- Cather’s Editorial Shaping of Sapphira and the Slave Girl
Sapphira and the Slave Girl, published in 1940, is Willa Cather’s only book set in the southern United States. Her last major work of fiction, it provides a fascinating and enigmatic ending to her career as a novelist. While Cather’s beautifully-worded descriptive passages evoke many of the customs and routines that characterized the antebellum South, the plot of Sapphira narrates the harassment and attempted rape of a young enslaved woman. The novel is based on stories from Cather’s own family and the Virginia community where she spent the first nine years of her life. Because family history is of paramount importance to this novel, it seems fitting that a significant interpretive resource recently emerged from one of Cather’s own descendents. In 2011, Charles Cather, the last of Cather’s nieces and nephews, died, leaving a wealth of Cather materials to the Archives and Special Collections of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). One of these items is a partial typescript of Sapphira and the Slave Girl. This typescript joins a significant cache of pre-publication material, including other extant typescript and holograph fragments as well as another nearly-complete typescript housed at Drew University.1
This essay examines points where the UNL typescript differs from the novel and uses those differences to expand our understanding of Cather’s text. It is less an attempt to understand Cather’s revision process in general and more an examination of what this particular resource can tell us about possible ways Sapphira could have developed. I generally focus on elements that appear to be unique to the UNL typescript. My analysis of differences between the typescript and the novel is thematic rather than chronological. I begin with some broad observations about Cather’s treatment of race in the novel and move into a consideration of individual characters and scenes. I end with an examination of the poor white characters in Sapphira.
The novel’s black characters and how to portray them were very much on Cather’s mind when she composed Sapphira.2 What if any connections Cather [End Page 442] made between these characters and actual black people living in America at the time she was writing is impossible to know, but the novel itself oscillates between depicting black characters as objects that exist only in relation to white characters and allowing them to be autonomous subjects who act with conscious intent.3 Orality is central to Sapphira, since the narrative has its origins in “old family and neighborhood stories” (Woodress 481). Cather heard these stories from three main sources: her own family members, Matilda Jefferson, and Mary Ann Anderson. Matilda Jefferson (the prototype for Till) was African American, while Mary Ann Anderson (the inspiration for Mandy Ringer) was a poor white woman from the Virginia hills. It is entirely possible that Cather might have heard the same person or incident described from as many as three distinct vantage points. In addition to the narratives of her family members, the more marginalized perspectives of Mary Ann Ringer and particularly Matilda Jefferson also influenced the novel. Structurally, the novel reflects the stories that the young Willa Cather heard. The dominant perspective of Cather’s family narrative is questioned and extended through the viewpoints of African Americans and less-enfranchised whites.
One of the most significant differences between the UNL typescript and the novel involves the scene that begins with Sapphira’s visit to the elderly Jezebel, which segues into a description of Jezebel’s experience during the Middle Passage. The UNL typescript contains two versions of Sapphira’s visit to Jezebel, each of which is very similar to the scene in the first edition of the novel. The typescript also contains an alternate scene where Henry, and not Sapphira, goes to see Jezebel in her cabin (B2F18). According to the typescript, Henry’s visit to Jezebel is motivated by the loneliness he feels while his wife is in Winchester for Holy Week. Unlike the imperious Sapphira, who is carried right into the cabin, Henry “rapped softly at the cabin door” before going in and is met...