George Washington Cable (1844-1925)
James Robert Payne
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students need to have some knowledge of southern American history as
distinct from the historical emphasis on the Northeast that generally prevails
in American history and literature courses. They should have a sense of
the historical pluralism of southern American society, understanding that
it includes American Indians, blacks, Hispanic Americans, exploited poor
whites, as well as the conservative white elite, which tends to be the
object of most attention. Cable's perception of multicultural southern
America is central to his fiction.
Students need to be reminded that not all southerners supported slavery
before the Civil War nor did all support segregation after the Civil War.
For example, George Washington Cable, a middle-class white native of Louisiana,
actively supported civil rights through his writings and through ordinary
To break up tendencies to stereotype the South, students may be reminded
that many southern cities voted against secession from the Union before
the Civil War, and the voting was by white males only. Cable's fiction
is expressive of pluralism in southern life and values.
With specific reference to "Jean-ah Poquelin": Discuss how
Cable is interested in pairing and contrasting two types of male character,
the "strong" Jean Marie Poquelin and his "gentle" half-brother,
Jacques. Consider and discuss how in "Jean-ah Poquelin" Cable
critically compares and dramatizes conflicts between colonial French-American
and Anglo-American values. Note how scenes of mob violence in "Jean-ah
Poquelin" prefigure violence in later periods in the South.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. A central theme of Cable's fiction is the impact of the complex history
of the American South on modern southern life. In his sense of the profound
influence of history on the present, Cable anticipates the later master
southern fictionist, William
2. An issue that might be regarded as more personal concerns Cable's
relation to New Orleans Creoles (in New Orleans, people of French or Spanish
ancestry who preserved elements of their European culture). Creoles felt
that their fellow New Orleanian betrayed them by what they saw as Cable's
excessively biting satire and critique of the Creole community in his fiction.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Cable needs to be taught as a southern American realist author (at least
insofar as his early, most vital fiction is concerned) who combines tendencies
of critical realism (in his critique of southern social injustice and hypocrisy)
and local color realism (in his evocation of old New Orleans and plantation
Louisiana in all their exoticism).
Yet unlike the work of his fellow realists of the North, such as William
Dean Howells and Henry
James, Cable's greatest works, Old Creole Days, The Grandissimes,
and Madame Delphine, are historical "period" fictions.
In Cable's day, many southerners objected to what they saw as his unjust
and disloyal criticism of southern social injustice. More specifically,
some of Cable's New Orleans Creole readers expressed offense at what they
regarded as Cable's sharp satire (amounting to caricature, as they saw
it) on the Creole community. Cable found his readership by publishing his
fiction in Scribner's Monthly. It was a readership much like that
of his fellow authors William Dean Howells and Henry James, essentially
middle class, "genteel," and mostly outside the South. Cable's
audience today admires his work as giving the best depiction of old New
Orleans and of Louisiana as well.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
1. Mark Twain --The
greatest of all southern writers of Cable's day, Mark Twain, is comparable
to Cable in certain important ways. Both were essentially liberal southerners
whose writings effectively criticized problems in southern life. Both Mark
Twain and Cable also convey their love and understanding of their region
through their endeavors to convey its varied dialects, complex social relationships,
and dramatic history.
2. Kate Chopin --Cable
shares with his fellow Louisiana writer Kate Chopin a strong interest in
the Louisiana French-American community and the tensions between the French
and Anglo communities, as well as a concern for the situation of women
in the South of their day.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Consider and discuss how mob violence as represented in the charivari
scene in "Jean-ah Poquelin" prefigures lynch mob and other violence
in the South of Cable's day and in later periods.
(b) Consider how the critical realist Cable undercuts romantic myths
of the "noble aristocracy" of the "Old South."
2. (a) In an essay, discuss the significance of Cable's method of representing
American language in relation to his themes. Hint: Remember that American
language does not always mean English. Consider his representation of communication
in French and, depending on which of Cable's works are being studied, other
(b) Consider residual romantic tendencies in the fiction of the southern
realist George Washington Cable.
(c) In an essay, discuss and demonstrate--with specific references to
passages of Cable's fiction--how Cable undercuts ethnic stereotyping in
Butcher, Philip. George W. Cable. New York: Twayne, 1962. Short,
highly readable, solid book-length study of Cable and his work.
Clark, William Bedford. "Cable and the Theme of Miscegenation in
Old Creole Days and The Grandissimes." Mississippi
Quarterly 30 (Fall 1977): 597-609.
Eaton, Richard Bozman. "George W. Cable and the Historical Romance."
Southern Literary Journal 8 (Fall 1975): 84-94.
Hubbell, Jay B. The South In American Literature: 1607-1900.
Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1954. Section on Cable.
Payne, James Robert. "George Washington Cable's 'My Politics':
Context and Revision of a Southern Memoir." In Multicultural Autobiography:
American Lives, edited by James Robert Payne, 94-113. Knoxville: University
of Tennessee Press, 1992.
Petry, Alice Hall. A Genius in His Way: The Art of Cable's Old Creole
Days. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988.
Short, readable, stimulating new study of Cable's best short fiction.
--. "Universal and Particular: The Local-Color Phenomenon Reconsidered."
American Literary Realism: 1870-1910 12 (Spring 1979): 111-26.
Pugh, Griffith T. "George Washington Cable." Mississippi
Quarterly 20 (Spring 1967): 69-76.
Turner, Arlin, ed. Critical Essays on George W. Cable. Boston:
G. K. Hall, 1980.
--. George W. Cable: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
University Press, 1966. The best single source on Cable by far.