I avoid, though, any further entrance into affairs with which the Biography of Manuel's life has no close concern, and which in any case are more properly set forth in J. V. A. Froser's Biography of Felix Kennaston. You may read therein how the elopement of Kennaston's parents, in 1867, had begun the feud between their two families,--a feud which had resulted in Kennaston's being reared by the Bulmers, without any contacts with his father's kindred,--so that, when Henry Kennaston was killed, in October 1904, his only surviving nephew acquired a competence from a person whom Felix Kennaston had not ever known or talked with, nor even seen from a distance.... The point here is that Felix Kennaston in his middle thirties became economically independent and was made free to devote the rest of his days to whatsoever amusements he might prefer; and that he gave over his life to the grinding thraldom of creative writing.
--Whereby, of course, American literature was enriched with Men Who Loved Allison.... Of the actual and eventual worth of this romance I cannot pretend to be an unprejudiced judge. The tale seems to me one of those many books which have profited, very dubiously indeed, by having obtained, in one way of another, the repute of being indecent. Such books tend to endure, but their tenure of survival is upon depressingly twilit terms. And they make for a most dolorous deal of dreary time-wasting. It is quite dreadful to consider with what sad and futile perseverance the sloppy and soporific catalogues of Rabelais, the pale inanities of the Heptameron, and the unendurably dull botcheries of Boccaccio--or, for that matter, of Fielding and of Smollett,--have been toiled through by misguided millions in quest of these authors' rumored obscenity.... But it is even more dreadful, for the ears of the fairly honest, to hear any one of these readers protest, as they all do invariably, that he reads not for the story's sake, but because of the delicate art and the sparkling wit with which the tale is told. Besides, he does get, in the way of indecency, so very little for his trouble.
Well, and just so I doubt if Men Who Loved Alison, in common with a great many other modern masterpieces, does not continue to be read to-day upon somewhat similar grounds. As books go, it has had a long life: indeed, the tale has survived its publication now by some twenty-one years; and it is handsomely written of course, in its own over-ornate and self-conscious and clogged fashion. But I fancy that the most of this book's readers are, here again, those immature-minded persons who are content to put up with the diction and the stylistic devices for the sake of the atoning talk about unnatural amors which, howsoever sparsely, here and there adorns and cheers the pornoscopic reader's laborious way.
It is though, now that I think of it, with another book that this Author's Note should be concerned. And my appropriate point is, rather, that with the volume now in your hand the Biography completes the portrayal, begun in "The Eagle's Shadow," of Felix Bulmer Kennaston and of his adoption of the poetic attitude toward life, in the very same Lichfield which Robert Etheridge Townsend and Colonel Rudolph Musgrave coetaneously inhabited, and of Kennaston's ultimate success as an Economist. Hereinafter, then, as I have written in another place, the story of the Biography is rounded off by presenting the poet--the poietes, the "maker,"--in modern conditions; and by presenting, too, the manner of this Felix Kennaston's return into Poictesme--into that all accommodating country wherein almost anything is rather more than likely to happen,--so that, through this return, the prepetuated life of Manuel ends its seven hundred years of journeying at the exact point of its outset. The circle is thus made complete, as my last poet annihilates, through quite other means than were employed by my first poet, Madoc, the intervening twenty generations.
That is the main point. Madoc triumphed, you may remember, through the amenities of judicious punctuation. Felix Kennaston made use of wholly different methods to gain very much the same end. But Kennaston also triumphed. And the protagonist of the Biography--that protagonist being, as I have perhaps already said, the perpetuated life of Manuel,--was thus enabled, once more, to do that which seemed expected.... I mean, that the life of Manual, as that life is throughout The Cream of the Jest embodied in Felix Bulmer Kennaston, returned into its long-lost Poictesme, I mean, that the life of Manuel thus did, in a fashion told of hereinafter, conform to those ancient prophecies which had been begotten, in some part by Jurgen's essays in the imaginative, but mainly by the fond pride and faith of Dame Niafer. I mean, in brief, that this volume also narrates how "Manuel, as was his custom, did what Niafer thought best," and that it records how she had her way with him, as became a competent wife, a great long while after both of them were reputedly dead.... For I doubt if, in any important sense, either one of this primal pair of married lovers was truly dead, or ever will be dead. We know that the life of Manuel informed the body of Felix Kennaston: and I quite strongly suspect that Niafer survived in Kathleen Kennaston, and that Niafer continues to survive, wheresoever home-life flourishes, in the aging body of every really competent wife.
