James Branch Cabell

James Branch Cabell

Infobox Writer
name = James Branch Cabell

caption = "James Branch Cabell photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1935."
birthdate = April 14, 1879
birthplace = Richmond, Virginia
deathdate = May 5, 1958
deathplace =
life =
occupation = Author
movement =
genre = Fantasy fiction
notableworks =
influences =
influenced =

James Branch Cabell (April 14, 1879 - May 5, 1958) was an American author of fantasy fiction and belles lettres.


Cabell was born and lived most of his life in Richmond, Virginia; though he wintered in Florida until the death of his first wife in 1949, and eventually retired there.

Cabell was born into an affluent and well-connected Virginian family. While Cabell's surname is often mispronounced "Ka-BELL", he himself pronounced it "CAB-ble". To remind an editor of the correct pronunciation, Cabell composed this rhyme: "Tell the rabble my name is Cabell." His father, Robert Gamble Cabell II (1847–1922), was a physician, and his mother, Anne Harris (1859–1915), was the daughter of Col. and Mrs James R. Branch. Cabell's paternal great-grandfather, William H. Cabell, was governor of Virginia from 1805 to 1808. Cabell was the oldest of three boys — his brothers were Robert Gamble Cabell III (1881–1968) and John Lottier Cabell (1883–1946). His parents separated and were later divorced in 1907." [http://www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/exhibit/cabell/jbcbio.html James Branch Cabell] ", Virginia Commonwealth University Library, Special Collections. Retrieved on 2007-09-10.]

He matriculated to the College of William and Mary in 1894 at the age of fifteen and graduated in 1898. While an undergraduate, Cabell taught French and Greek at the College. According to his close friend and fellow author Ellen Glasgow, Cabell developed a friendship with a professor at the college which was considered by some to be "too intimate" and as a result Cabell was dismissed, although he was subsequently readmitted and finished his degree." [http://www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/exhibit/friends1.html Friends and Rivals: James Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow] ", Virginia Commonwealth University, Special Collections. Retrieved on 2007-09-10.]

He worked from 1898 to 1900 as a newspaper reporter in New York City, but returned to Richmond in 1901, where he worked several months on the staff of the "Richmond News".

1901 was an eventful year for Cabell: his first stories were accepted for publication, and he was suspected of the murder of John Scott, a wealthy Richmonder. It was rumored that Scott was "involved" with Cabell's mother. Cabell's supposed involvement in the Scott murder and his college "scandal" were both mentioned in Ellen Glasgow's posthumously published (1954) autobiography "The Woman Within".

In 1902, seven of his first stories appeared in national magazines and over the next decade he wrote many short stories and articles, contributing to nationally published magazines including "Harper's Monthly Magazine" and the "Saturday Evening Post", as well as carrying out extensive research on his family's genealogy.

Between 1911 and 1913, he was employed by his uncle in the office of the Branch coalmines in West Virginia. On November 8, 1913, he married Priscilla Bradley Shepherd, a widow with five children by her previous marriage. In 1915 a son, Ballard Hartwell Cabell, was born. Priscilla died in March 1949; Cabell remarried in June 1950 to Margaret Waller Freeman.

During his life, Cabell published fifty-two books, including novels, genealogy, collections of short stories, poetry, and miscellanea. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1937. Today, the modern languages house and an endowed law professorship at the College of William and Mary are named in his honor.

Cabell died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

In 1970, Virginia Commonwealth University, also located in Richmond, named its main campus library "James Branch Cabell Library" in his honor. In the 1970s Cabell's library and personal papers were moved from his home on Monument Avenue to the James Branch Cabell Library. Consisting of some 3,000 volumes, the collection includes manuscripts, notebooks and scrapbooks, periodicals in which Cabell's essays, reviews and fiction were published, his correspondence with noted writers including H.L. Mencken, Ellen Glasgow, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser, correspondence with family, friends, editors and publishers, newspaper clippings, photographs, periodicals, criticisms, printed material, publishers' agreements and statements of sales." [http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaead/published/vcu-cab/vircu00065.scopecontent A Guide to the James Branch Cabell Papers, 1860s-1960s", James Branch Cabell Library. Retrieved on 2007-09-10]

The VCU undergraduate literary journal at the university is named Poictesme after the fictional province in his novel "Jurgen".



