George W. Cable
( Originally Published 1907 )
DURING his visit to this country a few years ago Mr. J. M. Barrie said to the students at Smith College that no American novelist merits a higher rank than Mr. George W. Cable. True as, in the abstract, this foreign estimate of Mr. Cable's worth is, it would awaken a rather feeble echo among the devourers of our colonial literature. Yet one of the Southerner's characteristic stories, " The Grandissimes," for instance, or " Posson Jone," or " Madame Delphine," is deserving of a recommendation to the liveliest admirer of eighteenth century heroes and heroines.
At bottom, there is much in common between Mr. Barrie and Mr. Cable, and this circumstance may account for the Scotch-man's enthusiastic utterance at Smith College. Each has a poetical love for nature ; each has portrayed a picturesque corner of the world with the kindest intention, the broadest sympathy and the choicest skill ; each has been the object of misunderstanding at home and of warm admiration abroad, and each has led where others may only follow. It is perfectly natural that two such lovable and loving men should clasp hands across the sea.
We must admit that the writer who has pictured New Orleans as vividly as Balzac pictured his beloved Paris was better known, say, ten years ago, than he is to-day. Then he had fewer distractions than he has today. Then he had reached the climax of his literary productivity. Then he was personally endearing himself to his fellow-countrymen with his inimitably delightful recitations and songs. There have been authors who drew larger audiences, and who, to use a homely phrase, made more noise on their tours, but there has never been an author whose readings from his works gave sweeter pleasure ; and, as for his manner of singing the Creole folksongs, it was indescribably charming. Mr. John Fox, Jr., is the only other American author who has ventured to sing folk-songs publicly ; and we may say, without fear of suggesting the odious comparison, that the younger man has been very successful, too.
Many years ago, " Mr. Cable once said, " when I discovered that these folk-songs of the slaves of former Louisiana Creoles had a great charm of their own and were pre-served by tradition only, I was induced to gather them and reduce them to notation. I found that others were so strongly interested in the songs that, without pretending to any musical authority or original charm of voice, I was tempted to sing one or two of them before public audiences. The first time I did so was in Boston, and since then I have rarely been allowed to leave them out of my entertainment, when the length of my literary program left room for them."
But we must look back farther. To start at the very beginning, George Washington Cable was born in New Orleans on October 12, 1844. His father was of Virginian de-scent ; his mother of New England. They were married in Indiana ten years before George was born, and they moved to New Orleans after the hard times of 1837. The father died in 1859, and then George, at the age of fifteen, went to work to help support the family. He was a very small boy for his age ; and indeed it is related that in 1863, when the family was sent outside the Union lines for refusing to take the oath of allegiance, his sisters had no difficulty in obtaining permission to have their "little brother " accompany them. The " little brother," however, was not so harmless as he looked. He volunteered to fight for the Confederacy, and was mustered into the Fourth Mississippi Cavalry, then in Gen. Wirt Adams's brigade. For a time after the war he rolled cotton on the New Orleans levees and carried a surveyor's chain along the banks of the Atchafalaya ; and by and by he found a place on the New Orleans Picayune. He is therefore to be counted among the authors whose literary career started in the reporter's room. His strong taste for culture and his zeal for the public welfare soon made an outlet for themselves in short articles touching on current topics ; and, though the articles were much enjoyed by the readers of the Picayune, the young writer before long felt the distaste for newspaper work which, early or late, comes to almost every journalist with high literary aims. Journalism is the best school of experience in the world, but it can be attended too long.
Cable resisted the fascinations of journalism firmly and wisely. At the height of his success he left the Picayune and went into the counting-room of a cotton house. He had a good eye for the picturesque features of daily life, the features met commonly in the daily papers, and at his leisure he wrote a few short stories based on New Orleans characters. One day these stories, which he had made no attempt to sell, came into the hands of an agent of the old Scribner's Monthly, who happened to visit Louisiana in connection with the well-remembered Great South papers. This agent, by name Edward King, praised the stories, and, at the author's request, sent one of them to New York. The story, for some reason, came back ; but the next one sent,
Sieur George," brought a note of acceptance and encouragement from Richard Watson Gilder, Doctor Holland's associate.
A few years later a volume of these Louisiana sketches was published under the title of " Old Creole Days." It was immediately recognized as a notable addition to our short story literature. Nevertheless, the author stuck to his desk in the counting-room. Many another ambitious young writer, in the circumstances, would have given up his position and leaned entirely upon his pen. Young Cable had a cool head. He knew that he was moving forward handsomely, and that if he yielded to the excitement of the situation for a moment he might fall back. So his pen rusted for two years, when he accepted an order for a serial story. This turned out to be " The Grandissimes," a clear and entertaining exposition of the author's views of the old-fashioned Southern life, a happy mingling of fact and fiction, of fun and sobriety, of calm appreciation of the Louisiana aristocracy and a warm toleration of the struggles of the poor negro slaves. Of course, this attitude added nothing to the author's popularity among Southerners.
