Of course it was silly to suppress
“Jurgen.” That goes without saying.
But it seems equally silly, because of its being suppressed,
to hail it as high art. It is simply Mr. James
Branch Cabell’s quaint way of telling a raw
story and it isn’t particularly his own way,
either. Personally, I like the modern method
“Jurgen” is a frank imitation
of the old-time pornographers and although it is a
very good imitation, it need not rank Mr. Cabell any
higher than the maker of a plaster-of-paris copy
of some Boeotian sculptural oddity.
The author, in defense of his fortunate
book, lifts his eyebrows and says, “Honi soit.”
He claims, and quite rightly, that everything he has
written has at least one decent meaning, and that anyone
who reads anything indecent into it automatically
convicts himself of being in a pathological condition.
The question is, if Mr. Cabell had been convinced
beforehand that nowhere in all this broad land would
there be anyone who would read another meaning into
his lily-white words, would he ever have bothered
to write the book at all?
Mr. Cabell is admittedly a genealogist.
He is an earnest student of the literature of past
centuries. He has become so steeped in the phrases
and literary mannerisms of the middle and upper-middle
ages that, even in his book of modern essays “Beyond
Life,” he is constantly emitting strange words
which were last used by the correspondents who covered
the crusades. No man has to be as artificially
obsolete as Mr. Cabell is. He likes to be.
In “Jurgen” he has simply
let himself go. There is no pretense of writing
like a modern. There is no pretense of writing
in the style of even James Branch Cabell. It
is frankly “in the manner of” those ancient
authors whose works are sold surreptitiously to college
students by gentlemen who whisper their selling-talk
behind a line of red sample bindings. And it
is not in the manner of Rabelais, although Rabelais’s
name has been frequently used in describing “Jurgen.”
Rabelais seldom hid his thought behind two meanings.
There was only one meaning, and you could take it
or leave it. And Rabelais would never have said
“Honi soit” by way of defense.
The general effect is one of Fielding
or Sterne telling the story of Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight, with their own embellishments, to the
boys at the club.
If all that is necessary to produce
a work of art is to take a drummer’s story and
tell it in dusty English, we might try our luck with
the modern smoking-car yarn about the traveling-man
who came to the country hotel late at night, and see
how far we can get with it in the manner of James
Branch Cabell imitating Fielding imitating someone
It is a tale which they narrate in
Nouveau Rochelle, saying: In the old days there
came one night a traveling man to an inn, and the night
was late, and he was sore beset, what with rag-tag-and-bob-tail.
Eftsoons he made known his wants to the churl behind
the desk, who was named Gogyrvan. And thus he
“Indeed, sir, no,” was Gogyrvan’s
“Now but this is an deplorable
thing, God wot,” says the traveling man.
“Fie, brother, but you think awry. Come,
don smart your thinking-cap and answer me again.
An’ you have forgot my query; it was: ’Any
Whereat the churl behind the desk
gat him down from his stool and closed one eye in
“There is one room,” he
says, and places his forefinger along the side of
his nose, in the manner of a man who places his forefinger
along the side of his nose.
But at this point I am stopped short
by the warning passage through the room of a cold,
damp current of air as from the grave, and I know that
it is one of Mr. Sumner’s vice deputies flitting
by on his rounds in defense of the public morals.
So I can go no further, for public morals must be
defended even at the cost of public morality (a statement
which means nothing but which sounds rather well,
I think. I shall try to work it in again some
But perhaps enough has been said to
show that it is perfectly easy to write something
that will sound classic if you can only remember enough
old words. When Mr. Cabell has learned the language,
he ought to write a good book in modern English.
There are lots of people who read it and they speak
very highly of it as a means of expression.
But there are certain things that
you cannot express in it without sounding crass, which
would be a disadvantage in telling a story like “Jurgen.”