Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985

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.

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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 something very precious in the emotion-laden dreams whose total suppression would be a terrible tragedy. Everyone, male or female, has a shadowy alter ego like Kennaston’s Horvendile and could, if pressed, envision a secret ideal such as Kennaston’s Ettarre.

The final movement of the novel’s plot is one of deflation, in which it follows the precedent set by all actual erotic adventures. The precious sigil of Scoteia, to whose reunion Kennaston’s beloved but excessively dutiful wife remained oblivious, turns out to be nothing more than the broken lid of a jar of cosmetic cream. What the body of the text reminds readers, however, is that people do not live only in reality; people also live in the inner world of the imagination, where the sigil of Scoteia is indeed a sigil, a powerful magical talisman, a symbol of the true heart of human aspiration and human achievement. Richard Harrowby cannot see this, any more than Mrs. Kennaston could, but readers can. Readers can also see the irony in Harrowby’s failure; although he is a farmer whose heritage is based in the fecundity of the land and a businessman whose wealth comes from products whose main purpose is to enhance sexual attractiveness, he maintains the conventional pretense that any public reference to sexual matters, however carefully veiled, is indecent.

The Cream of the Jest proved, ironically, to be prophetic. Kennaston’s carefully retitled account of The Audit at Storisende is charged with indecency, and the resultant publicity makes it a best-seller. Cabell’s next novel—his first full-blown fantasy, heavily spiced with teasing innuendo—was Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919), which fell afoul of the courts as well as public opinion, and was made famous by the resultant publicity. In the same way that the Volstead Act, passed in the year of Jurgen’s publication, gave birth to speakeasies, so the application of the spirit of Prohibition to U.S. literature gave birth to an opposition. The boldest spokespeople of this opposition were writers who used fantasy, fabulation, and allegory to make fierce fun of their enemies; John Erskine and Thorne Smith played leading roles, but Cabell was the leader, and The Cream of the Jest provided the materials for all his later broadsides.

Just as Kennaston followed up The Men Who Loved Allison with The Tinctured Veil (“that amazing performance which he subsequently gave to a bewildered world”), so Cabell went on to produce further adventures of an uncompromisingly amazing—and, to the reading public, somewhat bewildering—nature. Horvendile and Ettarre were to return time and time again, in slightly different guises, throughout the multistranded complex of works that ultimately came to be known as The Biography of the Life of Manuel (1927-1930).

In the eighteen-volume edition of this sprawling masterpiece, The Cream of the Jest is the concluding volume, the key to all that has gone before. It is described in the author’s afterword as the most potent of all his books. In painstakingly mapped genealogies, Kennaston—Cabell’s alter ego within the eighteen-volume series—becomes the ultimate descendant and modern inheritor of the adventurous tradition that descends from Manuel, the legendary hero of Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances (1921), whose quest is continued by his followers in The Silver Stallion: A Comedy of Redemption (1926). The erotic subtext of The Cream of the Jest is elaborated and somewhat revised in the last-written novel of the series, Something About Eve: A Comedy of Fig-Leaves (1927), but the jest remained the same throughout, and the sequence deserves to be considered the cream of twentieth century fantasy writing in the United States.

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