James Cabell: The Line of Love. Dizain des Mariages

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"He loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.
And of his port as meek as is a mayde,
He never yet no vileinye ne sayde
In al his lyf, unto no maner wight.
He was a verray parfit gentil knyght."


The Cabell case belongs to comedy in the grand manner. For fifteen years or more the man wrote and wrote—good stuff, sound stuff, extremely original stuff, often superbly fine stuff—and yet no one in the whole of this vast and incomparable Republic arose to his merit—no one, that is, save a few encapsulated enthusiasts, chiefly somewhat dubious. It would be difficult to imagine a first-rate artist cloaked in greater obscurity, even in the remotest lands of Ghengis Khan. The newspapers, reviewing him, dismissed him with a sort of inspired ill-nature; the critics of a more austere kidney—the Paul Elmer Mores, Brander Matthewses, Hamilton Wright Mabies, and other such brummagem dons—were utterly unaware of him. Then, of a sudden, the imbeciles who operate the Comstock Society raided and suppressed his "Jurgen," and at once he was a made man. Old book-shops began to be ransacked for his romances and extravaganzas—many of them stored, I daresay, as "picture-books," and under the name of the artist who illustrated them, Howard Pyle. And simultaneously, a great gabble about him set up in the newspapers, and then in the literary weeklies, and finally even in the learned reviews. An Englishman, Hugh Walpole, magnified the excitement with some startling hochs; a single hoch from the Motherland brings down the professors like firemen sliding down a pole. To-day every literate American has heard of Cabell, including even those presidents of women's clubs who lately confessed that they had never heard of Lizette Woodworth Reese. More of his books are sold in a week than used to be sold in a year. Every flapper in the land has read "Jurgen" behind the door; two-thirds of the grandmothers east of the Mississippi have tried to borrow it from me. Solemn Privat Dozenten lecture upon the author; he is invited to take to the chautauqua himself; if the donkeys who manage the National Institute of Arts and Letters were not afraid of his reply he would be offered its gilt-edged ribbon, vice Sylvanus Cobb, deceased. And all because a few pornographic old fellows thrust their ever-hopeful snouts into the man's tenth (or was it eleventh or twelfth?) book!

Certainly, the farce must appeal to Cabell himself—a sardonic mocker, not incapable of making himself a character in his own revues. But I doubt that he enjoys the actual pawing that he has been getting—any more than he resented the neglect that he got for so long. Very lately, in the midst of the carnival, he announced his own literary death and burial, and even preached a burlesque funeral sermon upon his life and times. Such an artist, by the very nature of his endeavors, must needs stand above all public-clapper-clawing, pro or con. He writes, not to please his customers in general, nor even to please his partisans in particular, but to please himself. He is his own criterion, his own audience, his own judge and hangman. When he does bad work, he suffers for it as no holy clerk ever suffered from a gnawing conscience or Freudian suppressions; when he does good work he gets his pay in a form of joy that only artists know. One could no more think of him exposing himself to the stealthy, uneasy admiration of a women's club—he is a man of agreeable exterior, with handsome manners and an eye for this and that—than one could imagine him taking to the stump for some political mountebank or getting converted at a camp-meeting. What moves such a man to write is the obscure, inner necessity that Joseph Conrad has told us of, and what rewards him when he has done is his own searching and accurate judgment, his own pride and delight in a beautiful piece of work.

