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The Case of Mr. Cabell vs. The Author of the Biography

ISSUE:  Summer 1929


Since an abstract view of this most discussed of contemporary literary figures in America would now be practically valueless, and a personal view of an impersonal figure is practically impossible, further comment upon Mr. Cabell, his life or works, is practically useless. In spite of this axiomatic fact James Branch Cabell continues to arouse public curiosity as a literary topic, and the present writer has lately been asked by two editors to contribute additional items to the Cabellian legend. Since my contacts with Mr. Cabell have been quite different from the contacts established with him by his fellow authors or by his critics and commentators, my impressions of him are, of necessity, erratic and occasionally almost incredible. And, since the conviction of a person who is neither critic nor commentator that Mr. Cabell has written some of the most beautiful books in the English language is useless either to Mr. Cabell or to his readers, these erratic impressions are my single contribution. During a quite unliterary youth Mr. Cabell figured in my, world mainly as the author of “The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck,” regarded by that world as a shocking piece of documentary evidence against Virginia society in the Nineties, which spared his own family no more than the families of his neighbours. The author of this book was known only vaguely to the town, and was seen with a notable infrequency, due to the fact, perhaps, that he was said to work nights and sleep in the day. Or perhaps he attended Witches’ Sabbaths at night, but this could never be proved, since no one else from the town attended these rituals. Several years later Mr. Cabell became known to the town as the author of “Jurgen,” and as a celebrity of the first water, but in spite of a family connection as large and distinguished as any which ornament his State, he remained a shadowy figure and an unsocial one.


In the midst of the international tumult stirred up by the Jurgen litigation, specifically the fall of 1920, four reasonably young and unreasonably foolish people determined to start a little magazine in the town, whose rewards, Mr. Cabell himself later stated on the title page, should be “in fame not specie.” It occurred to two of the quartette, the young man whose portentous duty it was to review books for this publication which was to be born in the following February, and to the young woman whose precarious and quite unliterary job it was to collect manuscript for it, to wait upon the great man in search of aid and comfort, along precisely what lines they were not wholly decided. He was known to them both only through one or two casual social introductions and their immense and quite sincere admiration for his work. The magazine project had been declared by many persons to be an impossible one, and in their innocence they called upon the person who, of all their acquaintance, held most firmly to the belief that nothing whatever can be done about anything, to assist them in accomplishing the impossible. But the rapidly accumulating myths concerning him invested him in their eyes with partly supernatural powers. And they said to one another, as Maggie and Tom Tulliver had said to each other so many years earlier on a dissimilar occasion, when news came to them that Sir Walter Scott was a visitor in their county: “We will go to see Sir Walter, and tell him how clever we are, and how unhappy.” Mr. Cabell, whose public activities are, like those of Felix Kennaston in “The Cream of the Jest/’ unvaryingly dignified, orthodox, and impressive, however contrary or dubious may be his secret pursuits, was at that time serving on the board of the Virginia War History Commission. Nor, it may be here stated, is Mr. Cabell ever an incongruous figure in such a group. The board met in the Virginia State Capitol, and it was there that Mr. Cabell arranged to receive this less impressive commission of two. His young visitors felt, in that high moment, that the domed and columned setting of the Capitol, under the cool marble gaze of the great Virginian by Houdon in the rotunda, and the equally cool gaze of another great Virginian nearby, was merely appropriate to the historic importance of what they were about to undertake. They know now that Mr. Cabell arranged to receive them, like honoured guests of the State, in the Capitol of the State and of the Confederacy, instead of in his study at Dumbarton, because it would be a simple matter to get rid of them politely there. And Mr. Cabell, during four years of such continuous harassment as none of the other far less aloof literary figures of my acquaintance would endure, remained always polite. The callers were entirely solemn about their mission. So, it appeared to them, was Mr. Cabell. His questions were dignified in tone, and his answers were made without a smile. Before they left, Mr. Cabell had signed his name, in his miraculously perfect writing, to some rather extraordinary paragraphs calling the attention of the reading public throughout the country to the extraordinary, quality of the magazine which was soon to burst upon them. He, however, carefully crossed out several lines before signing, leaving himself, in the Cabellian manner, more than one loophole through which he might conveniently slip, if hard pressed, in the form, perhaps, of an orange rat. His name headed a list, later photographed and broadcast, of every living writer and artist born in the State, which very naturally lacked homogeneity to such a startling degree that a Baltimore critic, who mistook the signers of these paragraphs for members of a board of directors of the magazine, viewed its prospects with alarm in his first comment upon it, and prophesied differences of opinion so acute as to result in unseemly brawls at its directors’ meetings. But, as has been stated, Mr. Cabell signed his name without a smile, and in his most elegant writing. The visitors left the strange rendezvous with a firm conviction of the great kindness and humanitarianism of Mr. Cabell, and a belief that he was a widely misunderstood person.

