Odious and Peculiar

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Wednesday, July 28, 2004
James Branch Cabell's name has all but been forgotten in the annals of literature, and anyone can understand why. He wrote eighteen books describing what he considered to be the three ways of dealing with life. And he was being generous: he's actually got just one story to tell, and he tells it over again and over again. So why read him?

Well, for one thing, it's an interesting story. It's one that all of us have been through, even if it does not, as he implies constitute the whole of existence. And for another, he tells it very well.

I've recently been reading some of his reviews collected in Some of Us: An Essay in Epitaphs, which is a rather nasty review of the writers who were popular during the 'twenties. Of particular note is his review of Sinclair Lewis, often praised for his realism. Cabell makes the point that Lewis is anything but realistic; he has instead stumbled upon one of the great archetypes in his Babbitt.

Cabell is capable of extraordinary nastiness with the most remarkably lovely prose. In Some of Us, for example, he has a footnote regarding a correction:

It has been suggested to me by Mr. Seward Collins of the Bookman that "Mr. Paul E. More has devoted a dozen lines to Mr. Hergesheimer, on page 62 of Modern Currents in American Literature," --and one thankfully acknowledges the academic value of this information. Even so, because of my doubt if any aspersions printed that far on in a book by Mr. More can be regarded as actually published, I am permitting my original text to stand unaltered.

He's got a talent for a sort of prose Shakespearean sonnet: extremely structured (even among the eighteen books there is an architectonic based on the "three possible attitudes toward human life"), with a couplet at the end that generally deflates the whole thing, if properly used. Even his sentences end that way: "And I did not know that civilized persons any longer retained sufficient credulity to wring a thrill from god-baiting." (Jurgen, which got him famous by being censored. He never forgave it). It reminds one of Byron's Don Juan: "He learn'd the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,/ And how to scale a fortress-or a nunnery." "A little quietly facetious about everything," as Byron put it, and Cabell's philosophy is certainly that.

Of course, that's rather rich coming from a fellow whose fifth birthday was along these lines:

Miss Florine Hirsh made a beautiful Bo Peep as did also Miss Maggie Branch a real Titianesque beauty. Miss Sallie Bruce as Bettie Blue was charming, and her brother Charlie, as Tom the Piper, played all of the tunes he knew when he was young. Misses Ethel and Mary Pace were present, Miss Mary as a Contrary Mary, which we feel sure she was not, and Miss Ethel unable to take character because of a broken arm. Miss E. Whitlock was also Mary Quite Contrary; she was a pretty little girl and will learn to be anything else but contrary before she grows up we feel sure.

If we have omitted any names it is only because we were so bewildered by the beautiful cortege as to lose our wits and those left out must pardon the omission. The parlors were handsomely decorated with Easter lilies and doves, and from the centre arch hung three large Easter eggs. The supper table was adorned with flowers and a golden nest with a goose ridden by Old Mother Goosey, which nest was filled with pretty eggs, one for each girl, afforded mu[c]h delight. The merry party broke up at 9 o'clock, and all left wishing Master Cabell many happy returns.

More Cabell?

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