of memory, desire, and invention, and as such, it epitomizes Willa Cather's art as a novelist.

Photograp of the Mary Ann Anderson gravesite, Bethel Church graveyard, Trone, Virginia. Photo by the author.Fig. 1. Mary Ann Anderson gravesite, Bethel Church graveyard, Trone, Virginia. Photo by the author.

Willa Cather often spoke of Mary Ann Anderson (who appears in Sapphira in the character of Mrs. Ringer; see fig. 1) as one of her earliest storytelling models. But another such model is the African American "Aunt Till" of the epilogue, who gave the child Willa lessons in memory. Till used to take me across the meadow to the Colbert graveyard [the Seibert graveyard, behind the Mill House—Willa Cather was photographed there when she returned to Virginia for a visit after her graduation from college], to put flowers on the graves. Each time she talked to me about the people buried there, she was sure to remember something she had not happened to tell me before. Her stories about the Master and Mistress [Henry and Sapphira] were never mere repetitions, but grew more and more into a complete picture of those two persons. (292) Till's process is very much like Cather's descriptions of her own writing of Sapphira: memory proliferates memory, growing into a work of art, "a complete picture." Till also makes idiosyncratic— and, for many readers, troubling—choices about what to admire. She interprets Sapphira's death as a choice to go away with the "fine [white] folks" of her privileged plantation youth and reads Sapphira's entire adult life at Back Creek as a colossal mistake.

Cather's picture of Till in the epilogue appears to be a portrayal of an actual African American woman who was an important figure in her childhood—someone she described in a 1940 letter as a person of "dignity" and "personality" (WC to FG). It also suggests that Cather has taken up some of the Reconstruction work advocated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, facilitating a benign collaboration between a former slave and the grandchild of her former owner to memorialize an antebellum past and to rewrite race relations. But, on the other hand, Cather's text undercuts such a collaboration. For the "Aunt Till" of her epilogue is strangely discontinuous with the younger Tillwho appears earlier as a character in the novel: that Till is a taciturn, isolated woman who refuses to tell stories to her own daughter, Nancy—even withholding the identity of Nancy's father. Such discontinuities may indicate another crisis of memory—the stringent limits of a white Virginian's access to African American Virginians' cultural memory, limits that Cather tacitly acknowledges with the reticences of this novel.

In fact, it is possible to read Sapphira as a book about memory problems. Henry Colbert, for example, vainly searches his holy texts, repository of Christian cultural memory, for the confirmation and support they might provide, but he finds nothing to sustain him in a moral crisis. If Henry is to continue to honor his marriage, he cannot emulate his daughter Rachel, who looks at her mother and her slaves and concludes—dismissing local memory, history, and tradition—that "they believe in it [slavery]. . . . But it ain't right" (221). Such a conclusion gives Rachel the courage to enact her principles, helping Nancy to escape, but it estranges her from full intimacy with her parents and many of her neighbors and leaves her an isolated, lonely young widow, old for her age. Nor can she take solace in her memories of her marriage inWashington—those memories are so painful that she repudiates them.

Another key scene that probes the complexities of memory is Sapphira's proprietary visit to her aged, dying slave, Jezebel. In it, memory is both a common and a contested territory for the two women. Sapphira begins, when she arrives: "You know who it is, don't you, Aunt Jezebel?" Jezebel counters: "Co'se I does, Miss Sapphy! Ain't I knowed you since de day you was bawn?" Then they trade memories of their active days, establishing the ornamental gardens. Sapphira concludes: "I expect you remember those things too." The old Negress looked up at her and nodded. Can memory be shared by a mistress and a slave? Sapphira, proprietary as ever, assumes it can. Jezebel's silence is noncommittal. But in a few moments, lest it seem that Sapphira has won the memory contest, Jezebel breaks out with a stunning rejoinder when asked if there is something she desires to eat. "I cain't think of nothin' I could relish, lessen maybe it was a li'l pickaninny's hand" (86-89).