It had not then become clear to either of them that Mr. Cabell possessed the vast curiosity which is the inalienable adjunct to a vast intelligence, and that his apparent interest in other local enterprises, the unplumbed gravity with which he had, for a brief space, sat through certain of their sessions, were founded in this curiosity. The humourous possibilities of these other enterprises were, however, rapidly exhausted even by the intelligently curious, and the humourous possibilities of such a magazine appeared, during the four years of its existence, exhaustless. Since at least one of the editors shared with the White Queen the ability to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, Mr. Cabell was called upon to act in several different capacities, each of which opened new vistas for the gratification of the curious. And curiosity had already led Mr. Cabell across perilous seas, into the hazards of mediaeval existence; into the intricacies of black magic; into attempts to conduct rational conversations with gods and devils who refuse to talk or act rationally; into the inner courts of Heaven and Hell; into scandalous love affairs with beautiful and celebrated women whose looseness of conduct has often profoundly shocked the Virginia gentleman which Mr. Cabell has never for a moment ceased to be. This curiosity also led Mr. Cabell to attend the meetings of the infant magazine, meetings which for reasons requiring another story of their own, became known as “parties.” Mr. Cabell’s expression on these occasions, suitable enough for a partly supernatural being, remained that of an idol or a sphinx. He occasionally laughed, almost reluctantly, and on one horribly unforgettable occasion, provoked by a visiting literary, lady, uttered remarks of so definitely discouraging a nature as to plunge one editor into a tearful gloom, lasting a day and a night. When this was brought to Mr. Cabell’s attention he paid a Sunday call in a drizzling rain to say that he was genuinely sorry to have caused further sadness in a world already sufficiently sad. And kindness, undoubtedly, rather than curiosity, was the motive of this call. These parties, with increasing frequency, involved visiting literary lights who had found Mr. Cabell, in the past, more or less inaccessible. And here his curiosity proved his undoing, for with so many parties in circulation, he too, being above all things just, rational, and urbane, found himself inevitably a party-giver. On one occasion, in fact, he was host at quite the most spectacular party of that fantastic period, wherein an amazing game was led by a New York novelist, which was attended by a number of eminent persons descending, like a sort of literary Rotary Club, upon the town in a massed phalanx, and destroying his privacy for the length of a week.


