James Branch Cabell

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James Branch Cabell

James Branch Cabell (1879 – 1958) was an American writer. He wrote fantasy fiction. His name is pronounced "CAB-ble".

Life[change | change source]

Cabell was born and lived most of his life in Richmond, Virginia. He spent the winters in Florida until the death of his first wife in 1949. He retired in Florida.

Cabell was born into a rich Virginian family. His father, Robert Gamble Cabell II (1847–1922), was a physician. His mother, Anne Harris (1859–1915), was the daughter of Col. and Mrs James R. Branch. Cabell's 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.[1]

He went to the College of William and Mary in 1894 at the age of fifteen. He graduated in 1898. While an undergraduate, Cabell taught French and Greek at the college. Ellen Glasgow, a writer and close friend of Cabell said that he had a friendship with a professor at the college which some people thought was "too intimate". Because of this, Cabell had to leave the college. He was later allowed back and finished his degree.[2]

Cabell worked from 1898 to 1900 as a newspaper reporter in New York City. He returned to Richmond in 1901. In Richmond, he worked several months for the Richmond News.[1]

Many things happened to Cabell in 1901. His first stories were accepted for publication. It was believed for a short time that Cabell murdered John Scott, a rich person in Richmond. There was a rumor that Scott was "involved" with Cabell's mother.[2]

In 1902, seven of his stories appeared in national magazines. Over the ten years, he wrote many short stories and articles. These were published in well-known magazines including Harper's Monthly Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post.[1]

Between 1911 and 1913, he worked for his uncle in the office of the Branch coal mines in West Virginia. On November 8, 1913, he married Priscilla Bradley Shepherd. She was a widow with five children from an earlier marriage.[1] In 1915, Priscilla gave birth to a son, Ballard Hartwell Cabell. Priscilla died in March of 1949. In June 1950, Cabell married Margaret Waller Freeman.

During his life, Cabell published fifty-two books. These included 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 for him.

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

In 1970, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond named its main campus library "James Branch Cabell Library". In the 1970s, Cabell's library and personal papers were moved from his home on Monument Avenue to the James Branch Cabell Library. The collection includes some 3,000 volumes, manuscripts, notebooks and scrapbooks, periodicals, letters (including conversations with noted writers such as H.L. Mencken, Ellen Glasgow, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser), newspaper clippings, photographs, criticisms, printed material, publishers' agreements and statements of sales.[3]

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

Works[change | change source]

Cabell published about fifty books. Most of these are not well known. His eighth book, Jurgen, (1919) was the most popular. The hero, Jurgen, goes on a journey through ever more fantastic places. He even goes to hell and heaven. Everywhere he goes, he seduces the local women, even the Devil's wife.

The book was seen as being bad by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. They tried to bring a prosecution for obscenity. The case went on for two years before Cabell and his publishers won. Many of the things in the book were double entendres. They had one meaning which was bad and also had a decent meaning. It appeared that what had actually offended the prosecution most was a joke about papal infallibility. Cabell took an author's revenge. The new edition of 1926 included a 'lost' section which was not in the earlier version. In it, the hero is put on trial by the Philistines. A large dung beetle is the chief prosecutor.

Other works include Figures of Earth. This introduces Manuel the Redeemer. He took control of a realm by playing on others' expectations. His motto is Mundus Vult Decipi. This means 'the world wishes to be deceived'. The Silver Stallion is a sequel. It deals with the adventures of the knights in Manuel's company after he left them.

Cabell is now forgotten by most people but his work affected later writers of fantasy fiction. Robert Heinlein's Job, A comedy of Justice has an appearance of the Slavic god Koschei (from Jurgen). Fritz Leiber's Swords of Lankhmar was also affected by Jurgen. Jack Vance's Dying Earth books show a similar style to Cabell's writing. Cugel the Clever in those books is very similar to Jurgen.

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "James Branch Cabell Archived 2007-04-15 at the Wayback Machine", Virginia Commonwealth University Library, Special Collections. Retrieved on 2007-09-10.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Friends and Rivals: James Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow Archived 2011-11-27 at the Wayback Machine", Virginia Commonwealth University, Special Collections. Retrieved on 2007-09-10.
  3. ""A Guide to the James Branch Cabell Papers, 1860s-1960s", James Branch Cabell Library. Retrieved on 2007-09-10". Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2008-01-08.

Other websites[change | change source]

James Branch Cabell
Cabell works online