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Virginia-born James Branch Cabell was one of the first voices of a rising chorus of modern southern writers. He is recognized today as a pioneering novelist and short-story writer of the southern literary renaissance, and is also considered an influential early master of the fantasy genre.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Venerable Southern Family
James Branch Cabell was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, where he lived out most of his life in a manner typical of a southern gentleman of modest means and impeccable pedigree. Cabell was descended from a venerable Virginia family. His father, Robert Gamble Cabell ii, was the scion of a long-established old Dominion family that had produced one governor, Cabell’s great-grandfather. Cabell’s mother, Anne Branch Cabell, belonged to a solidly bourgeois family with comfortable fortunes resting on mercantile and banking interests.
In keeping with his family status, Cabell attended William and Mary College, where his precocious brilliance was quickly recognized. Because of this, he taught courses in French and Greek while an undergraduate, and he graduated with high honors.
Settling Into Domesticity
Following a brief period of newspaper work in New York City from 1899 to 1901, Cabell returned to Richmond to pursue his twin interests of creative writing and genealogy. Between 1901 and 1911 his genealogical researches led to extensive travel in England and Europe. He wrote steadily, and although he published several novels and short-story collections during the first ten years of the 1900s, he remained all but unnoticed as a writer. in 1911 he decided to try his hand as a coal-mine operator in the mountains of West Virginia. He persisted in this experiment until 1913, when he once again returned to Richmond, where he was to spend the rest of his life, except for occasional holidays in the Virginia mountains and in Florida.
in 1913, at age thirty-four, Cabell married a widow with five children by her previous marriage. This woman, Rebecca Priscilla Bradley Shepherd, as Cabell called her, proved an ideal wife for the writer, carefully guarding his privacy, adroitly managing the practical affairs of the household, and performing with equal skill the parts of literary hostess and press agent. Cabell settled into thirty-five years of contented domesticity.
Achieving Public Recognition
By 1919, Cabell’s talent was fully mature, and he had published several more novels and collections. However, his recognition by the reading public had grown very slowly. The turning point came in 1919 as a result of his novel Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice. The New York Society for the Prevention of Vice seized the plates and all the copies of Jurgen and charged Guy Holt, Cabell’s editor, with violation of the anti-obscenity provisions of the New York State Penal Code. In the book, a middle-aged man is given the chance to be young again, and begins an adventurous journey across fantastical lands in search of romance. Along the way, Cabell satirizes many aspects of modern life, including organized religion, and also offers up pas sages some readers considered racy. The obscenity trial, which resulted in a verdict of acquittal, made Cabell a national celebrity and something of a literary cult figure, championed by such notables as Burton Rascoe and H. L. Mencken. He was subsequently surrounded by admiring fellow writers.
Yet—except for having to make room for visiting literati and for a growing list of literary intimates, including Sinclair Lewis, Emily Clark, Carl Van Vechten, Hugh Walpole, and his lifelong Richmond friend, Ellen Glasgow— Cabell’s life changed surprisingly little in its basic economy and rhythm. He remained in Richmond; the literary world came to him, and Richmond became a literary center during the 1920s, for many embodying the spirit of the Roaring Twenties. There were, to be sure, increased social obligations and a much more extensive correspondence to attend to, but for the most part he continued to divide his time among his writing, his family, and his work as professional genealogist with the Virginia chapter of the Sons of the Revolution and with other historical societies in the state.
Throughout the 1920s, as American prosperity continued to grow and many figured it would last forever, Cabell wrote prodigiously and enjoyed the attention due a major literary figure. Then, with the beginning of the Great Depression, his literary fame was eclipsed almost as suddenly as it bloomed. By 1929, he had completed his monumental, multi-volume work, The Biography of the Life of Manuel. The work, influenced largely by his interest in family history and genealogy, depicts several generations of the family of a count from a fictional region in France. Although twenty-five more years of creative work lay ahead of him, Cabell spent those years unable to escape from the shadow of his own literary monument. From 1932-1935 he joined George Jean Nathan, Theodore Dreiser, Eugene O’Neill, and Sherwood Anderson in editing the American Spectator in what turned out to be a futile attempt to carry the spirit of the 1920s into the 1930s.
Late Life Alienation and Productivity
After 1935, Cabell suffered repeated attacks of pneumonia, and Priscilla Bradley developed a crippling form of arthritis. These infirmities led to their wintering in the milder climate of Saint Augustine, Florida, and it was there, in 1949, that Priscilla Bradley died of heart failure. Deeply shaken and embittered by the death of his wife, and increasingly alienated from the America of the New Deal, World War II, the atomic age, and the Cold War, Cabell nonetheless continued to write steadily throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, he produced twelve new books, including two memoirs. He died in Richmond, Virginia, in 1958 at the age of seventy-nine.
Works in Literary Context
Much praised during the height of his career, Cabell is no longer considered one of the major writers of the twentieth century—and indeed he has not been considered such since the end of the 1920s. However, he is viewed as one of the outstanding oddities in American fiction, combining extremes of lavish romance and degraded reality, idealistic fantasy and jaded disillusionment.