Cabell's eighth (and best-known) book, "Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice" (1919), was the subject of a celebrated obscenity case shortly after its publication. The eponymous hero, who considers himself a "monstrous clever fellow", embarks on a journey through ever more fantastic realms, even to hell and heaven. Everywhere he goes, he winds up seducing the local women, even the Devil's wife.

The novel was denounced by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice; they attempted to bring a prosecution for obscenity. The case went on for two years before Cabell and his publishers won: the "indecencies" were double entendres that also had a perfectly decent interpretation, though it appeared that what had actually offended the prosecution most was a joke about papal infallibility.

The presiding judge, Charles C. Nott, wrote in his decision that "...the most that can be said against the book is that certain passages therein may be considered suggestive in a veiled and subtle way of immorality, but such suggestions are delicately conveyed" and that because of Cabell's writing style "...it is doubtful if the book could be read or understood at all by more than a very limited number of readers."

Cabell took an author's revenge: the revised edition of 1926 included a previously "lost" passage in which the hero is placed on trial by the Philistines, with a large dung-beetle as the chief prosecutor. He also wrote a short book, "Taboo", in which he thanks John H. Sumner and the Society for Suppression of Vice for generating the publicity that gave his career a boost.

Due to the notoriety of the suppression of "Jurgen", Cabell became a figure of international fame. In the early 1920s he became the leader of a group of writers known as "The James Branch Cabell School", which included such figures as H.L. Mencken, Carl Van Vechten and Elinor Wylie.

The Biography of Manuel

"See main article The Biography of Manuel".

Other works by Cabell on themes related to those of "Jurgen" include "Figures of Earth", which tells the story of Manuel the swineherd, a scoundrel who rises to conquer a realm by playing on others' expectations - his motto Mundus Vult Decipi, meaning "the world wishes to be deceived".

"The Silver Stallion" is a loose sequel to "Figures of Earth" that deals with the creation of the legend of Manuel the Redeemer, in which Manuel is pictured as an infallible hero, an example to which all others should aspire; but some of the former knights of Manuel have not yet died, and remember how things really were.

All of these books are part of "The Biography of Manuel", the story of Dom Manuel and his descendants through many generations. Cabell stated that he considered the "Biography" to be a single work, and supervised its publication in a single uniform edition of 18 volumes, known as the "Storisende Edition", published from 1927 to 1930. A number of the volumes of the Biography were also published in editions illustrated by Frank C. Papé between 1921 and 1926.

Many of these books take place in the fictional country eventually ruled by Manuel, known as "Poictesme", (pronounced "pwa-tem"). It was the author's intention to situate Poictesme roughly in the south of France. The name suggests the two real French cities of Poitiers (medieval Poictiers) and Angoulême (medieval Angoulesme). Several others take place in the fictional town of Lichfield, Virginia.

After concluding the "Biography" in 1932, Cabell shortened his pen name to "Branch Cabell". The "truncated" name was used for all his new, "post-"Biography" publications until the printing of "There Were Two Pirates" (1946).


Though Cabell is best known as a fantasist, the plots and characters of his first few novels, "The Eagle's Shadow" (1904), "The Cords of Vanity" (1909), and "The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck" (1915), (later all adapted for inclusion into the "Biography") do not wander out of the everyday society of Virginia's beleaguered gentry. But Cabell's signature droll style is clearly in evidence, and in later printings each book would bear a characteristically Cabellian subtitle: "A Comedy of Purse-Strings", "A Comedy of Shirking", and "A Comedy of Limitations", respectively.

His later novel, "The First Gentleman of America: A Comedy of Conquest" (1942), retells the strange career of an American Indian from the shores of the Potomac who sailed away with Spanish explorers, later to return, be made chief of his tribe, and kill all the Spaniards in the new Virginia settlement. Cabell delivered a more concise, historical treatment of the novel's events in "The First Virginian", part one of his 1947 work of non-fiction, "Let Me Lie", a book on the history of Virginia.

Other works include:

* "The Nightmare Has Triplets" (trilogy comprising "Smirt" (1934), "Smith" (1935), and "Smire" (1937))
* The "Heirs and Assigns" trilogy, comprising "Hamlet Had an Uncle" (1940), "The King Was in His Counting House" (1938), ad "The First Gentleman of America" (1942)
* The "It Happenedin Florida" trilogy, comprising "The St. Johns" (written in collaboration with A. J. Hanna), "There Were Two Pirates" (1946), and "The Devil's Own Dear Son" (1949)
* "Anecdotia Americana" (with introduction by J. Mortimer Hall)

Cabell also wrote a number of autobiographical and genealogical works.