To illustrate this, a Southern woman, who happened to visit Northampton, where of late Mr. Cable has made his home, was asked if she ever read his stories. " Of course not," she indignantly answered ; " I wouldn't think of looking at them." However, she was persuaded to look at them after a while ; and it is a peculiar tribute to their delicate yet powerful charm that the woman expressed regret that she had misconceived his work and opposed his ideas.
"The Grandissimes" was so successful that the publishers are said to have sent the author a check for five hundred dollars more than the contract price. This first long tale was followed by another much the same in vein and in atmosphere, " Madame Delphine," which is the story-teller's own favorite. The subject and the style are equally delightful.
In 1879, when Mr. Cable was thirty-five years old, the business house in which he had worked to keep his feet on earth dissolved, and the clerk had to choose between returning to journalism and devoting him-self entirely to literature. By this time he seems to have been more self-reliant and more confident. At any rate, he chose literature. The first thing he did was to decline to write for more than one publisher. It must be said again that a steadier head never produced a story.
A strong sense of duty, in fact, early established control of his work. His interests were not permitted to grow narrow. He realized that he possessed exceptionally abundant resources for the production of miscellaneous literature touching on the development of the middle South, and he determined to make the most of his possessions. In 1880, for example, we find him engaged in a special article on New Orleans for the Census Bureau, and his native city was also the theme of an article which he wrote for the " Encyclopedia Britannica." One of his critics has said: "Since Hawthorne's Custom House reports, few pages of the Government documents have been enriched by so discriminating a pen as in the exhaustive census monograph upon the past and present of the Southern metropolis." This paper led to a series of articles entitled
The Creoles of Louisiana," written for The Century, in which the reader will note an artistic combination of dry history and vivid imagination.
That such a painstaking, conscientious, dutiful writer should ever be charged with falling into an anachronism may seem preposterous; but although the charge has been made, we find no instance in which it has been sustained. A writer who once visited him brushed the charge aside vigorously : " Mr. Cable's plan of work," he said, " is unusually methodical, for his counting-room training has stood him in good stead. All his notes and references are carefully indexed and jour-nailed, and so systematized that he can turn, without a moment's delay, to any authority he wishes to consult. In this respect, as in many others, he has not, perhaps, his equal among living authors. In making his notes, it is his usual custom to write in pencil on scraps of paper. These notes are next put into shape, still in pencil, and the third copy, intended for the press, is written in ink on note-paper —the chirography exceedingly neat, delicate and legible. He is always exact, and is untiring in his re-searches. Before attempting to write upon any historical point, he gathers together all available material without reckoning time or trouble ; and, under such conditions, nothing is more unlikely than that he should be guilty of error."
The business life which fortunately imposed so valuable a system upon him incidentally inspired his second novel, " Dr. Sevier," many of the scenes in which are faithful pictures of his own experiences as a youth. As in the historical sketches, so in this second novel the poetic imagination of the author fairly rivals his grasp of the prosaic relations existing between man and man. But such relations were supremely vital from his viewpoint, and his third novel,
" Bonaventure," was written in moments stolen from the discussion of the questions of elections, prison systems, and the future of the negro. The reader will note in the hero of this story the personification of the practical strengthening and yet spiritualizing gospel which the author has enunciated in his private and public religious work. For it is important to chronicle that Mr. Cable has done as much to Christianize several communities as the most energetic minister would be expected to do ; and from his scrupulous performance of not merely the ordinary Christian duties but also of duties self-imposed, he has never allowed literature or society to beguile him.
Naturally his social and political studies drew many invitations to address public meetings. It was at Johns Hopkins University, while lecturing on literary art, that, upon the suggestion of President Gilman, he ventured for the first time to read selections from his own stories. The delight of the audience was no less a surprise to him than the realization of his own elocutionary skill. This he set about to cultivate, and with such success that for years afterward he was enthusiastically welcomed to the great cities. It was once estimated that in his busiest years on the platform he traveled more than ten thousand miles every twelve months.
For various reasons, particularly that he might be able to write of the South impartially and that he might be nearer the literary market, he moved to Simsbury, Conn., in 1884, and the next year to Northampton, Mass., where he has lived ever since. But he has never lost sight of his native concern in the progress of the South ; and as for his philanthropy, in Northampton it has spread wider and wider.
There, on the edge of one of the quietest and loveliest towns in Massachusetts, he has had built for himself a home suited to all his excellent tastes, and there he lives, intent always on making someone happy, and writing simply enough to maintain the brilliancy and popularity of his name.