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James Branch Cabell, 1879-1958
Jurgen: a Comedy of Justice
New York: R.M. McBride & Company, 1922, c1919.


James Branch Cabell was born April 14, 1879 in Richmond, Virginia to a prominent southern family. Relatives of his father, Robert Gamble Cabell II, a medical doctor, included a former Virginia governor as well as a personal physician of Robert E. Lee, while his mother, Anne Harris Branch, descended from English settlers in colonial Jamestown. Cabell's parents divorced in 1907. After attending private schools in Richmond, Cabell (in 1894) entered the College of William and Mary where, even as an undergraduate student, he taught courses in French and Greek. He graduated with high honors in 1898. Cabell went back to Richmond and worked briefly in the Richmond Times pressroom before moving to New York, where he was a reporter for the New York Herald (1899-1901). His 1901 return to Richmond as a reporter for the Richmond News was permanent, apart from a brief stint in the West Virginia coal mines (1911-1913). In 1913 Cabell married Priscilla Bradley Shepherd, a widow with five children from a previous marriage; the couple had one son together. A year after his first wife's death in 1949, Cabell married Margaret Waller Freeman, a long-time family friend. He died in Richmond May 5, 1958 at the age of seventy-nine.

Devoting his life to writing, Cabell worked as both a genealogist and a creative writer. Beginning in 1901, several pieces of his short fiction were published in various magazines. However, his literary reputation and popularity remained modest until January 14, 1920, when John S. Sumner, executive secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, seized the plates and copies of Jurgen on charges of lewdness and indecency. Indeed in characteristic Cabell fashion, the text sparkles with sexual innuendo. After confiscating Jurgen, Sumner charged Cabell's editor at McBride, Guy Holt, with violating New York's antiobscenity provisions. The national attention surrounding the novel's censorship and later exoneration during the October 1922 obscenity trial transformed James Branch Cabell into the literary world's reluctant hero.

Perhaps Cabell's best-known work, Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice is the fantastic tale of a medieval pawnbroker and would-be poet. According to Nessus the Centaur, a character the protagonist meets in a mysterious cave and who outfits him in a resplendent tunic, Jurgen will go "in search of justice, over the grave of a dream and through the malice of time." In full knowledge of his and others' future, Jurgen, equipped with a middle-aged man's head and a youth's body, journeys to the past. Traveling through bizarre dream kingdoms as a participant in assorted legends, Jurgen translates his otherworldly encounters—ghostly, mythic, and historical alike—into verse.

Despite occupying the stations of duke, king, emperor, and pope, among others, Jurgen discovers not universal justice but still greater disillusionment. While in Heaven, for instance, he commiserates with St. Peter, lamenting that his successive marriages have brought confusion rather than understanding. Jurgen's yearlong wanderings ultimately result in his tri-fold loss of faith, desire, and vision. Rejecting their embodiments in Guinevere, Anaïtis, and Helen, who have been offered by Koshchei the Deathless, a wearied Jurgen instead accepts life as he has chosen it, returning to his existence as a humble pawnbroker. The novel closes with Jurgen, having returned from his travels through the dream kingdoms, making a shrewd business deal with Countess Dorothy. He then goes home to his aging wife, Lisa. Yet with the protagonist musing that there never has been such a place as the cave, where his mystical journey ostensibly began, Cabell's reader is left in the unsettling position of questioning whether the novel's narrated events have actually transpired or if the poet-hero has merely dreamed it all. Indeed as Jurgen himself concludes, "It was all rather confusing."

First published in 1919, Jurgen became the sixth title in Cabell's eighteen-volume mythic saga, The Biography of the Life of Manuel (1927-1930), which blended novels, short stories, poems, and essays. Cabell had first envisioned the series, known as the Storisende Edition, in 1915, and he worked relentlessly to modify and rework texts already published while creating new tales that would coalesce into an intricate master design. Set in the mythical Poictesme, the literary cycle moves from medieval Europe to twentieth-century America, following its protagonist, Manuel, and his offspring through seven centuries. To a certain degree, each text considers at least one of three attitudes towards life—the chivalric, the gallant, or the poetic—that Western civilization (represented by Manuel and his descendants) variously embraces.

Following The Biography's completion in 1930, Cabell's literary output did not diminish significantly, yet his reputation did. Riddled by economic hardship, Depression-era Americans grew increasingly dissatisfied with romance, myth, and fantasy. In a largely unsuccessful attempt to remake his image, James Branch Cabell condensed his public name to "Branch Cabell" and began writing nonfiction. By the time of his death in 1959, this masterful creator of what he termed "dynamic illusions" (or dreams), who irreverently and perplexingly mingled intricate symbolism with lapses into naturalism, allegory with fable and satire, and medieval romance with whimsical comedy, had published over forty books.

Works Consulted: Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Knight, Lucian Lamar, comp., Biographical Dictionary of Southern Authors, 1929, Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1978; Martine, James J., ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Novelists, 1910-1945, volume 9, Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1978.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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