Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> Library of Southern Literature >> Document Menu >> Summary

George Washington Cable, 1844-1925
Old Creole Days
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1883.

Summary

George Washington Cable was born in New Orleans in 1844 and spent the better part of his adult life chronicling Creole culture. He began his literary career when a two-year bout with malaria afforded him the time to write columns for the New Orleans Picayune and indulge his hobby of reading New Orleans city records. When Scribner's Monthly published his story "Sieur George" in 1873, Cable received popular and critical acclaim. Over the next three years, Scribner's featured numerous Cable stories, including "Belles Demoiselles Plantation," "Madam Délicieuse," and "Jean-ah Pouquelin." These and other stories were collected and published in 1879 as Old Creole Days.

Cable then turned to writing novels and published The Grandissimes in 1880, with the hope that this tale about Creole society in the early 1800s would increase awareness of contemporary social injustices. Following the publication of Madame Delphine (1881), a novella addressing miscegenation, and a longer work on prison reform titled Dr. Sevier (1884), Cable returned to non-fiction in order to raise his growing concerns about social conditions in the South. In 1885 he published two controversial essays, "The Freedman's Case in Equity" and "The Silent South," which argued in favor of racial equality and attacked the Jim Crow system. Unable to remain in New Orleans due to the hostile reception of his articles, Cable moved permanently with his wife, Louisa Stewart Bartlett, and their children to Northampton, Massachusetts later that year. He remained an exile in the North for thirty years, continuing to write critically of his former southern home. However, even his later work manifested an abiding affection for the place that first inspired him as a writer.

Ostensibly romantic in plot, the stories in Old Creole Days recount the adventures, love lives, and misfortunes of Creoles. Cable offers an enchanting portrait of an exotic, alluring New Orleans society, and yet his stories are more than paeans to a long-lost South. Beneath the surface lies a scathing social satire that explores the problems of the racially and culturally diverse antebellum New Orleans.

In particular, Cable uncovers the indisputable—yet often unacknowledged—ties among African, Spanish, French, Native American, and Caribbean Creoles. When Colonel De Charleu whispers "Charl-" on his deathbed in the short story "Belles Demoiselles Plantation," he calls attention to his kinship with Old De Carlos, his distant relative of Choctaw and Spanish blood known as "Injin Charlie." Again in "Jean-ah Poquelin," Cable explores the intertwining cultures in Creole New Orleans. He pits the vanishing ideals of the French-American aristocracy, represented by the title character, against the new Anglo-American values of the New Orleans developers who want Poquelin to sell his land. Poquelin clings to his decaying mansion and his old way of life even as the developers ruin his agricultural livelihood by running streets through his property, draining the marsh, and filling in the canal. Even Poquelin's own people turn against him: Creole children jeer at him in the street, a Creole mob invades his property to taunt him, and the townspeople insist that he is a witch, responsible for everything from the death of a child to a failed crop.

In "Madame Delphine," later published separately as a novella, Cable explores the ruling class hypocrisy in antebellum New Orleans. Though interracial marriage remains illegal, Madame Delphine, a black Creole, surreptitiously attempts to marry off her fair daughter, Olive, to an elite white Creole, Capitaine Lemaitre, a smuggler by trade and a colleague of the famous pirates, the brothers Lafitte. The Lemaitre family disapproves of Olive's mixed heritage and therefore tries to break off the marriage by tricking the young woman into believing that their son is insane. When this fails, they also threaten to betray Lemaitre to the government. The story centers upon Madame Delphine's sacrifice—she enables the marriage by claiming that she is not Olive's real mother—and Olive's guilt over the renunciation of her family. The Lemaitre family eventually permits the marriage, but at tremendous cost to Madame Delphine and her daughter. Thus while Cable highlights connections between the races, he also points to the treachery, inequality, and hatred underlying and undermining those bonds.

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., Minrose Gwin, Trudier Harris and Fred Hobson, eds., The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998, pp. 275-276; Cleman, John, George Washington Cable Revisited, Ed. Nancy Walker, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 1-19; Lauter, Paul, ed., The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 4th edition, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002; Pizer, Donald and Earl N. Harbert, eds., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Realists and Naturalists, volume 12, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1982; Rubin, Louis D., Writers of the Modern South: The Faraway Country, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966.

See also the entry for George Washington Cable from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Bond Thompson

Document menu