James Branch Cabell (/ˈkæbəl/; April 14, 1879 – May 5, 1958) was an American author of fantasy fiction and belles lettres. Cabell was well regarded by his contemporaries, including H. L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, and Sinclair Lewis. His works were considered escapist and fit well in the culture of the 1920s, when they were most popular. For Cabell, veracity was "the one unpardonable sin, not merely against art, but against human welfare."
Although escapist, Cabell's works are ironic and satirical. H. L. Mencken disputed Cabell's claim to romanticism and characterized him as "really the most acidulous of all the anti-romantics. His gaudy heroes ... chase dragons precisely as stockbrockers play golf." Cabell saw art as an escape from life, but once the artist creates his ideal world, he finds that it is made up of the same elements that make the real one.
Interest in Cabell declined in the 1930s, a decline that has been attributed in part to his failure to move out of his fantasy niche despite the onset of World War II. Alfred Kazin said that "Cabell and Hitler did not inhabit the same universe".
James Branch Cabell
James Branch Cabell photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1935.
|Born||April 14, 1879|
|Died||May 5, 1958 (aged 79)|
|Alma mater||College of William and Mary|
Cabell was born into an affluent and well-connected Virginian family, and lived most of his life in Richmond. The first Cabell settled in Virginia in 1664; Cabell's paternal great-grandfather, William H. Cabell, was Governor of the Commonwealth from 1805 to 1808. Cabell County in West Virginia is named after the Governor. James Branch Cabell's grandfather, Robert Gamble Cabell, was a physician; his father, Robert Gamble Cabell II (1847–1922), had an MD, but practiced as a druggist; his mother, Anne Harris (1859–1915), was the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel James R. Branch, of the Army of the Confederate States of America. James was the oldest of three boys—his brothers were Robert Gamble Cabell III (1881–1968) and John Lottier Cabell (1883–1946). His parents separated and were later divorced in 1907. His aunt was the suffragist and educationist Mary-Cooke Branch Munford.
Although Cabell's surname is often mispronounced "Ka-BELL", he himself pronounced it "CAB-ble." To remind an editor of the correct pronunciation, Cabell composed this rhyme: "Tell the rabble my name is Cabell."
Cabell matriculated at the College of William and Mary in 1894 at the age of fifteen and graduated in June 1898. While an undergraduate, Cabell taught French and Greek at the College. According to his close friend and fellow author Ellen Glasgow, Cabell developed a friendship with a professor at the college which was considered by some to be "too intimate" and, as a result Cabell was dismissed, although he was subsequently readmitted and finished his degree. Following his graduation, he worked from 1898 to 1900 as a newspaper reporter in New York City, but returned to Richmond in 1901, where he worked several months on the staff of the Richmond News.
1901 was an eventful year for Cabell: his first stories were accepted for publication, and he was suspected of the murder of John Scott, a wealthy Richmonder. It was rumored that Scott was involved romantically with Cabell's mother. Cabell's supposed involvement in the Scott murder and his college "scandal" were both mentioned in Ellen Glasgow's posthumously published (1954) autobiography The Woman Within. In 1902, seven of Cabell's first stories appeared in national magazines and over the next decade he wrote many short stories and articles, contributing to nationally published magazines including Harper's Monthly Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as carrying out extensive research on his family's genealogy.
Between 1911 and 1913, he was employed by his uncle in the office of the Branch coal mines in West Virginia. On November 8, 1913, he married Priscilla Bradley Shepherd, a widow with five children from her previous marriage. In 1915, son Ballard Hartwell Cabell was born. Priscilla died in March 1949; Cabell was remarried in June 1950 to Margaret Waller Freeman.
During his life, Cabell published fifty-two books, including novels, genealogies, collections of short stories, poetry, and miscellanea. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1937.
Cabell died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1958 in Richmond, and was buried in the graveyard of the Emmanuel Church at Brook Hill. The following year the remains of Cabell and his first wife were reinterred in Hollywood Cemetery.
In 1970, Virginia Commonwealth University, also located in Richmond, named its main campus library "James Branch Cabell Library" in his honor. In the 1970s, Cabell's personal library and personal papers were moved from his home on Monument Avenue to the James Branch Cabell Library. Consisting of some 3,000 volumes, the collection includes manuscripts; notebooks and scrapbooks; periodicals in which Cabell's essays, reviews and fiction were published; his correspondence with noted writers including H. L. Mencken, Ellen Glasgow, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser; correspondence with family, friends, editors and publishers, newspaper clippings, photographs, periodicals, criticisms, printed material; publishers' agreements; and statements of sales. The collection resides in the Special Collections and Archives department of the library. The VCU undergraduate literary journal at the university is named Poictesme after the fictional province in his cycle Biography of the Life of Manuel.
