The great wall of Cabell

Now a court was held by the Philistines to decide whether or no King Jurgen should be relegated to limbo. And when the judges were prepared for judging, there came into the court a great tumblebug, rolling in front of him his loved and properly housed young ones. With the creature came pages, in black and white, bearing a sword, a staff and a lance.

The insect looked at Jurgen, and its pincers rose erect in horror. The bug cried to the three judges, “Now, by St. Anthony this Jurgen must forthwith be relegated to limbo, for he is offensive and lewd and lascivious and indecent.”

“And how can that be?” says Jurgen.

“You are offensive,” the bug replied, “because this page has a sword which I chose to say is not a sword. You are lewd because that page has a lance which I prefer to think is not a lance. You are lascivious because yonder page has a staff which I elect to declare is not a staff. And finally, you are indecent for reasons of which a description would be objectionable to me, and which therefore I must decline to reveal to anybody.”

“Well, that sounds logical,” says Jurgen, “but still, at the same time, it would be no worse for an admixture of common-sense. For you gentlemen can see for yourselves, by considering these pages fairly and as a whole, that these pages bear a sword and a lance and a staff, and nothing else whatever; and you will deduce, I hope, that all the lewdness is in the insectival mind of him who itches to be calling these things by other names.”

James Branch Cabell, The Judging of Jurgen

“Each to his creed,” said Yaotl. “So do men choose between hope and despair.”
“Yes, creeds mean very little,” Coth answered the dark god, still speaking almost gently. “The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.”

James Branch Cabell, The Silver Stallion

There was an English professor at Rutgers University who scared a great many students away from academic careers by asking them to name the author whose work was the basis for the first English doctorate to be awarded in America. The author was Joseph Hergesheimer, once the toast of American letters, later a trivia question for grad students at dull parties. This first insight into the durability of literary fame, and the nature of literary studies, sent many of his students sprinting to switch their majors to something useful, like computer science.

Joseph Hergesheimer’s fall into obscurity was nothing compared to the fate of his friend and fellow writer James Branch Cabell, whose admirers included Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Carl Van Doren, Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who asked Cabell to blurb his novel The Beautiful and the Damned. Sinclair Lewis (whose celebrated 1920 novel Main Street benefited immensely from Cabell’s editing) used his Nobel Prize lecture to praise Cabell alongside Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather and Ernest Hemingway — possibly the first and probably the only time Hemingway and Cabell have been linked in a flattering way. You see, Hergesheimer did not go gently into that good night; he protested his decline every inch of the way. By contrast, Cabell did not so much fall into obscurity as execute a swan-dive into it; a rare stroke of luck brought him fame, and with the studied impracticality of a man born to the Virginia gentry, he tossed it aside.

Cabell’s elegantly written fantasies, composed in an elaborately epigrammatic style and loaded with what would come to be called metafictional games, would have remained safely obscure but for the timely intervention of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which declared his 1919 novel Jurgen obscene and brought both author and publisher to trial for indecency. The trial guaranteed the novel’s success. Cabell repaid the favor by giving Jurgen a new chapter with the above-quoted censorial dung beetle, and the rest of the decade saw Cabell producing some of his finest work and enjoying his greatest success.

What happened next is explored by Michael Swanwick in his long essay What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage? just published by Temporary Culture, a boutique operation run by writer and critic Henry Wessels from his house in Upper Montclair, N.J. Subtitled “James Branch Cabell in the Twnty-First Century,” What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage might just as accurately be called A Portrait of the Artist as His Own Worst Enemy:

There are, alas, an infinite number of ways for a writer to destroy himself. James Branch Cabell chose one of the more interesting. Standing at the helm of the single most successful literary career of any fantasist of the twentieth-century, he drove the great ship of his reputation straight and unerringly onto the rocks.

This “remarkable feat of self-obliteration,” Swanwick writes, was accomplished chiefly through Cabell’s decision to do an end-run around the judgment of time, that ever-pesky middleman, and create for himself a uniform edition of his complete works, all thoroughly revised and in many cases retrofitted to make them part of a multi- generational epic Cabell called The Biography of the Life of Manuel. This imposing series of volumes, which buried work of genuine value under a landfill of ephemera and dreary misfires, formed a Maginot Line capable of repelling new readers while forcing old ones, who had dutifully slogged their way through the revisions, to wonder what they’d ever seen in the originals. The shift of literary taste away from belles-lettres and toward more pared-down prose finished the job that Cabell’s hubris had started.

And yet, as Swanwick argues persuasively (and in a style that shows his subject’s positive influence), there is a core of six novels within the Cabell canon that deserve to be rescued from oblivion. That’s at least two more than can be said for Hemingway, at any rate.

Of these, Jurgen would have to sit at the top of the heap — it is the only one of Cabell’s novels to have remained in print without interruption, and it is his most attractive and light-hearted work. In it, a poet turned pawnbroker named Jurgen amuses himself by praising the devil for his hard work, and is rewarded first by the removal of his harridan wife, then by the restoration of his youth. Jurgen puts his vigor to use by voyaging through time and mythology, revisiting the young love of his teenaged years (an autobiographical touch, that) and then dallying with Guenevere, the Lady of the Lake, a beautiful vampire and the Queen of the Philistines. He also works his way up the cosmic chain of command and ultimately meets Koschei, the harried bureaucrat who actually runs the universe. The combination of impiety and sexual adventure (all couched in double-entendres that leave the way open to innocent interpretations for even the most lubricious scenes) outraged the bluenoses while delighting the literati, who found the book to be a cause celebre that they could genuinely celebrate. “It was [Cabell’s] extraordinary good fortune,” Swanwick notes, “that the suppressed book chanced to be the single best work of his career.”

To Jurgen I would add — with varying degrees of argument from Swanwick — The Silver Stallion, Figures of Earth, The High Place and The Cream of the Jest. Swanwick’s own assessment names the first three as essential, then the last two as lesser priorities, along with Something About Eve and The Way of Ecben. “These are not an insurmountable number of works to master,” Swanwick chides us.

He’s right. Michael Swanwick has ranged the considerable length and negligible breadth of the remainder of the Cabell ouevre, and come back with good news about the good stuff to be found there. If, say, the Library of America decides it needs a suitable editor to bring James Branch Cabell into the Black Jacket Club, I know just the man for the job.

2 thoughts on “The great wall of Cabell

  1. […] of the day March 19, 2008 From Michael Swanwick, whose essay on James Cabell I praised to the skies not all that long ago, comes this pearl of wisdom: My single best piece of advice for new writers […]

  2. […] will be remembered by Ballantine Adult Fantasy cultists as the author of Lud-in-the-Mist. As with his excellent study of James Branch Cabell, Swanwick’s Mirrlees book is being published by Henry Wessells in both a trade paperback […]

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