George Washington Cable: as American Novelist

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      George Washington Cable is of Virginia and New England stock, but he was born in New Orleans in 1844, and called this beautiful city his home until 1884, when he moved to Connecticut. The following year he selected Northampton, Massachusetts, as a permanent residence. He was but fourteen when his father died, leaving the family in straitened circumstances. The boy thereupon left school and went to work. Four years later he entered the Confederate army. So youthful was his appearance, that a planter, catching sight of him, exclaimed, "Great heavens! Abe Lincoln told the truth. We are robbing the cradle and the grave!" He served two years in the southern army, and after the war returned penniless to his native city. His efforts to find employment are described in his most realistic novel, Dr. Sevier. He was a surveyor, a clerk to cotton merchants, and a reporter on the New Orleans Picayune; but his tastes were literary, and after the publication in 1879 of a volume of short stories, Old Creole Days, his attention was turned wholly to literature.

George Washington Cable Literary Contribution as American Novelist
George Washington Cable

      Cable's Old Creole Days is a collection of picturesque short stories of the romantic Creoles of New Orleans. Jean-ah-Poquelin, the story of an old recluse, is most artistically told. There are few incidents; Cable merely describes the former roving life of Jean, tells how suddenly it stopped, how he never again left the old home where he and an African mute lived, and how Jean's younger brother mysteriously disappeared, and the suspicion of his murder rested upon Jean's shoulders. The explanation of these points is unfolded by hints, conjectures, and rare glimpses into the Poquelin grounds at night, and finally by an impressive but simple description of Jean's funeral, at which the terrible secret is completely revealed. The deftest and finest touch of an artist is seen in the working out of this pathetic story.

      Madame Delphine, now included in the volume Old Creole Days, is equally the product of a refined art. Here is shown the anguish of a quadroon mother who turns frantically from one to another for help to save her beautiful child, the ivory-tinted daughter of the South. When every one fails, the mother heart makes one grand sacrifice by which the end is gained, and she dies at the foot of the altar in an agony of remorse and love. The beautiful land of flowers, the jasmine-scented night of the South, the poetic chivalry of a proud, high-souled race are painted vividly in this idyllic story. Its people are not mortals, its beauty is not of earth, but, like the carved characters on Keats's Grecian urn, they have immortal youth and cannot change. Keats could have said to the lovers in Madame Delphine, as to his own upon the vase:— "Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!"

      Cable's best long works are The Grandissimes (1880), Dr. Sevier (1884), and Bonaventure, a Prose Pastoral of Arcadian Louisiana (1888). Of these three, The Grandissimes is easily first in merit. It is a highly romantic work, full of dramatic episodes, and replete with humor. The abundance and variety of interesting characters in this romance evidence the great fertility and power of invention possessed by Cable. First of all, there is the splendid Creole, Honore' Grandissime, the head of the family,—a man who sees far into the future, and places his trust in the young American republic. Combating the narrow prejudices of his family, he leads them in spite of themselves to riches and honor. Opposing him in family counsels is his uncle, Agricola Fusilier, the brave, blustering, fire-eating reactionary. There is also the beautiful quadroon, Palmyre Philosophe. The "united grace and pride of her movement was inspiring, but—what shall we say?—feline? It was a femininity without humanity,—something that made her, with all her superbness, a creature that one would want to find chained." Beside her are the dwarf Congo woman and Clemence, the sharp-tongued negress, who sells her wares in the streets and sends her bright retorts back to the young bloods who taunt her. There is Bras Coupe', the savage slave, who had once been a chief in Africa and who fights like a fiend against enslavement, blights the broad acres with his curse, lives an exile in snake-infested swamps, and finally meets a most tragic fate. These unusual and somewhat sensational characters give high color, warmth, and variety to the romance. The two exquisite Creole women, Aurora and her daughter, Clotilde, are a triumph of delicate characterization, being at one and the same time winning, lovable, illogical, innocent, capable, and noble. The love scene in which Aurora says "no," while she means "yes," and is not taken at her word, is as delicious a bit of humor and sentiment as there is in modern fiction. In neither Dr. Sevier nor Bonaventure are there the buoyancy, vital interest, and unity of impression of The Grandissimes, which is one of the artistic products of American novelists. Cable may not have rendered the Creole character exactly true to life; but he has in a measure done for these high-spirited, emotional, brave people what Irving did for the Knickerbockers of New York and what Hawthorne did for the Puritan.

      Cable has also given graphic pictures of New Orleans. His poetic powers of description enabled him to make the picturesque streets, the quaint interiors, the swamps, bayous, forests, and streams very vivid realities to his readers. He has warmth of feeling and a most refined and subtle humor. His scenes are sometimes blood-curdling, his characters unusual, and the deeds described sensational; but in his best work, his manner is so quiet, his English so elegant, and his treatment so poetic, that the effect is never crude or harsh, but always mild and harmonious.

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