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What Can Be Saved from the Wreckage? James Branch Cabell in the Twenty-first Century by Michael Swanwick
Review by Douglas A. Anderson
Temporary Culture  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780976466031
Date: 14 February 2008 / Show Official Info /

If critics often wish they were fiction writers, how often is the reverse true? Michael Swanwick is a fine novelist who writes both fantasy and science fiction, yet by his own choice he has put on the critic's hat. Once it was for an extended study of the writings of Hope Mirrlees (1887-1978), a British writer who is remembered primarily for her fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). Swanwick's essay on Mirrlees, some 20,000 words, appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Foundation. Despite having learned how unremunerative the writing of literary criticism is, Swanwick has returned to pen a study of another '20s fantasist, the American writer James Branch Cabell (1879-1958).

Cabell had a vogue in the early 1920s after his novel Jurgen (1919) was attacked by John S. Sumner, secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Sumner secured a grand jury indictment in New York that charged Jurgen with being a "lewd, lascivious, indecent, obscene and disgusting book". The book was withdrawn from sale until it was exonerated. Of course this spurred sales, and Cabell was for a time a cause célèbre. His reputation was at its highest in the 1920s and early 1930s, but by the time of his death two decades later he was virtually forgotten. Since then, save for a brief revival in the early 1970s of six of his novels in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, his only title to remain in print has been Jurgen.

As a whole Cabell's oeuvre is difficult to classify, as it includes rewritings, retitlings, and various combined editions, but he wrote around 20 novels, and two-thirds of these are fantasies. (He also published a number of short stories in magazines, but these frequently reappeared as parts of his novels.)

Swanwick begins his study of Cabell with an overview of his life and follows that with the declaration:

"The great career of James Branch Cabell has been run upon the rocks and will never sail again. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Fortune had thrown him higher than merit ever could, and dashed him deeper into obscurity than was his desert. But the question remains: What can be saved from the wreckage?" (p. 8).
The remainder of Swanwick's essay is an attempt to answer this question.

After dismissing some of Cabell's nonfiction, poetry, and the novels set in the then-recent past, he turns to Jurgen, finding it to be "the single best work of his career" (p. 4). Jurgen is the tale of a middle-aged pawnbroker who regains his youth and goes on a long series of fantastical adventures. The story is told with real wit and invention, and as Swanwick notes, "Cabell was possibly the first fantasist of any serious note to take all of the world's mythologies and drop them into the cultural blender" (p. 10).

Of Cabell's other works, Swanwick singles out for praise five further novels as being, like Jurgen, first-rate: The Silver Stallion (1926), Figures of Earth (1921), The Cream of the Jest (1917), Something about Eve (1927), and The High Place (1923).

Interestingly, these five novels, plus Domnei (1920, a revision of a 1913 novel The Soul of Melicent) comprise the six republished in the 1970s in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series (where Jurgen could not be included because it was in print from another publisher). All of these novels, and a great deal of Cabell's other writings, are a part of the great biography of Cabell's character Dom Manuel, a swineherd, and are set in Poictesme, an imaginary medieval French province. Swanwick helpfully gives the correct pronunciation of Poictesme as "pwa-tem" -- though I could also wish he had somewhere repeated Cabell's own rhyming couplet about how to pronounce his surname: "Stop all this rabble / My name is Cabell!"

Swanwick is an engaging critic, and his enthusiasm for what he likes is infectious, even if one, at the same time, suspects that his criticism of what he dislikes is a bit harsh.

Yet I hope that Swanwick will don the hat of literary critic again in the future. Perhaps on the career of Mervyn Wall, author of The Unfortunate Fursey (1946) and its sequel, The Return of Fursey (1948). Or on the works of David Lindsay, whose novels beyond A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) offer very different types of literary rewards. Or there are many other deserving writers, those neglected in a time when too many readers (or so it seems) are focused solely on the present, with barely a glance at the giants of the past. There is gold in the past as well as in the present, and it's nice to have writers like Swanwick point out the treasures.


Our Readers Respond

From Taras Wolansky:
    Cabell lives on indirectly in his influence on other writers, especially those whose formative years were the 1920s. There was a session on Cabell, for example, at the Heinlein Centennial convention, last year.

    If Swanwick touches on this issue, the review does not say so.

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