The remark reminds Sapphira and Jezebel's timid great-granddaughter Nancy, who is cowering by the bed, that the old African woman has a fund of memories and desires that neither of them can own, explain, or share. And it is a sharp corrective to Reconstruction narratives of the acquiescent slave in a benign Confederate past.

Willa Cather told several of her correspondents that the return visit of the former slave Nancy, who had made a successful adult life in Canada, was the most vivid memory of her childhood, and that this memory was the germ of the novel. Why did Nancy's return make such an unforgettable impression on the little girl at Willow Shade? I would suggest that the adult Nancy may have been the first person young Willa knew who lived a double life: as urban, Northern sophisticate and as Southern home girl. She replicates the hungers and problems of memory of Willa Cather herself, with her juggling of familial loyalties and distance, her desire for the tastes and tales of her home place.Young Nancy had an immense capacity for admiration; she "didn't believe there was a lovelier spot in the world than this right here" (197), on Back Creek. As a girl, like Willa Cather, she suffered near-obliteration by separation from and homesickness for the only community she could imagine. By her very pronunciation of "his-to-ry," as well as her presence, the adult Nancy problematizes history and memory. In fact, we might conclude that the problem of how to remember Virginia, in Willa Cather's work and life, begins where Sapphira ends—with the return of Nancy.[5]

Another major part of the work of memory in Sapphira is the novel's rapt attention to the Virginia environment, even its smallest details—from quartz crystals in the earth to the tiny "oak leaves no bigger than a squirrel's ear" (115). Some of the most vivid and beautiful of these images are clustered on the "Double S," a stretch of the road up Timber Ridge that curves around large "hills of solid rock." This steep, serpentine road seems to encourage reflection and awareness of natural beauty in everyone who travels it. When local country people speak of the road, "their voices took on something slow and dreamy, as if recalling the place itself; the shade, the unstained loveliness, the pleasant feeling" (171).

The Double S is a human product, the result of arduous road building by Willa Cather's ancestor and other early settlers.[6] That early road building worked in cooperation with the natural world (which necessitated the S's), creating a harmonious, cooperative physical and psychic environment. In the 1930s, when Cather made her last visit to her birthplace, road building (facilitated by the Works Progress Administration [wpa]) was again a major project in Frederick County. Nearby, the Blue Ridge Parkway was under construction, and it and other new roads would drastically change both the topography and the culture of the region— including the landscape of Willa Cather's earliest memories. In an authorial aside to her 1940 readers, Cather railed against "the destroying armament of modern road-building," which had effaced much of the vegetation that made the road so lovely and left the loops of the Double S "denuded and ugly" (170), but still insistently serpentine.

Like Nancy's escape and return, and perhaps like memory itself, the figure of this Double S keeps doubling back, slowing us down and encouraging us to reflect again. It also appears—as Cather insisted—in the novel's title, linking Sapphira and Slave Girl, named owner and nameless property (WC to DCF). And, as the device used to mark chapter headings, the Double S becomes the typographic signature of the novel. Again and again, it reiterates the complexity of memory as an animating force in Sapphira.

Finally, this last novel breaks down Willa Cather's earlier distinction between admiring and remembering. For Sapphira encompasses both, and, like the figure of the Double S, it renders both cruelty and beauty, reflection and disjunction, preservation and loss. I had planned to end this essay by saying that in Sapphira, Cather solved the problem of how to remember Virginia. I now think, however, that what she has done is not to solve the problem, but, at last, to render it in Sapphira and the Slave Girl: with all its gaps and fissures, its serpentine returns and reversals, its double S's.


