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Cabell, James Branch

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1879-1958) US author, mostly of mannered, witty and in later life sometimes rather enervated fantasies set in a Land of Fable Europe [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] which conveniently adjoins more mythological realms. In some cases long after they were first published, he assimilated a large number of both fantasies and nonfantastic work (including historical and contemporary romances) as episodes in the Biography of the Life of Manuel. The imaginary kingdom of Poictesme and the bloodline of its supposed redeemer Manuel are central threads running through the more than twenty volumes of the series, and tie the whole – however arbitrarily – into a consistent purview. The stated [though not chronologically consistent; see Checklist for publication order and subtitles] proper ordering of the sequence is: Beyond Life (1919); Figures of Earth (1921); The Silver Stallion (coll of linked stories 1926); The Music from Behind the Moon (1926 chap) and The White Robe (1928), both assembled along with The Way of Ecben (1928) as The Witch-Woman (omni 1948); The Soul of Melicent (1913; rev vt Domnei 1920); Chivalry (coll 1909; rev 1921); Jurgen (1919; rev 1921); The Line of Love (coll of linked stories 1905; rev 1921); The High Place (1923); Gallantry (coll 1907; rev 1922); Something about Eve (1927); The Certain Hour (coll 1916); The Cords of Vanity (1909; rev 1920); From the Hidden Way (coll 1916; rev 1924; vt Ballades from the Hidden Way 1928); The Jewel Merchants (1921); The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck (1915); The Eagle's Shadow (1904; rev 1923); The Cream of the Jest (1917); The Lineage of Lichfield (1922); and Straws and Prayer-Books (coll 1924). After resorting and further revising all the above as the eighteen-volume 1927-1930 "Storisende" edition of the Biography – closing with Townsend of Lichfield (omni 1930), which assembles numerous loose ends – Cabell announced that his future work would appear as by Branch Cabell.

A second fantasy series – Smirt (1934), Smith (1935) and Smire (1937), all as by Branch Cabell and assembled as The Nightmare has Triplets (omni 1972) – deliberately and effectively imitates the hazy logical progression of dreams as it carries the eponym (who is three in one) ever downwards, through universes and incarnations: the effect is ironical. Cabell resumed his full name for two final volumes of fantasy which failed to add noticeably to his reputation: There Were Two Pirates (1946) and The Devil's Own Dear Son (1949).

Cabell suffered from over-attention after the highly implausible prosecution of Jurgen for obscenity in the form of many harmless double-entendres and – particularly offensive to the plaintiffs – a tiny joke about Papal infallibility. After his subsequent fame and slow decline into relative neglect, his more recent advocates – like James Blish, who was for some time editor of the Cabell Society journal Kalki – perhaps argued too strenuously for his rehabilitation. By now, however, his place in US fiction is secure though very far from central; he is remembered for Jurgen and a handful of related fictions rather than for the too many lesser and even trivial works that were laboriously retrofitted into the Biography of the Life of Manuel, whose revision and re-revision to produce the immense Storisende Edition had – as Michael Swanwick has argued in What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage? (2007) – an ultimately blighting effect on his career.

Cabell's relevance to sf proper derives from his engagingly haughty use of sf tropes: Alternate Worlds, Dystopias and Utopias, Time Travel, and even the building of planets and creation of life in "Above Paradise" (February 1925 American Mercury; rev in The Silver Stallion, coll of linked stories 1926). A favourite Cabellian device, variations of which appear in Figures of Earth, Jurgen, The High Place and others, was the Ouroboros narrative arc that closes on itself in a Time Loop so that the end becomes the beginning (with the loop of The High Place eventually broken by the protagonist's new choice based on recollection of the first iteration). Explicit homage to Cabell can be found in Robert A Heinlein's Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984), which echoes the subtitle of Jurgen, and in episodes of Neil Gaiman's Sandman sequence; his ironic manner is intermittently pastiched in John Brunner's The Traveler in Black (coll of linked stories 1971; exp vt The Compleat Traveler in Black 1986). An effective Parody, admired by Cabell himself for its "damnable cleverness", appears in Heavens (coll 1922) by Louis Untermeyer (whom see). [JC/DRL]

see also: Fantasy; Fantasy Entries; Gods and Demons; Sword and Sorcery.

James Branch Cabell

born Richmond, Virginia: 14 April 1879

died Richmond, Virginia: 5 May 1958



Biography of the Life of Manuel

Biography of the Life of Manuel: Storisende edition

The final revision and resorting of the above.

Biography of the Life of Manuel: supplementary

The Nightmare Has Triplets

It Happened in Florida

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about the author


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