Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2863
By the 1880’s, much of the passion that had divided the country during the Civil War had been displaced by a growing interest in life in other regions of the newly rejoined republic. No longer separated by political and economic differences, people began not only to accept cultural differences but...
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- Critical Essays
By the 1880’s, much of the passion that had divided the country during the Civil War had been displaced by a growing interest in life in other regions of the newly rejoined republic. No longer separated by political and economic differences, people began not only to accept cultural differences but also to express keen interest in them, and the fiction of local color was perfectly suited to these readers. Stories of the day tended to emphasize verisimilitude of detail within scenic elements: Settings were often colorful extravaganzas; characters were typically drawn to emphasize peculiarities of their region or culture yet were often poorly developed; and plots were often thin.
These characteristics are reflected in George Washington Cable’s stories of New Orleans: Settings sparkle with picturesque detail and rich imagery, and character descriptions emphasize the cultural or regional peculiarities of speech, manner, and thought. Cable’s characters are rarely developed beyond the superficial, being distanced by narrative perspective, vague in motivation, and frequently shrouded in mystery. Plots are sketchy events, lacking causal relationships and frequently relying on melodrama. Given these general characteristics, Cable’s stories could be pigeonholed as merely more local color; but then much that is specifically Cable’s richness would be lost. Deeper elements of Cable’s unique literary perspective, however, play an important role in the total artistic impact of his stories. His New Orleans still retained much of her international flavor and embraced a unique mixture of races, clashing cultures, opposing values, old loyalties, and old hatreds; poverty and wealth coexisted; and caste systems were accepted and propagated. Cable’s strongly developed social consciousness directed his writing talents to portray these elements sensitively. Thus, while preserving the picturesque, Cable probed the ramifications of racial juxtaposition and of social problems, capturing more completely the spirit of his literary domain. This added dimension of circumstantial reality, born out of Cable’s personality and New Orleans’s uniqueness, distinguishes Cable’s powerful stories from the mass of local-color fiction of his day.
Cable’s first story, “’Sieur George,” reflects characteristics typical both of local-color fiction and of Cable’s fiction. The standard picturesque setting, in this case an old tenement building, rises before us as the narrator masterfully describes it: “With its gray stucco peeling off in broad patches, it has the solemn look of gentility in rags, and stands, or, as it were, hangs, about the corner of two ancient streets, like a faded fop who pretends to be looking for employment.” The simile of inanimate object to animate one is precise, and the images reinforce each other to create a subtle atmosphere of age and decay. Through its doors are seen “masses of cobwebbed iron overhung by a creaking sign” into a courtyard “hung with many lines of wet clothes, its sides hugged by rotten staircases that seem vainly trying to clamber out of the rubbish.” The neighborhood has been “long since given up to fifth-rate shops.” The setting is thus vividly drawn by a composite of details each artistically contributing to a subtle atmosphere of time and ruin vital to the story’s texture.
It is not unusual for Cable’s characters to echo the atmosphere of the setting, giving it an organic quality that continues the link of inanimate to animate. When ’Sieur George first appeared, both he and the neighborhood were “fashionable.” At the time of the story, some fifty years later, he is a reclusive “square small man” draped in a “newly repaired overcoat.” No longer fashionable and usually drunk, ’Sieur George stumbles homenever careening to right or left but now forcing himself slowly forward, as if there was a high gale in front, and now scudding briskly ahead at a ridiculous little dogtrot, as if there was a tornado behind.
The descriptive detail is visually vivid and continues the image of time and its erosion.
As is typical of local-color fiction, however, ’Sieur George is rather superficially portrayed, and this weakens the story. His actions are related to us by the omniscient narrator, whose detached perspective never allows us to experience any genuine sympathetic involvement with ’Sieur George. The reader hears about him but never knows his thoughts or feelings; consequently, he seems little more than a cardboard cutout. His motivations are vague, and his daily drunks continue only to be interrupted unexpectedly by surprising events. One day ’Sieur George shocks the neighborhood as he emerges from his apartment in full regimentals and marches off to the Mexican War, leaving his sister behind to become the new occupant of his rooms. Several years later, he suddenly reappears with battle scars and a tall dark companion. ’Sieur George and the stranger visit the sister weekly until her marriage to the stranger is announced by her appearance in bridal array. With the newlyweds gone, ’Sieur George returns to his rooms and drunken habits until the pattern is again interrupted when he returns home with the couple’s infant. Since her mother had died and her drunken father had drowned in the river, ’Sieur George attentively raises the girl until it would violate proprieties for her to stay; finally, in a senseless moment, he blurts out that the only way for her to stay is for her to become his wife. She utters a mournful cry, runs to her room, and early the next morning leaves for a convent. ’Sieur George returns to drunkenness and finally becomes a penniless, homeless drifter searching the prairie “to find a night’s rest in the high grass”—“and there’s an end.”
