The Silver Stallion

Notes and Essays
Patron's Choice: Ellen Glasgow, James Branch Cabell, and a Manuscript Mystery Solved, by Stephanie Kingsley

For our first entry in The Silver Stallion's Notes and Essays section, we offer a link to an article on the Notes from Under Grounds: The Blog of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, part of the University of Virginia Library. In this very interesting article, Stephanie Kingsley discusses her research into "an intriguing mystery," as she aptly described the controvery over the assistance (if any) that James Branch Cabell provided to Ellen Glasgow in the development and editing of her last book, In This Our Life.

The link below will take you to the blog entry on the University of Virginia website. You'll need to use your browser's back button to return to The Silver Stallion after accessing it.

Patron's Choice: Ellen Glasgow, James Branch Cabell, and a Manuscript Mystery Solved, by Stephanie Kingsley

[And a word from The Silver Stallion about this link…]   

rascoeJames Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow-- the leading Richmond novelists of the first third of the last century -- are often spoken of and sometimes studied together. They were friends we are told, but their friendship was a thorny one. Although they were acquainted as youngsters it was not until around 1920 (when he was 41 and she 47) that they became close – seeing each other socially, reviewing each other’s books, and advising one another on literary matters.  They both could be difficult people – he waspish and reclusive, she proud and stubborn; that their not-very-similar writings found a very different reception in the 20s and 30s perhaps led to friction between them. Cabell had been a fad in the 1920s but came to be viewed skeptically by many critics and academics, while Glasgow published her five masterpieces between 1925 and 1935 so that about the time Cabell’s was sinking her reputation was in the ascendant. 

When Glasgow’s health began to fail in the mid-1930s, Cabell somewhat patronizingly took her in hand. He later claimed to have given her the idea that her novels constituted a “social history of Virginia” – which Glasgow came to believe had been her intention from the beginning. He also tutored her as to the correct formula for writing the prefaces to her collected works, These prefaces were later gathered up as A Certain Measure (1943), a work in which some have claimed to detect passages with a Cabellian ring. Glasgow did not publicly acknowledge the extent of Cabell’s help, which perhaps led him to give it a sardonic review in the New York Evening Post. The review greatly offended the ailing Glasgow and for the last several years of her life she and Cabell were more or less estranged, and were just beginning to mend fences when she died in 1945.  Cabell wrote of her fondly in Let Me Lie (1947), but after she gossiped about two scandals from his youth in her posthumous autobiography The Woman Within (1954), he adjusted her eulogy with smirking left-handed compliments in As I Remember It (1955).

This potted account of the Cabell-Glasgow smackdown is preface to our reporting a new development in the last great unresolved conflict between them. In the mid-1930s it belatedly dawned on the Pulitzer Prize committee that Ellen Glasgow’s achievement had been neglected, so they determined to award her next novel, whatever it might be, the Pulitzer as a sort of lifetime-achievement award. This seemed safe -- after all she had just published her fifth strong work in a row, so surely her next would come soon and be just as worthy? Unfortunately, in 1935 Glasgow (now 62) was ailing and her energy flagging. She began the work that became In This Our Life but by 1940 (after several heart attacks) was still struggling with it. (When it was published in 1941 it was duly awarded the Pulitzer Prize, as well as being made into a movie starring Bette Davis – but it is now considered one of Glasgow’s lesser works.) 

Glasgow’s usual method of composition was to sketch out the whole work in a first draft, followed by a thorough revision to strengthen structure and characterization. This would then be capped off by a third revision for style. By 1940 she had completed a typescript of the second draft, but her frail health allowed her to work only 15 minutes a day on the final revision – and the Pulitzer committee was waiting! Enter her friend James Branch Cabell. According to Cabell’s account in As I Remember It, he assumed responsibility for the stylistic polishing, visiting Glasgow’s sick-bed each afternoon to offer his adjustments for her approval, or disapproval. He found this situation to be rather droll (of course), as he relished the “pleasure which [he] got from knowing that at long last [he] was completing a Pulitzer prize winner,” thus secretly tweaking the noses of the literary establishment what didn’t give him no respect.  But here’s the rub – Glasgow in The Woman Within refers to Cabell reading the typescript at her beside but says nothing of revisions from his hand, implying that she struggled through the last stages of the revision alone. Further, Glasgow’s secretary and companion Anne Bennett more or less called Cabell a liar, claiming that he never even saw the novel until it was in final page-proofs.  Who to believe?

The case against Cabell seemed to be clinched by the absence of any written revisions on the second-draft typescript – all the changes appeared to have been typed on Glasgow’s own typewriter. But now Stephanie Kingsley, a graduate student in bibliography at the University of Virginia who has been working with the In This Our Life manuscript material, has discovered traces of penciled revisions in Cabell’s hand under the typed ones! Well, we’ll let Ms. Kingsley tell her own story – click that link above and read about Cabell’s “completing a Pulitzer prize winner.”   And the story isn’t over – as the article points out  more work is still to be done in recording the entirety of the penciled revisions (using infrared technology, or perhaps Google Everything) and a literary analysis by Cabell and Glasgow scholars is needed to apportion the responsibility for the various revisions.  Any takers?

Bill Lloyd 2014