Cabell's work was thought of very highly by a number of his peers, including Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, Joseph Hergesheimer, and Jack Woodford. When Twain died he was reading Cabell's "Chivalry". And although now largely forgotten by the general public, his work was remarkably influential on later authors of fantastic fiction.

Cabell maintained a close and lifelong friendship with well-known Richmond writer Ellen Glasgow, whose house on West Main St was only a few blocks from Cabell's family home on East Franklin St. They corresponded extensively between 1923 and Glasgow's death in 1945 and over 200 of their letters survive. Cabell dedicated his 1927 novel "Something About Eve" to her, and she in turn she dedicated her book "They Stooped to Folly: A Comedy of Morals" (1929) to Cabell. In her autobiography, Glasgow also gave considerable thanks to Cabell for his help in the editing of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book "In This Our Life" (1941). However, late in their lives, friction developed between the two writers as a result of Cabell's critical 1943 review of Glasgow's novel "A Certain Measure".

James Blish was a fan of his works, and for a time edited Kalki, the journal of the Cabell Society.

Robert A. Heinlein was greatly inspired by his boldness, and originally described his famous book "Stranger in a Strange Land" as "a Cabellesque satire", and a later work, "Job, A Comedy of Justice" (with the title derived from "Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice"), features, like "Jurgen", an appearance of the Slavic god Koschei.Patterson, Bill. " [http://www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/exhibit/cabell/prize3.html Bill The Heir of James Branch Cabell: The Biography of the Life of the Biography of the Life of Manuel (A Comedy of Inheritances)] ". Retrieved on 2007-09-10.]

Fritz Leiber's "Swords of Lankhmar" was also influenced by "Jurgen". Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" books show considerable stylistic resemblances to Cabell; Cugel the Clever in those books bears a strong resemblance, not least in his opinion of himself, to Jurgen.

Cabell was also a major influence on Neil Gaiman, [http://www.neilgaiman.com/journal/2004/10/novelisting.asp Neil Gaiman's Journal: Novelisting] ] acknowledged as such in the rear of Gaiman's novels "Stardust" and "American Gods". This thematic and stylistic influence is highly evident in the multi-layered pantheons of Gaiman's most famous work, "The Sandman", which have many parallels in Cabell's work, particularly "Jurgen".

There are also references to Cabell himself in the works of many other fantasy and science fiction authors. For example, the "Leshy Circuit" stories by Larry Niven feature planets and places whose names are taken from Cabell, and his protagonist in "A World Out of Time" is named Jerome Branch Corbell. H. Beam Piper also used names from Cabell for some of his invented planets.

From 1969 through 1972, the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series returned six of Cabell's novels to print, and elevated his profile in the fantasy genre. Today, many more of his works are available from Wildside Press.


Michael Swanwick published a critical monograph on Cabell's work, [ Swanwick, Michael, "What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage?", Temporary Culture, Upper Montclair, N.J., 2007 (ISBN 978-0-9764660-3-1) 2007 ] which argues for the continued value of a few of Cabell's works — notably "Jurgen", "The Cream of the Jest" and "The Silver Stallion" — while acknowledging that much of his writing has dated badly. Swanwick places much of the blame for Cabell's obscurity on Cabell himself, for authorising the 18-volume Storisende uniform edition of the "Biography of Dom Manuel", including much that was of poor quality and ephemeral. This alienated admirers and scared off potential new readers. "There are, alas, an infinite number of ways for a writer to destroy himself," Swanwick wrote. "James Branch Cabell chose one of the more interesting. Standing at the helm of the single most successful literary career of any fantasist of the twentieth century, he drove the great ship of his career straight and unerringly onto the rocks."

Other studies on Cabell were written during his lifetime by Hugh Walpole, [Walpole, Hugh, "The Art of James Branch Cabell", New York, 1920] , W. A. McNeill [ McNeill, W. A., "Cabellian Harmonics", Random House, New York, 1928] , and Carl van Doren. [Van Doren, Carl, "James Branch Cabell", New York, 1925]