More recently, VCU spent over $50 million to expand and modernize the James Branch Cabell Library to further entrench it as the premier library in the Greater Richmond Area and one of the top landmark libraries in the United States. In 2016 Cabell Library won the New Landmark Library Award. The Library Journal's website provides a virtual walking tour of the new James Branch Cabell Library.
Cabell's best-known book, Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice (1919), was the subject of a celebrated obscenity case shortly after its publication. The eponymous hero, who considers himself a "monstrous clever fellow," embarks on a journey through ever more fantastic realms, even to hell and heaven. Everywhere he goes, he winds up seducing the local women, even the Devil's wife.
The novel was denounced by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice; they attempted to bring a prosecution for obscenity. The case went on for two years before Cabell and his publisher, Robert M. McBride, won: the "indecencies" were double entendres that also had a perfectly decent interpretation, though it appeared that what had actually offended the prosecution most was a joke about papal infallibility. The presiding judge, Charles Cooper Nott, Jr., wrote in his decision that "... the most that can be said against the book is that certain passages therein may be considered suggestive in a veiled and subtle way of immorality, but such suggestions are delicately conveyed" and that because of Cabell's writing style "... it is doubtful if the book could be read or understood at all by more than a very limited number of readers."
Cabell took an author's revenge: the revised edition of 1926 included a previously "lost" passage in which the hero is placed on trial by the Philistines, with a large dung-beetle as the chief prosecutor. He also wrote a short book, Taboo, in which he thanks John H. Sumner and the Society for Suppression of Vice for generating the publicity that gave his career a boost. Due to the notoriety of the suppression of Jurgen, Cabell became a figure of international fame. In the early 1920s, he became associated by some critics with a group of writers referred to as, "The James Branch Cabell School," which included such figures as H. L. Mencken, Carl Van Vechten and Elinor Wylie.
A great deal of Cabell's work has focused on The Biography of the Life of Manuel, the story of a character named Dom Manuel and his descendants through many generations. The biography includes a total of 25 works that were written over a 23-year period. Cabell stated that he considered the Biography to be a single work, and supervised its publication in a single uniform edition of 18 volumes, known as the Storisende Edition, published from 1927 to 1930. A number of the volumes of the Biography were also published in editions illustrated by Frank C. Papé between 1921 and 1926.
The themes and characters from Jurgen make appearances in many works included in the Biography. Figures of Earth tells the story of Manuel the swineherd, a morally ambiguous protagonist who rises to conquer a realm by playing on others' expectations—his motto being Mundus Vult Decipi, meaning "the world wishes to be deceived." The Silver Stallion is a loose sequel to Figures of Earth that deals with the creation of the legend of Manuel the Redeemer, in which Manuel is pictured as an infallible hero, an example to which all others should aspire; the story is told by Manuel's former knights, who remember how things really were and take different approaches to reconciling the mythology with the actuality of Manuel.
Many of these books take place in the fictional country eventually ruled by Manuel, known as "Poictesme", (pronounced "pwa-tem"). It was the author's intention to situate Poictesme roughly in the south of France. The name suggests the two real French cities of Poitiers (medieval Poictiers) and Angoulême (medieval Angoulesme). Several other books take place in the fictional town of Lichfield, Virginia.
After concluding the Biography in 1932, Cabell shortened his professional name to Branch Cabell. The truncated name was used for all his new, "post-Biography" publications until the printing of There Were Two Pirates (1946).
Though Cabell is best known as a fantasist, the plots and characters of his first few novels, The Eagle's Shadow (1904), The Cords of Vanity (1909), and The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck (1915) (later all adapted for inclusion into the Biography), do not wander out of the everyday society of Virginia's beleaguered gentry. But Cabell's signature droll style is clearly in evidence, and in later printings each book would bear a characteristically Cabellian subtitle: A Comedy of Purse-Strings, A Comedy of Shirking, and A Comedy of Limitations, respectively.
His later novel, The First Gentleman of America: A Comedy of Conquest (1942), retells the strange career of an American Indian from the shores of the Potomac who sailed away with Spanish explorers, later to return, be made chief of his tribe, and kill all the Spaniards in the new Virginia settlement. Cabell delivered a more concise, historical treatment of the novel's events in The First Virginian, part one of his 1947 work of non-fiction, Let Me Lie, a book on the history of Virginia.
Other works include:
Cabell also wrote a number of autobiographical and genealogical works.
