The Cabell Scene by Robert H. Canary is an academic treatise from the late 70s on the major works of James Branch Cabell, a writer whom I have an inordinate fondness for and whom, in some form or another, will be infused into the book I am currently slaving away on. Canary’s theme is that Cabell had two methods by which he attacked his subject–the pursuit of love: either through humor, as in his earlier work, or through derision, which most of his later work took form. The two are connected, and although Canary does a good job of making the distinction, the best part of this book is actually Canary’s ability to illustrate some of the obscure issues in Cabell’s work, and that is why I picked it up. Cabell was a master of obscurity with a purpose–he played games with the reader, using other languages, anagrams, metaphor, simile, etc. to sometimes hide his “true meaning.” So much so that, in his most famous work, Jurgen, he was called a pornographic writer and the book and publisher were brought to trial by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. (In Jurgen, a sword could be more than a sword, and a lance could be more than a lance, but by today’s standards, this is mighty tame stuff, as the reader must make the connections and use their imagination–the only author I can think of who used the same technique in modern time was Robert Anton Wilson in one of the Schrodinger’s Cat books to replace all references to sexual genitalia and actions with Supreme Court justices: to this day, I can’t think of Potter Stewart without a certain image coming to mind.)
I’m more familiar with the volumes that make up the Biography of the Life of Manuel, so Canary’s discussion of the 1930s trilogy, The Nightmare Has Triplets, and the 1940s trilogy, Heirs and Assigns, was extremely useful to gaining more of an understanding and appreciation of Cabell’s post-Biography work. In many ways, he became disillusioned following the heady success, and problems, that the notoriety of Jurgen brought him. The 1920s, in the 1930s, was considered the Cabell decade by many literature critics; by the 1940s, he had almost been totally forgotten. Never to let reality pass by without incorporating it into his work, the later novels are both bitter and bittersweet, as he struggled with that loss of fame and following. Thus, as Canary says, humor switches to derision, where Cabell had trouble laughing with life, but would rather laugh at it. Cabell reserved his jibes for the “typically Meckenian targets as patriotism, Philistinism, Puritanism, Prohibition, and preachers”–targets as ripe for jousting as today.
Is this something you need to read? No, not unless you are a scholar of the literature of the 1920s or a novelist intending to set his book in that time, with themes that touch on the “New South” and prohibition. If so, this can provide an interesting glance into one particularly urbane commentator of that society’s mores.