Cabell adhered to a special definition of romance, one that allowed him to portray glorified adventures beyond mundane reality without falsifying what he saw as the harsh truths of existence: the suffering of life, the emptiness of death, and a permanent alienation at the core of even the most intimate human relations. For Cabell the romantic view of life meant following a system of ”dynamic illusions,” the codes of self-deception—such as reason, religion, or love—by which individuals and societies are sustained.
Cabell’s romantic vision is a union of three basic attitudes toward life—the chivalric, the gallant, and the poetic, all of which are attempts to impose arbitrary values on an indifferent universe. This vision is particularly present in The Biography of the Life of Manuel. Each work in the Biography is designed to dramatize one of these attitudes. The chivalric attitude considers life a trial of the individual: a contest in which certain ideals, including personal honor and public glory, must be valiantly won. The gallant attitude approaches life as a series of pleasures and excitements. More cynical than their chivalric predecessors, the heroes of the gallant novels search for fulfillment of their most extreme desires but end with a disillusioning confrontation with reality. Finally, the poetic attitude perceives life as material for artistic creation. This approach represents yet another scheme for introducing order and perfection into a chaotic world, seeking to harmonize it with human imagination.
Many of Cabell’s novels can be seen as picaresque tales, a collection of related adventures centered around a main character that are strung together to form a longer story. Cabell had, in fact, begun his career as a short-story writer, and when he turned to novel writing, he did not really abandon the short fiction form. As one commentator noted about many of Cabell’s novels, ”Upon closer examination they present themselves as loosely constructed romances, highly picaresque in form.” A good example of Cabell’s use of the picaresque form is Jurgen, in which the title character journeys through all of the dream kingdoms on this side and the other side of death in search of justice. Such a narrative framework, which integrated various stories with a common hero, allowed Cabell to continue writing the kind of tales he had begun working on early in his career.
Cabell’s style is often mannered and, to present-day sensibilities, somewhat labored. Cabell’s stylistic aims are exactly opposite Hemingway’s. Hemingway strives for the illusion that his prose is a completely trans parent medium through which we perceive an immediately present reality. Cabell’s prose, by continually calling attention to itself, keeps the reader mindful that all he is witnessing is in fact the creation of a storyteller. Cabell’s archaic style was also helpful in circumventing certain taboos of the time period in which he wrote. By couching his descriptions of things likely to be deemed vulgar in a sly if stilted style, Cabell was able to suggest that which he was not permitted to state outright. However, this style was an insecure base for a lasting reputation, as Cabell himself recorded in Some of Us: An Essay in Epitaphs (1930). For once the idols have been smashed and the taboos exorcised, the iconoclasm of a particular time and place becomes pointless and ceases to amuse.
Works in Critical Contexts
Critical reception of Cabell has been unusually polarized. His works have inspired extremes of derogation and praise. Oscar Cargill has called him ”the most tedious person who has achieved high repute as a literatus in America,” while Vernon L. Parrington has stated that ”Mr. Cabell is creating great literature.” Cabell’s work is said to epitomize the sophisticated cynicism of the 1920s, and his popularity was at its height during that era, declining drastically in the 1930s. When he died in 1958, he had been virtually for gotten by the American critical establishment. Since that time, Cabell’s works have generated interest only among a select audience of admirers, as is evidenced in the pages of Kalki and The Cabellian, journals devoted to him. But Cabell’s work is rarely anthologized and almost never given a significant place in serious discussions of twentieth-century literature.
Although most of Cabell’s major works have a place within the larger design of The Biography of the Life of Manuel, Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice stands out on its own. In addition to bringing Cabell fame because of the high-profile obscenity trial associated with this book, Jurgen also features a main character who, as Arvin Wells notes, ”transcends the role ostensibly assigned him in The Biography.” The character of Jurgen, Wells goes on to argue, embodies the point of view from which the entire Biography was written. Because of the differences in Jurgen, a number of critics appeared baffled by its meaning and attributed its notoreity to the obscenity read into it by some. Paul Elmer More wrote, ”I cannot help asking myself whether its wider reputation does not depend chiefly on its elusive and cunningly suggestive lubricity. Arthur Hobson Quinn dismissed the importance of Jurgen, writing, ”[While] the attempt to suppress Jurgen was silly, there is an odor of decay about it which is repulsive to any healthy minded reader. Even H.L. Mencken, one of Cabell s strongest supporters in the obscenity trial, wrote about the book that what gave it its reputation ”is not anything that Cabell himself put into it.
- Brewer, Frances Joan. James Branch Cabell: A References of His Writings, Biography and Criticism. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 1957.
- Davis, Joe Lee. James Branch Cabell. New York: Twayne, 1962.
- French, Warren, ed. The Twenties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1975.
- Godshalk, William L. In Quest of Cabell: Five Exploratory Essays. New York: Revisionist Press, 1976.
- Inge, Thomas and Edgar E. MacDonald, eds. James Branch Cabell, Centennial Essays. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
- MacDonald, Edgar E. James Branch Cabell and Richmond-in-Virginia. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.
- Rubin, Louis D., ed. The South: Modern Southern Literature and Its Cultural Setting. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961.
- Tarrant, Desmond. James Branch Cabell: The Dream and the Reality. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.
- Wagenknecht, Edward. Cavalcade of the American Novel. New York: Holt, 1952.
- Wells, Arvin R. Jesting Moses: A Study in Cabellian Comedy. Gainesville, Fla.: University of Florida Press, 1962.
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