Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973

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...

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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, revealing the moral corruption at the foundation of the sensuous and beautiful Creole society. Bras Coupé’s curse on his master and on the plantation represents the curse of slavery on the southern economic and social system. Cable’s use of the name Bras Coupé, meaning “the arm cut off,” makes the point that “all Slavery is Maiming.”

Cable’s treatment of race results in a double vision that runs throughout the novel. The charm and sensuousness of New Orleans are qualified by signs of decadence and disintegration. Feuds divide the Creole aristocracy and individual families into opposing camps. Cable contrasts the refined social setting of New Orleans with the primal swamp in which Bras Coupé hides. Running parallel to the love story of Honoré and Aurora Nancanou is the story of miscegenation as depicted in the Grandissime family’s dual racial heritage. The two half brothers, both named Honoré Grandissime, one white and one of mixed blood, serve as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of the races; through their shared name and shared education in Paris, Cable demonstrates the arbitrary harm of a system that privileges racial purity over the ties of brotherhood. That the quadroon Honoré is a free man of color does not, for Cable, resolve the issue. Joseph Frowenfeld argues that the “slavery of caste . . . like all slaveries on earth, is a double bondage. And what a bondage it is which compels a community, in order to preserve its established tyrannies, to walk behind the rest of the intelligent world.”

Caught between Joseph and Agricola, two passionate and engaging characters who represent extreme and opposing positions, the white Honoré is the character in the novel who seeks to mediate the multiple dualities of the novel. Joseph, the American pharmacist and outsider to New Orleans and Creole society, represents an ideal and absolute moral position that ignores the claims of historical, social, and personal contexts. On the other side is Agricola, Honoré’s uncle, the champion of family and community and spokesperson for the Creole social structure. Honoré, who “looks at both sides of a question,” perceives the injustice, division, and tragedy resulting from Agricola’s absolute loyalty to the family and caste systems of Creole society; at the same time, he realizes that Joseph’s moral imperative of absolute honor and justice will destroy the society he wishes to reform.

Honoré’s decision to restore Aurora’s plantation and to enter into a business partnership with his half brother can satisfy neither position fully. The differences that run throughout the narrative cannot be fully reconciled or resolved. Many of the Grandissimes are outraged by his public recognition of his quadroon half brother. Agricola’s attempt to lynch the Darker Honoré, their public quarrel, and Agricola’s resulting death qualify the success of Honoré’s moral stance. Honoré’s success is further qualified by his half brother’s suicide out of despair because the woman he loves is in love with the white Honoré.

While two of the love stories end happily, with an engagement between Joseph and Clotilde Nancanou and an understanding between Honoré and Aurora, the racial story ends in ambivalence and limited success. This reflects Cable’s conviction that an end to the slavery of caste would require a lengthy process of committed social restructuring and education. Cable wanted his writing to speak to “the conscience of the South”; his novel The Grandissimes speaks today as eloquently as it did in 1880 through Cable’s vividly textured portrait of Creole culture, its pioneering use of dialect, and its deep moral conviction.

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