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George Washington Cable, 1844-1925
John March, Southerner
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1899, c1894.

Summary

George Washington Cable, one of the most influential American writers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was born October 12, 1844 in New Orleans to George W. Cable, Sr. and Rebecca Boardman Cable. The Cables were an affluent slaveholding family, active in the Presbyterian Church and in New Orleans society. However, in the years prior to the Civil War, Cable's father suffered the loss of several investments, and upon his early death Cable was forced to leave school to support his family. Despite this turn of events, Cable remained a lifelong learner who taught himself French and cultivated a fascination with the intricacies of multicultural Louisiana life.

In 1863 at age nineteen, Cable enlisted in the Confederate cavalry as an ardent supporter of slavery and the South's cause. However, his war experiences challenged him to reconsider his ethical and political moorings. Wounded during battle, Cable returned home at the war's end to his previous job as bookkeeper for a cotton merchant, though he yearned for a more "honorable profession." In February 1870 he landed a position as the weekly "Drop Shot" columnist with the New Orleans Picayune where he developed a confident authorial voice. During this time his deep affection for New Orleans's people and culture prompted him to walk the streets in his spare time, picking up anecdotes and information about city life. He eventually turned to writing sketches that included regional dialects, characters, and an attention to detail that captured the cultural variety of New Orleans. During the 1870s, the northern magazine Scribner's Monthly (later Century) sought descriptions of life in the postwar South, and commissioned Cable for a series of sketches about the region. Cable quickly grew in popularity, publishing seven stories with Scribner's between 1873 and 1876. Though he occasionally addressed racial issues, Cable's early stories largely conformed to the dominant literary picture of a romantic and untroubled South.

Cable first spoke strongly to issues of racial prejudice in an 1875 letter to the New Orleans Bulletin about the need for integrated school systems. He then turned to writing novels and published The Grandissimes in 1880, with the hope that his story 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 entitled Dr. Sevier (1884), Cable returned to non-fiction in order to voice 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.

In 1895 Cable wrote John March, Southerner, a romantic novel criticizing the numerous ills of the Reconstruction-era South, including political corruption, vigilante violence, race riots, and misconceptions of southern honor. Set in the village of Suez in the fictional state of Dixie, the novel revolves around the coming of age of its hero, John March. As a young southerner, March struggles to develop his own value system when confronted with the questionable ethics of his father's slaveholding generation, as well as the corruption of both blacks and whites in the New South. When John March, Sr. dies, John Jr. becomes involved in a scheme to industrialize Widewood, his family plot. His earnest desire to grow into a gentleman, coupled with his bumbling naiveté, saves John from corruption, and he remains an endearing character surrounded by individuals intent on swindling away his land. Even his mother cannot be trusted; she enters into a clandestine engagement with General Garnet, a neighbor who is chiefly responsible for John's lost inheritance. The land is returned to the March name when General Garnet's daughter, Barbara, goes against her father and alerts John to his fraudulent dealings. Barbara ultimately emerges as the novel's heroine as well as John's love.

John March, Southerner was not a popular success, nor was it well received by contemporary critics. Though ambitious in its attack of the New South's corruption, the novel has been criticized for lacking clarity. Cable's efforts toward realism are overshadowed by the text's romantic structure, particularly when details of Barbara and John's budding relationship obscure plot resolution. However, Louis Rubin argues that the novel deserves reconsideration for Cable's realistic character portrayal. Cable did not rely on stock characters; rather, he drew from his own experience of Reconstruction. Paving the way for William Faulkner, Cable depicted in General Garnet a former Confederate general who abuses his power and position in his small town. In Cornelius Leggett, he offers the portrait of a former slave who becomes a blackmailing, greedy politician. John March's mother, Daphne, is rather humorously sketched as a southern matron who stakes her reputation on her miserable poetry and incessant hypochondria. In each of these portraits, Cable infuses frankness, humor, and psychological complexity, imparting a realistic dimension to his work that is reminiscent of his good friend, Henry James. However, Cable is most often celebrated for his use of dialect and his earlier foray into local color fiction.

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; 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.

Armistead Lemon

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