Although George Washington Cable’s (1844 – 1925) reputation rests primarily on one collection of short stories and two pieces of longer fiction, his total output includes twenty-two books. For an understanding of Cable as a writer of fiction, one should first consider his nonfiction and his reasons for writing it. Cable’s interest in history is shown in two books centered on Creole culture, The Creoles of Louisiana, a collection of history articles, and Strange True Stories of Louisiana, a collection of factual stories about the Creoles. On a juvenile level, The Cable Story Book is a combination of factual and fictional material that emphasizes the same Creole subjects as his fiction. The Silent South and The Negro Question, his best-known works of nonfiction, are collections of essays on controversial southern problems, notably the problem of racial discrimination. 887—
Cable’s first novel, The Grandissimes, is his unqualified masterpiece. Louis D. Rubin, Jr., has called it the first “modern” southern novel, dealing realistically as it does with the role of the black in American society. Added to the rich portrayal of aristocratic Creole settings and family problems, a panoramic array of characters of Native American, black, and mixed bloods vivify problems of social castes and racial discrimination in Louisiana in 1803, the year of the Louisiana Purchase. Using the historical actuality of racially tangled bloodlines as the theme for dramatic episodes, Cable emphasizes the ramifications of black-white relationships. The free quadroon caste, for example, had its special role in southern society, as shown historically in the New Orleans “quadroon balls.” Beautiful young women of one-quarter black blood (quadroons) or, perhaps, one-eighth (octoroons) danced at these balls with white men, were chosen by them as mistresses, and were set up in separate households in the city.
Two principal quadroons interact in The Grandissimes. A male quadroon is the identically named half-brother of the aristocratic Creole Honoré Grandissime. The darker Honoré Grandissime flouts the law by refusing to inscribe the letters “f.m.c.” (free man of color) after his name. Educated in Paris along with his half-brother and heir to most of their deceased father’s wealth, the quadroon nevertheless remains unrecognized as a legitimate member of the Grandissime family. The Creoles’ acceptance of an American Indian chieftain as ancestor is introduced to point up their unwonted prejudice against the taint of black blood. The main female quadroon is Palmyre Philosophe, a freed slave who bears a hopeless love for the all-white Honoré Grandissime and, in turn, is loved by his quadroon half-brother. To illustrate the injustices perpetrated against blacks, Cable inserts the episode of the black Bras- Coupé, a historical figure used earlier in Cable’s unpublished short story “Bibi.” Palmyre hates Agricola Fuselier, her former owner and uncle to Honoré Grandissime, who forced her unconsummated marriage to Bras-Coupé.
The character who serves throughout the novel as spokesman for Cable is Joseph Frowenfeld, a German American newcomer to New Orleans, who observes, participates in, and comments critically on the action. Honoré Grandissime, the leading male character, is a Creole who recognizes the faults of his society and works with moderation to correct them. He provides a liberal Creole viewpoint, supplementary to the rigid moral judgment of Frowenfeld. Agricola Fuselier, in direct contrast to Frowenfeld, represents the proud old Creoles who insist on purity of race.
Action antecedent to the yearlong events of the novel goes back to 1673, the year of the birth of the American Indian girl whose choice of a De Grapion suitor began a feud between two Creole families, the De Grapions and the Grandissimes. Preceding the main plot by eight years comes the tale of Bras-Coupé. Otherwise, the action takes place between September, 1803, and September, 1804.
The leading female character, Aurora Nancanou, daughter of a De Grapion, is the young widow of a man killed by Agricola Fuselier in a duel over a card game. Agricola took Nancanou’s estate in payment for the gambling debt, passing the estate on to his nephew, the white Honoré, and leaving Aurora and her daughter Clotilde without land or money. The novel opens at a masked ball in New Orleans where Aurora and Honoré meet, unaware of each other’s identity, thus beginning a romantic complication. Paralleling the love triangle of Palmyre and the Grandissime half-brothers, Joseph Frowenfeld falls in love with Clotilde, who, at the same time, is desired by Frowenfeld’s friend Dr. Charlie Keene.
Honoré Grandissime, as leader of the Grandissime family and as Cable’s symbol of right-thinking Creoles, upsets his relatives on several occasions: Endangering the Grandissime finances, he returns Aurora Nancanou’s property to her; in an act socially degrading to the family, he becomes a partner with the quadroon Honoré, under the business title “The Grandissime Brothers”; on an uneasy political level, he cooperates with Claiborne, the newly appointed territorial governor.
Romance, realism, and melodrama are mingled in The Grandissimes. In a romantic resolution, the De Grapion-Grandissime feud is ended, and marriage is imminent for two sets of lovers—Aurora and the white Honoré Grandissime, Clotilde and Frowenfeld. On the realistic side—with an admixture of melodramatic incidents— the two leading quadroons of the story are defeated. After Palmyre’s several attempts to get revenge on the object of her hate, Agricola Fuselier, and after he is stabbed by the quadroon Honoré, she is forced to flee for safety to Paris. She is accompanied by her fellow refugee, Honoré Grandissime (f.m.c.), who commits suicide by drowning because of her final rejection of him.
