Thursday, October 12, 2017

Birthday: He spoke truth to power and upstaged Mark Twain. Power won, both times.


George Washington Cable (1844-1925)
Author, activist

The first "modern" Southern novelist, whose work influenced Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, G.W. Cable was born to well-placed New Orleans parents who owned slaves.

He fought in the Confederate Army. His father, whose investments suffered during the war years, died young. Forced to get work to support his family, he spent fourteen years as a reporter for The Times-Picayune newspaper, writing stories on the side. A series of stories in Scribner’s Magazine between 1873 and 1876 won him critical and popular acclaim; published as Old Creole Days in 1879, they enabled him to give up journalism and turn to novels.

Cable wrote a series of novels on life in multiracial New Orleans, highlighting the conflict between the old French community’s tolerance with the post-Lousiana Purchase Anglo-American influx’s insistence on imposing a biracial regime.

He was able to draw fine line between criticism of people and their customs, a bipolarity he felt himself. While Cable considered blacks intellectually and socially inferior to whites, he believed they deserved equal rights. His war experiences, and study of Scripture, convinced him to speak out against the post-Reconstruction reimposition of segregation and erection of the Jim Crow system.  

In 1880 he produced a 313-page “preface” to the Census Bureau’s “Social Statistics for Cities” report; it appeared in a much-reduced form but has since been published in full and stands as a well-regarded history of the South.

Cable’s 1884 novel, Doctor Sevier, was a cri de coeur for prison reform and a best-seller; in half a decade he had become the South’s leading writer, and found himself summoned by America’s greatest writer.

Twain Cable.jpg

Cable met Mark Twain in the early 1870s, and they got to know each other almost too well when Cable fell ill visiting the Twains in Hartford and had to stay on, and on, convalescing.

In 1884, Twain- who had made much of his living as a lecturer for years, conceived the idea of a  “Kings of Comedy”-style tour, featuring himself, Cable, and their friends William Dean Howells and Thomas Aldrich. The tour had evolved from custom-written lectures to staged readings of authors’ works; Dickens set the standard for “performing” his characters in his 1867-68 tour, which Twain reviewed after seeing Dickens in New York.

Twain thought he could do the same with his stories; it would be easy, profitable work.

In the event, only Cable was free, and Twain thought his elfin appearance and serious literary work would provide a nice counterpart to his own scenery-chewing style. In recollections he dictated in 1907, Twain recalled how, in the 1870s, speculators and agents had taken over the lecture circuit, squeezing the writers dry and killing off the entertainment format for a decade.:

Cable had been scouting the country alone for three years with readings from his novels, and he had been a good reader in the beginning for he had been born with a natural talent for it, but unhappily he prepared himself for his public work by taking lessons from a teacher of elocution, and so by the time he was ready to begin his platform work he was so well and thoroughly educated that he was merely theatrical and artificial and not half as pleasing and entertaining to a house as he had been in the splendid days of his ignorance. I had never tried reading as a trade and I wanted to try it. I hired Major Pond on a percentage to conduct me over the country, and I hired Cable as a helper at six hundred dollars a week and expenses, and we started out on our venture.

Billing themselves “Twins of Genius” series, Twain and Cable took the stage for 104 performances in about 80 cities between November 5th 1884 and February 28th 1885, travelling through New York, Pennsylvania, parts of Canada, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New Jersey.

twain cable program.jpg

Twain revised the program throughout the tour, irked that Cable upstaged him more than once. Behind Cable’s back Twain griped that he was both cheap and taking undue advantage if his expense account.

Cable cut into bookings by refusing to travel on Sundays, preferring to take in several church services; he didn’t smoke or drink, either.

At Twain’s memorial service in 1910, Cable recalled the tour as one of the singular experiences of his life, telling the audience,
One night we were in Rochester together. It was Saturday night, and for a wonder we were without an engagement that night, so we started out for a walk; we had gone a few steps when we found a bookstore, and at the same moment it was beginning to rain. I said: "Let us go in here." He said: "I remember I have not provided myself with anything to read all day to-morrow." I said: "We will get it here. I will look down that table, and you will look down this." Presently I went over to him and said I had not found anything that I thought would interest him, and asked him if he had found anything. He said no, he had not; but there was a book he did not remember any previous acquaintance with. He asked me what that book was.
"Why," I said, "that is Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur." And he said: "Shall we take it?" I said: "Yes; and you will never lay it down until you have read it from cover to cover." It was easy enough to make the prophecy, and, of course, it was fulfilled. He had read in it a day or two, when I saw come upon his cheekbones those vivid pink spots which every one who knew him intimately and closely knew meant that his mind was working with all its energies. I said to myself: "Ah, I think Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur is going to bear fruit in the brain of Mark Twain." A year or two afterward, when he came to see me in my Northhampton home, I asked him what he was engaged in, and he said he was writing a story of A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur. I said: "If that be so, then I claim for myself the godfathership of that book." He said: "Yes; you are its godfather." I can claim no higher honor than to have the honor to claim that here and now, to-night, and to rejoice with you that we are able to offer a tribute to our affection to the memory of Mark Twain.
The website, Touring With Cable and Huck, carries all sorts of materials from and about the tour; though the two remained cordial, they were never close again once it ended.
By 1885 two of Cable’s essays, ‘The Freedman’s Case in Equity,’ and ‘The Silent South,’ aroused such passions in New Orleans that Cable and his family removed to Massachusetts. There he published the majority of his output; his last novel appeared in 1918.
The website Literary New Orleans sums up Cable in this way:
Essentially all of Cable’s formative experiences, all of his “living,” happened in New Orleans. He walked the streets and observed the diversity, the mix of ethnicities of the city’s inhabitants, including the “Creoles of French and Spanish descent, Negroes of different races who still preserved something of their African customs, mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons, Mexicans, Italians, Irishmen, and Germans, sailors and fishermen.” He learned their varied accents, customs and beliefs, and created characters based on the people he met and interacted with. The city was essential to his writing, and gave his work a truth and honesty that few writers could match. After his move to Massachusetts, he attempted to continue writing about New Orleans, but was met with disappointing results. Petry notes, “Cable seems to have needed to be in the closest possible contact with his subject in order to write about them artistically. . . .[he became]so out of touch with his material that he became oddly dry and preachy.”
Cable’s move to Massachusetts, while cementing his status as a native outsider to New Orleans and negatively affecting his fiction writing, ended up being a positive experience that helped him grow personally. The move put him closer to his close friend Mark Twain, and to “a public and a press that were receptive to his liberal views regarding social reform in the South, in particular civil rights.”
Though his fiction suffered, he continued to write important pieces such as The Negro Question (1890) that argued in favor of racial equality. This metamorphosis made clear what had always been true about Cable: he was a social activist who happened to write fiction, rather than the other way around.
G.W. Cable lived to see his sentence, "Everybody knows the Lord loveth a cheerful giver," widely thought to be from the Bible

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