Monday, August 31, 2009

10 Books A Day: #131

All books are by James Branch Cabell and published by Robert M. McBride & Company.
Beyond Life
Figures Of Earth
The Silver Stallion
Domnei/The Music From Beyond The Moon
The Line Of Love
The High Place
Something About Eve
The Certain Hour
The Cords Of Vanity
From The Hidden Way/The Jewel Merchants
The Rivet In Grandfather's Neck
The Eagle's Shadow
The Cream Of The Jest/The Lineage Of Lichfield
Straws And Prayerbooks
Townsend Of Lichfield

James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) was an American writer from Richmond, Virginia, and an author of modest success until he was propelled into the limelight by having charges of obscenity levelled against his ninth novel, Jurgen. The notoriety that resulted gave an enormous boost to his sales, not only for Jurgen, but for all previous and subsequent books, and Cabell had to resign himself to being known as "the author of Jurgen." Although the court finally decided that the passages were too literary and ambiguous to be deemed indecent, the notoriety persisted. Cabell says he found himself importuned (by fans who could not distinguish between an author's work and his life) by young men with requests to be taught the Black Arts, and by young ladies with what he called "surprising suggestions."

Cabell enjoyed more than a faddish popularity, although the ballyhoo over the trial lent him much publicity. Mark Twain enjoyed his work, and indeed was reading Chivalry when he passed away. Critics and authors of the 1920's, among them H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Ellen Glasgow, and Theodore Dreiser (although themselves now something of a faded crew) praised his craft and significance. Even an obscure pulp writer named Robert E. Howard wrote an appreciative review of Something About Eve. Encroaching age and the onset of World War II put Cabell back on the back burner, although he continued to write almost until his death, producing several books on historical Florida, where he spent his last years. He died in 1958, a relic of a more elegant age, of little use to the writing establishment of a brutally practical post-war era.

But the connoisseurs and practitioners of fantastic literature have long memories. The influence of Cabell was seen and felt in the works of James Blish, Robert A. Heinlein, Fritz Lieber, Jack Vance, and Larry Niven. In the early Seventies Lin Carter introduced a new generation to Cabell's work by reprinting six of his novels in the Ballantine Books line of Adult Fantasy. This is where Neil Gaiman discovered him, and Cabell's style and themes can be seen throughout his work, especially in The Sandman and American Gods. It was the Adult Fantasy editions (under the new imprint of Del Rey Fantasy) that introduced me to Cabell in 1979 with The Silver Stallion.

Over the years I've developed a deepening interest in Cabell, picking up the odd volume here and there from used book stores, but always yearning for the complete Biography Of Manuel, as Cabell came to call the series of books linked by the lives of Manuel (the Count of Poictesme) and his heirs. These were gathered together and published in a uniform binding called the Storisende Edition, consisting of eighteen volumes, and released between 1927 and 1930 in limited numbers. This year I finally got an incomplete set (it lacks Beyond Life and Gallantry, which I was able to obtain in the slightly cheaper Kalki Editions) for about $200 (a complete set was going for about $500). These dark gray-green tomes now sit proudly on my shelves. Each is signed in pencil by James Branch Cabell, in small, neat letters. Some of these books have never been cut, so my eyes are the first in over eighty years to read them. Oddly enough, I'm finding the non-fantastic stories (like Townsend Of Lichfield and The Rivet In Grandfather's Neck) to be the most fascinating to read, both as a look at life in a small southern city at the turn of the century and as a sample of a style of writing now long extinct.

Book Count: 1562.

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