Jurgen is a Lost Fantasy Classic Everyone Should Read

Obscurity, the fleeting fame of James Cabell, and genre

In 1925, one of the most famous writers in America received a book from a young admirer. It contained the inscription, “I hope that parts of this will please you half as much as every story of yours pleases me.” The fan was F. Scott Fitzgerald and the words were written on the flyleaf of The Great Gatsby. The object of his literary ardor was James Branch Cabell, who today is remembered chiefly for the fact that he is no longer remembered.

It’s amusing that when they were writing, Cabell and Fitzgerald were roughly equivalent names. A person could mention them in the same sentence, allowing that Cabell was an acknowledged master while Fitzgerald was just a talented kid, without raising any eyebrows. They were both respected literary authors. If Cabell were writing in 2016, though, he’d be relegated to the second tier of cultural eminence. He’d be published as a “fantasy author.” His books are filled with knights and dragons and damsels and all the trappings of the fantastic, and for this alone he would be pushed out of the pantheon of “serious literature.”

If Cabell were writing in 2016, though, he’d be relegated to the second tier of cultural eminence. He’d be published as a fantasy author.

It’s now a risky move for a literary author to break ranks and throw in an ogre. Take, for instance, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, which was hailed as a courageous career move that might backfire and be considered “just fantasy” — a label he seemed to express concern about in a New York Times profile. Ursula Le Guin (who, runs one train of thought recently mentioned by Michael Dirda, hasn’t yet won a Nobel Prize because they don’t award it for fantasy) took umbrage with the implication, declaring it “insulting” and a “thoughtless prejudice.” Thoughtless, perhaps, but it’s a prejudice widely shared today — and one which may have kept the subject of this essay from getting the modern recognition he deserves.

Cabell (1879–1958) wrote in cheerful obscurity until the banning of his novel Jurgen made him a reluctant cause célèbre. He was not suited to fame. He disliked leaving his native Virginia, was indifferent to critical and commercial prospects, and came to deplore the “hordes of idiots and prurient fools” who flocked to him as he gained notoriety. When pressed, he wearily told his editor to “tell the rabble my name is Cabell,” to clear up pronunciation issues. His goal was to “write perfectly of beautiful happenings,” and in pursuit of this goal he borrowed freely from classical and Norse mythology, Slavic folklore, troubadour ballads, Villon, Rabelais, Restoration drama, Enlightenment philosophy, and anything else that suited his fancy. In short, he wrote for himself.

Born to an old and affluent Virginia family (his great-grandfather had been governor), Cabell matriculated into William and Mary College at fifteen, where he was, according to his friend Ellen Glasgow, “the most brilliant youth in the student body” — until he got expelled for a scandal of the “Oscar Wilde variety.” His good name restored by his mother’s lawyers, he graduated, returned home to Richmond, and was immediately caught up in another scandal: a man was found dead outside the Cabell house, and whispers suggested that young James had killed him in an affair of honor regarding his mother. He later wrote of the incident, with characteristic archness, “I have even been credited with murder, but I was not the philanthropist who committed it.”

“I have even been credited with murder, but I was not the philanthropist who committed it.”

Over the next fifteen years Cabell produced books and stories rapidly and with growing assurance, though he made little impression on the national scene. It was a period of literary brilliance and outsized personalities — the age of Edith Wharton and Dorothy Parker, The Smart Set and Tarzan — and the urbane Virginia gentleman made no effort to stand out from the crowd. By the end of World War I a few critics had taken note of Cabell’s books, but the chances of him becoming a household name seemed remote. Then came Jurgen.

Robert M. McBride, his longtime publisher, released Cabell’s twelfth novel in the fall of 1919, without fanfare. But on January 3rd, 1920, the New York Tribune received a letter complaining that Jurgen

deftly and knowingly treats in thinly veiled episodes of all the perversities, abnormalities and dam-foolishness of sex. There is an undercurrent of extreme sensuality throughout the book, and once the trick of transposing the key is mastered one can dip into this tepid stream on every page.

