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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

George Washington Cable

In his early novels and stories, George Washington Cable gave us perhaps our most memorable view of the drama of multicultural Louisiana in the nineteenth century, especially of New Orleans Creole life. Born in New Orleans in 1844, Cable was of New England Puritan background on his mother's side and of a Virginia slaveholding family of German descent on his father's side. Upon the death of his father, Cable had to leave school at age fourteen to take a job at the New Orleans customhouse. At nineteen, during the Civil War, Cable enlisted in the Fourth Mississippi Cavalry, little knowing that he was providing himself with an experience that would form the basis of one of his most popular novels. After the war Cable obtained a position as a surveyor of the Atchafalaya River levees, contracted malaria, and was incapacitated for two years. Taking advantage of the enforced "leisure," he began writing and started to contribute a column to the New Orleans Picayune. In 1869 Cable married Louise Bartlett, with whom he was to have five children. As he established a home in New Orleans, he worked as bookkeeper for a cotton firm after a brief stint as a newspaper reporter.

Although he had had to forgo formal education, Cable enjoyed private study, often rising early for reading and writing before work. He mastered French and loved to peruse the old New Orleans city records in that language, thereby developing a store of knowledge and lore which he soon began to transmute into fictional narratives. Cable achieved national attention with the publication of his story "'Sieur George" in Scribner's Monthly in 1873. Within the next three years Scribner's Monthly would publish "Belles Demoiselles Plantation," "'Tite Poulette," "Madame Délicieuse," "Jean-ah Poquelin," and other stories, which were collected in Old Creole Days (1879). On the basis of these stories, Cable gained a national reputation as an important local color realist, adept at suggesting language and character of the varied groups of his region.

Following serial publication in Scribner's, Cable's novel The Grandissimes appeared as a book in 1880. A short novel, Madame Delphine, was published in the following year. Both novels vividly depict dramatic aspects of Creole life in pre-Civil War New Orleans, including black-white relations and problems stemming from the exploitation of African Americans. In spite of complaints of Creole readers that his representation of their community amounted to caricature, Cable's first three books brought him enough success that he could give up his clerical position and devote himself full time to writing.

At the high point of his career Cable turned his attention to polemical themes. Dr. Sevier, a novel dealing with the need for prison reform, was published in 1884, the year that Cable's exposé "The Convict Lease System in the Southern States" appeared in Century Magazine. With Creole New Orleans resentful of its portrayal by Cable and with white southerners in general angered by his writings about injustice toward blacks, Cable found the Northeast, which he enjoyed on several trips, more and more congenial. In 1885 he moved his family to Northampton, Massachuseetts, where he would be closer to publishers and to friends like Mark Twain, with whom he had recently conducted a successful reading tour.

Noteworthy among Cable's publications after his move north are The Negro Question and John March, Southerner, a novel of an aristocratic southerner's attempt to transcend limitations of family and regional background. The Cavalier (1901), a popularly successful novel for which he drew on his Civil War experience, marks Cable's turn toward a more romantic type of fiction in the latter part of his career. His work at this stage has been criticized for sometimes being excessively tailored to demands of genteel editors and readers. Yet all in all, it can be said that with his unflinching representation of moral dimensions of interethnic relations, his imaginative understanding of the impact of the past on the present, and his aesthetic sensitivity to exotic aspects of his region, Cable helped prepare the ground for William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and other modern southern writers.

James Robert Payne
New Mexico State University

In the Heath Anthology
'Tite Poulette (1874 - 1876)

Other Works
Old Creole Days (1879)
The Grandissimes (1880)
Madame Delphine (1881)
Dr. Sevier (1884)
John March, Southerner (1894)

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Cable's Letters Home from the Road
Excerpts from notes scribbled to his wife during performances.
George Washington Cable (1844-1925) Introduction by James Robert Payne
Geared primarily toward instructors, but it contains valuable information on the key themes and history associated with Cable, which is useful for everyone.

George Washington Cable 1844-1925, Writer and Critic
Brief biography and full-text digital versions of several of his major works.

Perspectives in American Literature
Full text of Old Creole Days, a bibliography, and some study tools designed specifically for researching Cable.

Secondary Sources

Lucy L.C. Biklé, George W. Cable: His Life and Letters, 1928

Philip Butcher, George W. Cable, 1962

Susan Castillo, "Stones in the Quarry: George Cable's Strange True Stories of Louisiana," Southern Literary Journal, 1999

John Cleman, George Washington Cable Revisited, 1996

James Robert Payne, "George Washington Cable's 'My Politics': Context and Revision of a Southern Memoir," in Multicultural Autobiography: American Lives, ed. James Robert Payne, 1992

James Robert Payne, "New South Narratives of Freedom: Rereading George Washington Cables 'Tite Poulette' and Madame Delphine," MELUS, 2001

Alice Hall Petry, A Genius in His Way: The Art of Cable's Old Creole Days, 1988

William H. Roberson, George Washington Cable: An Annotated Bibliography, 1982

Louis D. Rubin, Jr., George W. Cable, 1969

Arlin Turner, George W. Cable: A Biography, 1956

Arlin Turner, ed., Critical Essays on George W. Cable, 1980