Did America ever produce a more elegant writer than James Branch Cabell? Every phrase, every simile, every line of dialog is smooth, cultured. His work displayed urbane wit on par with Oscar Wilde.
Here is a paragraph from what many consider Cabell’s magnum opus, “Jurgen.”
So they fought. Now Jurgen was a very acceptable swordsman, but from the start he found in Heitman Michael his master. Jurgen had never reckoned upon that and he considered it annoying. If Heitman Michael perforated Jurgen the future would be altered, certainly, but not quite as Jurgen had decided it ought to be remodeled. This unlooked for complication seemed preposterous; and Jurgen began to be irritated by the suspicion that he was getting himself killed for nothing.
I love the droll, tongue-in-cheek understatement. And the man filled volumes with this cultured verve. Fritz Leiber often achieved similar heights, though he did not imbue his work with the same sense of aristocratic archness. Clark Ashton Smith could weave words and worlds with the same facility as Cabell, but while both men wrote from a position of world weary cynicism, Smith seldom displayed the same degree of sustained humor and when he did it tended toward the grim rather than the philosophical.
And Cabell was doubtless a philosopher. How should a man live in an uncaring universe, and does it matter? Cabell addressed these issues. And few since Shakespeare have delved as insightfully into love, lust, and marriage.
Cabell – at one point a household name – has sadly fallen into obscurity. It is a shame that such a master – once banned in Boston, a sign of quality if there ever was one – should no longer be widely read.
What say we try to reverse that?