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New digital project explores the life and legacy of James Branch Cabell, namesake of VCU’s library

September 13, 2021
John Bernhard

VCU Libraries has launched a digital hub focused on the literary work, impact and life of Richmond writer James Branch Cabell (1879-1958), who was the author of 52 works of fiction and nonfiction and is the namesake of Virginia Commonwealth University’s library on the Monroe Park Campus.

The site, James Branch Cabell: Literary Life and Legacy, aims to serve scholars, general readers and fans of Richmond and Virginia history. It includes sections on Cabell’s biography; his books, essays and short stories; scholarship and criticism; illustrations, adaptations and other art inspired by his work; and Cabell at VCU. 

“James Branch Cabell was a unique and well-connected author whose career was touched by censorship. Until now, information about his life and literary career was dispersed across the nation,” said Irene M.H. Herold, Ph.D., dean of libraries and university librarian “This digital project creates a hub for literary and textual scholars, collectors and historians, while at the same time offering a compelling introduction to students and general readers. The site will expand the availability of letters and papers that are part of the Cabell collection at VCU Libraries and highlight Cabell’s legacy at VCU.”

The site pays special attention to the censorship drama surrounding Cabell’s most famous novel, “Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice.” In 1920, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice seized the printing plates and copies of the book, and its publishers were charged with obscenity on the grounds that “Jurgen” was “offensive, lewd, lascivious and indecent.”

A section on “Speaking Cabell” offers a glossary of literary terms Cabell employed in his writing, but that might be unfamiliar to many readers. It explains terms such as “demiurge” (an artisan-like figure responsible for fashioning and maintaining the physical universe), “domnei” (an Old Provençal term meaning the attitude of chivalrous devotion of a knight to his lady, and “rondelet” (a French poetic form with seven lines, of which three are refrains). 

It features several maps of Poictesme (pronounced “pwa-tem”), the fictional medieval French province that serves as the setting for several of Cabell’s works known collectively as “Biography of the Life of Manuel.”

For visitors seeking research material on Cabell, the site links to archival collections, including those held by VCU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives. These include the James Branch Cabell collection, which contains letters Cabell received from American and British authors, some original writings, and items the author placed in the volumes of his personal library; and the Margaret Freeman Cabell papers, which include correspondence between Cabell’s second wife, Margaret Waller Freeman Cabell, James Branch Cabell, and their friends, colleagues and business associates.

“We look forward to working with a new influx of researchers, fans and creators excited about Cabell and welcome anyone from the VCU community and beyond to reach out to us about accessing our unique collections,” said Yuki Hibben, interim head and curator of books and art for Special Collections and Archives.

While best remembered as a writer of comic fantasy in a fictional medieval setting, Cabell was prolific in many genres, producing short stories and essays, risqué fantasies, historical fiction, memoir and genealogy, said project manager Alice Campbell, digital outreach and special projects librarian with VCU Libraries.

“To this day, James Branch Cabell has a dedicated core of readers who have found one another and enjoy discussing his work,” Campbell said. “But the real revelation for me over the past two years working on this project has been the network of unexpected connections surrounding Cabell. There's Robert E. Howard, who created Conan the Barbarian; Sidney Howard, who wrote the screenplay for ‘Gone With the Wind’; Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who won a Pulitzer for ‘The Yearling’; modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn, occultist Aleister Crowley and Playboy cartoonist Rowland B. Wilson — they all have a link to James Branch Cabell.”

The site also explores Cabell’s connections to VCU. It provides the history of the library, opened in 1970, that was named after the author. And it features information about the Cabell Room, located on the library’s fourth floor, that houses Cabell’s nearly 3,000-volume library, as well as artifacts and furniture previously owned by the family and moved from their home on Monument Avenue. Among its items are portraits of Cabell, as well as his writing desk and typewriter. Items in Cabell’s personal library are cataloged and available to all researchers in Special Collections and Archives.

The site was made possible by support from the James Branch Cabell Library Associates, as well as the long-time support of Bill Lloyd and John Thorne, creators of The Silver Stallion website. In 2019, VCU Libraries began working with Lloyd and Thorne to spotlight their illustrated bibliographic scholarship, and collectors content on The Silver Stallion site, while bringing greater attention to materials from VCU Libraries Special Collections and Archives in a new hub for James Branch Cabell studies.

"This project draws a direct line between Cabell's work in the past and the energetic creativity on campus and in the community today,” said Erin White, head of digital engagement. “Cabell has always been our muse. The Cabell First Novelist Award just celebrated its 20th year; the student literary journal, pwa-tem, is named after Cabell's Poictesme; and later this fall, VCU Libraries is launching the Jurgen Banned Art Comic Series, an annual VCU student comics competition dedicated to telling the story of banned art and encouraging discussion of the complex relationship between art and society."

“This digital scholarship project is designed to inspire and educate,” Herold said. “It brings together images and information from a wide variety of sources in support of research into this intriguing Southern author. Alongside its serious academic purpose, the project conveys a sense of Cabell’s wit and creative voice to entice a broader reading public to explore and enjoy the story of Cabell's life and career.”

VCU Libraries intends future additions to James Branch Cabell: Literary Life and Legacy. Readers of the site can sign up for email notifications as new material is published.

VCU Libraries welcomes ideas for future Cabell-related initiatives that will inspire creative and scholarly work. Researchers with research questions about the Cabell Room or Cabell collections should contact Special Collections and Archives at James Branch Cabell Library to learn more.

Article originally published by VCU News.

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