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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
George Washington Cable (1844–1925)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
PERHAPS the first intimation given to the world of a literary and artististic awakening in the Southern States of America after the Civil War, was the appearance in Scribner’s Magazine of a series of short stories, written by an unknown and hitherto untried hand, and afterward collected and republished in ‘Old Creole Days.’ This was long before the vogue of the short story, and that the publication of these tales was regarded as a literary event in those days is sufficient testimony to their power.  1
  They were fresh, full of color and poetic feeling—romantic with the romance that abounds in the life they portrayed, redolent of indigenous perfumes,—magnolia, lemon, orange, and myrtle, mingled with French exotics of the boudoir,—interpretive in these qualities, through a fine perception, of a social condition resulting from the transplanting to a semi-tropical soil of a conservative, wealthy, and aristocratic French community. Herein lay much of their most inviting charm; but more than this, they were racy with twinkling humor, tender with a melting pathos, and intensely dramatic.  2
  An intermixture of races with strong caste prejudices, and a time of revolution and change, present eminently the condition and the moment for the romance. And when added to this, he finds to his hand an almost tropical setting, and so picturesque a confusion of liquid tongues as exists in the old Franco-Spanish-Afro-Italian-American city of New Orleans, there would seem to be nothing left to be desired as “material.” The artist who seized instinctively this opportunity was born at New Orleans on October 12th, 1844, of colonial Virginia stock on the one side, and New England on the other. His early life was full of vicissitudes, and he was over thirty before he discovered story-telling to be his true vocation. From that time he has diligently followed it, having published three novels, ‘The Grandissimes,’ ‘Dr. Sevier,’ ‘Bonaventure,’ and ‘John March, Southerner,’ besides another volume of short stories.  3
  That having received his impressions in the period of transition and ferment following the upheaval of 1861–1865, with the resulting exaggerations and distortions of a normal social condition, he chose to lay his scenes a half-century earlier, proclaims him still more the artist; who would thus gain a freer play of fancy and a surer perspective, and who, saturated with his subject, is not afraid to trust his imagination to interpret it.  4
  That he saw with open sympathetic eyes and a loving heart, he who runs may read in any chance page that a casual opening of his books will reveal. That the people whom he has so affectionately depicted have not loved him in return, is perhaps only a corroboration of his own words when he wrote, in his charming tale ‘Belles Demoiselles Plantation,’ “The Creoles never forgive a public mention.” That they are tender of heart, sympathetic, and generous in their own social and domestic relations, Mr. Cable’s readers cannot fail to know. But the caste line has ever been a dangerous boundary—a live wire charged with a deadly if invisible fluid—and he is a brave man who dares lay his hand upon it.  5
  More than this, the old-time Creole was an aristocrat who chose to live behind a battened door, as does his descendant to-day. His privacy, so long undisturbed, has come to be his prerogative. Witness this spirit in the protest of the inimitable Jean-ah Poquelin—the hero giving his name to one of the most dramatic stories ever penned—when he presents himself before the American governor of Louisiana to declare that he will not have his privacy invaded by a proposed street to pass his door:—“I want you tell Monsieur le President, strit—can’t—pass—at—me—’ouse.” The Creoles of Mr. Cable’s generation are as jealous of their retirement as was the brave old man Poquelin; and to have it invaded by a young American who not only threw their pictures upon his canvas, but standing behind it, reproduced their eccentricities of speech for applauding Northern audiences, was a crime unforgivable in their moral code.  6
  Added to this, Mr. Cable stands accused of giving the impression that the Louisiana Creole is a person of African taint; but are there not many refutations of this charge in the internal evidence of his work? As for instance where in ‘The Grandissimes’ he writes, “His whole appearance was a dazzling contradiction of the notion that a Creole is a person of mixed blood”; and again when he alludes to “the slave dialect,” is the implication not unequivocal that this differed from the speech of the drawing-room? It is true that he found many of his studies in the Quadroon population, who spoke a patois that was partly French; but such was the “slave dialect” of the man of color who came into his English through a French strain, or perhaps only through a generation of close French environment.  7
  A civilization that is as protective in its conservatism as are the ten-foot walls of brick with which its people surround their luxurious dwellings may be counted on to resent portrayal at short range, even though it were unequivocally eulogistic. That Mr. Cable is a most conscientious artist, and that he has been absolutely true to the letter as he saw it, there can be no question; but whether his technical excellences are always broadly representative or not is not so certain. That the writer who has so amply proven his own joy in the wealth of his material, should have been beguiled by its picturesqueness into a partisanship for the class making a special appeal, is not surprising. But truth in art is largely a matter of selection; and if Mr. Cable has sinned in the gleaning, it was undoubtedly because of visual limitation, rather than a conscious discrimination.  8
  In ‘The Grandissimes,’ his most ambitious work, we have an important contribution to representative literature. In the pleasant guise of his fascinating fiction he has essayed the history of a civilization, and in many respects the result is a great book. That such a work should attain its highest merit in impartial truth when taken as a whole, goes without saying.  9
  The dramatic story of Bras Coupé is true as belonging to the time and the situation. So is that of Palmyrea the Octoroon, or of Honoré Grandissime’s “f. m. c.” the half-brother, or of the pitiful voudou woman Clemence, the wretched old marchande de calas. Had he produced nothing more than his first small volume of seven tales, he would have made for himself an honored place in literature. As a collection, these stories are unrivaled for pictorial power and dramatic form, and are so nearly of equal merit that any one would be as representative in the popular mind as the one which is given here.  10
  Since 1886 Mr. Cable has resided in Northampton, Massachusetts. His later publications include ‘The Cavalier’ (1901); ‘Bylow Hill’ (1902); ‘Kincaid’s Battery’ (1908); ‘Posson Jone and Père Raphael’ (1909); ‘Gideon’s Band’ (1914); and ‘The Amateur Garden’ (1914).  11
 
 
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