papé and cabell

In 1921, James Branch Cabell published a prequel of sorts to his then-notorious novel Jurgen. This new work, Figures of Earth, did not enjoy the succès de scandale of its predecessor, much to its author's disappointment. When a Papé-illustrated version was published in 1925, Cabell wrote the following by way of introduction:


To the writer of this Figures of Earth the book's main fault—pre-eminent among an initimidatingly large horde of others,—has always seemed to be the fact that it was not illustrated by Frank C. Papé. Now at long last that defect—in any case, that one especial defect,—is very happily remedied; and in these witty and poetic illustrations, in these caustic and sly tailpieces, a five-year-old ambition is for the book's writer realized.

—Along with of course the attendant advantages. After some two decades of the pride appropriate to seeing my scriptorial labors listed in the periodicals of all Second Hand and Rare Book Dealers under the caption Pyle, Howard, Illustrations by, I am nowadays so advanced in alphabetical rating (still under that rather backward letter P, to be sure, but distinctly further to the van) that I note daily, with an approval not utterly vainglorious, the fervor with which the most of my later writings are being commended to “Papé collectors.”

And indeed the volume at this moment in your hands I must perforce, by the plain test of inadequate mathematics, regard as Mr. Papé's book rather than my own book whensoever I quite futilely attempt to sum up his delightful and unarithmeticable additions to the text. There is no picture anywhere but is opulent in conceits, and burgeons with whimseys, which in the current low condition of human nature I would no doubt instantly and without remorse declare to be at but one remove the legitimate heirs of my invention if only I detected the least chance of what optimism (as very notably a stranger among “stylists”) might describe as a clean getaway.

But upon the whole I can find no promising encouragement toward any such dishonesty. Mine, by ill luck and with regrettable explicitness, is not that splendid poem of the thronged dreams' descent of Vraidex, through the vast sleeping heads, and equally not mine is that grotesque fine linear symphony of the departing Freydis. I may not claim to have invented that so multitudinously cruciferous archangel who is policing paradisiacal suburbs against the invasion of a retroactive chimæra while the just finished Adam dries out in the sun, among the pleasingly modest herbage of Eden. I contributed no feather to the alate, apt, local intervention of that agitated swan who suspects his creator of somewhat too amorous notions in the way of imparting life to his Leda. I furnished none of the religious and secular minutiæ, not even that pair of lady's shoes and what I take to be a broken garter, in the picture of Manuel's avian arrangements to provide a king for England. Discretion rather than mere decency compels me to refrain from labeling as my own offspring that one of Beda's house-guests who so happily combines the best traits of the elephant and the lobster with an afterthought of the python; and that triple tragedy in the stork's business career I must also, with an enforced and covetous candor, admit myself in no wise to have provoked. All these fine things, and many other fine things hereinafter, stay wholly and indisputably the legal children of Frank C. Papé.

As for the text used hereinafter to connect these pictures, I find, on looking back, that its reception by the public was a depressing affair which, in the later illumination of good luck, seems somehow to have flowered into drollery. For this Figures of Earth, I should perhaps explain, appeared in 1921, immediately following, and during the temporary sequestration, of Jurgen. The fact was forthwith quite unreticently discovered that in Figures of Earth I had not succeeded in my own attempt to rewrite its predecessor; and this crass failure, so open, so flagrant and so undeniable, caused what I can only describe as the instant and overwhelming and universal triumph of Figures of Earth to be precisely what did not occur. Comstockery surged still of course in full cry against the imprisoned pawnbroker and the crimes of his author, both literary and personal; and the, after all, tolerably large portion of the reading public who were not disgusted by Jurgen's lechery were now, so near as I could gather, enraged by Manuel's lack of it.

It followed that aggrieved reproof of my auctorial malversation, upon the one ground or the other, became biloquial and pandemic. Not many other books, I believe, have been burlesqued and assailed in the public prints by their own dedicatees... But from the cicatrix of that healed wound I turn away. Meanwhile the fifteen or so experiments in contrapuntal prose were, in particular, uncharted passages from which I stayed unique where others found bewilderment and no tongue-tied irritation: but, in general, and above all else, the book exasperated everybody, in every respect, by not being a more successfully managed rehashing of the then notorious Jurgen.

Since 1921, and since the rehabilitation of Jurgen, the notion has uprisen, gradually, among the more bold and speculative thinkers, that perhaps I was not, after all, in this Figure of Earth attempting to rewrite Jurgen: and Manuel has made his own friends.

James Branch Cabell

Dumbarton Grange,
September, 1925