|ames Branch Cabell wrote over fifty novels during his seventy-nine years, the most famous of which are the eighteen known as the Biography of the Life of Manuel, which follow the line of descent of the mythic Dom Manuel the Redeemer from medieval Poictesme to Cabell's own contemporary Richmond–in–Virginia. During his heydey he won the admiration of some of the most important literary figures of the time—|
|Arthur Machen, Carl Van Doren, Louis Untermeyer, Burton Rascoe, Hugh Walpole, and Sinclair Lewis. Mark Twain's greatest pleasure during his last years was Cabell's work, The Soul of Melicent was written at his request. H.L. Mencken referred to Cabell as “a lingering survivor of the ancien régime: a scarlet dragonfly imbedded in opaque amber1 He viewed Cabell as the sole survivor of the tradition of gentile southern aristocracy, the sole writer of worth in a cultural wasteland. “If it (the south) has heard, which I doubt, that Cabell has been hoofed by the Comstocks, it unquestionably views that assault as a deserved rebuke to a fellow who indulges a lewd passion for fancy writing, and is a covert enemy to the Only True Christianity.”2|
Cabell reached his zenith after the publishers of his novel Jurgen were brought to court by John S. Sumner, of the New York Society for the Supression of Vice in 1920. Cabell quickly responded by
circulating a limited pamphlet titled The Judging of Jurgen which included a petition of support with most of the literary luminaries of the day as signatories. The case was dismissed in 1922 by a judge who recognized that the erotic symbolism for which the book was under attack could only be recognized by a very sophisticated reader. The notoriety that the trial brought made Cabell a household name and Jurgen recieved critical acclaim, his name being compared with Pope, Rabelais, Voltaire, and Dante. To this day Jurgen has not gone out of print (it is currently available as a trade paperback from Dover books). Unfortunately, it became too easy for critics of future novels to claim that successive works were either “too much like Jurgen” or “not enough like Jurgen.”
To a reader of modern fantasy, the works of James Branch Cabell will be a refreshing change. Writing before Tolkien changed the genre forever, Cabell's fantasy draws from more classical inspirations—le Morte D'Arthur, The Faerie Queen, Ivanhoe, The Song of Roland, The Arabian Nights, and much of greek and roman mythology, as well as bits and pieces from every other mythological tradition can all be seen in his work, tempered with his urbane wit than runs throughout. He is fond of using parable as a stylistic device in addition to using anagrams and punning as vehicles for subplots or humorous interludes.
I have included links on this page to an essay excerpted from the autobiographical work Quiet, Please, summarizing Cabell's views on the state of American literature (On the Craft of Spoiling Paper) and an abbreviated version of the pamphlet The Judging of Jurgen that was prefaced to later editions of the novel.
1,2 H.L. Mencken, The Sahara of the Bozart
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