Sapphira and the Naughty Language

Published:June 18, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

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I just got my hands on the brand-new scholarly edition of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, the last novel by Willa Cather and the Virginia-born writer’s only book set entirely in the state. (Our entry on the book is finished but not yet posted live. Same with our entry on Cather.) Anyway, I’ve already learned that “in a letter to her brother Roscoe, Cather specified that ‘Sapphira’ . . . should be pronounced with a short ‘i’, like that in ‘Madeira.'” Good to know.

Another helpful explanatory note has to do with Cather’s language when writing about African Americans. First, though, a bit of background from our entry:

Based on an incident in Cather’s own family, in which her maternal grandmother helped a slave escape in 1856, the novel details the complicated marriage of Henry and Sapphira Colbert, who operate a mill and small farm in Back Creek outside Winchester in the years before the American Civil War (1861–1865). Sapphira wrongly suspects that one of her slaves, Nancy, is in an intimate relationship with her husband, and manipulates those around her to exact revenge. Henry and the couple’s daughter, Rachel, intervene by helping Nancy flee to Canada. At the time of its release, Sapphira and the Slave Girl was praised by the New York Times for examining “the question of slavery without any portentous fanfare,” but in the years since, the book has not been widely read. Most critics have charged Sapphira with being racist and overly nostalgic, while a few have defended it as a brilliant inversion of old stereotypes and a coded exploration of sexual desire.

The explanatory note, then, is attached to Cather’s first use of the word “darky.” It suggests that the various epithets used in the book (“darky” is the least of it) were “in common usage among whites in the Virginia of her childhood” and that when she was a young girl Cather used the N-word to describe herself (as in, she declared herself to be a “dang’ous” one of those). Writes Ann Romines, who prepared the edition’s notes: “By the 1920s, however, she was sometimes using the capitalized word ‘Negro’ in her private correspondence, while ‘negro’ is used in the 1927 Death Comes for the Archbishop.”

Well and good, but I like this additional bit of context from Romines:

By the 1930s, when Cather was writing Sapphira, both “nigger” and “darky” had become controversial terms with strong and widely recognized connotations of racial prejudice. H. L. Mencken reports that the New York Times announced in 1930 that ‘it would capitalize Negro thereafter”; in response, “there was jubilation in the Negro press” (American Language Supplement One 618). A long list of other well-known publications had already instigated this policy, and in 1933 “the Style Manual of the Government Printing Office was revised to make Negro and Negress begin with capitals in all official publications of the United State” (619). The word “darky” was also under public attack . . . Such controversies were widely publicized; Cather probably knew of them. She had also long followed and admired the career of H. L. Mencken; The American Language, with its extended discussion of the words “Negro” and “nigger,” was published by Cather’s publisher, Knopf, in a revised edition in 1936, about the time Cather began work on Sapphira.

What I like about this—aside from the idea that so much social history can be extracted from a style guide—is that Romines leaves it at that. It is not for her to now pass judgment on Cather, either as a person or as a writer. But it helps for us to better know what Cather knew and then ask ourselves, What did it mean for her to then use those words?

IMAGE: Willa Cather, January 22, 1936, by Carl Van Vechten; you remember Carl Van Vechten

Discussion

2 Comments on “Sapphira and the Naughty Language”

  1. Sue P.

    You put your finger on the hallmarks of a good scholarly edition; the ability to provide historical context, tease out the mysteries, and enrich content. In this case, it is all done without injecting the editor’s sensibilities. What great timing for EV to have this good stuff now available

  2. Brendan Wolfe

    I liked this from the scholarly edition’s Preface:

    “Believing that a book’s physical form influenced its relationship with a reader, [Cather] selected type, paper, and format that invited the reader response she sought. The heavy texture and cream color of paper used for O Pioneers! and My Antonia, for example, created a sense of warmth and invited a childlike play of imagination, as did these books’ large, dark type and wide margins. By the same principle, she expressly rejected the anthology format of assembling texts of numerous novels within the covers of one volume, with tight margins, thin paper, and condensed print.”

    Which is really interesting and calls into question the editors’ desire to get at an “authoritative” and uncorrupted text. Does the scholarly edition then have to take into account the kind of paper?

    According to these editors, yes. “The volumes in the Cather Edition respect those intentions insofar as possible within a series format that includes a comprehensive scholarly apparatus.”

    So the new edition has all the specs Cather called for, including that cream paper.

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