Vital Signs

James Branch Cabell

In a 1956 essay, Edmund Wilson wrote: "Cabell is out of fashion." Withdrawing his dismissal of James Branch Cabell, Wilson gave him a critical accolade—and his generosity was praiseworthy. For by 1956, Cabell was not only out of fashion but virtually forgotten, though he was not alone in this. Most of his contemporaries, more or less, had faded. Sinclair Lewis, for example, was remembered more for his battles with ex-wife Dorothy Thompson and for his coinage of "Babbitt" as a term in America's lexicon than for his novels. Scott Fitzgerald, never understood by critics still trying to fathom Amory Blaine, had dissolved in a pool of alcohol and self-pity. Ernest Hemingway was still assiduously combing his chest hair and flexing his muscles, but he remained vital only because his genius could not be barbered. John Dos Passos, stylistically the weakest of the postwar generation but certainly the most pertinent and perceptive, had fallen under the onslaught of the "socially conscious" hatchet brigade and an Establishment that found greater sustenance in the potboilers of Howard Fast.

But "fashion" is an ambiguous word, and time-frames deceptive. Going back not too many years, I recall that as a preparatory school rebel I read, along with equally enlightened contemporaries, the fervent discussions of Cabell by Benjamin de Casseres and other critics in books still on library shelves. I wrote...

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