This year, 2017, marks the centenary of The Great American Novel almost no one has even heard of.
Let me take that back. A bit. It is not as if the book were unknown. Critics have written about it. The story has a following, if small.
But it has, as far I can tell, never once been suggested as a contender for that dubious title, The Great American Novel. Indeed, most of the author’s cabal of readers put it third or fourth on their contentious “Best of” lists.
Still, I buck all trends. I assert that this particular hundred-year-old work is its author’s best in long form; that it qualifies for the status of meta-novel, thus giving it a cachet necessary for serious consideration by literary critics; and that it has enough contact with mainstream Americana (just enough) to qualify for the Great American status.
The book? No more evasions . . .
James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasions.
A thousand copies were printed in September, 1917. Two and one half years later, a second printing came out; six months after that, a third; the next year, a fourth. In 1922, a slightly revised Fifth Edition was published, with the previous editions’ Preface turned into Chapter One, and prefixed, now, with an introduction by Harold Ward. This edition became the template for the British printings. With the 1926 eighth edition, the text was established for several later Modern Library reprints, as well as Cabell’s own final revision for what he called the “Storisende” edition of 1930.
I own, at present, the Second Edition, a later Modern Library edition, and two paperback editions: the Ballantine Adult Fantasy (“unicorn head”) reprint of the Storisende, and an elaborate scholarly treatment edited by Joseph M. Flora.
After the first edition, and the spectacular notoriety of 1919’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, Cabell devised a 20+ volume cycle that he dubbed, with sly pleonasm, The Biography of the Life of Manuel. In this cycle, ordered by the fictional events, not date of authorship, The Cream of the Jest appears as the final book-length comedy, followed by Straws and Prayerbooks — an indirect sequel to 1919’s Beyond Life and, like the earlier better-known work, a droll explication of Cabell’s literary philosophy — and a strange hodge-podge called Townsend of Lichfield, about which, well, one may learn more of (and understand less) from Cabell himself in Preface to the Past (1927), pp. 281 – 309.
My advice to the literary reader is to forget The Biography — all the other books the author fused into one well-ordered chaos — and begin with a later edition of The Cream of the Jest without reading any prefatory matter. Start with Chapter One and proceed. If you happen to find yourself with an earlier edition, read the preface assigned to the fictional “Richard Fentnor Harrowby,” and continue on to the first chapter.
The author’s bizarre framing of his Biography’s tales have much the same resonance of Jorge Luis Borges’s meta-fictions. They confused me when I first read them. Trying to sort fact from fiction is not easy when the forewords written by the author, which give off all sorts of cues to non-fiction status, turn out to be, instead, mixtures of fantasy, scholarly earnestness entwined with scholarly irony, and a propensity to dispense not wholly reliable autobiography.
This fictional/non-fictional framing is carried to extreme in Beyond Life and Straws and Prayerbooks, which, as I state above, are literary manifestos disguised as fiction. Both books make for strange reading, but are necessary for anyone interested in what makes books like The Cream of the Jest “work.”
Which brings me back to this one volume, itself. It is not quite a novel. And yet it is. Perhaps it is an example of modernism smuggled in from the literary attic, wherein the Guardians of Literature had placed most of the dusty old tomes of belles lettres along with medieval romance and Gothic fancy. Or perhaps it is a work of post-modernism, a clever wedding of highbrow fantasy to popular romance.
One could also argue that it is the last gasp of the Genteel Tradition in American literature, except Cabell, though suave and well-mannered, was never genteel in Santayana’s sense. He daringly broke too many taboos for that.
The Cream is really what its subtitle proclaims: a comedy. As such, it indirectly but thoroughly confronts the inevitable failures of romance as a way of life, while reëstablishing its necessity in the same breath.
Cabell, being a comedian, has it both ways. He is both a romancer and an ironist. As a fantasy novelist (The Cream is half-fantasy dream study), he attempts to “write beautifully about beautiful happenings.” But as a philosopher, he hammers a kind of realism that in the hands of naturalist novelists turns into a now all-too-familiar sanctimonious nihilism. But caution: his hammering is on the order of Nietzsche’s “philosophizing with a hammer” — what is meant is not brute force debunking but, instead, a gentle tapping as if at tuning forks and small bells. The idols of the age (and all ages) are being sounded out.
In this, Cabell places himself in a tradition he was not entirely comfortable within: of George Meredith and Thackeray, as well as the philosophical comedians of a later generation, such as Iris Murdoch. Egoism he carefully calls up for apt ridicule, as he does the deadening hand of normality, of mediocrity.
Cabell more readily hails from late-19th century aestheticism, especially the work of Anatole France. Echoes of Balzac’s Droll Tales can be easily detected. The popular romancers of Cabell’s day, such as Maurice Hewlett, might exert a background influence. But Cabell’s own favorites among his contemporaries included British literary fantasists, including Lord Dunsany, author of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and Arthur Machen, author of The Three Imposters.
This puts Cabell utterly at odds with the mainstream of 20th century highbrow literature. And one might think it would have put him at odds with H. L. Mencken, America’s most enthusiastic promoter of the sociological novel. And yet, Mencken was an admirer. Perhaps what the Sage of Baltimore most liked was Cabell’s philosophy, that unmistakable thread of irony. Mencken called Cabell “the most acidulous of anti-romantics.”
