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From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" <ddanehy@siebel.com>
Subject: (urth) JBC
Date: Wed, 29 Nov 2000 09:17:31 

The following is long, rambling, off-the-cuff and probably
off-topic. I beg your indulgence.

Mantis pushed a few of my buttons when he wrote...

> PEACE mentions James Branch Cabell's JURGEN.  

JBC is a fascinating case: notorious (mostly for the wrong reasons) and 
extraordinarily influential and damnear *forgotten*. One quotation, at
least, I imagine you are all familiar with: "The optimist proclaims 
that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears 
this is true."

I've been working, for some years, on-and-off, even more dilatorily than 
is usual for me, on an essay on his various influences on Heinlein*. 
Larry Niven wrote a minor set of stories with Cabellian-named planets 
(he called them, at one point, the "Leshy cycle"; the only one with real 
Cabellian roots, however, is "Night on Mispec Moor"). James Blish, among 
other major SF writers, was a member of the Cabell Society -- Cabell was 
still alive at the time; he survived until the late '50s -- and editor 
of its journal, KALKI. Mark Twain praised his short-story collection 
CHIVALRY extravagantly, as did Theodore Roosevelt. And the witnesses or 
depositions in the obscenity trial of JURGEN reads very nearly like a 
"Who's Who in American Literature" for the 1920s.

* Aside from the obvious -- that JOB is an homage to JURGEN -- several 
other RAH books are clearly Cabellian in inspiration. GLORY ROAD is a 
blatant Cabellian fantasy. In the collected letters (GRUMBLES FROM THE 
GRAVE) Heinlein describes the work-in-progress that was eventually 
published as STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND as "a Cabellian comedy." Etc.

> I just read JURGEN, the second JCB book I've read (the other being

These are in many ways an excellent starting point; the only problem is
that they are also, in many ways, too similar to each other to give a
feel for the breadth of Cabell.

Make no mistake; he was in some ways a very _limited_ writer. He had a
few simple themes that he expounded over and over again from his first
publication to the day of his death, and a collection of literary tropes
and tricks that he used reliably, almost predictably. But then, so did
Twain, so did Shakespeare -- so does Wolfe, I might add.

His deepest themes were two, and both illustrated in his massive work
EARTH are very early volumes in "Biog;" indeed, FIGURES is one of the
few in which Dom Manuel of Poictesme actually appears and the _only_
one in which he is a major character. "Biog" follows the life of Dom
Manuel  and his descendants (not "lives"; the conceit is that his 
life is continued in his decscendents) from the 14th century in the 
mythical French province of Poictesme (a conglomeration of Poictiers 
and Angouleme) to the early 20th in Virginia. Over and over we see 
Cabell's themes played out. One of them is summarized in the prologue
to "Biog," BEYOND LIFE, in describing the human race more or less as 
follows -- I am quoting from memory and probably badly --
	an ape, reft of his tail and grown rusty at climbing,
	who believes himself to be the special favorite of the

Cabell's work was gently ironic and (as Mantis observes) gently bawdy,
but his irony did not extend to the bitter hatred of the human race we
often find in "humanists" like Mark Twain, George Carlin, and Kurt
Vonnegut. This "ape," he posits, is blessed, condemned -- at any rate,
fated -- to play out the same comedy over and over, the scenery and the
names of the characters changing but the real content of the play never
varying greatly. (That he could write such varied and delightful books
dedicated to this theme in no way belies the theme; rather it shows that
the comedy itself is rich and malleable, and that what interests us most
of the time is indeed the surface dressings. It is, of course, also a
tribute to his own powers of invention.)

His other great theme was that there were essentially only three 
attitudes toward life: he called them the Chivalrous, the Gallant, and 
the Poetic. The Chivalrous attitude is that by which one which views 
oneself as God's vicar on Earth, and responsible for justice and mercy 
-- in short, the hyper-responsible. The Gallant attitude says that life
is for pleasure, so gather rosebuds while ye may. The Poetic attitude 
sees the world as raw material to be shaped into art. Each of these
attitudes has its complications, ramifications, etc.; for example, each
of them involves a fairly specific attitude toward the proper relations
between men and women. (Chivalric: Men serve Women and worship them as 
intimations of Divine beauty. Gallant: Men pursue Women, who mostly want 
to be caught. Poetic: Men are inspired by Women to their highest 
creations. -- Well, this _was_ the 1910s and 20s.)