Shortly thereafter, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice declared war. Jurgen was banned, McBride was raided, the bookplates and unsold copies were seized, and Cabell became instantly famous. Writers nationwide declared a state of emergency, while everyone else dashed out to buy a copy of what they were assured was a delightfully scandalous book. A thriving black market emerged, with copies of Jurgen selling for two hundred times the list price. Twenty-year-old Zelda Fitzgerald wrote to Cabell that she had to get F. Scott a copy for Christmas:

I’ve grown weary and musty with ransacking book-stores — and I’ve also tried to steal Mr. George Nathan’s copy: under pretense of intoxication — all I got was a Toledo blade fencing foil. Judging from the kick he’s raised about it, I presume it’s priceless so if you know anybody who doesn’t think your pen is mightier than Nathan’s foil please tell the goofer that I’d like to exchange —

Jurgen became a standard raised against censorship and outmoded Victorian morality. An “emergency committee” was formed to combat the suppression. Theodore Dreiser proposed starting an artists’ defense fund and contributed the first hundred dollars. Deems Taylor adapted Jurgen into a musical suite that the New York Symphony Orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall. In England, Hugh Walpole cited Cabell as evidence that art was not dead in America. In 1922, when Jurgen was cleared in court, sales skyrocketed. Mencken, already a champion, declared Cabell the greatest living American author.

The irony is that there is an undercurrent of “extreme sensuality” in Jurgen. In one episode, “Jurgen held the lance erect, shaking it with his right hand. This lance was large, and the tip of it was red with blood.” He finds “an opening screened by a pink veil,” which he breaks with a “thrust” of his lance. Several other passages run similarly. But sex in Jurgen is a sideshow: the main event is a quest for lost love and coming to terms with one’s own mortality.

Sex in Jurgen is a sideshow: the main event is a quest for lost love and coming to terms with one’s own mortality.

The titular hero is a middle-aged poet-turned-pawnbroker. One evening he meets a monk who has tripped over a stone and is cursing the devil who put it in his path. “Fie brother,” says Jurgen, “and have not the devils enough to bear as it is?” The monk is nonplussed, and Jurgen warms to his subject:

It does not behoove God-fearing persons to speak with disrespect of the divinely appointed Prince of Darkness. To your further confusion, consider this monarch’s industry! Day and night you may detect him toiling at the task Heaven set him. That is a thing can be said of few communicants and of no monks. Think, too, of his fine artistry, as evidenced in all the perilous and lovely snares of this world, which it is your business to combat, and mine to lend money upon. Why, but for him we would both be vocationless!

Shortly thereafter, Jurgen encounters the devil, who thanks him for the good word and wishes him a life free from care. Jurgen replies that, alas, he is already married. The devil is appalled: “Eh, sirs, and a fine clever poet like you!” Jurgen explains that he’s no longer much of a poet, because his wife disapproves of his versifying.

The devil replies:

“This is very sad. I am afraid your wife does not quite understand you, Jurgen.”

“Sir,” says Jurgen, astounded, “do you read people’s inmost thoughts?”

Jurgen returns home to find that his wife has disappeared. Under pressure from his in-laws to do “the manly thing,” he reluctantly sets off to rescue her. During the quest he regains his youth, romances many women (including Guinevere and Helen of Troy), and wrestles with what to do with his wife if he ever finds her. He passes through the Garden Between Dawn and Sunrise, in which everything “was heart-breakingly familiar and very dear to Jurgen,” a place where “multitudinous maples and locust-trees stood here and there, irregularly, and were being played with very lazily by an irresolute west wind, so that foliage seemed to toss and ripple everywhere like green spray.” In the garden, men and women cavort with their forgotten sweethearts in the twilight, and Jurgen discovers that the snows of yesteryear are purer in memory. His first love, almost divine in recollection, suddenly seems to him petty and rather stupid. The whole thing is clever and sad and sometimes very mean, but it is beautifully written.

Cabell spent the 1920s shaping his disparate books into a monumental whole. Previous works were revised, continuities were established, and in 1930 he published the eighteenth and final volume of what he now called The Biography of Manuel. This gargantuan project traces the exploits of Count Manuel of Poictesme (“pwa-tem”) and his descendants from medieval France to modern Virginia.

