Sapphira and the Slave Girl: Book #12 Intro

Vintage Classics Edition

Read all 12 of Willa Cather’s novels in chronological order of publication, one each month, throughout 2012. For details about the challenge click here.

Our twelfth and last novel of the challenge is Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Read it sometime over the next three weeks and we’ll start our conversation about it on Monday, December 17.

About Sapphira and the Slave Girl:

  • Cather started writing the novel in the fall of 1937.
  • The story is set in Virginia, where Cather was born and spent the first nine years of her life, and is based in part on Cather’s grandmother who helped a slave escape in 1856.
  • It was published on December 7, 1940, which was Cather’s 67th birthday. (Speaking of which, The Willa Cather Foundation is throwing a Virtual Birthday Party for her December, 7-9).
  • Critical reception was initially good, but has been rocky over the decades.
  • 50,000 first printing, sold for $2.50. 65,000 copies sold by the following March and an additional 220,000 copies distributed via The-Book-of-the-Month-Club.

 Description from the Vintage Classic Paperback:

In her final novel, Willa Cather departed from her usual Great Plains settings to plumb the turbulent relationships between slaves and their owners in the antebellum South. Sapphira and the Slave Girl is set in Virginia just before the Civil War. Sapphira is a slave owner who feels she has come down in the world and channels her resentments into jealousy of her beautiful mulatto slave, Nancy. Sapphira’s daughter Rachel, and abolitionist, opposes her mother’s increasingly shocking attempts to persecute Nancy. The struggles of these three strong-willed women provided rich material for Cather’s narrative art and psychological insight.


  • Not often carried by new bookstores. Many used bookstores might have a copy. Almost always available at your local library.
  • Support the Willa Cather Foundation and order it online here.
Willow Shade, Cather’s Virginia Childhood Home.
Highway marker for Willow Shade

Earlier this year I read Edith Lewis’s memoir, Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record (1953). I was struck by what Lewis wrote about Sapphira and the Slave Girl:

Once in a while, I think, a writer does a novel that is “uncharacteristic,” in the sense that one does not find in it the qualities one most looks to find; the qualities that most predominate in the writer’s other work. But this, perhaps, sometimes comes not so much from a lack, as from an emergence, a substitution of other latent traits in the writer’s development. I believe that Sapphira has very strongly the quality of permanence, of survival; and that as time goes on, it will take a higher and higher place in any estimate of Willa Cather’s work. It is written austerely, with very little of that warmth and generous expansion of feeling so many of her readers delight in. It is a novel without a heroine–the central figure is a cold and rather repellant character. Nothing is stressed–incidents, scenes are touched on so lightly, one is hardly aware of their having more than a surface significance. Yet one finds–I find, at least–that they have a curiously imperishable quality. The story as a whole seems to me to be the brief chronicle of a time that will never again be recaptured with the same truth and crystalline vision, the same supreme art (184-85).

This is high praise, indeed, especially coming from someone who knew Cather’s work and mind perhaps better than anyone else. What do you think of Lewis’s assessment? Why do you think this novel isn’t read more widely today? How does Sapphira compare to other novels you’ve read about slavery in the United States?

I’ll share my thoughts on reading Sapphira and the Slave Girl in a new post on Monday, December 17th. At that time let’s start our conversation–simply post your thoughts about the novel in the comments section of that post so we can have everyone’s thoughts in once place.

Happy Reading!

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