You may, likewise, hereinafter attempt in van to read The Lineage of Lichfield, an anomalous production which none the less appears to me not unaptly to wind up and to illustrate the long story of the wanderings of the life of Manuel, in a shape some where between an index and a map of that journeying. The notion of this Lineage was not mine, but was suggested to me by Lewis Galantiere, as you may observe that I have honestly recorded in this brief comedy's rather long dedication. It is a dedication which comprises in itself a complete Author's Note to The Lineage of Lichfield; and so to this Epistle Dedicatory I now refer you, for any information which you may desire as to the latter section of the present volume.
I add merely that the Lineage was written in the summer of 1921, especially for what I imagine to have been the most easily indescribable of all American magazines, the Reviewer. The Reviewer, as published at Richmond-in-Virginia,--from a side alley in immediate antagonism to a cathedral,--was at this season in theory a fortnightly periodical, which in point of fact appeared whensoever the editors thought it might perhaps be amusing to get out another issue. In any case, the Reviewer was scheduled to become a monthly magazine in the autumn of 1921, and I had agreed to edit the first three issues in this new avatar. I did edit them, to such an extent as the vagaries of the printer permitted: and the Lineage thus made its first tripartite appearance, in the October, November and December numbers, for 1921, of the Reviewer. It was largely due to this fact, my conscience now and then tell me, that the Reviewer was not long afterward forced to become a quarterly, and by and by a legend.
To return to The Cream of the Jest, this tale was some while in the making. In January 1911, I think, was begun the dizain which under stars more favorable would have told about ten of Richard Harrowby's adventurings, for the most part, in the occult: but Saturn very plainly stood in the ascendant at the scheme's birth; for as these stories came into being, no one of them, save only Concerning David Jorgram, met with the then present needs of any discoverable magazine. The dizain was therefore abandoned; and of the eight stories finished, some were destroyed, and others were utilized here and there quite variously. Two of these tales, as they had been written in the spring of 1911, were in 1913 combined and rewritten, with the addition of considerable new matter, so that before 1914 had well begun to make the world safe for hypocrisy, these stories had blended into one continuous and fairly long Comedy of Evasion, called then In the Flesh, but a little later rechristened The Cream of The Jest.... Thus did it come about that with the opening on 1915 this book set forth, in typescript. to seek the applause of enraptured multitudes.
The first of all its rejectors--acting on behalf of the George H. Doran Company, in January 1915,--was a romantic-minded and obviously young male who wrote me as to this book a wholly charming, if wholly disapproving, long letter. His objections I find to have been severally, that my theme lacked sufficient weight to ballast more than a short story; that the portions relative to the publishing of Kennaston's novel (which turned out five years later to be uncommonly neat soothsaying) could interest no one unconnected with the world of book making; that "In the Flesh" was not verily "in the flesh" but smelt over strongly of midnight oil; and that, above all, my book failed to present in its characters a group, or even any one person, who evoked the reader's sympathy and admiration. For, as this hypercritical romanticist went on the explain--prior to subscribing himself Sincerely yours, Sinclair Lewis,--the general reading public simply cannot be induced to buy novels about unattractive and ignoble people, although the future author of Main Street and Elmer Gantry did go so far as to admit that disagreeable characters might be permissible "as villains, in naive literature which is still unashamed of melodrama."
