George Washington Cable was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on October 12, 1844. Ancestors of his mother, Rebecca Boardman Cable, had lived in New England since the seventeenth century and had moved to Indiana in 1807. The background of his father, the elder George Washington Cable, dates back to pre-Revolutionary times in Virginia. The elder Cable lived in Virginia and Pennsylvania with his parents before moving to Indiana, where he married Rebecca in 1834. The Cable family migrated to New Orleans in 1837, where George, their fifth child, was born.
In the 1840’s, the Cables lived a comfortable existence, owning several household slaves until the father’s business failed. Through the 1850’s, the elder Cable worked at a series of jobs until, weakened in health, he died on February 28, 1859. Because young George’s older brother, along with an older sister, had died of scarlet fever, his father’s death required him, not yet fourteen, to leave school to support the family. Until the third year of the Civil War, he held his father’s former position as a clerk at the customhouse.
Slight in size—only five feet five inches and weighing one hundred pounds—and deceptively youthful in features, Cable enlisted in the Confederate Army on October 9, 1863, three days before his nineteenth birthday. Incurring two slight wounds during his service, he was discharged in 1865.
After the war, Cable worked as an errand boy, as a store clerk, and, until malaria stopped him, as a rodman with a surveying party on the Red River. In 1868, he became a bookkeeper for two cotton firms in New Orleans. He married Louise Stewart Bartlett on December 7, 1869, and soon fathered the first of a large family of children. At one time, he worked simultaneously for the cotton house of William C. Black and Company, the New Orleans Cotton Exchange, and the National Cotton Exchange.
Newspaper work provided Cable’s first opportunity to see his writing in print. While continuing as an accountant, he worked for newspapers as a freelance contributor and then as a full-time reporter. For eighteen months, beginning February 27, 1870, he wrote the column “Drop Shot” weekly, and then daily, for the New Orleans Picayune. While working for the Picayune, his research into Louisiana history at city hall, the cathedral, and the Cabildo, former seat of colonial government, led him to factual stories later to be shaped into fiction. In addition, his newspaper reports on contemporary local affairs interested him in reform on civic, regional, and national levels.
Appearing in Scribner’s Monthly, Cable’s stories were based on his knowledge of the people and activities of New Orleans and of events in Louisiana history. Six of the stories appearing in Scribner’s Monthly and a seventh story, “Posson Jone’,” which was published in Appleton’s Journal, were later collected as Old Creole Days, published by Scribner’s. His first novel, The Grandissimes, also based on the people and history of Louisiana, was serialized in Scribner’s Monthly over a twelve-month period and then published in book form in 1880. Next came the novella Madame Delphine, first printed in Scribner’s Monthly as a three-part serial, and then published in book form in 1881.
In 1881, Cable gave up his position as an accountant, depending for the rest of his life on lectures and public readings of his fiction to supplement his income as a writer. One of his...