James Branch Cabell 1879-1962

It’s likely that you have never read a novel by James Branch Cabell, though he is not precisely a forgotten author. He gave his name to the Library of Virginia Commonwealth University in his hometown of Richmond Virginia, a literary city which also gave us Edgar Allen Poe, “The Bonfire of the Vanities” author Tom Wolfe, and in more recent years bestselling author David Baldacci.  His name is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, or as he said “Tell the rabble my name is Cabell.”

Born to an affluent family, he was kicked out of William and Mary in 1894.  His close friend, novelist Ellen Glasgow, told two stories about Cabell in her posthumously published, “The Woman Within: An Autobiography.”  She says, writing a little indirectly in 1954, that Williamsburg was rocked by a homosexual scandal, leading to Cabell’s removal from the college.  She calls the expulsions of Cabell and others the result of a “mob spirit,” and, guilty or not, that seems to have been the case (Glasgow, 1980, p. 132).

Glasgow and Cabell both claim he was entirely innocent. This is not surprising.  Cabell was a friend and, by the time Glasgow was writing, had a marriage and child and considerable literary distinction at a time when homosexuality still placed one at the far realms of the untouchable.  To do otherwise than proclaim his innocence would have been a grave injury. 

The event couldn’t have left Cabell unscarred.  The very hint of homosexual scandal had former friends literally snubbing him in the streets.  “For weeks before the Commencement, he lived utterly alone in his College center, and the acquaintances he passed in the street had fallen into an abstracted habit of sky-gazing.  In those weeks my sister and I longed to approach him, but we were doubtful whether he would wish to be spoken to by persons he did not remember.  Every afternoon he would sit, alone, on the porch of a tavern across the street, while Cary and I were reading on the porch of the Inn….he had even then, that air of legendary remoteness…I was young enough to feel that he was a romantic figure, innocent but persecuted, and I admired his aristocratic detachment”(Glasgow, 1980, p. 133).  The account is useful not only as an account of Cabell’s life, but as perspective into the real degree of social ostracization which Crowley courted a scant decade later with his thinly veiled homosexual references, and the reality of his effective exile. 

A less romantic account by researcher Edgar E. MacDonald says that the object of the homosexual scandal was Charles Coleman, the school’s library and a poet published in The Atlantic and Harpers.  Cabell hosted a party for the Kappa Alpha Fraternity on January 18, 1898 “at which most of the guests are said to have become so inebriated that no one could recall what, if anything had happened. At about the same time the College Librarian fell from a ladder, breaking a leg and so disappeared from the social scene. During the next two months the rumors connecting Cabell’s and Coleman’s names with homosexuality grew” (MacDonald, 1970, p. 50).

While Glasgow says that Cabell’s mother appeared with an attorney and forced the school to readmit him, research by MacDonald suggests that Coleman resigned and Cabell and another student asked to be removed from the roles.  Cabell seems to have resigned out of pique or pride. His mother’s attorney, Beverly Bland Munford – a lawyer and member of the Board of Visitors of William and Mary, advised him that his resignation would be taken as an admission of guilt and convinced him to apply for readmission. He was readmitted but, as Glasgow concludes, “James was drawn in into a small circle; yet he had not been intimate enough with this circle to have it tighten in his defense.”(Glasgow, 1980, p. 132)

By the time James Cabell had returned from school, his father, Dr. Cabell, had moved out with no explanation to his three teen-aged sons. Cabell’s mother, née Anne Harris Branch, had married at eighteen to a man twelve years older.  “Numerous reports would have her beautiful and pleasure-loving.  Her open nature made her disregard the more rigid structures of society,” in Calvinist Presbyterian Richmond. (MacDonald, 1970, p. 53)  Annie Cabell was a hostess and enjoyed the company of interesting people, apparently provoking enough scandal that Dr. Cabell felt forced to vacate the family home. Dr. Cabell, on the other hand, may have felt his business threatened, the pressures of scandal could have severe economic repercussions. What is clear is that, in true southern fashion, no-one was openly talking about the reasons behind the move. 

Cabell’s next scandal occurred three years after his father’s departure.  A man by the name of John Scott called on a young lady on the evening of the 13th of November, then spent time at the Commonwealth Club, which he left at 1:45 am “after ascertaining from a friend that he was in walking condition.”(MacDonald, 1970, p. 56)  He passed the Cabell residence, where James was now working as a reporter for the Richmond News. Someone heard screams and Scott banged on the door of a nearby residence.  He was found collapsed on the porch.  Bleeding, he was taken to the hospital where he then died, his skull fatally fractured, possibly by a cane.  Not having been robbed, the limited forensics of the day split the cause between a fall and personal malice, but the inquest returned a verdict of murder.  Based on rumors that Scott was inappropriately involved with Cabell’s mother, scurrilous Richmond society immediately fingered Cabell as the culprit. 

Cabell’s motives for murder seem slender.  He seems to have been largely out of the loop on local gossip, more focused on a budding literary career that took him to New York and included acceptance of short stories by Harper’s and Argosy.  MacDonald states that Cabell’s writing suggests he was aware he was a rumored murderer before he was aware of rumors concerning his mother’s relationship with John Scott.  MacDonald puts forward that Annie Cabell was somewhat of an “innocent” and didn’t realize the degree of scandal.  It may be the case that she may have felt the degree of kinship isolated her, or the scandal may not have existed at all until people connected the already scandalous James Cabell with the death of a man who his mother was accustomed to spending time with.  Cabell later based a sympathetic character on his mother, something which seems unlikely if he felt she had tarnished the family reputation enough to warrant slaughter of her lover.  Nor does such a crime square entirely with Cabell’s own sensibilities.

