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TOMOYUKI ZETTSU Slavery, Song, and the South: Cather's Refiguration of Stowe and Foster in A Lost Lady Weep no more, my lady, Oh! weep no more today! We will sing one song for the old Kentucky Home, For the old Kentucky Home, faraway. Stephen Collins Foster, "My Old Kentucky Home" ine day , when Willa Cather was a little girl in Virginia, an old judge came to visit her home. In a manner typical of a conventional Southern gentleman, he "began stroking her curls and talking to her in the playful platitudes one addressed to little girls." To this, however , Willa returned an unconventional response which "horrified" her respectable mother. "I'se a dang'ous nigger, I is," Willa suddenly exclaimed ,1 as if to play the role—one might say—of little Topsy, the black orphan girl in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), who bluntly declares: "I 's wicked,—I is" (Stowe 360). Although Cathet, as a writer, did not deal squarely with the question of slavery until her last novel, Sapphira and the Shve Girl (1940), it is entirely possible that the Virginia girl who spent her early childhood in the Reconstruction period and its aftermath was instinctively aware of the extent to which the idea of a "nigger"—when adopted by a well-bred white young lady—could be "dang'ous" to the ordered and genteel Southern community in which she lived. Since Cather's life and work are generally associated with the Midwest and its heroic pioneers who struggled for their frontier dreams, her Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 2, Summer ig Copyright © 1996 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004-1610 Tomoyuki Zettsu critics—except when dealing with Sapphira and the Shve Girl—tend to ignore or forget the fact that she was actually born and brought up in the South until the age ofnine. This paper, then, hopes to argue for the significance of Cather's Southern roots by focusing on A Lost Lady (1923), a novel tracing the symbolic fall of its adulterous heroine, supposedly written in defense of the long-lost days of the pioneer West. In doing so, I shall explore the ways in which the novel may be approached as an implicit response to a famous mid-nineteenth-century plantation song by Stephen Collins Foster, as well as to the song's immediate subtext: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as an influential cultural icon. This inquiry, while probing the interface between popular culture and imaginative literature, offers a fresh vantage from which to observe the nature and extent of Cather's social commitment as it helped define the shape of her artistic achievement. In her lifetime, Cather was often accused ofbeing an escapist, a writer of nostalgia and evasion; and even today, one does encounter a critic like Ann Douglas, who makes a case against what she calls Cather's "lack of social conscience," "her colossal indifference to the crisis ofher own society " (15). True, Cather was not a polemical writer; but it does not follow that she was blind to the multiple ways in which a work ofart could engage social complexities, historical ambiguities, and ideological intricacies . Published at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance when the history ofrace relations was beginning to attract new cultural attention, A Lost Lady, I argue, is a remarkable representation ofthe land ofCather's birth, giving expression to its racial burden while (trans)muting it in a poetic and allusive mode. This reading, moreover, may open up new avenues of contemplation in the ongoing critical reassessment of the relation between politics and aesthetics in American literature. As a necessary first step, it is important to recall Cather's early remarks on Stowe's controversial novel. In 1894 Cather had an opportunity to review a stage production of Uncle Tom's Cabin fot the Nebraska State Journal, a journal for which she was working as a twenty-year-old drama critic. In this review, she denounced Stowe's original book (as well as its stage adaptation) as "exaggerated" and "overdrawn" (Slote 269). In ways that reveal her alliance with those Soutbierners ofthe day Shvery, Song, and the South89 who reacted emotionally...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 87-104
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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