Cabell's work was highly regarded by a number of his peers, including Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, Joseph Hergesheimer, and Jack Woodford. Although now largely forgotten by the general public, his work was remarkably influential on later authors of fantasy fiction. James Blish was a fan of Cabell's works, and for a time edited Kalki, the journal of the Cabell Society. Robert A. Heinlein was greatly inspired by Cabell's boldness, and originally described his book Stranger in a Strange Land as "a Cabellesque satire." A later work, Job: A Comedy of Justice derived its title from Jurgen and contains appearances by Jurgen and the Slavic god Koschei. Fritz Leiber's Swords of Lankhmar was influenced by Jurgen. Charles G. Finney's fantasy The Circus of Dr. Lao was influenced by Cabell's work. The Averoigne stories of Clark Ashton Smith are, in background, close to those of Cabell's Poictesme. Jack Vance's Dying Earth books show considerable stylistic resemblances to Cabell; Cugel the Clever in those books bears a strong resemblance, not least in his opinion of himself, to Jurgen. Cabell was also a major influence on Neil Gaiman, acknowledged as such in the rear of Gaiman's novels Stardust and American Gods. This thematic and stylistic influence is highly evident in the multi-layered pantheons of Gaiman's work, The Sandman, which have many parallels in Cabell's work, particularly Jurgen.
Cabell maintained a close and lifelong friendship with well-known Richmond writer Ellen Glasgow, whose house on West Main Street was only a few blocks from Cabell's family home on East Franklin Street. They corresponded extensively between 1923 and Glasgow's death in 1945 and over 200 of their letters survive. Cabell dedicated his 1927 novel Something About Eve to her, and she in turn dedicated her book They Stooped to Folly: A Comedy of Morals (1929) to Cabell. In her autobiography, Glasgow also gave considerable thanks to Cabell for his help in the editing of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book In This Our Life (1941). However, late in their lives, friction developed between the two writers as a result of Cabell's critical 1943 review of Glasgow's novel A Certain Measure.
Cabell also admired the work of the Atlanta-based writer Frances Newman, though their correspondence was cut short by her premature death in 1928. In 1929, Cabell supplied the preface to Newman's collected letters.
From 1969 through 1972, the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series returned six of Cabell's novels to print, and elevated his profile in the fantasy genre. Today, many more of his works are available from Wildside Press.
Cabell's three-character one-act play The Jewel Merchants was used for the libretto of an opera by Louis Cheslock which premiered in 1940.
Michael Swanwick published a critical monograph on Cabell's work, which argues for the continued value of a few of Cabell's works—notably Jurgen, The Cream of the Jest, and The Silver Stallion—while acknowledging that some of his writing has dated badly. Swanwick places much of the blame for Cabell's obscurity on Cabell himself, for authorising the 18-volume Storisende uniform edition of the Biography of the Life of Manuel, including much that was of poor quality and ephemeral. This alienated admirers and scared off potential new readers. "There are, alas, an infinite number of ways for a writer to destroy himself," Swanwick wrote. "James Branch Cabell chose one of the more interesting. Standing at the helm of the single most successful literary career of any fantasist of the twentieth century, he drove the great ship of his career straight and unerringly onto the rocks."
Other book-length studies on Cabell were written during the period of his fame by Hugh Walpole, W. A. McNeill, and Carl van Doren. Edmund Wilson tried to rehabilitate his reputation with a long essay in The New Yorker.
The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series was an imprint of American publisher Ballantine Books. Launched in 1969 (presumably in response to the growing popularity of Tolkien's works), the series reissued a number of works of fantasy literature which were out of print or dispersed in back issues of pulp magazines (or otherwise not easily available in the United States), in cheap paperback form—including works by authors such as James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany, Ernest Bramah, Hope Mirrlees, and William Morris. The series lasted until 1974.