The heroes of the various novels and stories that make up the eighteen
to twenty-five (depending on how you count) volumes of the "Biog" are
very much illustrations of these attitudes; Jurgen himself is the ur-case
of the Gallant philosophy. The clearest and purest illustrations of these
attitudes, however, are in the short-story collections (with ten stories
each; Cabell called them "dizains") CHIVALRY, GALLANTRY, and -- no, not

> Both JCB books in the end are sort of circular and linear at the same
> time (a condition we sometimes see in PEACE).  

This is true of a number of Cabell's works, though far from all. The 
nature of his themes makes both necessary: to any given player, the
comedy is linear; to the (ideal) audience, since it is always going on 
with a changing cast, it is circular, always repeating with surface

> JURGEN has a couple of ways of =not= showing things: there are the
> naughty scenes that happen in the dark so you can't "see" anything,
> you just have the innocuous dialogue of a man and woman alone in a
> dark room (this was the meat of the obscenity trial, as I understand
> it); 

This is partly due to the conventions of the time. Cabell was one of
a number of figures of the time who wrote gently bawdy and irreverent 
comedies -- a couple of others moderatly well-known in SF/F circles 
to this day might include Thorne Smith and (to a lesser extent) Anatole 
France. But it was also very deliberate on Cabell's part; he wanted to
tease and gently annoy the reader.

Some editions of JURGEN, btw, include a marvellous little piece called
"The Judging of Jurgen," in which Jurgen himself is called to answer 
the charges against the novel -- charges phrased as follows:

		"You are offensive ... because this
	page has a sword which I chose to say is not a sword.
	You are lewd because that page has a lance which I
	prefer to think is not a lance. You are lascivious
	because yonder page has a staff which I elect to
	declare is not a staff. And finally, you are indecent for
	reasons of which a description would be objectionable
	to me, and which therefore I must decline to reveal to

The accuser, a "tumble-bug," also says:

		... in Philistia to make literature and to make
	trouble for yourself are synonyms. I know, for already 
	we of Philistia have been pestered by three of these 
	makers of literature. Yes, there was Edgar, whom I 
	starved and hunted until I was tired of it: then I 
	chased him up a back alley one night, and knocked out 
	those annoying brains of his. And there was Walt, whom 
	I chivvied and battered from place to place, and made 
	a paralytic of him: and him, too, I labelled offensive 
	and lewd and lascivious and indecent. Then later there 
	was Mark, whom I frightened into disguising himself in 
	a clown's suit, so that nobody might suspect him to be 
	a maker of literature: indeed, I frightened him so that
	he hid away the greater part of what he had made until 
	after he was dead, and I could not get at him.

(The whole text of "The Judging of Jurgen" is online at 

JURGEN both made and ended Cabell's career in different ways.
The notoriety of its trial made the book sell, as no previous
book of his had done -- up till then, he was mostly to be found
in remainder piles. But after, as he complained bitterly, there
were only two kinds of reviews available to him: that the new
book was just like JURGEN, and he was repeating himself; or that
it was not like JURGEN, and he was no longer worth reading. For
a while, again due to the notoriety of the obscenity trial, he
sold tolerably well; after people realized that there was 
nothing actually titillating in his novels, the sales faded away.

> and then there are certain mythic scale heroic episodes,
> trials of mystery, which are completely missing from the
> text--you have all the stuff leading up to it, and all
> the stuff after, with only vague and/or coy hints as to
> what actually happened.  

True. This seems to violate one of the key elements of Cabell's 
own aesthetic creed: he wanted to "write perfectly of beautiful
happenings." I have never satisfactorily resolved this in my own
mind; I can only guess that these are not the beautiful happenings
of which he wanted to write perfectly. -- also, like the missing
sex scenes, it is a deliberate stimulant to the reader.

> (Some of them are apparently long running jokes throughout the
> various novels.)

These do indeed exist, but (imo) never in a form to intrude into
the individual stories. With the possible exception of THE SILVER
STALLION -- which is very much a sequel to FIGURES, and a kind of
bridge from it to JURGEN -- the volumes of the "Biog" can all be
read alone.

I believe I've seen Wolfe comment on his admiration for and 
affinity with "Southern writers" in an interview or two. Cabell 
was quintessentially Southern in the way Mark Twain was -- his
writings could only come from a Southerner, and could only offend


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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