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JAMES BRANCH CABELL
In Extract from Impressions of American Literature in "The Times"
Literary Supplement, June 16, 1921
THE younger generation of American writers has offended the older arbiters of literary standards in that country, not only by taking seriously things that the latter have condemned, but still more by treating lightly subjects that to them have been sacred, or at, least taboo. Retribution has been sure, if not always swift ; the most sensational recent effort of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was the suppression last year of Mr. James Branch Cabell's mediæval romance "Jurgen," then in its third edition, in which the author had committed the heinous crime of treating sex as a joke and chronicling the adventures and gallantries of his quite non-moral hero. The sale of the book is now a legal offence in America, pending the remote decision of the Courts on whether the book is "obscene " —it took three years for Mademoiselle de Maupin to pass through the Courts; all the publisher's stock was attached by the society, but second-hand copies, clandestinely sold, are said to have fetched high sums; the author has received an extensive advertisement, which, however, he presumably does not appreciate.
Mr. Cabell is from the South, a member of an old Virginian family. He is thus an exception to the "vast vacuity" that Mr. Mencken, in his essay on "The Sahara of the Bozart" ( =Beaux Arts) in his second book of Prejudices declares to be the literary characteristic of the Southern States of the Union, an opinion which he corroborates with this touching couplet from the works of a Southern poet, one J. Gordon Coogler-
"Alas, for the South! Her books have grown fewer--
She never was much given to literature."
Mr. Cabell's first books consisted of two or three genealogical studies of his ancestors. Besides these he has written half-a-dozen novels of mediæval romance and contemporary Virginian life, of which the more important are, of the first class, Jurgen, Figures of Earth, and Domnei, and of the second, The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck, and The Cords of Vanity; an essay on literary values, Beyond Life; two volumes that are in effect collections of historical short stories, and vignettes, The Certain Hour and The Cream of the Jest; and a set of verse translations and adaptations chiefly of mediæval poetry, From the Hidden Way. Until the suppression of Jurgen, Mr. Cabell had endured long years of neglect or contempt -- typical review of one of his books described it as "—worse than immoral— dull." But the development of his work may best be read about in a sympathetic article which Mr. Hugh Walpole wrote in the Yale Review last year, and which has been reprinted as a pamphlet by Mr. Cabell's publisher. Mr. Walpole concludes with the statement that "no writer, new to us in the last ten years, has revealed in English so arresting a personality" as Mr. Cabell.
A summary of Jurgen will perhaps convey a notion of what the book is, and how it has so offended the vested interests which safeguard the morals of the American reading public. . . . (Here follows 'a long summary.) . . . . It has been possible to give only a rough outline of this most delightful Cabellaisian romance; every chapter (except, perhaps, in some degree the few that follow his adventures in Heaven) is extremely amusing and full of subtle turns of thought and phrase. It must, however, be admitted that any one who is in search of the salacious should not waste time on Jurgen, not even with the aid of the list of offensive pages so obligingly compiled by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. One would as soon go to a troubadour for smoking-room stories.
Mr. Cabell's latest book, Figures of Earth, is somewhat in the same style. Manuel the swineherd is akin to Jurgen the pawnbroker, and while his adventures are less sensational they are little less readable. The book contains a clear enunciation of Mr. Cabell's philosophy — the desire of his heroes, both mediæval and contemporary, for the dreams of their youth, the vanity of desires achieved, and the folly of man's conceit— an ape reft of his tail, and grown rusty at climbing, who yet feels himself to be a symbol and the frail representative of Omnipotence in a place that is not home.
In Mr. Cabell's Virginian stories there is the same urbane, ironic delicacy that is in the others. But there is no need to describe them here — The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck is the best since they are easily obtainable, the Comstock societies being unable to find in them references, to such terrible things as nightdresses. But one feels that the old Puritan order in America must be suffering more from the delightful and beautifully written works of Mr. Cabell than from almost any other of the writers who have dared to enter the lists against its traditions.Contents