 1. June 6, the anniversary of Turner Ashby's death, is still celebrated in Winchester as Confederate Memorial Day, and flowers are indeed placed on Ashby's grave. This annual observance began in 1866. It was a great occasion in Frederick County during the Reconstruction years and received extensive coverage in the Winchester newspapers; Willa Cather would probably have known of the local significance of the date. (Go back.)
 2. John J. Murphy has established that the prototype for Isabella Olivares was Isabella C. de Baca, who married Major José D. Sena. While the prototype was a New Mexico woman, "descendant of a respected family in the territory" (Murphy 460), Cather made her fictional character a Southerner, who left New Mexico and returned to New Orleans after her husband's death. (Go back.)
 3. In 1860, William Smith, the half-brother of Willa Cather's grandmother, Caroline Smith Cather, was the largest slave owner in the Back Creek Valley district, owning fourteen slaves. Other members of the Smith and Cather families disapproved of William Smith's slave ownership (George P. Cather). (Go back.)
 4. For details about Cather family prototypes in "Old Mrs. Harris," see Kari Ronning's explanatory notes and historical essay in the Scholarly Edition of Obscure Destinies. (Go back.)
 5. Cather told Dorothy Canfield Fisher that the epilogue, which is titled "Nancy's Return," was written early in the novel's composition process and that she considered the entire book to be aimed at this final chapter (WC to DCF). (Go back.)
 6. The Double S, with its two consecutive S-shaped curves, branched off Hollow Road about two miles west of Willow Shade, the Cather home. Hollow Road was a portion of the Romney Wagon Road, which Willa Cather's great-grandfather, Jeremiah Smith, helped to construct in the 1740s (Chapin). By the mid-nineteenth century, this road was known as the Northwestern Turnpike. The turnpike (now U.S. Route 50) ran directly past Willow Shade and figures importantly in Sapphira. About the time that Sapphira was published, the Double S was almost totally demolished. (Go back.)


Bloom, Edward A. and Lillian D. Bloom. Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1962.
Bohlke, L. Brent, ed. Willa Cather in Person. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Cather, Elsie. High school theme. Bernice Slote Collection. Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.
Cather, George P. "Children of George Smith." George Cather Ray Collection. Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska- Lincoln Libraries.
Cather, Willa. The Elopement of Allen Poole. Willa Cather: Twenty-four Stories. Ed. Sharon O'Brien. New York: New American Library, 1987. 18-24.
Cather, Willa. Letter to Zoë Akins. 13 September 1932. Huntington Library, San Marino CA.
Cather, Willa. Letters to Dorothy Canfield Fisher. 3 April 1928, 14 October 1940. Bailey-Howe Library, University of Vermont-Burlington.
Cather, Willa. Letter to Ferris Greenslet. 13 December 1940. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Cather, Willa. Letter to Viola Roseboro'. 28 November 1940. Alderman Library, University of Virginia-Charlottesville.
Cather, Willa. Letter to Carrie Miner Sherwood. Archives, Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation, Red Cloud NE.
Cather, Willa. Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle. Roundup: A Nebraska Reader. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1957. 1-8.
Cather, Willa. A Night at Greenway Court. Willa Cather: Twenty-four Stories. Ed. Sharon O'Brien. New York: New American Library, 1987. 50-61.
Cather, Willa. Prefatory Note. Not Under Forty. New York: Knopf, 1936. v.
Cather, Willa. Sapphira and the Slave Girl. New York: Knopf, 1940.
Cather, Willa. The Sentimentality of William Tavener. Willa Cather: Twentyfour Stories. Ed. Sharon O'Brien. New York: New American Library, 1987. 118-23.
Chapin, William. The Old Romney Wagon Road. Application to the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. Gore VA: 1998.
Clinton, Catherine. Tara Revisited: Women,War,&the Plantation Legend. New York: Abbeville P, 1995.
Kalbian, Maral S. Frederick County, Virginia: History Through Architecture. Winchester:Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, 1999.
Kerns,Wilmer L. Frederick County, Virginia: Settlement and Some First Families of Back Creek Valley 1730-1930. Baltimore: Gateway P, 1995.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. 1953. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2000.
Murphy, John J. Explanatory Notes. Death Comes for the Archbishop. By Willa Cather. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999.
Ronning, Kari A. Explanatory Notes. Historical Essay. Obscure Destinies. By Willa Cather. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1998.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1953.
Terdiman, Richard. Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. The Artist's Palette: Early Cather. Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter 40 (Spring 1996): 1, 9-14.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.