The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, JUNE 20, 1937
Poictesme For The Pious:
Jurgen In The South
--A Note On Cabell, By W. J. Cash
Site Editor's Note: To read biographical information on James Branch Cabell, one of Cash's favorite twentieth century authors, as well as access links to complete online versions of Jurgen, The Cream of the Jest, (the latter being one we highly recommend), That Certain Hour, and other one-time controversial writings by Cabell, go to Virginia Commonwealth University. We also recommend Beyond Life, though no online version appears to exist at present.
WHEN I was a collegian back in the 1920's, I used at intervals, over a period of four years, to pass a bookshop located some 200 miles south of that Monument Avenue which, as literate persons know, trails through the unstoried town of Richmond in Virginia. And for three of those years I watched a copy of "The Cream of the Jest," from the hand of the principal resident of the said Monument Avenue, steadfastly acquire a patina of flyspecks in the window, until at last it was a sort of solid scab of flyspecking, a revolting motteled surface of dirty black and brown, like something out of a particularly unlovely dream.
The book obsessed me a little in the end. I felt sorry about it, precisely as I should have felt had I seen a fine gem left to roll in the gutter. I was tempted to buy it more than once, but I really had my copy of the thing, and I had few dollars to spare. I thought about writing to Cabell to suggest that he himself ought to rescue it, but forbore having already guessed that authors naturally hate persons to write letters which they feel in common politeness bound to answer, and having guessed, too, that no sense of humor is equal to being advised to buy back one's own books. And so I went on month by month watching the thing with a sort of fateful fascination, with the steadily gathering conviction that it was fixed there forever irrevocably, held fast in the grip of destiny, like earth which only God can move from its orbit--until at last on a white and yellow day in April, when the mortar board was almost on my head, I passed and found it miraculously vanished, and heard from the sad-eyed old proprietor that it had gone into the claws of a sort of literary scavenger for the great sum of 75 cents.
UNREAD BY THE SOUTH
I set the tale down here as a sort of diagram of Cabell's fate in Dixie. By long odds the most eminent of Southern writers, he is probably the least read by Southerners. Why that should be I don't certainly know, but thinking on it casually, I can see several reasons the recording of which might not too utterly waste printer's ink.
One of them is simply that he offends our sentimental and over-nice Southern Puritanism. I know various people who in general exhibit all the signs of normal intelligence but who tell me that he strikes them as simply telling smoking room stories in somewhat over-fancy prose. I suppose they are talking about such delicious passages as that between Jurgen and the hamadryad, Chloris, anent that most marvelous staff which Jurgen indubitably and on the best historical authority carried, and that which transpired between the Chevalier de Puysange and a maid upon the road to Storisende, anent that exactly similar staff which he also indubitably carried. I know damn well, indeed, that it is of such passages they are talking. I know well also that, though it is exactly as though one set the Mediciean Venus in the category of French postcards, it is useless to argue. These people simply will have nothing of the indubitable and the best historical authority. They are shocked--a good deal more shocked than they would be by "Fanny Hill"--and so Mr. Cabell goes unread.
Yet again, this Mr. Cabell is not only suspected of being a bawdy fellow, he is suspect of what is worse, of being a subversive one.
"But that," said Perion, "is nonsense."
"Of course it is," said Horvendile. "That is probably why it happens."
It is not of record, I believe, that the human race in general is critically fond of such dangerous utterances as that, and certainly there is overwhelmingly good evidence that the South isn't fond of them. We like a man, in these parts, who speaks after the pattern of what we all very well know, and beyond peradventure, to be the way every good and decent man ought to speak. We don't like paradoxes and cleverness and questioning and wondering.
And another thing we don't like is melancholy. We never did like it much and and we like it even less now that industry and commerce have come along among us. And this Cabell deals always in the long, dying fall of life, lets you hear behind the sighs of his lovers and the coming of stealthy-footed death.
And yet another thing which we abhor even above the human race is irony. We like a man to speak direct to the point, to say what he means, though it be nothing--though in so many cases it is nothing. Indeed, we love no man so much as that one who says nothing always, plainly and beautifully. But Cabell, he is not only suspected of laughing at the human race, he is suspected of laughing at the South itself. It is a treason we have never tolerated and probably never will. Besides, it bewilders us a little.
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