by Suzanne W. Jones
Just a few years after Nathaniel Hawthorne complained in the preface to The Marble Faun (1860), a novel set in Italy, about the difficulty of finding similar material in New England, George Washington Cable was finding just the opposite to be true in New Orleans. The city’s history and culture provided him with an abundance of material for his first novel, The Grandissimes (1880). The complexity of New Orleans society afforded Cable all the shadows, antiquities, mysteries, and picturesque and gloomy wrongs that his northern contemporaries Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James had traveled to Europe for (Hawthorne viii). With its variations in class, race, religion, and ethnicity, New Orleans offered Cable the “accumulation of history and custom, such a complexity of manners and types” that James thought Hawthorne sorely missed in NewEngland and found indispensable in Europe in forming “a fund of suggestion for a novelist” (James 43).
In order to understand the complexity of social conflict in New Orleans after the Civil War and to place it in the historical context, which Cable believed “so differentiated Louisiana civilization from the American scheme of public society” (Wilson 150), he combined the conventions of the novel of manners and the historical novel. While the historical novel analyzes the events of the past in relation to the present, the novel of manners concerns the conventions of the present in terms of past traditions—the modes of thought and behavior followed from generation to generation.
Cable has fictional characters participate in historical events occasioned by the Louisiana Purchase, and interact with historical figures who orchestrated the transition from French to American rule, which Cable depicts as the first major reconstruction of New Orleans. Writing in the 1870s, Cable viewed the social and political struggles of his lifetime between New Orleans natives and northern reconstructionists, between blacks and whites and free people of color as essentially a continuation of the same struggle that had begun in 1803 after President Jefferson purchased Louisiana from Napoleon. Honoré Grandissime, the son of a venerable slave-holding Creole family but educated in France, embodies the conflicts of both eras: disputed land titles, long-standing family feuds, and a vexed relationship with his racially mixed half brother, Honoré f.m.c. With the plot of his historical novel, Cable suggests that New Orleans never made the social and cultural transition from a Creole society based on caste and privilege to an American society based on equality and democracy because the city was situated in a slave state. In the novel Honoré’s uncle Agricola Fusilier embodies Creole disapproval of the 1803 territorial cession; he defends slavery and extols Creole customs. In not siding with Agricola’s defense of slavery, Cable departs from romantic southern novelists of his day, who created nostalgic and tragic myths of futile gallantry and genteel chivalry.
Cable employed the conventions of the novel of manners to explore the reasons reconstruction had not succeeded in either era. Cable’s protagonist, the German-American immigrant Joseph Frowenfeld, resembles a character in a novel of manners, who, because he is an outsider, must learn the power of local myths and manners. In several scenes, Cable uses the contrast in manners between Joseph and the Creoles as a silent means of momentous communication. The quadroons, Palmyra and Honoré f.m.c., both learn from Joseph’s interactions with them that he accepts them as equals. However, Joseph’s unorthodox behavior alarms Creoles, such as Agricola, because they take his behavior as a sign not only of his respect for black people but of his contempt for their values.
Cable has Joseph question the Creole emphasis on blood and race and uses mistaken identities to reveal the social construction of race. The confusion of identities at the masked ball, which open the novel, focuses on the major absurdity of Creole society: if people concealed their names and covered their skin with masks and costumes, enemies would not only fail to see each other as enemies but would befriend each other as Aurora Nancanou and Honoré Grandissime do. Cable goes on to prove that if people in this society were in fact judged by their manners, as the Creoles purport to do, the quadroons would be ladies and gentlemen and the Grandissimes would be barbarians. Cable tries to force his readers to this conclusion by introducing them to Honoré f.m.c. without first revealing his mixed racial ancestry. Because of his light skin and impeccable manners, readers surely assume, as Joseph does, that he is white. Throughout the novel Cable sets scenes this way: objectively giving the facts while withholding the subjective Creole interpretation, hoping to expose not only the illogicality but the underlying inhumanity in their social prejudices.
Cable combined in his own person the perspectives of Honoré Grandissimes and Joseph Frowenfeld. Although Cable was born in New Orleans, his father’s ancestors were from Germany, and his mother’s, form New England. Cable’s lavish descriptions of the “delicious” New Orleans climate and the delightful Creole ladies combine with his biting social criticism of the city’s moral weaknesses to mark him in some ways as both an insider and outsider to New Orleans. As a reformer who sought to integrate the schools, Cable was more interested in change than continuity, but he found that he had to study the society’s manners—the instruments of continuity—to answer the questions that plagued him: Why was the clash between opposing civilizations so violent? Why were the southern attitudes so entrenched? Cable found that his study of Louisiana history and his observation of Creole manners for his column in the New Orleans Picayune not only provided him with the answer to his questions but shaped his literary career as well.
Like Joseph Frowenfeld, Cable searched for logic and consistency (Turner 74) in southern conventions and thus found it difficult to understand why the South sought to perpetuate a social structure that was as Joseph says, “defective, dangerous, erected on views of human relations which the world is abandoning as false.” A study of how social conventions function in society gave Cable a paradoxical answer: while tradition works to unify and solidify a society, it can also work to rigidify it, thereby making change difficult. In The Grandissimes Cable explores several reasons why the strength of inherited manners and conventions can inhibit reform: they fix social roles, they rigidify thought, they impede communication between cultures, and they reduce the possibility of independent behavior.
