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George Washington Cable, 1844-1925
The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1880.

Summary

George Washington Cable, one of the most influential American writers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was born October 12, 1844 in New Orleans to George W. Cable, Sr. and Rebecca Boardman Cable. The Cables were an affluent slaveholding family, active in the Presbyterian Church and in New Orleans society. However, in the years prior to the Civil War, Cable's father suffered the loss of several investments, and upon his early death Cable was forced to leave school to support his family. Despite this turn of events, Cable remained a lifelong learner who taught himself French and cultivated a fascination with the intricacies of multicultural Louisiana life.

In 1863 at age nineteen, Cable enlisted in the Confederate cavalry as an ardent supporter of slavery and the South's cause. However, his war experiences challenged him to reconsider his ethical and political moorings. Wounded during battle, Cable returned home at the war's end to his previous job as bookkeeper for a cotton merchant, though he yearned for a more "honorable profession." In February 1870 he landed a position as the weekly "Drop Shot" columnist with the New Orleans Picayune where he developed a confident authorial voice. During this time his deep affection for New Orleans's people and culture prompted him to walk the streets in his spare time, picking up anecdotes and information about city life. He eventually turned to writing sketches that included regional dialects, characters, and an attention to detail that captured the cultural variety of New Orleans. During the 1870s, the northern magazine Scribner's Monthly (later Century) sought descriptions of life in the postwar South, and commissioned Cable for a series of sketches about the region. Cable quickly grew in popularity, publishing seven stories with Scribner's between 1873 and 1876. In 1880 he published his first novel, The Grandissimes, a story about Creole society in the early 1800s, which he hoped would increase awareness of contemporary racial injustice.

After writing Madame Delphine (1881), a novella addressing miscegenation, and a longer work on prison reform entitled Dr. Sevier (1884), Cable turned to non-fiction in order to voice his growing concerns about social conditions in the South. In 1885 he published two controversial essays, "The Freedman's Case in Equity" and "The Silent South," which argued in favor of racial equality and attacked the Jim Crow system. Unable to remain in New Orleans due to the hostile reception of his articles, Cable moved permanently with his wife, Louisa Stewart Bartlett, and their children to Northampton, Massachusetts later that year. He remained an exile in the North for thirty years, continuing to write critically of his former southern home. However, even his later work manifested an abiding affection for the place that first inspired him as a writer.

Perhaps best known for his first novel, Cable complicates the genre of historical romance in The Grandissimes by providing a realistic portrait of race and class relations in New Orleans immediately following the Louisiana Purchase (1803). A complex novel characterized by numerous sub-plots and Creole dialect, The Grandissimes chronicles the adventures and romances of various members of the Grandissime family—black, white, mixed-race, rich and poor alike. The story begins when Honoré Grandissime, the scion of the white branch of this powerful New Orleans clan, takes in Joseph Frowenfeld, a young man from Philadelphia whose entire family has died from yellow fever. Honoré's conversations with Joseph about the New Orleans caste system shed light on the dilemmas at the center of the novel. Honoré finds himself caught between an idealistic Joseph, who advocates sweeping social reforms that would end slavery but essentially erase Creole culture, and his prideful uncle Agricola Fusilier, who ostensibly holds onto a racist past in order to preserve the Grandissime way of life—one built on the foundations of slavery. Honoré wants to establish a business partnership with his quadroon half brother (also called Honoré) and do right by Aurora Nancanou, who was widowed and rendered destitute when Agricola murdered her husband over a gambling dispute. Yet his decisions regarding this tarnished family history are further complicated by his secret love for Aurora.

The story of Bras Coupé, retold several times, connects the novel's divergent strands and is suggestive of Honoré's struggle against his past and a vibrant New Orleans society that remains tainted by slavery's atrocities. Bras Coupé, an enslaved African prince on a Spanish Creole plantation, is engaged to Palmyre, Aurora's maid. Inspired by the indignity of his plight, Bras Coupé attacks his white overseer, and is soon viciously pursued by a mob of Creole aristocrats, among them Agricola, through the New Orleans swamps. Honoré tries to prevent the African prince's punishment but to no avail. Upon his capture, Bras Coupé issues a curse on both his master and his plantation. He is summarily beaten to death, though only after his ears are cut off and his hamstrings slashed. Bras Coupé, literally meaning "arm cut off" in French, personifies the cruelty of slavery and the degeneracy that lies at the heart of a so-called genteel southern society.

Cable's devotion to Creole society, rendered in romantic terms throughout The Grandissimes , is counterbalanced by the haunting presence of Bras Coupé's fate, which illustrates that a world of such charm and privilege comes at great human cost.

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., Minrose Gwin, Trudier Harris and Fred Hobson, eds., The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998, p. 275-276; Cleman, John, George Washington Cable Revisited, Ed. Nancy Walker, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996, pgs. 1-19; Harrison, Suzan, "The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life," Masterplots, Revised Second Edition, Salem Press, 1996; Lauter, Paul, ed., The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 4th edition, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002; Pizer, Donald and Earl N. Harbert, eds., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Realists and Naturalists, volume 12, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1982; Rubin, Louis D., Writers of the Modern South: The Faraway Country, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966.

See also the entry for George Washington Cable from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Bond Thompson
Armistead Lemon

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