The Southern Literary Journal 37.1 (2004) 176-178
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Southern Women Writers, Racism, and Racists
Place has happily vexed southern literature and its critics since there was a South to bicker about. Where is it? What counts? Can its literature evade its geography? When is a southern author not a southern author? Or, suppose you have plenty of reason to hate the South but want to reinvent it, to exorcize it, or to lay it to rest? In very different ways these two volumes from the University Press of Virginia grapple with such conundrums.
Sapphira and the Slave Girl is literally the text in the Willa Cather woodpile. Troublesome now to many Cather readers, this novel discombobulates the canonical Willa Cather and how we like to teach her. This final Cather novel travels east away from the Nebraska territory claimed by the author and draws heavily from the author's childhood. It recounts the story of Sapphira, an embittered and crippled plantation mistress, psychically threatened by her husband's fondness for a slave girl, Nancy. To retain control over the plantation, Sapphira orchestrates Nancy's rape. The violation is thwarted; good triumphs—as best it can. Cather even enters as a character in a quirky epilogue replete with reconciliation and nostalgia. [End Page 176]
A Book of the Month Club selection when it was first published, Sapphira and the Slave Girl has become a neglected Cather novel despite Toni Morrison's recuperative efforts in Playing in the Dark. But now, Ann Romines, a brave critic and editor, has assembled a diverse collection of seventeen essays, most of which address this problematic novel, in Willa Cather's Southern Connections: New Essays on Cather and the South, that will obligate anyone genuinely interested in race as a topic in the American literature classroom to risk teaching this curious novel and to reconsider some of the stories we tell ourselves about Cather.
Romines's collection emerged from the seventh international Cather seminar in 1997 staged in Winchester, Virginia. Intending to explore "the dense, subtle web of southern relations woven" through the Virginia-born author's career, almost all of the critics in the collection tackle the place this problematic 1940 novel occupiesin the Cather oeuvre. Romines commingles readings from established Cather scholars, such as Janice Stout, Merrill Maquire Skaggs, and Joseph Urgo, to mention but a few, with fine readings from those less traditionally affiliated with Cather, including Patricia Yaeger, Judith Fetterly, and Cynthia Griffin Wolff. Romines's assembly manages to make the issues of Cather's southern heritage, her career, and the complications of Sapphira and the Slave Girl impressively fresh reading.
In a jazzy prologue, the first of five sections, Fetterly sets the tone for the collection with "Willa Cather and the Question of Sympathy"; Wolff anchors the collection with "Dressing for the Part: [What's] the Matter with Clothes," a corrective reading of Cather's not-so-closeted cross dressing complete with photos. Thanks to the strength of the essays and Romines' editorial skills, there is far less duplication than one would expect from a collection cohering largely around a single work. Helpful readings of Cather's southern roots and rivalries juxtapose her with writers like Ellen Glasgow and Flannery O'Connor and extend the reach of the venture. Inevitably, Toni Morrison's analysis of the Cather novel haunts several of the essays. The book's fine index and solid bibliography will make this collection an essential volume for any serious student of Cather.
Without the advantage of a major author for focus, Darlene O'Dell faces a more difficult project. In Sites of Southern Memory: The Autobiographies of Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin, Lillian Smith, and Pauli Murray, she negotiates the southern landscapes and practices that fueled the...