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Eve and Mr. Cabell: - and the Archbishop

ISSUE:  Winter 1928

Death Comes for the Archbishop. By Willa Cather. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. Something About Eve. By James Branch Cabell. New York: Robert M. McBride and Company. $2.50.

This eleventh volume in Mr. Cabell’s biography will, to those who have been annoyed by Mr. Cabell, bring a more acute annoyance. To those whose happiness in reading is enormously heightened by each new development of the eternal Cabell hero “Something About Eve” will in at least one or two ways bring a fresh joy and surprise, and in no way disappointment. This latest descendant of Manuel of Poictesme, Gerald Musgrave, of Lichfield in 1805, though young and good to look at, spends a large proportion of his time in his study, at work on a romance of Dom Manuel, surrounded by bookshelves containing a collection of small animals and birds not unlike Mr. Cabell’s own. And Gerald Musgrave might have remained in his study and finished this story, thereby making it impossible for Mr. Cabell to have written “Figures of Earth” more than a hundred years later. Fortunately for Mr. Cabell, and probably for American literature, Gerald Musgrave was seriously, impeded in his career of letters by the exigencies of adultery in the Virginia of 1805. He had rashly entered an illicit relationship with his married cousin, Evelyn Townsend, and — this alone makes Lichfield of 1805 unique among all places and all periods in history— the odds were entirely in the lady’s favor, giving her unlimited rights over Gerald’s person, his time, and his private inclinations.

Because of this circumstance, when the Sylan, who in his mortal being had been Guivric of Perdigon, offers to take over Gerald’s natural body with all of its obligations, leaving Gerald only his spiritual body, Gerald Musgrave promptly accepts. So he sets out for Antan, his appointed kingdom over which he has just been given authority to rule, exchanging the little art of letters for the great art of magic which has always lured him. Now the remainder of the book is concerned with Gerald’s futile journeying toward Antan, which, naturally, because he is a Cabell hero, he is destined never to reach. And, as is the fate of all Cabell heroes, the obstacles encountered along the way are women. Eve, in every varying phase of stupidity, appears to him and attempts to detain him. Because Gerald is a son of Adam even before he is a son of Manuel he remains loyal to the memory of Lilith, Adam’s first love, who makes every enticement of the senses that Eve can offer colorless and stale by contrast with the fascination which seduced the Devil himself, Adam’s successor in her affections. And because, too, Eve in every manifestation reminds Gerald so strongly of Evelyn Townsend, who “trusted him and gave him all,” he turns away a bit sickened. And so, by the way, is the reader, unless this reviewer suffers from eccentric reactions. For Mr. Cabell, beyond any other writer in my experience, knows how to make the adventures which he has been officially rebuked for narrating both humiliating and ludicrous.

Gerald thus resists quite easily the temptations to use his “patrimony of five senses” only to succumb utterly to Eve in her deadliest guise, domesticity. From this fall he was succored by no memory of Evelyn Townsend, because only Evelyn Townsend’s husband could have recognized her in Maya of the Fair Breasts, who becomes Gerald’s wife. She and their little son are the first to shake Gerald’s faith in his own high destiny as ruler in Antan and Lord of the Third Truth. The other two truths, copulation and death, held to be the only important facts in all the country he crosses on the road to Antan, Gerald considers far too trivial and too ugly to encompass the glorious universe. How Gerald was prevented from entering Antan on the silver stallion is one of the most lovely stories that Mr. Cabell has yet written, for it deals chiefly with his hero’s affection for his little son. Every page of this book measures itself triumphantly against Mr. Cabell’s own high standard of beautiful writing, in form and color and music, wit, audacity, and a cruelty as glamorous as that of Nero, who is also a character in this book. But in the pages concerned with Gerald’s little son Mr. Cabell is faithful to every clause of John Charteris’s creed for an artist, who must “write perfectly of beautiful happenings,” with “distinction and clarity, beauty and symmetry, and tenderness and truth and urbanity.” For me at least he has written nothing more beautiful, and nothing else quite so disturbing to the heart as this so brief life of little Theodorick Quentin Musgrave, who rode in his father’s place to Antan, astride the silver stallion. This story, and what follows it, must be told by no reviewer, but only by Mr. Cabell himself.