Not only are his motivations vague, but also he is shrouded in Cable’s frequent cloak of mystery. After ’Sieur George has lived in the neighborhood for about a year, “something happened that greatly changed the tenor of his life.” “Hints of a duel, of a reason warped, of disinheritance, and many other unauthorized rumors, fluttered up and floated off.” Soon he begins to display the “symptoms of decay” stumbling home, and “whatever remuneration he received went its way for something that left him dingy and threadbare.” The artistically interwoven pictures of him recycle the images of decay and ruin, but the only thing the reader knows that ’Sieur George cares about, and strongly so, is the mysterious small hair trunk he carefully guards. Even ’Sieur George’s implied heroism is dubious and unconvincing. The reader hears about him marching off to war, returning with battle scars, and bravely directing the infant to womanhood; yet each admirable event on the one hand is treated only summarily, and on the other is undercut by his return to drunkenness. He is not a great man who, in a weak moment, has fallen prey to vicious evils; neither he nor his vices have any true tragic element. Finally, he is not a tragic man inspiring our sympathy but merely a man in a pathetic situation, and it is the feeling for his situation with which the reader is left.
It is ’Sieur George’s landlord, Kookoo, who emerges most vividly from this story. Like his tenant and his building, Kookoo also shows the effects of time, for the “ancient Creole” has grown “old and wrinkled and brown.” He is vividly sketched by three descriptive strokes: “He smokes cascarilla, wears velveteen and is as punctual as an executioner.” Our perception of Kookoo is enhanced by the narrator’s attitude toward him as a “periodically animate mummy” possessing “limited powers of conjecture.” Kookoo’s favorite pastimes are to eavesdrop on his tenants, watch the habits of ’Sieur George, and revel in the mystery of ’Sieur George’s small hair trunk. His personality emerges through his actions, clearly motivated by nosiness and curiosity. Moreover, the reader becomes a partner to his consciousness as ’Sieur George leaves for war, taking the omniscient narrator with him. It is Kookoo, driven by a fifty-year-old curiosity and taking advantage of ’Sieur George’s open door and drunken stupor, who leads the reader to the mysterious trunk and a final revelation about its owner: “The trunk was full, full, crowded down and running over full, of the tickets of the Havanna Lottery!”
The plot of “’Sieur George” is thin, often vague, and finally melodramatic; and the climax is less than satisfying because the ramifications of compulsive gambling have not been portrayed in ’Sieur George’s superficial development. It is not uncommon for Cable, with his social consciousness, to give social problems an antagonistic role, but the problem here is that neither ’Sieur George nor his vices stand out clearly enough against the images of Kookoo and Creole life; thus, their possible impact is lost in the collage. What holds the reader’s attention, however, is the sustained suspense created by the adroit changes in the angle of narration. The perspective shifts back and forth between the omniscient narrator and Kookoo: The narrator, who initially dominates the reader’s perspective of ’Sieur George, demonstrates a vast knowledge with a detached precision; when ’Sieur George is absent, however, the reader becomes partner with Kookoo, whose perspective is limited but allows deeper involvement. When ’Sieur George returns, so does the perspective of the omniscient narrator. Not only does the reader know both “sides” of the story, but also the suspense of Kookoo’s curiosity is sustained as the narrator continues. This technique and its adroit management create a sustained suspense that holds the reader to the end. Cable’s changing angles of narration, along with the scenic setting and glimpses of Creole life, are the final salvation of the story. The reader may well be disappointed by the less than satisfying climax, but reaching it is a fine experience, and the final praise of the story is that it is so well told.
In a later story, “Jean-ah Poquelin,” Cable uses basically the same techniques, but much more effectively. The story begins in a time when the “newly established American Government was the most hateful thing in Louisiana—when the Creoles were still kicking at such vile innovations as the trial by jury, American dances, antismuggling laws, and the printing of the Governor’s proclamation in English.” This atmosphere of conflict is quickly followed by a sense of impending doom as the narrator centers the reader’s attention on the stark details of the old Poquelin plantation: standing above the marsh, “aloof from civilization,” “lifted up on pillars, grim, solid, and spiritless,” “like a gigantic ammunition wagon stuck in the mud and abandoned by some retreating army.” Two dead cypress trees “dotted with roosting vultures” and crawling waters filled with reptiles “to make one shudder to the ends of his days” create around the home an atmosphere of foreboding. This atmosphere is continued as the description of Jean Marie Poquelin unfolds. He was “once an opulent indigo planter, standing high in the esteem” of his friends but is “now a hermit, alike shunned by and shunning all who had ever known him.” Typically reflecting the setting’s atmosphere, Jean is yet somewhat unique among local-color characters because of his multifaceted and full development.