The typescript of In the Flesh was soon after that, but far less colorfully, rejected by the J. B. Lippincott Company, in the month of February. For some now inexplicable reason or another it seems to have been declined by no publishing firm during March. Then, in April 1915, I paid my first visit to the offices of Robert M. McBride & Company, where yet another unheard-of young person, who signed himself Guy Holt, had been interested by the typescript of In the Flesh to the highly noncommittal extent of wishing to see something else by its writer. I who had four unpublished books was willing enough to oblige him. So the visit took place in due form; and thus began, upon my thirty-sixth birthday, the most staunch and the most beneficent of all my literary friendships. Moreover, McBride's, in the upshot, accepted The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck for publication in the autumn of that year, and The Certain Hour and From the Hidden Way for publication in 1916; but McBride's also quite wholeheartedly, declined to sponsor any printing of In the Flesh.
This comedy was then put by, for some months, to make way for the publishing and the instant failure of The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck. But in 1916 my typescript set forth once more a-traveling; and I find the itinerary to be succinct:--"Rejected by John Lane Company, in January 1961; by E. P. Dutton and Company, in March 1916; by Houghton Mifflin Company, in April 1916; by Charles Scribner's Sons, in June 1916;" The record finishes just thus, with a semi-colon, which one now finds rather pathetically defiant, through its implication that this is by no means to be the end. Nevertheless I seem thereafter, for almost an entire year, to have squandered no more currency in express charges upon this unsalable typescript.... The particularly disheartening part, you see, was that even at McBride's where others of my books had met at last with editorial though not with financial favor, even there the opinion appeared unanimous with the opinion of all other publishing firms, that this especial book was wholly null and virtueless.
What happened next, I simply cannot say. I do not recall whether McBride's asked for another sight of this book or whether I again submitted it without waiting for any such invitation. Nor do I know for what reason the editorial staff of McBride's then altered its opinion as to the book now before you, beyond the fact that this changing can hardly have been caused by the firm's having meanwhile published as many as three books by me, of which all had failed forthwith and utterly. But I do know that McBride's in April 1917, accepted The Cream of The Jest, as the story was by this time called, just two years after they had rejected it; and I find also that the John Lane Company brought out this book in England, in 1923, some seven and a half years after the John Lane Company had rejected it.... The ways of all publishers, however, I discovered some while ago to be incalcuable: and I do not think that any deduction can ever be drawn, through the channels of mere rationality, from any of their actions. It is perhaps the one trait which they share congenially with their authors.
The book was published, then, under its final title. "The Cream of the Jest," in September 1917, and as a marketable product fell wholly flat.
Yet its publication had results. H. L. Mencken, that unusual and indeed unique youngster who, as you may recall, had praised The Cords of Vanity some eight or more years earlier, now came forth, in the Smart Set, with a longish article in which The Cream of the Jest was favorably appraised in combination with yet another novel, quaintly entitled The Three Black Pennys, then lately published by yet another unknown author,--a youngish Pennsylvanian, who not long after this time came to Dumbarton as a direct result of this article, so that I then met Joseph Hergesheimer, just as I a bit later met Mencken also, through virtue of having published The Cream of the Jest.
And moreover an even younger Burton Rascoe, who, as yet in his early twenties, had very very recently been made literary editor of the Chicago Tribune, chanced to be pleased by The Cream of the Jest; and he forthwith decided that it was a book which should not die unnoticed, at least, not in Chicago. What I take to have been the most remarkable, as it was certainly the most rambunctious, of all campaigns in the history of polite letters then opened, upon 29 December 1917, with the appearance, in the Chicago Tribune, of an article by Burton Rascoe headed Here's a Chance to Own Another First Edition. Thereafter, very much as the hapless Romans were formerly assured by the elder Cato, in his every public address upon whatsoever nominal theme, that Carthage must be destroyed, so now, upon each Saturday, week after week, all literate Chicago was assured by Burton Rascoe that Cabell must be read.