Intentional obscurity is a characteristic of Cable’s style in The Grandissimes. Lack of direct statement and slow revelation of relationships mark the progress of the plot. Facts are given through hints and implication; full information is withheld in a dense accumulation of incidents. This technique, typical of his early and best works, has been praised for its artistry and criticized for its lack of clarity.
Cable’s portrayal of slaveholders, slaves, and the stubbornly held traditions of French Louisiana added a new dimension to southern literature. Succeeding in his aim as a novelist, Cable found that fame brought a painful backlash. His radical views caused this native son to be identified as a traitor to New Orleans and the South.
In 1881, Cable published the novella Madame Delphine, the third in the three-year sequence of Cable’s finest literary works (after the short-story collection Old Creole Days and the novel The Grandissimes). First published as a three-part novelette in Scribner’s Monthly from May to July, 1881, Madame Delphine was published by Scribner’s in book formlater that year. In editions of Old Creole Days succeeding its initial publication, Madame Delphine is included and given lead position in the book.
The story begins with beautiful Olive Delphine returning from France on a ship Cable, George Washington 203 that is boarded by the Creole pirate Ursin Lemaitre. Confronted by Olive’s piety and charm, Lemaitre is struck with repentance for his sinful life and with love for the unidentified stranger. Settling in New Orleans, the reformed Lemaitre changes his name to Vignevielle and turns from piracy to banking. When not in his banker’s office, he wanders through the streets, searching for the mysterious young woman.
Eventually, the lovelorn banker and Olive develop a friendship, and marriage becomes their intention. Olive, however, is not legally able to become Lemaitre’s wife, for she has black ancestry. Her mother, Madame Delphine, is a quadroon, the mistress to a white man, Olive’s father. Madame Delphine, despite the laws against miscegenation, approves of the marriage. Indeed, she has made it clear that she is seeking a white husband for her daughter.
Vignevielle’s relatives and friends, knowing that Madame Delphine is a quadroon, attempt to stop the illegal marriage, going so far as to threaten to turn him over to government agents who are searching for him. Madame Delphine meanwhile puts forth the ultimate effort to make the union possible. Producing fabricated evidence, she perjures herself by swearing that she is not the girl’s blood mother. After Vignevielle and Olive are married, Madame Delphine goes for confession to the priest Père Jerome, admits her lie, and dies. Père Jerome speaks the closing line: “Lord, lay not this sin to her charge!”
The style of Madame Delphine is leisurely. Little mysteries cling to characters and actions, with revelation coming in glimpses, suggestions, and half-expressed statements. Early reviewers compared Cable to Nathaniel Hawthorne in achievement of mood, atmosphere, and ambiguity. Adverse criticism of Madame Delphine, however, finds the work excessively obscure; most troubling to critics is the needlessly complicated unfolding of the plot. Furthermore, the characterization of the lovers is weak. Vignevielle’s switch from dashing pirate to banker is inadequately motivated. Olive is a shadowy figure without distinguishable traits. Madame Delphine, despite her maneuvers, approaches the stereotype of the helpless mother. The only strong character is Père Jerome, a compassionate observer and spokesman for Cable. Père Jerome sees that society deserves blame, both for its actions and for its failure to act. Society acquiesces in evil—from its unprotesting profit in Lemaitre’s smuggled goods to its deliberate manipulation of the lives of mulattoes.
More significant than the style of Madame Delphine is its portrayal of the southern attitude toward miscegenation. Although romanticism embellishes the outwardly happy ending of the story, Cable’s recognition of the female mulatto’s untenable position is clear. Looking beyond the temporary bliss of the wedding day, the reader realizes that prospects for Olive in New Orleans are not favorable. Madame Delphine’s perjury has made the marriage legally permissible, but in the eyes of Lemaitre’s friends, Olive is not and will never be an acceptable member of their aristocratic society.
The developing social consciousness revealed by Cable in Madame Delphine gives the work a lasting value. After this novella, though, he confined the most telling of his indictments to essays, disappointing readers who waited for his familiar critical tone in future novels. He was never able to duplicate the blend of artistic craftsmanship, authentic local color, and social commentary that distinguishes Madame Delphine, The Grandissimes, and Old Creole Days.
Long fiction: The Grandissimes, 1880; Madame Delphine, 1881; Dr. Sevier, 1884; Bonaventure, 1888; John March, Southerner, 1894; The Cavalier, 1901; Bylow Hill, 1902; Kincaid’s Battery, 1908; Gideon’s Band, 1914; Lovers of Louisiana, 1918.
Short fiction: Old Creole Days, 1879; Strong Hearts, 1899; Posson Jone’ and Père Raphaël, 1909; The Flower of the Chapdelaines, 1918.
Nonfiction: The Creoles of Louisiana, 1884; The Silent South, 1885; Strange True Stories of Louisiana, 1889; The Negro Question, 1890; The Busy Man’s Bible, 1891; A Memory of Roswell Smith, 1892; The Amateur Garden, 1914.
Miscellaneous: The Cable Story Book: Selections for School Reading, 1899.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.