His personality is discovered through a series of flashbacks to happier times. Jean had been “a bold, frank, impetuous, chivalric adventurer,” but there was no trait for which he was better known than “his apparent fondness” for his little brother, Jacques. Jacques, thirty years Jean’s junior and really a half-brother, was “a gentle studious book-loving recluse.” Together “they lived upon the ancestral estate like mated birds, one always on the wing, the other always in the nest.” The brothers’ tranquil relationship is abruptly interrupted when Jean returns from a two-year slaving expedition apparently without Jacques, who, unable to tolerate his brother’s long absence, had begged to go along. Jean remained silent on this issue, but rumor was that Jacques had returned “but he had never been seen again,” and “dark suspicion” fell upon Jean as his name “became a symbol of witchery, devilish crime, and hideous nursery fictions.” Rumors of blood-red windows, owls with human voices, and the ghost of the departed brother keep the plantation and Jean shrouded in mystery while children viciously taunt him in the streets, calling names and throwing dirt clods with youthful expertise, as ignorant adults blame him for all their misfortunes. Old Jean betrays his silence as latent boldness responds to this ill treatment; “rolling up his brown fist” he would “pour forth such an unholy broadside of French imprecation and invective as would all but craze” the Creole children “with delight.” His actions are justified, and readers cheer him on as they become personally involved in the story.
Time passes, and immigrants flood New Orleans, forcing growing pains on the city. Greedy non-Creole American land developers and displaced Creoles begin to encroach on Jean’s lonely home. Through Jean’s reaction to these forces, the reader learns more about him and becomes more deeply involved in his plight. Hoping to stop the invaders, Jean appeals to the Governor, and, in doing so, he projects much of his personality: He stands proudly with his large black eye “bold and open like that of a war horse, and his jaw shut together with the fierceness of iron.” His open-neck shirt reveals “a herculean breast, hard and grizzled,” yet there is “no fierceness of defiance in his look” but rather a “peaceful and peaceable fearlessness.”
Jean’s heroic stature is sensitively human, for on his face, “not marked in one or another feature, but as it were laid softly upon the countenance like an almost imperceptible veil, was the imprint of some great grief”—faint “but once seen, there it hung.” In broken English, Jean protests the invasion of his privacy, but the reader senses the futility of his attempt as he is answered by questions about the wicked rumors. His temper flares as he declares, “I mine me hown bizniss.” Jean’s motivations may still be vague, but the strength of his convictions as to his rights and his powerful presence inspire the reader’s respect.
Although he marches from the officials’ rooms, Jean is kept ever present as he is discussed by the American and Creole developers. Old stories are retold, and Jean gains nobility as the greedy invaders callously plan how to oust him so that they can replace his home with a market. Their shallow commercialism and ignorant superstitions are illuminating foils to Jean’s deep-seated desire to preserve his home. Jean’s only champion, Little White, only temporarily stalls a mob determined to “chirivari” him, and ultimately they rush forward only to be met by Jean’s only slave, an African mute, carting a draped coffin through the front gate. Old Jean is dead; and the crowd stands silent except for its unanimous gasp at seeing the white figure slowly walking behind the cart. The cause of so many rumors and cruelties is the “living remains—all that was left—of little Jacques Poquelin, the long-hidden brother—a leper, as white as snow.” The African adjusts the weight of the coffin on his shoulders, and “without one backward glance upon the unkind human world, turning their faces toward the ridge in the depth of the swamp known as Leper’s Land, they stepped into the jungle, disappeared and were never seen again.”
Melodramatic touches are frequent as the story turns on Jean’s selfless devotion. The climax brings the reader’s compassion to a peak well supported by all that has been learned about Jean: how his friends have spoken so well of him; the knowledge of his loving relationship with Jacques; and his justifiable responses to the jeering children, Creole cruelty, and non-Creole American aggression. Although his motivations are vague until the end, and he is shrouded in mystery, the rightness of his actions and speeches assures the reader of his innate goodness.
Cable again employs a changing angle of narration, but Jean is ever the subject of other characters’ thoughts and actions; thus, he is ever kept before the reader. All the elements of the story are clearly aimed at telling the story of Jean and his doomed resistance. Compassion for Jean and his brother remains strong after the conclusion of the story, one of the few in which Cable beautifully balances his romantic fiction and social criticism. The story succeeds as both; it is a haunting “ghost” story while it attacks ignorant prejudice and makes a touching plea for human compassion.
Cable was the first literary voice of the New South. Writing within the realm of local-color fiction, he enriched his stories with the circumstantial reality of local history; he preserved the beautiful detail of colorful New Orleans in impressionistic backgrounds peopled by unique characters; and he was the first writer to bring the crude patois of the Creoles accurately to print. Cable’s stories are a unique blend of romantic elements and circumstantial reality drawn from his literary domain. Although many of his stories are hampered by a lack of clear direction, the cluttering, often paragraphic glimpses of different cultures are rewarding reading; and where Cable achieved a precise utility of a story’s elements, the total impact is unforgettable.