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George Washington Cable, the Father of Southern Literature

Each week, historian Sean Michael Chick will highlight some of the country's unsung heroes during the Civil War era who could serve as positive replacements following the takedown of New Orleans' Confederate monuments. This week, learn about the NOLA born writer and critic George Washington Cable. 


H. L. Mencken, the celebrated essayist and libertarian, once proclaimed that Dixie was “The Sahara of the Bozart.” He wrote, “when you come to critics, musical composers, painters, sculptors, architects and the like, you will have to give it up, for there is not even a bad one between the Potomac mud-flats and the Gulf.” Mencken thought this was because the poor whites took control of Southern politics and culture after the golden age of Thomas Jefferson. The career of George Washington Cable provides a rebuke, and an affirmation, of Mencken’s infamous essay.


Cable’s family hailed from Massachusetts, and they settled in New Orleans before his birth in 1844. Like many Northerners, the Cable family made their money through slavery, but the death of Cable’s father forced him to work as a clerk. Cable was in New Orleans the day the Union captured it. He jeered the first marines to land, yelling “Hurrah for Jeff Davis!” Cable was expelled from New Orleans when his sisters refused to take an oath of allegiance.


In 1863 Cable joined the 4th Mississippi Cavalry, stationed in Louisiana’s Florida parishes. He was wounded in a skirmish in Mississippi in February 1864. He spent much of the war under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest, fighting at the Battle of Tupelo. At war’s end he was on detached duty, apparently as a courier for Forrest.


After the war Cable became a reporter for New Orleans Picayune. He was aghast at two trends: one was the decline of the Creole culture he had grown up around and adored; the other was the rising tide of racial violence. In the ten years after the Civil War, some 2,500 people died in New Orleans for racial reasons. Cable’s views on race seem odd for a Confederate veteran, but only if one believes every Confederate fought to preserve slavery. Cable was motivated by the corruption of the Union occupation and their plundering of Louisiana’s wealth.


Cable sought to reconcile the former Confederates with their former slaves, aso supporting P. G. T. Beauregard’s efforts at biracial reconciliation. Cable wrote books and essays on New Orleans history, including historical fiction, with several of his works making note that before the war Creole society had many interracial relationships. The reaction was severe among white Southerners. In the aftermath of the war, white Creoles (and those who could pass for white) were fast abandoning their mixed-race traditions. They also were appalled that Cable described them as debauched when many were adopting Victorian morality. His first great short story, Sieur George, was blasted. His novel The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life was an instant classic abroad, but made him even more unpopular locally. In 1885, he moved to Northampton, Massachusetts.


Cable wanted to reconcile civil rights with a respect for the Confederacy’s military ardor, but not its cause. He had little love for the Union and many of his books were about the valor of Confederate soldiers. It was for naught. Jim Crow laws were enacted in Louisiana in the 1890s. Cable spent much of his remaining life “haranguing Northern audiences on the fascinating subject of the Southern sins” an act he did not wholly relish. He died in 1925 still writing stories about his home, an artist in exile.


By the time of Cable's death, the Creoles had been amalgamated into the American fold, while blacks had no voting and civil rights in Dixie. In Louisiana, Cable's history books were ignored in favor of the more sanitized work of Grace King. Indeed, King had started her career to refute Cable’s portrayal of the Creoles as debauched miscegenationists.


Cable’s literary legacy is undisputed. In his time most Southern literature was devoted to rosy tales of the Old South (complete with loyal slaves), military narratives by men seeking to restore tarnished reputations, or tales of soldiers. The later did produce some classics such as Company Aytch. Cable was a class apart, combining history with social consciousness and a love of humanity. Cable was a reformer more interested in redeeming the South instead of punishing it for past sins. His effort to bridge the gap between the races failed in his time. In the process though he, and his good friend Mark Twain, created the framework of Southern literature. The themes of race, history, decay, and conflicted pride in a military tradition marred by a rotten cause are the heart of Cable’s work. These themes were later fleshed out by William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Shelby Foote to name only a few.


Outside of the early Jazz musicians, possibly no New Orleans artist has had a larger effect on his craft. Yet, how do we honor him today? His home in the Garden District, where he entertained Twain and Oscar Wilde, is a landmark. The setting for his story Tite Poulette is now dubbed Madam John’s Legacy, and is a free museum. Otherwise there is nothing for the man who is arguably the father of Southern literature.


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