For many years relegated to obscurity as a regional writer, George Washington Cable eventually became recognized as one of the most significant southern writers in the period between the Civil War and the early twentieth century. Unlike racial apologists such as Thomas Nelson Page, who sought to romanticize and sentimentalize the institution of slavery and its effects, Cable was a penetrating social critic whose novels and short stories interrogate the political and ideological structures of southern society. The acute political and social analysis in his fiction led Mark Twain to call him “the South’s finest literary genius.”
The Grandissimes, considered by many to be Cable’s most successful work, was the first southern novel to treat the complexity of race in the South. In his representation of the South’s divided heritage and his refusal to simplify or resolve the tensions and contradictions of race, Cable was the forerunner of William Faulkner’s differentiated treatment of race in works such as Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Go Down Moses (1942).
At the physical and moral center of the novel is the tragic tale of Bras Coupé, an African prince captured by slavers and transported to Louisiana. Bras Coupé possesses as much dignity and courage as his Spanish Creole master, and his enslavement is portrayed as a violation of natural and divine orders. Bras Coupé’s punishment for violating the Code Noir (Black Code)—he is lashed, his ears cut off, and tendons behind his knees slashed—destroys the myth of southern slavery as a paternalistic system. Cable tried to publish this tale as his first short story, “Bibi,” but it was rejected by the editor of Scribner’s Monthly as being too “distressful” and by the editor of The Atlantic Monthly as having an “unmitigatedly distressful effect.”
By embedding Bras Coupé’s story in a romantic plot with a rich social setting, Cable effectively positioned slavery at the start of the South’s social structure. The story of Bras Coupé becomes the moral measure of the characters and of the Creole society. Honoré Grandissime’s attempts to intervene and prevent Bras Coupé’s punishment are contrasted to Agricola Fusilier’s role in the conquest and humiliation of the proud African. The story is repeated several times in the novel,...
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