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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346

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James Branch Cabell (KAB-uhl) was both prolific and versatile. In addition to his many novels, he produced a volume of poetry titled From the Hidden Way (1916) and a play, The Jewel Merchants (pb. 1921). His short stories are collected in The Line of Love (1905), Gallantry (1907), Chivalry (1909), and The Certain Hour (1916). Included among his writings are critical volumes on his contemporaries Joseph Hergesheimer and Ellen Glasgow; Taboo (1921), a satire dedicated to Cabell’s nemesis, John S. Sumner, who initiated obscenity charges against Cabell’s novel Jurgen; Some of Us (1930), a defense of the individualism of such writers as Elinor Wylie, Sinclair Lewis, and H. L. Mencken; and The St. Johns (1943), a history of a Florida river written with A. J. Hanna, for Stephen Vincent Benét’s book series titled The Rivers of America.

Perhaps Cabell’s most interesting volumes are those that illuminate his life and literary development. He wrote two epistolary volumes: Special Delivery (1933), which presents both his conventional responses to letters he received and the unconventional replies he would have preferred to send, and Ladies and Gentlemen (1934), a collection of addresses to dead historical figures—from Solomon to George Washington, from Pocahontas to Madame de Pompadour—who have inspired myths and legends. He explores the past of his native region and its impact on his writings in his trilogy “Virginians Are Various,” consisting of Let Me Lie (1947), Quiet, Please (1952), and As I Remember It (1955). Providing readers with insight into Cabell’s art are Beyond Life (1919), which clarifies his values, literary precedents, and thematic concerns; These Restless Heads (1932), a discussion of creativity based on the four seasons of the year; and Straws and Prayer-Books (1924), an explanation of his reasons for writing The Biography of the Life of Manuel. Two volumes of Cabell’s letters have been published: Between Friends: Letters of James Branch Cabell and Others (1962), edited by his second wife, Margaret Freeman Cabell, and Padraic Colum; and The Letters of James Branch Cabell (1975), edited by Edward Wagenknecht. His manuscripts and memorabilia are in the James Branch Cabell Collections at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.


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James Branch Cabell’s aesthetic individualism—as expressed in his highly artificial style, his loose, episodic structure, and his peculiar synthesis of romance and comedy, idealism and cynicism, mythology and personal experience—has limited both his popular and critical appeal. As Arvin R. Wells observes in Jesting Moses: A Study in Cabellian Comedy (1962), “It seems fair to say that rarely has a serious literary artist had so little luck in finding a responsive, judicious, and articulate audience.” The essays, short stories, and books that Cabell published from 1901 to 1919 received only a small readership along with generally negative reviews, although both Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt praised his collection of chivalric tales, The Line of Love. Most readers, advocates of realism, found his works too romantic, whereas those with a taste for romance complained that Cabell was too abstruse.

In 1920, when obscenity charges were brought against Jurgen, Cabell found himself in the public eye, perceived as a valiant iconoclast battling the forces of puritanical repression. Sales of Jurgen skyrocketed, and Cabell enjoyed praise from such respected literary figures as Vernon Louis Parrington, Carl Van Doren, H. L. Mencken, and Sinclair Lewis, who acknowledged Cabell’s achievement in his Nobel Prize address of 1930. Suddenly, in critical studies, literary histories, and anthologies, Cabell was elevated to, as the critic Joe Lee Davis has put it, “the rank of a ’classic’ and an ’exotic’ in the movement of spiritual liberation led by H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, Eugene O’Neill, and Sinclair Lewis.”

The public fanfare of the 1920’s, however, inspired primarily by the eroticism in Cabell’s works, proved to be short-lived—not to the surprise of Cabell, who, in These Restless Heads, predicted the decline of his literary generation. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Cabell was viewed as a trifling talent, rooted to the 1920’s and to his native Virginia. His aestheticism displeased the ethical neohumanists; his escapism annoyed the Marxists. The New Critics and mythic critics paid him scant attention. In the 1950’s, three major literary historians—Edward Wagenknecht, Edd Winfield Parks, and Edmund Wilson—called for a reevaluation of Cabell’s career, but they did little to change public opinion. Many of Cabell’s books have been out of print at various times, although a late twentieth century surge of interest in fantasy literature brought some attention to his work, which has come to be appreciated primarily by a coterie of scholars and graduate students.


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Brewer, Frances J. James Branch Cabell: A Bibliography of His Writings, Biography, and Criticism. 1957. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971. Compiled with Cabell’s revisionist assistance.

Davis, Joe Lee. James Branch Cabell. New York: Twayne, 1962. A standard biography.

Duke, Maurice. James Branch Cabell: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. A most useful guide, in a chronological format, to the writings about Cabell; spans reviews to full-length studies.

Himelick, Raymond. James Branch Cabell and the Modern Temper: Three Essays. New York: Revisionist Press, 1974. Himelick explores realism and romance, the fact and the dream in Cabell’s novels. Sees Cabell as an antiromantic whose novels convey his understanding of life as a “grotesque comedy.”

Inge, Thomas M., and Edgar E. MacDonald, eds. James Branch Cabell: Centennial Essays. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983. A compilation of essays that were presented at Virginia Commonwealth University, 1979, in commemoration of the centennial of Cabell’s birth. A most useful volume with valuable biographical information and criticism. Also includes a bibliographical essay.

MacDonald, Edgar E. James Branch Cabell and Richmond-in-Virginia. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993. A very detailed, authoritative biography that seeks to set Cabell in his period and region. Includes excellent bibliography.

Riemer, James D. From Satire to Subversion: The Fantasies of James Branch Cabell. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. Riemer devotes separate chapters to The Cream of the Jest, Jurgen, Figures of Earth, The High Place, The Silver Stallion, and Something About Eve. These books encompass Cabell’s greatest achievement, Riemer argues. His introduction provides a good overview of the writer’s career. Includes a very useful bibliography.

Tarrant, Desmond. James Branch Cabell: The Dream and the Reality. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967. A full-length critical study of Cabell that examines the author as mythmaker. Discusses both Cabell’s early and later works, but Tarrant’s eulogistic approach weakens his criticism.

Van Doren, Carl, H. L. Mencken, and Hugh Walpole. James Branch Cabell: Three Essays. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1967. Criticism of a very high standard—both erudite and entertaining—by three eminent authors. Included in the appendix is a sampling of book reviews. A valuable contribution to critical studies on Cabell.


Critical Essays