James Branch Cabell Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

James Branch Cabell’s art rests on a paradox. On one hand, the author contends that man is idealistic and must therefore create dreams to sustain himself. On the other, he mocks man’s tendency “to play the ape to his dreams”—that is, to seek the unattainable foolishly. Manipulating the polarities of romance and comedy, Cabell responded to the predominant intellectual trend of the early twentieth century—naturalism. From a cosmic perspective, he had no difficulty accepting the premise that man is like a bit of flotsam in a deterministic universe, subject to environmental forces but unable to control or understand them. From a humanistic point of view, however, he could not tolerate the limitations that naturalism imposed on the human mind. For Cabell, man does not survive because he adapts to biological, social, or economic forces, but rather because he persists in believing in the products of his own imagination—what Cabell terms “dynamic illusions.” These illusions, according to Cabell, emanate from the demiurge, or psyche, yet they are rooted in man’s primitive, animal instincts. Their source of energy is the libido. Cabell’s protagonists thus move between two realms of experience: They are romantic questers after ideal beauty, perfection, and salvation; they are also comic bumblers whose lusts, vanities, and misconceptions entangle them in a web of complexities. Cabell’snarratives follow a Hegelian pattern. His thesis is that man desires to escape from the dull, routine world of actuality. His antithesis is that such a desire can never be attained; disillusionment is inevitable. In the synthesis, however, man achieves a degree of satisfaction. He learns that his ideals are illusions but also that they should be cherished, for in the realm of the imagination, dreams themselves have a reality.

Cabell’s background explains his propensity for blending the romantic and the comic. Quite early, he developed a love for myth and legend. As a child, he delighted in such books as Old Greek Stories Simply Told, Stories of Old Rome, Book of Bible Stories, and Stories of the Days of King Arthur. Cabell gained a strong sense of aristocratic pride—an appreciation of the southern characteristics of chivalry and gallantry—yet he was no dreamy-eyed romantic. He saw the ironic underside of life. In growing up, he heard frank gossip, as well as heroic tales, from his elders. In college, Cabell became interested in the Restoration comedy of manners, which heightened his awareness of the hypocrisies and absurdities of human behavior. Such weaknesses became more immediately apparent when, as a bachelor in his twenties and early thirties, he vacationed at the Virginia resort of Rockbridge Alum. There, he witnessed and participated in affairs that assumed the facade of chaste, genteel encounters but were actually indulgences in lust. From his various experiences, Cabell developed a dichotomous concept of the artist, appropriate to his blending of romance and comedy. The artist assumes an exalted status, painting beautiful visions of life as it ought to be. Ironically, however, because of this detached, godlike perspective, skepticism intrudes. The world that the artist portrays becomes a caricature; it mocks and contradicts the idealistic presentation. For Cabell, the ideal and the real coexist.

The Biography of the Life of Manuel

Cabell’s major literary achievement is his eighteen-volume The Biography of the Life of Manuel, which he wished readers to regard as a single book. In 1915, Cabell conceived the idea of bringing together his writings into one vast architectural construct, and for the next fifteen years, he strove to achieve his plan: revising published works, deciding on a logical arrangement, and writing new tales and romances to clarify his design. The result was the Storisende Edition of The Works of James Branch Cabell, bound in green and gold. Cabell’s magnum opus represents an ingenious application of his genealogical talents to the realm of fiction. Spanning seven centuries and moving from the imaginary medieval realm of Poictesme to modern Virginia, it celebrates the life force passed on by Manuel to his descendants.

The design of The Biography of the Life of Manuel is best viewed in musical terms. Whether one considers it to be a fugue or a sonata, it revolves on three themes and their variations. These themes are three philosophies of life: the chivalrous, the gallant, and the poetic. The chivalrous attitude views life as a testing; dominated by the will, it represents an ideal tradition in which men revere first God and then noble women. Quite the opposite, the gallant attitude views life as a toy; its social principle is hedonism. This attitude emphasizes the intelligence and is thus skeptical. Celebrating both chivalry and gallantry, the final attitude, the poetic, views life as raw material out of which it creates something that transcends life. It is controlled by the imagination.

These attitudes of the chivalrous, the gallant, and the poetic determine the structure of Cabell’s work. In Beyond Life, the prologue to The Biography of the Life of Manuel, he defines them. Then, in Figures of Earth, Cabell presents the life of Manuel of Poictesme, who at various times is affected by all three codes, and follows it with The Silver Stallion, which traces the development of the legend of Manuel the Redeemer. The fourth volume—composed of Domnei and The Music from Behind the Moon—treats one aspect of the chivalric code: woman worship. Cabell then elaborates on the subject in his short-story collection titled Chivalry. He next examines the gallant attitude in Jurgen; inserts The Line of Love, which treats all three attitudes; then returns to gallantry in The High Place and the short-story collection The Certain Hour. The next four volumes move to the modern world: The Cords of Vanity presents Robert Townsend, a gallant; From the Hidden Way offers Townsend’s verses; The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck portrays a chivalrous character; and The Eagle’s Shadow examines the poet. Finally, The Biography of the Life of Manuel circles back on itself, as the soul of Felix Kennaston, the protagonist of The Cream of the Jest, journeys back to Poictesme...

(The entire section is 2634 words.)