But a passion for perfection equal only to his passionate curiosity concerning the universe made it impossible for Mr. Cabell to remain always in the role of detached observer. The magazine, it was plain, was being improperly edited, and a sudden and fortunate fancy seized him to give the world an example of perfect editing as a companion piece to many examples of perfect writing. For three months, October, November, and December, 1921, it must be told for the benefit of Cabell collectors, he edited the magazine single-handed, to show four awed editors just how editing could and should be done. He proved, in addition to brilliant editorial gifts, to be an expert make-up man, for the pages of the magazine never, before or since, were shaped with such exquisite precision. In addition to “The Lineage of Lichfield,” which was then being serialized in those pages, whenever a small space was left at the bottom of a page paragraphs were slipped into it under the imposing Virginia noms-de-plume of Burwell Washington, Henry Lee Jefferson, and A. C. Fairfax, paragraphs whose authorship was at once suspected and later proved, when these scattered loaves and fishes were thriftily gathered up and fitted, with equal neatness, into the pages of the Biography. Never was editing accomplished with a like thoroughness. Cabellian phrases were inserted into the mouths of the babes and sucklings who wrote for, as well as edited, the magazine, and the title of a poem by a well-known lady was changed from “April Twilight” to “October Twilight,” for, to the mind of a precisian, “April Twilight” was unsuitable for an October magazine. And so absorbing was an editorial career to Mr. Cabell that, with his distinguished single-mindedness, he put aside his current novel, “The High Place,” in order to pursue it. Nor will any editor fail to understand the slightly querulous tone of “The High Place,” wherein Melior’s purple robe is lifted and disenchantment casts a grey pall over Florian’s world. Shifting, odd, crooked glimpses of him during that period flash grotesquely through several memories even now. Mr. Cabell at the telephone, stating in reply to excited questions concerning the disposition of the magazine’s mail box that the train was passing his front gate and he was unable to hear. Mr. Cabell receiving the news of an unexpected gift of money, gratifying to his half belief in witches and demons, remarking in a hushed voice: “Why, it’s just like a fairy tale.” Mr. Cabell elegantly adorning a meeting to which he had been urged in order to placate, by his mere presence, an irate and incomprehensible business manager with an intimate view of a celebrity whom he had never beheld and earnestly desired, above all other celebrities, to behold ; a meeting which could, by no stretch of the imagination, be called a party. Mr. Cabell seated in the lush grass by the James River, a guest at an improbable May picnic arranged by a Pennsylvania author whose vitality is the wonder and envy of his friends, surrounded by the author, two impressed editors, strawberries, hard-boiled eggs, and a thermos bottle full of cocktails. Mr. Cabell sitting a bit stiffly, a bit precisely, never for an instant lounging, oddly reminiscent, in spite of his clothes, of a painted figure at an Eighteenth Century fe champre. The tweed-and-knickerbockered Pennsylvanian tapping Mr. Cabell’s ineffably urban knee, crying: “How can you look so much as if you were in a drawing-room, James? You are on a picnic.” And with an annoyed glance at the red uproarious river of the same name, rushing over its rocks, “This is the damnedest river I ever saw in my life. I’m used to neat Pennsylvania rivers, with tidy banks.” Mr. Cabell assisting the Pennsylvanian on this afternoon in the concoction of an impromptu short story, with a hero and heroine named Henry and Lucy, wherein he relinquished his own manner and stubbornly insisted upon imitating the Pennsylvanian’s habit of repeating nouns where most persons employ pronouns. Later, the publication moved away from his town, and Mr. Cabell vanished again into the mists from which he had, for a season, emerged.

What were his thoughts, during the time he spent outside his ivory tower, found no expression except perhaps in the books which followed that period. It was not, as even the particularly nae editor who shared the White Queen’s talents eventually realized, a spirit of sheer benevolence which moved him, nor could the enterprise which he helped to nurse have seemed to him the entrancing, the utterly irresistible engagement, which it appeared always to her. And yet, however baffling may be the processes of a profoundly curious and a profoundly satirical mind, it is fairly certain that kindness was not completely absent from Mr. Cabell’s attitude to the undertaking.


