One of the attractions of the biography is to study someone else’s life and see just how difficult it was for them to achieve their success (for there are few biographies about failure), which on the outside seems so simple and pre-ordained, but once you review the life as it was lived, you see the stumbles and gaffes along the way. For someone once famous, whose star has since dimmed, this analysis can be truly bittersweet. James Branch Cabell was either the last or the first of a type of Southern Literary writer, depending on how you view his place in the pantheon. His genteel manners, adroitly expressed in his books, tie him to the old Southern tradition, where things were said in a certain way and men were expected to have ideals about life, expressed by Cabell in his philosophy of three approaches: the Gallant, the Chivalrous, and the Poetic.  But Cabell was a sly one, too–the motto of his great work of fiction, the Biography of the Life of Manuel, was “Mundus Vult Decipit,” which roughly translates as “the world wishes to be deceived,” and Cabell was quite fond of deception. His mannered fantasies could be read in two ways–for the surface adventure and invention, or for the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle, as in the case of Jurgen) allusions and illusions in which Cabell commented on the mores of his Richmond, Virginia neighbors. Because, like his 1920s contemporary, Sinclair Lewis, Cabell was at heart a social commentator, struggling in his books to understand the changing world in a society that wanted to cling to outdated traditions and was being dragged, kicking and screaming, into a free new world of women’s rights, the new free mobility due to the automobile, and a new streak of Puritanism that was Prohibition.

It’s not unsurprising, then, that this biography of Cabell by Edgard MacDonald is titled James Branch Cabell and Richmond-in-Virginia, because Cabell was as much a product of Richmond as it was featured in his books (renamed as Lichfield). Born and raised in Richmond, the oldest of three sons of a druggist who married well, but was unable to please his wife, Cabell spent most of his first three decades as the constant companion of his mother, providing for her ego what his father could not. In addition to his mother, the other woman he fixated on was his first love while at college, Gabrielle Moncure. And because things always come in threes, the other woman in his life was his wife, Priscilla Bradley.  The three of these women show up in his books constantly, under new names but always the same faces and personalities–the woman you admire, the woman you yearn for, and the woman you settle for.

Cabell’s life was far from charmed, though. He struggled for money up until his thirties, when the marriage to Priscilla, a wealthy widow five years older than he, provided the economic stability he needed to focus on his writing. In turn, he provided an entree for her into Richmond society both by virtue of her marrying into the Branch family, as well as genealogical research into her own lineage that established her family tree as worthy of Richmond.

Of course it is Jurgen that is both the apex of Cabell’s career and life, a storm of controversy for its lewdness and laviciousness that is quite tame in comparison to the steamy favorites of today such as Fifty Shades of Grey.  But for the 1920s, and the new Puritans, Cabell’s lance that wasn’t quite a lance and staff that wasn’t quite a staff was the kind of thing that titallated and shocked the matrons of polite society and the overseers of smut known as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.  No publicity is bad publicity, and although the injunction against Jurgen kept the book off the shelves for two years, it helped sell Cabell’s previous novels and helped him make friends with his literary peers both in the U.S. and abroad. If he had moved ahead with new books, the story may have been different, but Cabell chose to instead re-work his previously published novels and stories, re-packaging of all of his work to date in a collected set, called the Storisende edition, that was basically a labor of vanity. Stating that all his works were connected, he re-wrote passages and provided introductions to make them so.

The downfall was not sudden, and was marked with some small joys along the way, but after the heady years of being the talk of the town (both Richmond and New York and Chicago), the reduced success of his remaining output made his latter decades more sour than sweet.  He leveraged his friendship with Ellen Glasgow, also of Richmond, to encourage her to do a similar repackaging of her work, telling her that what she had written was a social history of Virginia, enough so that she began to believe it herself.  He renamed himself to just Branch Cabell for most of his latter work, drawing a distinction between the author of The Biography of the Life of Manuel and his new creations, which likely didn’t do him any good in the marketplace.  And the loss of his wife, leaving him their only son to take care of by himself, upset his balanced life until he found another source of home stability in a marriage to a long-time friend, ten years his junior.

Edgar MacDonald covers all of this fairly well and in detail, but he’s not a prose stylist, which is probably just as well, because Cabell had enough style for two writers. MacDonald observes a fair amount of restraint, covering some of the rumors and innuendo of Cabell’s college years (including an event that hinted of an improper relationship between a professor and several of his students) without engaging in sensationalism. Unfortunately for any biographer, Cabell’s second wife destroyed some of the more salacious documentation of his life before access was granted for a book, although Cabell would likely have approved of her actions, protecting his reputation from the curiosity of the maddening crowd.


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First Impressions Copyright © 2016 by Glen Engel-Cox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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