Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 993
Born on April 14, 1879, in Richmond, Virginia, James Branch Cabell grew up there as a southern gentleman. His parents—Robert Gamble Cabell II, a physician, and Anne Branch—were both from distinguished southern families. Cabell’s paternal great-grandfather was a governor of Virginia; his paternal grandfather held two claims to fame, having been a schoolmate of Edgar Allan Poe at the English and Classical School in Richmond and later a neighbor and the personal physician of General Robert E. Lee. On his mother’s side of the family, Cabell was related through marriage to a number of prominent Virginia families and was cousin to a governor of Maryland. Fostering Cabell’s aristocratic pride still further was his “mammy,” Mrs. Louisa Nelson, who, in her several decades of service in the Cabell household, doted on James and encouraged him to consider himself a privileged member of society.
Cabell’s outstanding intellect asserted itself early. He performed brilliantly at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, which he attended from 1894 to 1898. His professors suggested that he revise a sophomore paper titled “The Comedies of William Congreve” for publication and later asked him to teach courses in French and Greek at the college. The only blemish on Cabell’s academic career was a scandal during his senior year. One of his professors was accused of having homosexual relations with his students; Cabell, because he had been friends with the man, was briefly implicated. The unpleasant episode had positive repercussions, however, for in wandering about Williamsburg alone and troubled, Cabell met Ellen Glasgow, who had come to town to research the background for a novel. She offered him sympathy, and thus began a lifelong friendship. Soon the charges against Cabell were dropped for lack of evidence, and he graduated with highest honors.
After his graduation, Cabell pursued writing both as a vocation and an avocation. He served as a copyholder on the Richmond Times in 1898, then spent two years working for the New York Herald, and in 1901 he worked for the Richmond News. For the next decade, he worked as a genealogist, traveling around the United States, England, Ireland, and France to examine archives. Not only did this occupation result in two volumes of the Branch family history—Branchiana (1907), a record of the Branch family in Virginia, and Branch of Abingdon (1911), a record of the Branch family in England—but it also prepared Cabell for his future literary endeavors in tracing the lineage of a character through twenty-two subsequent generations. During that same time, Cabell wrote several novels and steadily produced short stories, which he contributed to such periodicals as The Smart Set, Collier’s Weekly, Redbook, Lippincott’s, and Harper’s Monthly. In 1911, Cabell, disappointed by his lack of acclaim as a writer, took a position in coal-mining operations in West Virginia; in 1913, he abandoned the experiment and returned to Richmond to resume work as a genealogist.
On November 8, 1913, at the age of thirty-four, Cabell gave up what had been a carefree bachelorhood, filled with romantic intrigues, to marry Rebecca Priscilla Bradley Shepard, a widow with five children. Marriage proved mutually satisfying to Cabell and Priscilla. He enjoyed the domesticity of his new lifestyle, including the rearing of their son Ballard Hartwell; she delighted in performing the literary and social duties that came with being his wife. Their thirty-five-year union was marked by undying affection and loyalty.
Literary prominence, or perhaps one should say notoriety, came to Cabell in 1920 when John S. Sumner, the executive secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, seized the plates and copies of Cabell’s novel Jurgen and accused the publishing company, McBride, of violating the antiobscenity statutes of the New York State penal code. Sumner’s action proved ill-advised, for it only increased the public’s interest in Cabell’s writings during the two and a half years before the obscenity trial was finally held. On October 19, 1922, after a three-day trial, the jury acquitted McBride, and Cabell emerged as a celebrity.
During the 1920’s, Cabell took a more active role as a literary leader and was instrumental, along with Ellen Glasgow, in making the nation aware of Richmond as a literary center. While writing books with great regularity (during the 1920’s, he published seven novels, one play, and several works of short fiction and nonfiction), Cabell also entertained and corresponded with a number of important literary figures, including Sinclair Lewis, Hugh Walpole, and Carl Van Vechten. In addition, he served as a writer and guest editor for The Reviewer, Richmond’s impressive contribution to the vogue of little magazines. As active as Cabell was on the literary scene, he was still able to continue his career as a genealogist, working for the Virginia Chapter of the Sons of the Revolution and other historical societies, as well as serving as editor of the Virginia War History Commission.
The last decades of Cabell’s life were anticlimactic, fraught with physical ailments and an increasing disillusionment with the American reading public. With the advent of the Great Depression, his literary fame seemed to weaken and then die. From 1932 to 1935, Cabell—like Sherwood Anderson, George Jean Nathan, Eugene O’Neill, and Theodore Dreiser—attempted to rekindle the vital skepticism of the 1920’s, serving as editor of the American Spectator; he soon realized, however, that his efforts to enlighten the public were useless. In the mid-1930’s, Cabell suffered from repeated attacks of pneumonia, and Priscilla developed severe arthritis; thus, they frequently sought relief in the warm climate of St. Augustine, Florida. There, Priscilla died of heart failure on March 29, 1949. Her death left Cabell feeling bitter, lost, and angry, but he continued to write steadily. In 1950, he regained some of his former zest for life when he decided to wed Margaret Waller Freeman, a member of the Richmond literati whose acquaintance he had made years earlier while writing for The Reviewer. Cabell died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 5, 1958, in Richmond.