It is an astonishing work, combining romance, epic, farce, pseudo-scholarship, genealogy, poetry, and philosophy. It’s also enormous, unwieldy, and frustrating. Even knowing how to read it is difficult. To fit his scheme he rewrote almost everything he had ever published, and eventually brought the whole cycle out in a uniform “Storisende Edition.” This theoretically rendered all previous editions obsolete and was printed in an expensive limited run of 1590 copies.

It is an astonishing work, combining romance, epic, farce, pseudo-scholarship, genealogy, poetry, and philosophy. It’s also enormous, unwieldy, and frustrating.

Almost as soon as the Biography was finished his reputation began to fade. Michael Swanwick argues that he torpedoed his own career with his overreaching ambition. Edmund Wilson posited that his decline was because the Great Depression hit and no one cared any longer for high-minded fantasies. The James Branch Cabell Library at the Virginia Commonwealth University (which still gives out an annual literary award in his name) suggests that his baroque style was displaced by the realism of Hemingway and Steinbeck. Whatever the reason, he fell abruptly out of favor.

Every few decades a bootless attempt is made to rehabilitate his reputation. Wilson tried at length in 1956, in an impenetrable New Yorker piece that likely lost Cabell more disciples than it won. “Along what lines,” he asked, “now can develop the career of a writer of remarkable gifts and unusual tenacity of purpose, born of the ‘quality’ caste — he still always refers to a lady as a ‘gentlewoman’ — in Richmond-in-Virginia (as he writes it), fourteen years after the Civil War and only two after the departure of the Yankees?” Lin Carter tried in the late ’60s by capitalizing on the success of The Lord of the Rings and contextualizing Cabell as an important progenitor of Tolkien. (When asked if he was influenced by Cabell, the professor replied with a resounding “no,” adding that he found him “quite boring.”) Recently Neil Gaiman has tried again, even issuing a few Cabell titles as audiobooks under his own imprint. But still Cabell remains largely unknown and out of print.

The challenges are various. First, despite our modern love of genre distinctions, selling him as high fantasy doesn’t work. His heroes wear swords and occasionally fight dragons, but Cabell has more in common with Shaw than he does with Tolkien. Then there is the Volume Problem. Where does one begin? The casual reader is unlikely to pick up the first book of the Biography (Beyond Life, a 300-page essay on art theory) and read through the rest. Conan Doyle wrote, tragically, that he had not read Dumas because he did not know where to start. With Cabell it’s the same. (The solution: start with Jurgen.)

There is also the Idea Problem. As a philosopher Cabell is didactic and generally bleak. An inverted Kierkegaard, he posits three stages of being: Chivalrous, Gallant, and Poetic. The first sees life as a test, the second as a game, the third as raw material for creativity. It’s an off-putting worldview. There is, too, the Gender Problem — Cabell showed neither interest nor ability in writing women. He is not quite misogynistic, but he is chivalrous to a fault, and the line can be a blurry one.

He is not quite misogynistic, but he is chivalrous to a fault, and the line can be a blurry one.

Finally, there is the Style Problem. Cabell is a playful wordsmith, apt to hide sonnets in blocks of prose or invent archaic authorities and quote them at length, in Latin or Greek or Old French. He enjoys puzzles and is obsessed with multiples of ten. He writes allegorically while vociferously decrying allegory. Reading him is exhilarating but frequently exhausting. Dorothy Parker said, “None other has such wit, such erudition, such delicacy. …And I couldn’t read all the way through one of [his books] to save my mother from the electric chair.”

About half the people upon whom I fanatically foist Jurgen agree with Parker’s sentiment, or at least the latter part of it. The other half adore him. I’ve never met anyone who falls in between. Cabell is polarizing, but he shouldn’t be allowed to languish in the scrapheap of forgotten scribblers or toddle on as a historical footnote to a maligned genre. For his perverse idealism, heroic in the face of certain defeat and congenitally incapable of yielding, he should be remembered. For the beauty of his prose and the admiration of his peers he should be studied. And for his ambition alone, if nothing else, he should be read.

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