George Washington Cable

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George Washington Cable, c. 1898. Photograph by A.J. Schillare, Library of Congress. 

In university days, en route to or from a quiet corner of the library in which to work, I would often get sidetracked by the countless stacks of books which had nothing at all to do with whatever assignment was at hand. Because so many of those thousands of volumes seemed infinitely more interesting than anything I would be required to examine for a class. Nearly always, however, I would force myself not to linger, though I did occasionally allow myself the sweet pleasure of succumbing to the temptation of abandoning my work and plunging into some random author and his books. One of the many writers I did not give in to, despite the lovely antique volumes of his books which stood before me upon the shelf, was George Washington Cable (1844-1925), whose work focussed on the relationships among whites and blacks and persons of mixed race in the French, Spanish, African and American Louisiana of the pre Civil War and post Civil War periods. I managed to resist George Washington Cable, in fact, for over thirty years, long after such resistance, born of academic necessity, had morphed into mere procrastination and apathy. But then two days ago I downloaded several free volumes of Cable’s works onto my Kindle (a little Thanksgiving Day treat), and within a short twenty-four hour period had managed to move happily through the 1881 novella ‘Madame Delphine’, which Cable had reworked from a short story into a somewhat longer book and which today forms the first tale in the collection ‘Old Creole Days’. It was more or less a delight to read, though I am not uncritical of it.

Madame Delphine herself is a very lovely woman who would have had a comfortable place in New Orleans society had she not had one grandparent who was black. Thus is she condemned to a distinctly marginalized existence in the bigoted society which is her home. But the story revolves around her efforts to conceal her own relationship to her daughter, the child of a notorious but white freebooter of the high seas, and to arrange the girl’s marriage with a white French Creole aristocrat. I loved everything about the writing itself, which is mostly quite fine, except for one thing: Cable’s to me annoying use of what amounts to atrocious spelling of both English and French–his effort to accurately depict the New Orleans patois of the people among whom Madame Delphine lives and who variously employ the different idioms of which they have at best a very shaky grasp. This feature reminds me of nothing so much as Mark Twain’s vast chapters of what to me are so much unintelligible gibberish in books like ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’. I am no denigrator of dialects, by the way. But I believe that the effort to depict them by means of bad spelling of sentences in otherwise standard speech is both artificial and ridiculous. I offer this as a descriptive observation, however, and have no accompanying prescriptive suggestion for a better way to do it. Perhaps there is none. Late 19th century Russian fiction is replete with this phenomenon. I have always attributed it to the effort of highly literate aristocratic writers to reproduce the speech of a peasantry they themselves could not understand or much communicate with. Perhaps, I am tempted to think, for Cable it was the same. Still, I am looking forward to his other works which await.

And I love the photo of him reproduced above. Those 19th century working libraries always fascinate. They seem to have been such airy spacious places, retreats to which you could withdraw for an entire day to think your own thoughts and never be disturbed by the outside world. My favorite feature here: the map of Cuba and the island of Hispaniola hanging from the shelf at top left. Cable must have been working on something wonderful. 

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2 comments on “George Washington Cable

  1. He sounds like a very interesting figure and I love the picture too. I feel as though the sort of library experience you describe is becoming increasingly a thing of a past. The internet has many advantages but I feel like it’s destroying my concentration, too, and there are fewer opportunities to wander amongst books. The internet hit critical mass around when I started studying at university, but I used it only sparingly in my research, so I’m glad I still spent so much time with books and in the library while studying – and that I grew up with the wonder of libraries as places of books and discoveries, not just internet cafes as they increasingly seem to be.

  2. leifhendrik says:

    I share your concern about the loss of concentration. In what would now be thought a kind of technological Middle Ages, I completed an undergraduate degree and five years of graduate study without any use of a computer whatever, much less internet. After that I got a word processor, a sort of glorified typewriter, and how much easier it made life than my grandmother’s ancient Royal manual had done! Today I think of the internet as a way of having much greater contact with the outside world of people, places and ideas–but the cost is the one you lament. Could I happily embark on a long novel by Thomas Mann or Leo Tolstoy now with complete confidence that I would finish it? The phenomenon you describe is truly one to consider.

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