Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Moving toward a "No South": George Washington Cable's Global Vision in the Grandissimes

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Moving toward a "No South": George Washington Cable's Global Vision in the Grandissimes

Article excerpt

In 1882, George Washington Cable gave the commencement address at the University of Mississippi. His speech, "Literature in the Southern States," proclaims the opposite of what its title implies. Rather than outlining the condition of southern literature at the time, Cable decries sectionalist tendencies in literary production and argues bluntly,

    There is a newly-coined name that most agreeably tickles the ear of
the
   young citizen in our southern states, but which I would gladly see
met
   with somewhat of disrelish: the New South. It is a term only fit to
   indicate a transitionary condition. What we want--what we ought to
have
   in view--is the No South! Does the word sound like annihilation? It
is
   the farthest from it. It is enlargement. It is growth. It is a higher
   life. (47) 

Instead of falling into the popular, sectional politics of the period post-Reconstruction, Cable wished for writers to reach beyond limitations of regional allegiance to address universal and global issues: "We [southern writers] shall be the proud disciples of every American alike who adds to the treasures of truth in American literature, and prouder still if his words reach the whole human heart and his lines of light run through the varied languages of the world" (47). A year later, Cable declared similar sentiments in the commencement speech for Louisiana State University, espousing the need for authors to use the knowledge of "their own state, their own town, possibly even their own little neighborhoods; but they will never conceive of their audience as less than their entire nation, and will write remembering that in these days the whole enlightened world is one vast whispering gallery" ("The Due Restraints" 52). In each speech, Cable argues that southern writers must focus on the particularities of their local settings, but that they must then employ those local themes as a springboard for national, and ultimately global, concerns.

Yet just two years before Cable gave the speech in Mississippi, he published The Grandissimes, a novel that if nothing else is a story of the early South. Set in 1803, the year of the Louisiana Purchase, it recounts the rise and fall of a prominent Louisiana family, the Grandissimes, through the eyes of a New Orleans newcomer, Joseph Frowenfeld. Through a tangle of historical, romantic, and sentimental plotlines involving the family and Frowenfeld, Cable outlines the history of early Louisiana from colonization to its entrance into the United States. As such, many critics have read the novel to be an allegory for post-Civil War politics, in particular the South's incorporation into and relations with the federal government. (1)

But for Cable, the region is not representative of the South as a whole; he saw New Orleans and Louisiana as a "South" all their own. As a native of the city and an author whose work often featured New Orleans and Louisiana culture, Cable himself understood and was bound up with the unique space represented by the area. Yet it was a uniqueness that entailed a sense of larger connection to the rest of the world through the multitude of cultures and languages that permeated New Orleans through colonization and international trade, especially the slave trade. Cable was in a unique position to comment on the injustices of the southern social system, and indeed much of his writings document the culture of black New Orleanians, instantiating that culture as integral to an understanding of New Orleans society. (2) In this sense, the setting of New Orleans in The Grandissimes clarifies the distinctiveness of the "little neighborhoods" Cable would identify in 1883. The crux of the novel, though, the story of the slave Bras-Coupe, embodies a violation of human rights. In what follows I will argue that Cable is concerned to elaborate not only the social injustices in Louisiana or the southern American region, but human rights violations throughout the world. …

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