George Washington Cable: Native Outsider and Social Activist

by Jack Lawler

George Washington Cable has been called “the most important southern artist working in the late 19th century,” as well as the “first modern southern writer,” for his revolutionary treatment of important social issues, particularly racism and classism (Richardson, 1). Born in New Orleans in 1844, he lived the first half of his life in and around the city, which had a great impact on not only his writings, but also his attitudes and beliefs. Though he wrote a wide variety of fiction, Cable was always first and foremost a social activist, more concerned with championing human rights than with the artistry of his work (Richardson, 1).

Cable portrait

Cable was the son of George W. Cable, Sr. and Rebecca Boardman Cable, wealthy slave-owners who were noted members of city society and the Presbyterian church. Tragically, when Cable was just a teenager, his father passed away and Cable had to drop out of school and get a job to support his family. He worked as a bookkeeper both before and after the Civil War, which he fought in for the Confederacy. Cable got his first writing job at the age of 26 as a weekly columnist for a local newspaper. He then published a series of short stories for Scribner’s Magazine, which were later gathered into a collection entitled Old Creole Life, and published in 1879. His first novel, The Grandissimes, was published in 1880, and covered societal and racial injustices in Creole society. He published fourteen novels and collections of short fiction, most of which were critical of New Orleans and Creole society. Eventually, the criticism he received and the hostility expressed towards him by locals became too much to bear, and he was forced to move to Northampton, Massachusetts. He spent the rest of his life there, continuing to write about New Orleans and race issues until he passed away in 1925.

Though Cable was born and raised in New Orleans, he always felt like an outsider. As Alice Petry points out in her article “George Washington Cable: Native Outsider,” “Cable was not really from New Orleans…he was born there but birth is so…biological. In spirit he was an outsider.” (2) Cable’s German ancestry played a significant part in his role as an outsider, as did the fact that his mother, Rebecca Boardman, was from the North, and carried with her a different set of beliefs and social status than a native born New Orleanian. Luckily, Cable was able to find a perfect balance for his writing, being just enough of a part of the society to write knowledgeably about it, and “just enough of an outsider to be able to see New Orleans objectively” (Petry 4).

New Orleans figures prominently in almost all of his fiction, serving as the setting for stories that were platforms for Cable’s messages on racial and social inequalities. “Tite Poulette”, “Sieur George”, and Madame Delphine are just a few examples of works that were critical of the moral degradation of New Orleans. The attacks on society were not meant to condemn the people who grew up surrounded by Creole customs but the customs themselves. Cable himself fought for the Confederacy and grew up accepting slavery as a norm. According to one biographer, Kjell Ekström, Cable did not reject slavery until an extensive reading of the Bible, after which, “his belief in slavery went to pieces. But this was in theory. In life he saw the Negroes as unclean, stupid, ugly . . . [this was] his instinctive feeling as a white Southerner, but his sound common sense told him that the Negroes were being unfairly treated” (44). This intellectual enlightenment seems to have happened sometime in May of 1866, due to a letter written to Cable by his sister discussing a “political chat” the two had concerning slavery and secession (44).  After reaching this conclusion about slavery, he strove to spread his message of equality, using his writings as a vehicle for social activism, convinced that readers, if they were “informed and appealed to with reasonableness and logic, would ultimately abandon irrational prejudices. . .or progress and fair play” (Powell 4). New Orleans, with its ethnic diversity and racial tensions, was the perfect setting for Cable’s characters to shine a light on the injustices of southern society.

One reason New Orleans plays such a big role in Cable’s work is that he believed an author should draw from his own personal experiences in his writing. As he writes in a letter to his daughter, “let an author first live; let him live in extended relations with men and do his part in social progress” before beginning a career in writing (Bikle, ix). Essentially all of Cable’s formative experiences, all of his “living,” happened in New Orleans. He walked the streets and observed the diversity, the mix of ethnicities of the city’s inhabitants, including the “Creoles of French and Spanish descent, Negroes of different races who still preserved something of their African customs, mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons, Mexicans, Italians, Irishmen, and Germans, sailors and fishermen” (Ekström, 67). He learned their varied accents, customs and beliefs, and created characters based on the people he met and interacted with. The city was essential to his writing, and gave his work a truth and honesty that few writers could match. After his move to Massachusetts, he attempted to continue writing about New Orleans, but was met with disappointing results. Petry notes, “Cable seems to have needed to be in the closest possible contact with his subject in order to write about them artistically. . . .[he became]so out of touch with his material that he became oddly dry and preachy” (6).

Cable’s move to Massachusetts, while cementing his status as a native outsider to New Orleans and negatively affecting his fiction writing, ended up being a positive experience that helped him grow personally. The move put him closer to his close friend Mark Twain, and to “a public and a press that were receptive to his liberal views regarding social reform in the South, in particular civil rights” (Petry, 5). Though his fiction suffered, he continued to write important pieces such as “The Freedman’s Case in Equity” (1885) and The Negro Question (1890) that argued in favor of racial equality. This metamorphosis made clear what had always been true about Cable: he was a social activist who happened to write fiction, rather than the other way around.

Illustrations

1. George Washington Cable, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly left, c.1915, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91707665/

2. George Washington Cable House, c. 2008, Wikipedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CableHouseLGD30Jan2008.jpg

3. George Washington Cable, 1844-1925 [seated at desk], c.1898, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002698293/

4. Location of George Washington Cable’s house in the Lower Garden District.

Works Cited

Bikle, Lucy Leffingwell Cable. George Washington Cable: His Life and Letters. New York: C. Scribner’s son, 1928.

Ekström, Kjell. George Washington Cable: A Study of His Early Life and Work. New York: Haskell House, 1966.

Petry, Alice Hall. “Native Outsider: George Washington.” Literary New Orleans. Ed. Richard S. Kennedy. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1992. 1-8. Print

Powell, Lawrence N. The New Orleans of George Washington Cable. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

Richardson, Thomas J. (2004) George Washington Cable. In Documenting the American South Online Encyclopedia. http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/cablecreole/bio.html

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