The assertion did not pass unchallenged. For at once Ben Hecht and Rupert Hughes, who, it may be remembered, ranked as well-known writers in those remote times, were moved to comment upon my various books with fervor, and with such taste as each of these then prominent litterateurs possessed, in one or another of the Chicago papers. Through the pages of the Herald-Examiners, Vincent Starrett joined in, to commend The Cream of the Jest: B. L. T.'s Line-o'-Type column took up the matter of my literary demerits, in another section of the Tribune, and in a rather more ribald vein: whereas Keith Preston and Richard Atwater waxed equally frank and derogatory in the Chicago News. And then,--as when upon some field of glory the cold draft laws have fetched face the intrepid patriots of two nations, and the loud machine-gun then answers to the ruthless speaking of its fellows ruthlessly,--so now did they who shared in this debate begin replying the one to another.
It all quite learned, too, at the price of some lessening in coherence and in any exact meaning. Perhaps no one could ever have told you what all the printed rioting, and the tumultuary paragraphs, and the ungentle name-calling, were precisely about. But Moliere, and Menander, and Novalis, and Agathon, and Shakespeare, and Praxiteles, and Robert W. Chambers, were all dragged somehow into the affair during the following months on insane dispute; and to each of these notabilities was accorded almost as much prominence in the various critical dicta as was being granted to me, now that Chicago had taken up polite letters in a really serious way. For some six months, did the literati of Chicago thus debate whether I was an unjustly neglected author or a posturing imbecile; and the city at large must have known, vaguely, that somebody of my name existed, and had published a book called The Cream of the Jest.
But the rest of America, so far as my publishers or I could perceive, remained deplorably oblivious of both facts: The Cream of the Jest had very soon appeared upon the Marked Down counters in all book stores: and yet two more years were to pass before a book by me was to become a more or less salable commodity, under the transforming touch of Mr. John S. Summer's monomania.
Meanwhile I had heard again from that stripling Sinclair Lewis who had been the first of this book's so many rejectors; and, since it developed that during the intervening three years his taste had so altered that he now quite approved of The Cream of the Jest, therefore we met before long, and we got on together excellently. I found that, for my part, it was not possible to help liking and admiring this Sinclair Lewis, even after the droll and deferential boy whom I first knew had turned out to be a world-famous genius, of a especial sort which made his first letter to me of large monetary value.
And so it is that, when I reflect that through The Cream of the Jest I first met Lewis, and Hergesheimer, and Mencken, and Rascoe, and Guy Holt, I can see that in the end this book became, in some sense, the most potent of all my books in its influence upon my career as a writer. This book did not get for me any general recognition. It got for me, instead, something in every was more valuable. For it was The Cream of the Jest which first made for me in the seventeenth year of my writing, a few warm friends who but a little later were to fight in my behalf very nobly, and with wholly heroic tenacity.... That, though, is not my present theme. I have not any need here to rehearse those now ancient battlings, which indeed had not anything in particular to do with The Cream of the Jest, and were not joined until 1920: but I have a strong need, and a never-dying urge, to record here, and to record upon every available occasion, my gratitude to all these and to yet other preservatory champions.
If few writers have met with more smug, more prurient, or more disingenuous opponents, no writer whatever, I think has found more faithful allies. I now and then think also that, but for these allies, an almost all-important personage--I mean, that "general reader" who hereinafter becomes of a sudden aware of Felix Kennaston in very much the same fashion wherein "the author of `Jurgen'" also was discovered,--would perhaps have heard but little more of my later writings than in prior times this "general reader" had ever heard, during the gray and hope-deferring years before 1929, of my earlier books. And I deduce, at such seasons, that, inasmuch as it was The Cream of the Jest which got for me the most of these friends and valiant benefactors, I may very well be grateful to The Cream of the Jest likewise, upon grounds which are hardly, if at all, literary.
James Branch Cabell
30 June 1929