The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasions was a pivotal novel in James Branch Cabell’s career, marking the change of direction that allowed him to find and perfect a unique literary voice. His earlier novels had made little or no use of the supernatural in their scrupulous investigation of the nature of love and the problems involved in finding and maintaining sexual relationships. His first-published novel, The Eagle’s Shadow: A Comedy of Purse Strings (1904)—the book that first introduced the character of Felix Kennaston and Kennaston’s best-selling novel The Men Who Loved Allison—and his first-written book, The Line of Love (1905), were contemporary fictions of a fairly light nature. The collections Gallantry (1907) and Chivalry (1909), and the novel The Soul of Melicent (1913; revised as Domnei: A Comedy of Woman Worship, 1920), were romances in a more traditional sense, reexamining the literary roots of the mythology of romantic love. In both types of work, Cabell maintained the strict discipline of decency that was required by the prudish publishers of the day, but he became acutely aware of the ironic folly of attempting to purge the idea of romance of its erotic essence. The Cream of the Jest began a merciless satirization of the evasions inherent in prudery. Cabell continued the satirization in an increasingly gaudy and flamboyant fashion, by means of a series of baroque fantasies in which the lofty but anemic ideals of Gallantry and Chivalry were infused with a dramatic and glorious—but poignantly futile—virility.
In a narrow sense, Kennaston’s situation is a fictionalization of Cabell’s own; in a broader sense, it embodies and dramatizes a fundamental aspect of the human condition. Every human being has a public and a private self, the former bound and controlled by social rules and conventions, while the latter retains the precious freedom of dreams and daydreams. Everyone, therefore, is acutely aware of the evasions that the public self is forced by politeness to practice. Such evasions are the everyday acts of censorship by which the “indecency” of private desires and fantasies must be carefully hidden. Everyone admits that the wilder impulses of the private self need to be kept in check if civilized social life is to be preserved, but everyone feels that there is...
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