The Virginia gentleman whom one too infrequently meets about his town, whose most marked superficial traits are those which have for three hundred years been the accepted seal and label of his particular aristocracy, gentleness and simplicity, is often absent from pages of the Biography of that soul who has inhabited so many bodies, migrating from mediaeval France, through Eighteenth Century England, to modern Virginia, but is never absent from any one whole volume of the Biography, The Mr. Cabell whom one occasionally meets in the town one meets occasionally in the Biography as well. And the hero of the Biography believes urbanity, tenderness, and compassion to be indispensable elements of the artist. Mr. Cabell helped the author of the Biography to make lovely pages out of pity and irony without ever employing that phrase now so frayed and limp from merciless use by both critics and authors that one of the most brilliant of the younger among them has been moved to cry out against it. Certainly the undertaking with which for a time Mr. Cabell allied himself presented unequalled opportunities for both pity and irony. Beyond doubt, too, it contained the quality of youth which the author of the Biography finds of all human qualities most direct in its claim upon the heart. Not even first love itself, the only love which wears a purple robe for the author of the Biography, is younger or more beautifully absurd than the plan then presented to him. Therefore, in spite of some assertions to the contrary, Mr. Cabell and the author of the Biography meet on the occasions I have mentioned, however remote from one another they may remain when the author of the Biography travels into a realm far beyond good and evil, where, having known all things and suffered all things, he can, since he is pre-eminently just and rational, vainly, desiring above all things a universe governed in a just and rational manner, be shocked by nothing. For Mr. Cabell of Virginia is suitably shocked by shocking occurrences. When Mr. Cabell takes possession of the wandering soul of his hero, he too is shocked, and, like a true Virginia gentleman, is shocked most of all by the immodesty of the ladies who succumb to him. Here, Mr. Cabell quickly removes himself by many miles from Anatole France, with whom he has been unintelligently compared. The Gallic mind of the older writer is filled with an irritable impatience by the attitude of the females in “Penguin Island,” who behave “as if they had treasure under their skirts.” The behaviour of Mr. Cabell’s women is as outrageous as could be conceived by any Continental brain, but, when still on this side of the realm beyond good and evil, he plainly considers them hussies in fact, whether queens, witches, or goddesses by appointment, and is filled with irritable impatience because they, do not behave as if they had treasure under their skirts. When Jurgen eventually finds Dorothy la Desiree, longed for through years, in his arms, he merely realizes that “he was touching her everywhere, this horrible lascivious woman, who was certainly quite old enough to know better than to permit such liberties.” And he advises her to adopt a suitable frame of mind toward her husband. Now and again, in the best Virginia manner, he returns to the double standard, holding fast to it until he departs again into that dizzying and appalling realm beyond good and evil where the rational can, with reason, be shocked by nothing whatever, and where Mr. Cabell does not care to follow the author of the Biography.

But to the loveliness that is not to be grasped, Mr, Cabell remains permanently attached and devoted, one among her few loyal and gallant and incorruptible defenders in this or any age. His apparent detachment is a perpetual source of awe and a periodical source of annoyance to his contemporaries. In his study, companioned by, his small animals, exactly like those collected by red-headed Gerald Musgrave of Virginia in “Something About Eve,” most conspicuous among them a larger china hen, engaged in the eternal and unalluring act of hatching, and the bust of Mother Sereda, presented to him by an Italian sculptor, he finds all that he needs, as other writers find it through contacts with the earth and its inhabitants. And because of something which he has seen and heard—he has never, even in the Biography, told exactly where—he is oddly serene, bewilderingly self-sufficient. His face is curiously clear-skinned, unlined and unruffled, and his eyes are non-committal, rather than “sleepy and insolent” like the “portraits of the Cavaliers and courtiers of the time of the Stuarts,” as once stated by an inaccurate and misguided writer many years ago. Very surely, Mr. Cabell is without the diversions associated through complaisant centuries with the practice of the creative arts. Perhaps Arthur Machen guessed where Mr. Cabell once journeyed, in “The White People.” At any rate, he tells there of a young man, who, after following a white stag into a wood, never again drank common wine, because he had drunk enchanted wine from a gold cup, and never kissed another lady because he had kissed the Queen of the Fairies.


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