Envisioned by the husband-and-wife team of Ian and Betty Ballantine, and edited by Lin Carter, it featured cover art by illustrators such as Gervasio Gallardo, Robert LoGrippo, David McCall Johnston, and Bob Pepper. The agreement signed between the Ballantines and Carter on November 22, 1968 launched the project. In addition to the reprints comprising the bulk of the series, some new fantasy works were published as well as a number of original collections and anthologies put together by Carter, and Imaginary Worlds, his general history of the modern fantasy genre.The series was never considered a money-maker for Ballantine, although the re-issue of several of its titles both before and after the series' demise shows that a number of individual works were considered successful. The Ballantines supported the series as long as they remained the publishers of Ballantine Books, but with their sale of the company to Random House in 1973 support from the top was no longer forthcoming, and in 1974, with the end of the Ballantines' involvement in the company they had founded, the series was terminated.After the termination of the Adult Fantasy series, Ballantine continued to publish fantasy but concentrated primarily on new titles, with the older works it continued to issue being those with proven track records. In 1977, both its fantasy and science fiction lines were relaunched under the Del Rey Books imprint, under the editorship of Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey. Carter continued his promotion of the fantasy genre in a new line of annual anthologies from DAW Books, The Year's Best Fantasy Stories, also beginning in 1975. Meanwhile, the series' lapsed mission of restoring classic works of fantasy to print had been taken up on a more limited basis by the Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy Library, launched in 1973.Biography of the Life of Manuel
Biography of the Life of Manuel is a series of novels, essays and poetry by James Branch Cabell. It purports to trace the life, illusions and disillusions of Dom Manuel, Count of Poictesme (a fictional province of France), and of his physical and spiritual descendants through many generations.Charles Cooper Nott Jr.
Charles Cooper Nott Jr. (October 10, 1869 – May 10, 1957) was an attorney and jurist. He served as judge of the New York General Sessions Court from 1913 to 1939. In 1919 anarchists were planting a bomb on his doorstep when it prematurely exploded killing both of the bombers. In 1922 he presided over the obscenity case of James Branch Cabell and Robert Medill McBride for the novel, Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice. In 1939 he presided over the second trial of James Joseph Hines where Hines was found guilty on corruption and conspiracy charges.Comic fantasy
Comic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that is primarily humorous in intent and tone. Usually set in imaginary worlds, comic fantasy often includes puns on and parodies of other works of fantasy.Figures of Earth
Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances (1921) is a fantasy novel or ironic romance by James Branch Cabell, set in the imaginary French province of Poictesme during the first half of the 13th century. The book follows the earthly career of Dom Manuel the Redeemer from his origins as a swineherd, through his elevation to the rank of Count of Poictesme, to his death. It forms the second volume of Cabell's gigantic Biography of the Life of Manuel.
Cabell's working title for Figures of Earth was initially The Fairy Time, then The Figure or The Figures, before the final version emerged. The book was published in February 1921, during the legal battle to clear his previous novel, Jurgen, from charges of obscenity. He accordingly dedicated Figures of Earth to "six most gallant champions" who had rallied to Jurgen's defense: Sinclair Lewis, Wilson Follett, Louis Untermeyer, H. L. Mencken, Hugh Walpole, and Joseph Hergesheimer. The scandal that surrounded Cabell's name at this time may have adversely affected reviews of Figures of Earth, which, according to the author, registered "some disappointment over its lack of indecency"; he himself preferred Figures of Earth to Jurgen. In the "Author's Note" preceding the novel's 1927 reprint, Cabell observed that "Not many other volumes, I believe, have been burlesqued and cried down in the public prints by their own dedicatees" alluding to the fact that both Untermeyer and Mencken had publicly expressed dislike with the novel in comparison with Jurgen. A 1925 reissue included illustrations by Frank C. Papé. In Cabell's later years Figures of Earth fell, like most of his other works, into comparative neglect, but two paperback reissues in 1969 and 1971, with introductions by Lin Carter and James Blish respectively, brought it back into circulation.First Novelist Award
The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is an American literary award for debut novels. It has been presented annually since 2002 on behalf of Virginia Commonwealth University's MFA in Creative Writing Program.
Nominations are solicited from MFA programs nationwide as well as from publishers, editors, agents, and writers. The prize includes $5000 cash and participation in an on-campus event in Richmond, Va. at VCU that focuses on the creation, publication, and promotion processes involved with a first novel. The award is more formally known as the "Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award."Frances Newman
Frances Percy Newman (1883–1928) was a Modernist novelist, translator, and librarian who critically examined the difficulties faced by women in the American South. Although her career was extremely short, she drew the attention and support of notable novelists and critics like H. L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, and James Branch Cabell.Hamlet Had an Uncle
Hamlet Had an Uncle: A Comedy of Honor is a novel by James Branch Cabell, published in 1940. It is the second book of his trilogy Heirs and Assigns. Cabell had incubated a 'true version' of the Hamlet story for decades, and based his tale on Saxo Grammaticus, whose epic saga recounts the story of the historical Hamlet, Prince of Jutland, his murder of his father Horvendill, and his rivalry with Wiglek, the Prince of Denmark.Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice
Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice is a fantasy novel by American writer James Branch Cabell, which gained fame (or notoriety) shortly after its publication in 1919. It is a humorous romp through a medieval cosmos, including a send-up of Arthurian legend, and excursions to Heaven and Hell as in The Divine Comedy. Cabell's work is recognized as a landmark in the creation of the comic fantasy novel, influencing Terry Pratchett and many others.Poictesme
Poictesme (pronounced "pwa-tem") is a fictional country or province which forms the setting of the fantasy works of James Branch Cabell, known collectively as Biography of the Life of Manuel. Poictesme is ruled by the Count Dom Manuel.