So much for romance.
But Mencken also praised Cabell’s prose style. In fact, Mencken was capable of writing close to Cabell’s mode. In praise of Cabell he characterized the Southern gentleman as “a scarlet dragonfly embedded in amber.” Exactly.
Which might now indicate Cabell’s enduring interest for a few of us. His heart was in romance, his head was in irony, and his philosophical stance was . . . fancy footwork. Nimbly he stepped in and through several genres. The Cream of the Jest was one of the last of his fictions to be rooted in the mundane world of his time. With this work he firmly carved out a niche in high fantasy. It is half a comedy of manners and ideas, and half a fantasy, in brilliant union. The bulk of his work to follow proved more thoroughly fantastic, often set in the mythic province of medieval France, Poictesme. After wrapping up the Biography of the Life of Manuel, he jettisoned his first name, and produced several trilogies of quite distinct fantasy, including a successful dream trilogy, under the moniker Branch Cabell. At some point he brought back his first name, and, in the end, essayed a final foray back to the roots he planted in Cream, with his last (and brilliant) comic fantasy, The Devil’s Own Dear Son.
The Cream of the Jest immediately follows three earlier comedies set in the Virginia of his youth: The Eagle’s Shadow, The Cords of Vanity, and The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck. Of these, the first is a fairly standard romantic comedy, the second is a dark comedy of egoism and betrayal, and the last is a masterwork focusing on the waning culture of Southern honor anchored in a sad “comedy of limitations” (to quote the subtitle). Only The Rivet holds up as a complete literary success. There were also several volumes of short stories, and a non-fantastic medieval romance, The Soul of Melicent (later retitled Domnei.)
But The Cream of the Jest transcends all that preceded it. With this work, the author finally “finds his voice.” Truth is, he always had his voice. What he had not developed until The Cream was a way to unite his philosophical interests with his love of literary japery and a wholly successful and absorbing tale.
Of course, opinions vary. Many readers complain that nothing of substance happens in The Cream of the Jest. And this is true if “of substance” means sword fights and lawsuits and such: the “action” is mostly dream, and, even when set in the humdrum of automobiles, face cream factories, and politicians, almost all interior.
One of the great turning points in the story is in Chapter 27 (Book Fourth: V in the early editions), “Evolution of a Vestryman.” Here Felix Kennaston, our hero, becomes a Christian, and a leader in his local Episcopalian church. It reads like a comedy. Indeed, it reads like a parody of C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. But it came first, and one wonders whether Lewis might not have read the tale in disgust, and later, by cryptomnesia, took the half-remembered Cabellian argument to heart and became a Christian himself. Lewis was 25 when the book hit British libraries and bookstores.
I do know that Lewis hated Cabell. Cabell was so modernist compared to Lewis. Cabell the ironist could hardly please Lewis’s dogmatic earnestness. And yet Cabell himself had entered the fold of his Richmond, Virginia, Episcopalian Church, and become a member in good standing. He was more than half-earnest, himself, in this crucial chapter. Later, in other works, he defended Maundy Thursday and its Anglican rites, as being based on legends that might “possibly be true.” (Lewis became a member of the Anglican Church, churning to the top the cream of the jest: Lewis and Cabell were co-communicants.)
The ambiguities here as elsewhere set Cabell against the tide of rabid secularism. And yet his own comedies do more than merely suggest a caustic irony. What is going on here?
Cabell understood the hollowness, in fact, of the ancient traditions. But he also asserted that they were beautiful. Whether true or not, he had no intention of throwing the old ways completely aside. He was a post-modernist traditionalist conservative who was also a liberal doubter. But let us retain our bearings. What he doubted most was the advisability of a full embrace of modernity’s ongoing nihilism project.
Cabell lived his life as if tradition were worthwhile enough to preserve, if not embrace without a wink. And he wrote his fictions as if in full dialogue with the past. Indeed, that is what The Cream of the Jest really is: a philosophical dialogue with the past and its charms, while seriously acknowledging their tendency to disappear when attempted to be grasped. Just as his hero Kennaston wakes up from his dream whenever he attempts to touch his dream woman, Ettarre.
In The Cream of the Jest, we witness not the revelation of a special American Dream, but the reality of Dreams Universal. Which is American enough for me.
The year 1917 sports a few more prominent literary centenaries, the most important being the publication of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, and Other Observations. (Eliot was also a co-communicant of Lewis and Cabell.) It is also the year that popular fiction made an important step into the future, with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. J. R. R. Tolkien began work on what eventually became The Silmarillon; Christopher Morley produced Parnassus on Wheels; and Norman Douglass published South Wind.
A century earlier, establishing bicentennial possibilities, Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey saw posthumous success; Walter Scott’s Rob Roy hit presses on both sides of the Atlantic; and Thomas Love Peacock’s delightful Melincourt debuted.
But these are very different stories.
My story? This year I celebrate
- my Finnish heritage, with the centenary of the birth of independent Finland;
- my family history, with what would have been my father’s hundredth birthday, had he not died four years ago; and, perhaps most of all,
- the centenary of the publication of The Cream of the Jest, which I read at age 17 . . .
the one novel that seriously treats personal love and cultural literacy as a romance that, while inevitably comic, even the most cynical dismiss at their peril.