The Charlotte News



Spartacus to James Branch Cabell

By W. J. Cash

I AM ABOUT to utter a blasphemy. And as one about to utter a blasphemy in a country which, historically, has not liked blasphemies, I naturally look ahead for precedents wherewith to ward off a visit from the Ku Klux Klan or sudden destruction by Jovian lightning from about the vicinity of Monument Avenue in Richmond in Virginia.

DeVoto Looks To The Schools Circa 1870

Wherefore I fall on Dr. Bernard DeVoto, who nowadays occupies the Easy Chair at Harper's Magazine. In the current issue, Dr. DeVoto places himself back in a country school in these states along in 1870, and from that point proceeds to have a certain amount of fun. I quote him in part:

"The girls liked 'Casha! Cusha!' on Friday, but the ideal and idol of the boys was a figure of red revolution.

"'If ye are beasts, then stand here like fat oxen waiting for the butcher's knife! If ye are men, follow me! Strike yon guard, gain the mountain passes, and then do bloody work as did your sires at old Thermopylae! Is Sparta dead? Is the old Grecian spirit frozen in your veins that you do crouch and cower like a belabored hound beneath his masters lash? O comrades! warriors! Thracians! If we must fight, let us fight for ourselves! If we must slaughter, let us slaughter our oppressors! If we must die, let it be under the clear sky, by the bright waters, in noble, honorable battle!'"

And again:

"'... The aged minister unrolls that faded flag, it is a blue banner gleaming with thirteen stars. He unrolls that parchment, it is a colonel's commission in the colonial army addressed to Benedict Arnold! And there, in that rude hut... there unknown unwept in all the bitterness of desolation, lay the corpse of the patriot and the traitor and that arm yonder, beneath the snow-white mountains, in the deep silence of the river of the dead, first raised into the light Banner of the Stars... And I said that I had rather have been a poor French peasant... with my loving wife by my side... with my children upon my knee and their arms about me... and have gone down to the tongueless silence of the nameless dust than to have been that imperial impersonation of force and murder known as Napoleon the Great... With music's myriad voices thrilled, while lips are rich with words of loving truth... and over all, in the great dome, shines the eternal star of human hope...'"


I DON'T KNOW, though, why Doctor DeVoto thinks it necessary to lodge that stuff back in 1870. So late as 1919, I was myself declaiming the Spartacus piece over in a college in South Carolina, and in my high school career I had many times done "The Death of Benedict Arnold," "The Black Horse and His Rider," and Old Doc Ingersoll's touching threnodies on Nappy the Great and the dizzy star in the eternal dome.

But that doesn't matter here particularly. As I said in the beginning, I quote Dr. DeVoto merely as a preface for a blasphemy of my own. And so, I record simply that having set down these heroically oozy passages from our boyhood, he proceeds grimly to insinuate that in them and their like precisely, is the taproot of American literature--as she flourishes in our time. Sez he:

"You think it sounds silly? Brethren, we had better not be fastidious about silliness if we are going to deal with literature. The tears flow easily. No more easily than now. In 1870 it was the death-wish that got the most applause, whereas today it is the castration complex, but both are good for heavy dew... Then in a word, the literature is sentimental? You seem to be dreadfully uninformed about the literature of our day...."

Precisely, citizens, precisely. The imminent Dr. Cam Shipp will bear me out that I have been so maintaining for many years past. It is not only true that our literature is shaped by the heritage to which Dr. DeVoto adverts, it is true that the whole American mind, from which the literature stems takes its shape and pattern from that stuff. And having told you that, I proceed to say that nowhere is that kind of thing more true than in this strange Confederate country in which we were born.

The celebrated Mr. Hemingway--why, the celebrated Mr. Hemingway is simply a schoolboy's dream of Spartacus backed up in Vesuvius before the implacable Roman legions sweeping in along the Capuan road from the Woman's Club at Oak Park, Ill. And Mr. Thomas Girdler, too, is obviously fixed in the Spartacus tradition. I'll lay you dollars to donuts that Thomas learned that act he put on last Summer exactly by declaiming the piece from a school rostrum. Just as I'll lay the same wager that Norman Thomas learned his turn out of Doc Ingersoll, and that Ham Fish--not to say Dave Clark--was brought up on the pieces about Major Arnold.

