Sunday, August 19, 2007
What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage?
The single coolest and most collectable book to be published this coming November has got to be What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage? James Branch Cabell in the Twentieth Century. It won’t be the most popular or profitable volume or the book of widest interest. But it will definitely be the coolest. And I wrote it!
Here’s the story. I started reading Cabell as a teenager, decades ago, when several of his fantasies were published in Lin Carter’s Adult Fantasy series. Early on, I conceived the ambition to read Cabell’s entire oeuvre and began collecting his works (most of which could and still can be bought quite cheaply in used book stores) as I encountered them. A couple of years ago, I got serious about the project, and with the aid of the rare book room in the University of Pennsylvania Library, managed to complete reading everything the man had ever published, with the exception of his family genealogies. Which, however, I did glance at, to make sure there wasn’t anything clever going on there. I also read a lot of criticism and all I could find out about the man’s life. Then I wrote an 18,500-word essay (counting my extravagant footnotes) summarizing Cabell’s life and carefully weighing the value of his works.
There are, alas, an infinite number of ways for a writer to destroy himself. James Branch Cabell chose one of the more interesting. Standing at the helm of the single most successful literary career of any fantasist of the twentieth century, he drove the great ship of his reputation straight and unerringly onto the rocks.
It is hard to imagine today the magnitude of James Branch Cabell’s fame in the early part of the last century. Cabell’s books were Mark Twain’s chief reading in the great humorist’s declining years. Theodore Roosevelt received him at the White House. The occultist Aleister Crowley harried him with fan letters. H. L. Mencken was his advocate. A symphonic tone poem based on Cabell’s Jurgen debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1925. Sinclair Lewis, accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, mentioned him as one of a number of writers who might reasonably have won it.
Yet he died as good as forgotten. A 1958 memorial by Edmund Wilson, a late convert to his work, began, “I do not know how many people will feel a special sense of loss at the death of James Branch Cabell.” Today there is little left to remind people of what he once was. Jurgen is still read in the Dover paperback edition, and hard-core fantasy fans seek out the Ballantine reprints of his other fantasies in used bookstores. But that’s pretty much it. The other day I received in the mail a copy of Jurgen, personally inscribed To Anita “Star of my Life” and signed “Jimmy” Cabell. It cost me twenty dollars, including postage. A comparable book by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, or F. Scott Fitzgerald – to name two writers he could not abide and a third who once humbly begged a blurb from him for The Beautiful and the Damned – would have set me back a bundle.
This remarkable feat of self-obliteration was accomplished through diligence, hard work, and a perverse brilliance of timing on Cabell’s part. His chief tool was a uniform edition of his works.
I happen to think this is a good essay, but that’s not what makes its book publication extraordinary. The coolness factor derives directly from Henry Wessells, the publisher. Henry is a serious rare book man (he works for James Cummins, Bookseller in New York City, which is one of the very first places you’ll want to go shopping after winning big in the lottery), and his imprint, Temporary Culture, is issuing the book in two states. One is a trade paperback (6 x 9 inches, 64 pp.) edition of 200, very reasonably priced at fifteen dollars. It’s the limited edition hardcover that jacks up the cool quotient to eleven.
But before I should explain why, let me briefly mention the introduction and the man who wrote it. “Jurgen Down Under,” is a very graceful piece of writing by the estimable Barry Humphries, reflecting on his first encountering the then-scandalous Jurgen in the 1950s Australia of his youth. Barry Humphries is best known to the world as Dame Edna, but you don’t have to know anything of his comedic brilliance to appreciate the essay he wrote.
Now, as to the hardcover . . . It will be printed in an edition of 17 numbered copies, each one signed by me, Barry Humphries, and James Branch Cabell. This last is a bit of a trick, given that Cabell died almost fifty years ago, but Henry Wessells achieved it by sacrificing an incomplete set of the Storisende Edition of Cabell’s works (originally 18 volumes) and harvesting the signed leaves. Neat, huh? Most of those copies are already spoken for, so if you desperately need one, you’d better move fast. Serious collectors can inquire for a subscription price, which (the press release says), “includes shipping within the USA and a copy of the trade issue.” So you can read the essay and still keep the pages of the limited edition pristine and uncut, you see.
Order and inquiries should go not to me but to:
P.O. Box 43072, Upper Montclair, NJ 07043-0072 USA
Electronym : wessells(at)aol(dot)com