It was the author's intention to situate Poictesme roughly in the south of France. The name suggests the two real French cities of Poitiers (medieval Poictiers) and Angoulême (medieval Angoulesme). Poictesme is a fief of King Ferdinand of Castile and Leon, who installs Manuel as count in the year 1234. Cabell's fictional history of the country extends as far as the 17th century.At the height of Cabell's popularity in the 1920s, Cabell's publishers sold framed
wall-maps of Poictesme. The Virginia Commonwealth University undergraduate literary journal is named Poictesme after the fictional province.Realms of Wizardry
Realms of Wizardry: An Anthology of Adult Fantasy is an American anthology of fantasy stories, edited by American writer Lin Carter. It was first published in hardcover by Doubleday in December 1976 as the second of two such anthologies continuing a series of nine assembled by Carter for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.
The book collects sixteen tales and excerpts from novels by various fantasy authors, with an overall introduction and notes on the individual authors by Carter. The collection is a companion volume to Carter's earlier anthology Kingdoms of Sorcery (1976).Robert M. McBride
Robert Medill McBride (August 24, 1879 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania – April 10, 1970 in Philadelphia) was the publisher of James Branch Cabell and the later books of Frank Buck.Smirt
Smirt: An Urbane Nightmare is a 1934 satirical romance novel by James Branch Cabell, the opening volume in his trilogy The Nightmare Has Triplets. The two later romances of this trilogy are Smith and Smire.Southern Writers Conference
The Southern Writers Conference was held at the University of Virginia in 1931 to discuss “The Relation of the Southern Author to His Public.” It was organized by Virginia Quarterly Review editor James Southall Wilson and presided over by Ellen Glasgow and DuBose Heyward. Notable attending writers included Sherwood Anderson, James Branch Cabell, Dubose Heyward, Paul Green, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Donald Davidson, Mary Johnston, James Boyd, Struthers Burt, Josephine Pinckney, and William Faulkner.The Cream of the Jest
The Cream of the Jest : A Comedy of Evasions is a comical and philosophical novel with possible fantasy elements, by James Branch Cabell, published in 1917. Much of it consists of the historical dreams and philosophical reflections of the main character, the famous writer Felix Kennaston. An early reviewer said it was more a series of essays than a novel.The House of Lost Identity
The House of Lost Identity is a collection of short stories by Donald Corley, illustrated by the author. Corley did not limit himself to one genre, but the primary distinction of the collection is its inclusion of a number of classic dark fantasies . It was first published in hardcover in New York by Robert M. McBride in May 1927, and had a number of reprintings; printings after the first include an introduction by James Branch Cabell. It was reissued in hardcover by Books for Libraries in 1971, and in hardcover and paperback by Wildside Press in February 2008. The first British edition was published by George G. Harrap and Co. in 1927. The book's importance in the history of fantasy literature was also recognized by the anthologization of two of its tales by Lin Carter in the 1970s; "The Song of the Tombelaine," in Discoveries in Fantasy (1972), for the celebrated Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, and "Figs" (under the alternate title of "The Book of Lullûme") in Realms of Wizardry (1976).
The collection was named after its initial story, "The House of Lost Identity."Women's Studio Workshop
Women's Studio Workshop (WSW) is a nonprofit visual arts studio and private press offering residencies and educational workshops, located in Rosendale, New York.
The workshop was founded in 1974 by Ann Kalmbach, Tatana Kellner, Anita Wetzel, and Barbara Leoff Burge as an alternative space for female artists to create new work, gain artistic experience, and develop new skills. The studio operates throughout the year with artist residencies, gallery exhibitions, artist lectures, and diverse educational programs for children and adults. In addition, they operate a Summer Art Institute which includes options to study abroad. The studio supports projects in a wide range of media types, with a focus on book arts, papermaking, and printmaking methods: screen printing, letterpress, etching, intaglio.
WSW is the largest publisher of artists' books in North America. The workshop is represented in book arts and special collections of notable libraries, such as the Library of Congress, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Dexter Library, Maryland Institute College of Art, and James Branch Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University. Editions by visiting artists published by the Women's Studio Workshop have been featured in overview exhibitions and symposiums on contemporary book arts such as the Codex Book Fair and Symposium, and the Pyramid Atlantic Book Arts Fair.