At once, I suppose, you visualize a somewhat smug fellow, loftily complacent and superior—in brief, the bogus artist of Greenwich Village, posturing in a pot-hat before a cellar full of visiting schoolmarms, all dreaming of being betrayed. If so, you see a ghost. It is the curse of the true artist that his work never stands before him in all its imagined completeness—that he can never look at it without feeling an impulse to add to it here or take away from it there—that the beautiful, to him, is not a state of being, but an eternal becoming. Satisfaction, like the praise of dolts, is the compensation of the aesthetic cheese-monger—the popular novelist, the Broadway dramatist, the Massenet and Kipling, the Maeterlinck and Augustus Thomas. Cabell, in fact, is forever fussing over his books, trying to make them one degree better. He rewrites almost as pertinaciously as Joseph Conrad, Henry James, or Brahms. Compare "Domnei" in its present state to "The Soul of Melicent," its first state, circa 1913. The obvious change is the change in title, but of far more importance are a multitude of little changes—a phrase made more musical, a word moved from one place to another, some small banality tracked down and excised, a brilliant adjective inserted, the plan altered in small ways, the rhythm of it made more delicate and agreeable. Here, in "The Line of Love," there is another curious example of his high capacity for revision. It is not only that the book, once standing isolated, has been brought into the Cabellian canon, and so related to "Jurgen" and "Figures of Earth" at one end, and to the tales of latter-day Virginia at the other; it is that the whole texture has been worked over, and the colors made more harmonious, and the inner life of the thing given a fresh energy. Once a flavor of the rococo hung about it; now it breathes and moves. For Cabell knows a good deal more than he knew in 1905. He is an artist whose work shows constant progress toward the goals he aims at—principally the goal of a perfect style. Content, with him, is always secondary. He has ideas, and they are often of much charm and plausibility, but his main concern is with the manner of stating them. It is surely not ideas that make "Jurgen" stand out so saliently from the dreadful prairie of modern American literature; it is the magnificent writing that is visible on every page of it—writing apparently simple and spontaneous, and yet extraordinarily cunning and painstaking. The current notoriety of "Jurgen" will pass. The Comstocks will turn to new imbecilities, and the followers of literary parades to new marvels. But it will remain an author's book for many a year.

By author, of course, I mean artist—not mere artisan. It was certainly not surprising to hear that Maurice Hewlett found "Jurgen" exasperating. So, too, there is exasperation in Richard Strauss for plodding music-masters. Hewlett is simply a British Civil Servant turned author, which is not unsuggestive of an American Congressman turned philosopher. He has a pretty eye for color, and all the gusto that goes with beefiness, but like all the men of his class and race and time he can think only within the range of a few elemental ideas, chiefly of a sentimental variety, and when he finds those ideas flouted he is horrified. The bray, in fact, revealed the ass. It is Cabell's skepticism that saves him from an Americanism as crushing as Hewlett's Briticism, and so sets him free as an artist. Unhampered by a mission, happily ignorant of what is commended by all good men, disdainful of the petty certainties of pedagogues and green-grocers, not caring a damn what becomes of the Republic, or the Family, or even snivelization itself, he is at liberty to disport himself pleasantly with his nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions and pronouns, arranging them with the same free hand, the same innocent joy, the same superb skill and discretion with which the late Jahveh arranged carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, hydrogen, oxygen and phosphorus in the sublime form of the human carcass. He, too, has his jokes. He knows the arch effect of a strange touch; his elaborate pedantries correspond almost exactly to the hook noses, cock eyes, outstanding ears and undulating Adam's apples which give so sinister and Rabelaisian a touch to the human scene. But in the main he sticks to more seemly materials and designs. His achievement, in fact, consists precisely in the success with which he gives those materials a striking newness, and gets a novel vitality into those designs. He takes the ancient and mouldy parts of speech—the liver and lights of harangues by Dr. Harding, of editorials in the New York Times, of "Science and Health, with a Key to the Scriptures," of department-store advertisements, of college yells, of chautauqual oratory, of smoke-room anecdote—and arranges them in mosaics that glitter with an almost fabulous light. He knows where a red noun should go, and where a peacock-blue verb, and where an adjective as darkly purple as a grape. He is an imagist in prose. You may like his story and you may not like it, but if you don't like the way he tells it then there is something the matter with your ears. As for me, his experiments with words caress me as I am caressed by the tunes of old Johannes Brahms. How simple it seems to manage them—and how infernally difficult it actually is!

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