No one was ever arrested in the case.  The Scott family hired a Pinkerton Agent who left without disclosing his findings to the Richmond police.  They were apparently bad enough that the family had no real interest in a public outing of the motives for the murder.  Ellen Glasgow states that the murderer was the brother of a country girl Scott had seduced.  Cabell wrote to Fred Scott, the murdered man’s brother, asking that, in the interests of his mother’s reputation, the information learned by the Pinkerton man be divulged, but Scott threatened lawsuits and nothing was revealed.

Nevertheless the shadow of murder and scandal hung over Cabell, renewed when his mother sued for divorce on the grounds of desertion in 1907.  Glasgow describes him as isolated.  Cabell struck back at the society that so harshly judged him when he satirized them in his first full length novel, “The Cords of Vanity.”

Cabell, like Crowley, was socially outcast in his home but critically acclaimed.  Cabell was also a correspondent of Crowley’s and would come to reflect Thelema in his fiction, as well as to impact, both positively and negatively, its growth in the United States.  “Jurgen,” ( http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8771/pg8771.html)  which is his best known work, started as a short story, and was expanded to a novel in 1919 – a year of considerable chaos in the wake of the pandemic and the move toward prohibition.  “Jurgen,” unlike Cabell’s earlier digs at Richmond Society, was a fantasy novel and ultimately a jab at religion, society, and literature of the day.

“Jurgen” itself is a towering work of literature.  On one hand, it influenced later fantasy, including C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, though anecdotes suggest Tolkien denied the influence in rather high blown “methinks the lady doth protest too much” style.  On the other hand, it influenced later absurdist writing, setting forth an epic genre which embraces David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” and Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves.”  His influence also extends well outside literature. The hand of “Jurgen” lays heavily on Stephen Schwartz’s award winning 1972 musical Pippin. 

On January 14, 1920 the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice entered the offices of Cabell’s publisher and seized the plates to “Jurgen,” charging him and his publisher with violation of the states codes on obscenity. During the arraignment, according to the New York Herald, “Mr. Sumner told the Magistrate the book contains passages so indecent that he would not repeat them…[Publisher] Holt, in defence of the publication said it is a fantastic story that has been highly commended by book reviewers.  It was written for highly developed minds, he said, and is not indecent when read by persons possessing such minds.”  (“Publisher Defends Story of Book Called Obscene,” 1920, p. 1)  One of the focal points in the press coverage was Chapter XXII, “As to a Veil He Broke.” 

“Now Jurgen held his lance erect before Anaïtis. ‘O secret of all things, hidden in the being of all which lives, now that the lance is exalted I do not dread thee: for thou art in me, and I am thou. I am the flame that burns in every beating heart and in the core of the farthest star. I too am life and the giver of life, and in me too is death. Wherein art thou better than I? I am alone: my will is justice: and there comes no other god where I am.'”

Whether he had gotten it from his personal correspondence with Crowley, or out of the Blue Equinox, published early in 1919, Cabell had modeled the ceremony described on Liber XV, the Gnostic Mass, published in the Blue Equinox. 

“‘I am life and the giver of life,’ cried Jurgen. ‘Thou that art one, that makest use of all! I who am a man born of woman, I in my station honor thee in honoring this desire which uses all of a man. Make open therefore the way of creation, encourage the flaming dust which is in our hearts, and aid us in that flame’s perpetuation! For is not that thy law?'”

“Anaïtis answered: ‘There is no law in Cocaigne save, Do that which seems good to you.'”

In Perdurabo, Richard Kacyznski says “Crowley, duly flattered, called Cabell’s work ‘the best book that has yet to come out of U.S.A.'”(Kaczynski, 2010).  Kaczynski adds, “Cabell stood trial on October 16, 1922…Cabell successfully argued that the lance ceremony in his book had a real model, one that was already in print in the blue Equinox. Cabell was acquitted on October 19, and the resulting popularity transformed him into a literary giant”(Kaczynski, 2010).  During the runup to the trial, an emergency committee was formed.  Following the verdict the central figures in the committee published “Jurgen and the Censor” with an introduction by Cabell (“A Book on Censorship,” 1920, p. 4).  The resulting publicity had the Equinox, as well as Cabell, on the lips of the New York literati.  Crowley was a well reviewed poet, now his rather odd occult volume was the inspiration for a famous novelist.

The ripples were both good and bad.  For Crowley, now in Europe, they were muted, but for the U.S. Thelemites they meant more focal attention from authorities.  When poor sales of The Equinox sent Universal Book Stores into bankruptcy court, the flurry of accusations revolving around sex magic and involvement with Crowley’s dark cult between the parties to the civil case came out in the press, leading to a scandal that had echoes reaching Hollywood, well-recounted by Kacyznski in “Panic in Detroit: The Magician and the Motor City,” (2019).

Cabell’s work is humanist and humanizing and, in the same fashion as Rabelais, promotes a non-theistic, humanocentric worldview. The references to Thelema and Thelemic ritual in Jurgen, which remained popular through the interwar period, may be seen as an introduction for a large U.S. audience.  While not every reader knew the origin of the ceremonies described, it was well known in the intellectual counterculture that promoted Thelema and Thelemic ideals following the Second World War. As such, his direct and indirect contributions to Thelema cannot be calculated. 

A Book on Censorship. (1920). Brooklyn Daily Eagle, p. 1.

Glasgow, E. (1980). The woman within (1st Hill and Wang ed.). New York: Hill and Wang.

Kaczynski, R. (2010). Perdurabo : the life of Aleister Crowley. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books.MacDonald, E. E. (1970). Cabell’s Richmond Trial. The Southern Literary Journal, 3(1), 47-71.