*"The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true." -- Coth in Cabell, "The Silver Stallion"
*"...when I have been telling you, from alpha to omega, what is the one great thing the sigil taught me—that everything in life is miraculous. For the sigil taught me that it rests within the power of each of us to awaken at will from a dragging nightmare of life made up of unimportant tasks and tedious useless little habits, to see life as it really is, and to rejoice in its exquisite wonderfulness. If the sigil were proved to be the top of a tomato-can, it would not alter that big fact, nor my fixed faith. No Harrowby, the common names we call things by do not matter—except to show how very dull we are," - James Branch Cabell, "The Cream of the Jest"
*"In the early part of the 20th century, there was a fantasy writer named James Branch Cabell who had a theory of writing as magic. His books (highly recommended, especially "Jurgen") are both funny and mythological... and it's easy to see how his process of creating characters was really a process of evocation and invocation." - Philip H. Farber
*"Once we understand the fundamentals of Mr. Cabell's artistic aims, it is not easy to escape the fact that in "Figures of Earth" he undertook the staggering and almost unsuspected task of rewriting humanity's sacred books, just as in "Jurgen" he gave us a stupendous analogue of the ceaseless quest for beauty. For we must accept the truth that Mr. Cabell is not a novelist at all in the common acceptance of the term, but a historian of the human soul. His books are neither documentary nor representational; his characters are symbols of human desires and motives. By the not at all simple process of recording faithfully the projections of his rich and varied imagination, he has written thirteen books, which he accurately terms biography, wherein is the bitter-sweet truth about human life." - Burton Rascoe
*"I have finished "Jurgen"; a great and beautiful book, and the saddest book I ever read. I don't know why, exactly. The book hurts me - tears me to small pieces - but somehow it sets me free. It says the word that I've been trying to pronounce for so long. It tells me everything I am, and have been, and may be, unsparingly... I don't know why I cry over it so much. It's too - something-or-other - to stand. I've been sitting here tonight, reading it aloud, with the tears streaming down my face..." --Deems Taylor, Letter to Mary Kennedy, 12 December 1920
*"...For a book, once it is printed and published, becomes individual. It is by its publication as decisively severed from its author as in parturition a child is cut off from its parent. The book 'means' thereafter, perforce,—both grammatically and actually,—whatever meaning this or that reader gets out of it." - James Branch Cabell, "A Note on Cabellian Harmonics" in "Cabellian Harmonics", April 1928


*Brewer, Frances Joan (intr. by James Branch Cabell), "James Branch Cabell: A Bibliography of his Writings, Biography and Criticism" (2 vols.), University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 1957

External links

;James Branch Cabell
* [http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9018438/James-Branch-Cabell Encyclopaedia Britannica]
* [http://www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/exhibit/cabell/jbclife.html James Branch Cabell Library] (Virginia Commonwealth University)
* [http://poictesme.vcustudentmedia.com Poictesme, Virginia Commonwealth University's literary journal]

;Cabell works online
* [http://www.litrix.com/domnei/domne001.htm Domnei] (Litrix Reading Room)
* [http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/CABELL/title.htm Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice] (University of Virginia)
* [http://www.uwm.edu/~mrdunn/cream.frames/cframes.html The Cream of The Jest] (University of Wisconsin)

* [http://www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/exhibit/cabell/jbcbib.html Chronology of James Branch Cabell's Published Works]

;Fan sites
* [http://users.aol.com/s6sj7gt/mikecab.htm James Branch Cabell]
* [http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/1460/mundus.html Mundus Vult Decipi]

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  • James Branch Cabell — (* 14. April 1879, Richmond (Virginia); † 5. Mai 1958 ebenda) war ein US amerikanischer Autor. Inhaltsverzeichnis 1 Biographie 2 Die Chroniken von Poictesme 3 Jürgen …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • James Branch Cabell — noun United States writer of satirical novels (1879 1958) • Syn: ↑Cabell • Instance Hypernyms: ↑writer, ↑author …   Useful english dictionary

  • Cabell,James Branch — Cab·ell (kăbʹəl), James Branch. 1879 1958. American writer best known for a series of satirical novels, including Jurgen (1919), set in a fictitious medieval French province called Poictesme. * * * …   Universalium

  • Cabell, James Branch — born April 14, 1879, Richmond, Va., U.S. died May 5, 1958, Richmond U.S. writer. Cabell attacked American orthodoxies and institutions in his best known novel, Jurgen (1919), a story replete with sexual symbolism. His other works, many of them… …   Universalium

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  • Cabell — /kab euhl/, n. James Branch 1879 1958, U.S. novelist, essayist, and critic. * * * (as used in expressions) Breckinridge John Cabell Cabell James Branch Cabell Calloway III * * * …   Universalium