AND HAVING TOLD you that, I pass on to the first part of the blasphemy I have in mind. I tell you, that is, that nowhere in America is the sort of thing we are talking about so true as in this Confederate country in which we were born. Here we have what is probably the most heroic and the most sentimental country ever heard of on this rolling planet. A country so sentimental that, inventing a legend that it was aristocratic because two dozen old planters about the James and Potomac had got actually to be so, because some of its other planters got rich in the fifty years before the war, and because, above all, it needed a defense mechanism against the dreadful moral superiority of the Yankee anent slavery--a country so sentimental that, having invented that legend, it proceeded itself to believe it, and has kept on believing it ever since! A country so sentimental that it turned Southern Womanhood into a sort of amalgam of Helen and Athena and the hunting goddess of the Boeotian hill, and wept and yelled over her until she actually fell to believing it herself. A country so heroic that nobody can tell where fiction ends and fact begins in the "history" of the Civil War.

Ah, but all that is dead now, you think, and so I beat a dead horse. A plain, go-getting people, we are now, with a sense of dark reality and heroical. And for proof, you point me to our "new Southern literature?"

I deny it. I maintain that so to be forever and incurably set in the ancient pattern. And for proof--I cite exactly the new Southern literature just cited against me.

I am going to tell you then, that Mr. Faulkner is a direct descendent of George Washington Cable? I assure you that I am not going to tarry with such small game. Rather, straight along the Appian way I march and storm the citadel of Monument Avenue itself to hand out for your inspection the celebrated James Branch Cabell, hisself!

BUT NOW REALLY, I'm silly. "Brethren, we had better not be fastidious about silliness if we are going to deal with literature." I have heard, to be sure, that he is an Olympian poking sly fun at Dixie. I have heard, too, that he learned that curiously haunting style from Thomas Malory and the singers who went reeling along the roads of Provence toward Arles and Les Baux long ago. But to all that, I say, quite simply, nerts.

I know very well, to be sure, that he has been about the world, that he has read more or less in the medievalists, and that the world and the medievalists have entered into him--just as the greatly wise lingo of the Chicago news shops and the Italian army and the Spanish bull ring have entered into Mr. Hemingway. But--take down one of his volumes, and listen intently to the long slow flow of that style, the rich full cadences, the melancholy diving fall, and the sudden rising thunder.

I haven't a doubt of it, this man could have come from no country but the country he did come from. His like would have been impossible save in a country which, as I have said, is historically the most sentimental and the most heroic known to time. Save in the country which, right on down to fifteen years ago, had more literary societies and more young men hotly declaiming in them than all the rest of the world ever had since the Hyksos overwhelmed Memphis. In the country which bred the astounding William L. Yancey and the astounding Barnwell Rhett, not to say the astounding Clyde Roark Hoey. Yes, and the astounding Thomas Nelson Page.

Thomas Nelson Page--But Blase

That is it precisely. Cabell is the voice of his country, the voice of all its oratory and rhetoric, made conscious of itself in its gaucheries, trained and brought to seemliness, translated into genuine poetry instead of mere pinchbeck, but retaining still its authentic native ring. Yet more, Cabell is Thomas Nelson Page sophisticated, got into reverse, grown aware of the pattern, in which he stands laughing at it as one laughs in discovering that the curious-looking bozo with the shining bald head passing there in the show-window is one's self, but still not at all really escaping from it. And if you don't believe me, set the tales in which Marse Chan figures side-by-side with the tales in which Lord Jurgen figures. I promise you that you will find your eyes growing wet as often in the second case as in the first (presuming that you can still be moved by the first). And, as you'll discover if you're good at analysis, for reasons that underneath all the apparent differences in thought and approach, are fundamentally the same.

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