In and out of the tale wander informally many gods and heroes, of whom the Emperor Nero is by far the most engaging. And the land through which these shapes move is, as ever, the surprising and alarmingly lovely land that, outside Mr. Cabell’s romances, we are never permitted to see, except in an occasional curiously illuminated moment at sunset immediately after an August storm. “Something About Eve,” like the rest of the biography, leaves me quite uncritical, unless a desire that Mr. Cabell might some day turn the other side of his shining shield to show Eve’s story too can be called criticism. But this perhaps would be against Nature, who may require a woman for the job. If this story is told as well as Mr. Cabell has told the other story no man will be able to endure it, since men, being more practical, do not cultivate endurance. In the meantime, until the other tale is told, Mr. Cabell’s books are preeminent, not alone in the matter of beautiful writing but as deterrents from immorality. And in this latter field, unlike the former, their usefulness has been woefully unappreciated.

The promise of a saga of the Southwest, held in Tom Outland’s story in “The Professor’s House,” has been fulfilled in “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” Miss Cather has made the American Southwest almost as peculiarly her own land as Poictesme is Mr. Cabell’s. And this long, flowing narrative—for it is scarcely a novel and its dialogue is negligible — is the narrative of the land more than of any person. Jean Marie Latour goes out from France in 1848 as a Catholic missionary to the Southwest, and dies there as Archbishop in the eighties. Miss Cather, according to her custom, presents his story through his senses rather than through his inner consciousness, in its warmth, its color, its beauty, its tragedy, and its occasional absurdity, without comment and without bias. It is a story whose appeal to the most devoutly orthodox Catholic and the most sophisticated skeptic might be entirely equal, and it is the most sensuously beautiful story that Miss Cather has yet written. Viewed at a distance such a book seems an undertaking surrounded with immense difficulties, since the actual mass of material at its author’s disposal is huge and unwieldy. During the reading of it, however, there is no consciousness of such difficulties, for the style that is always as clear and strong as a mountain river is matched here with the exact material for which such a style is essential. It is a style which never becomes clogged, complicated or laborious, in spite of the immense burden it is called upon to bear. The Southwest and its native children, Indians and Mexicans, are shown through the Bishop’s vision, and whether or not this vision is accurate is never permitted to trouble the smooth, lovely surface of the tale.

There is, as always in Miss Cather’s work, an unfretted, classic amplitude. Beauty and ugliness, good and evil, are welded together into a substance that is as satisfying as the face of Nature itself, and as restful to the eye and mind. Her presentation of persons and events is as free of criticism, satire or protest as Nature itself, and equally as free of sentimentality or prejudice. The tale of Jean Marie Latour and his friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, is like the course of the four seasons, in richness, variety and inevitability. And the rather special ecclesiastical needs of Rome in the great Southwest are sharply thrown out against the background of deep blue sky and purple hills and yellow sand. Perhaps the most gorgeous, as well as the most amusing illustration of these needs is the story of Father Martinez, who rode out to meet Bishop Latour at the head of a cavalcade of a hundred Indians and Mexicans, “come out to welcome their Bishop with shouting and musketry.” And the Bishop, the most fastidious of Frenchmen, accepts this priest and his theatrical flock as a part of the theatrical landscape to which he has consecrated himself. Another story, quite as full of color and far more dreadful, is that of Friar Baltazer, who ruled the Indians with a mediaeval hand a hundred years before the Bishop’s advent, and who was later flung by, them to the foot of the magnificent rock on which he had lived and reigned. The narrative includes several other short stories, notably that of the single visitation of the Virgin to the New World, which could easily stand alone in a collection of short stories. They form a part of the effect of lavishness which is the most distinguished element in the book.

Miss Cather covers forty years of history with an ease which is breath-taking in the light of an unescapable realization of the colossal amount of reading required to compose so vast an epic in prose. The history of the Southwest and the problems of the transplanted Church of Rome, with its representative saints and tyrants, is unrolled as softly and as surely as a huge historical tapestry is unfurled. And indeed the figures of this story are like figures in a tapestry. For, in spite of their humanity, their form, their color, and their setting linger longer in the mind than their thoughts or acts. Miss Cather, more than any other writer, holds the romance of America in her hands, and the feel of the light, dry air of a still unsettled country, the voice of an undiscovered, mighty, underground river, “one of the oldest voices of the earth,” the blue velvet night and the flaming noonday are more significant than the men and women who people this violent and beautiful world. But the Bishop for whom death comes at last in the new land, while his dying thoughts go back to France, is no less real because of the dominance of his setting. Moreover, he meets every aesthetic demand of such a setting.


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