Convention structures a society by assigning roles to its members, thereby establishing their identity, defining their conduct, and determining their fate. Cable uses irony to emphasizes the absurdities of prescribed roles. For examples, the quadroon Palmyra, who is smarter and more articulate than her former white mistress, Aurora, she must hide her talents behind cunning and manipulation because of her color. Even Aurora is confied in her role. Because ladies do not work, this widowed and penniless womanand her daughter Clotilde must struggle with “how to get a living without making it.” The love plots further underline the complications of tradition. Palmyra is in love with Honoré Grandissime, whom she should not love because of her race; Aurora is in love with Honoré, whom she should not love because of a family feud.
The telling of the Creole myths and Grandissime legends discourages change as much as the social roles do. As Joseph learns, Creole society keep “the flimsy false bottoms in it social errors only by incessant reiteration.” Cable uses storytelling throughout the novel to emphasize its social power. One story repeatedly mentioned by black and whites alike is the story of the slave Bas-Coupé’s escape, recapture, and maiming, and of the vengeful curse that he placed on his master and his plantation. It is a double-edged story of white supremacy and black power, of white victimization of black and black revenge. By placing this story at the center of the novel, Cable suggests the centrality of its meaning, not only for Creole society in 1803 but for the South in the 1870s. Three men with very different social positions use the sotry to justify their actions. Loyal to the Grandissimes and a traditional way of life, Raoul tells the story to reaffirm his beliefs in white superiority and the necessity of slavery. Unhappy with his status as a mulatto but afraid to fight for equality, Honoré f.m.c. tells the story to justify his passivity. Torn by conflicting loyalties between his immediate family and a more inclusive human family, Honoré Grandissime tells the story to inspire himself to change society. His family and friends are horrified when he publicly acknowledges his half-brother and goes into business with him.
If the ingrained habits of mind that come from cultural myths and social roles make the possibility of reforming a society form within difficult, the differences in habits of mind between people of different cultures make imposing reform from without almost impossible. As an American immigrant from the North, Joseph brings an egalitarian perspective to New Orleans social hierarchy. But his actions are at first misunderstood because they convey different means than he suspects. For example, when Aurora leaves her purse in Joseph’s drugstore and Palmyra offers to return it, Joseph does not want Palmyra to take the purse because he is afraid she will be robbed while walking home in the dark. A Creole friend thinks Joseph’s hesitancy is due to prejudice—that because Palmyra is a quadroon, Joseph cannot trust her. For a while the Creoles misunderstand Joseph’s gestures of equality toward people of color because their own provincial attitude leads them to assume that he shares their prejudiced beliefs. When they finally understand Joseph’s pleas for equality and human rights, they respond with hostility because his ideas threaten their way of life.
In writing The Grandissimes, Cable was addressing two very different audiences: southern Creoles like the Grandissimes, who blindly followed tradition, and northerners, like Joseph Frowenfeld, who wanted to change tradition but failed to understand its power. Through the novel Cable hoped to show that the reconstruction of southern society would never occur if the South refused to use its “conscience” to examine its traditions and the North continued using “force” to try to change these traditions: “I wrote as near to truth and justice as I know how upon questions that I saw must be settled by calm debate and cannot be settled by force or silence; questions that will have to be settled by the Southern white man in his own consciences before ever the North and the South can settle it between them” (The Negro Question 14). The two protagonists in the novel, Honoré Grandissime and Joseph Frowenfeld, represent the two audiences Cable hoped to influence. The lessons each character learns about the other’s culture are the lessons Cable hoped to impart to his two audiences.
Southern reviews of The Grandissimes suggest that Cable’s attempt to change the perspective of his southern readers failed. New Orleans newspapers praised the characterization of the Grandissime family members, the most prejudiced characters, and the characterization of Cotilde and Aurora Nancanou, the most sentimental and romanticized characters. But the same reviewers doubted the authenticity of such characters as Honoré Grandissime with his liberal social views and Honoré f.m.c. with his perfect manners. Also, accustomed to seeing northerners portrayed as villainous carpetbaggers, southern readers were probably ill-prepared to accept Joseph Frowenfeld as a hero come to rescue southerners from an antiquated social code. An anonymous southern pamphlet, Critical Dialogue Between Aboo and Caboo on a New Books: or, A Grandissime Ascension, condemned Cable as writing “for the prejudiced and inimical North” (Rubin 97), hardly the only audience Cable had in mind.
Only northern readers, such as Appleton’s reviewer, believed the novel to be realistic, the “picture of an epoch” (Rubin 99). A reviewer for the Atlantic Monthly said that Cable “had a profound sense of the larger laws of history” (“Review” 13). AS an outsider to Creole society, Joseph has the point of view of northern readers who are unaccustomed to southern traditions. Joseph’s determination to reform Creole society is grounded in moral ardor: a desire to dissolve a society teetering on fictions of racial inequality. It would seem that reform would be simple—merely explode the fictions and establish the facts. Joseph tries just this tactic but in doing so is verbally and then physical attacked, the very treatment northern reconstructionists experienced after the Civil War.
Although Cable agrees with what Joseph says, he does not agree with his method—a criticism Cable had of northern reconstructionists. Thus Cable uses Joseph Frowenfeld to voice his believes about the inequities in southern society, but he uses Honoré Grandissime to point out Joseph’s and the North’s naïveté in trying to reconstruct the South simply by passing laws. Advising Joseph to keep to the spirit of his values rather than the letter, Honoré warns, “you cannot afford to be entirely indifferent to the community in which you live.” Joseph is so idealistic that he ignores the reality that his business cannot survive without Creole trade. The destruction of his shop painfully illustrates Honoré’s lesson. Joseph learns that to succeed in the community he must compromise. Although he does not give up his beliefs, he hires a Creole manager and finds that those who work most closely with him eventually grow to respect him.
Because Cable thinks a society will better accept change from within, rather than that imposed from without (Rubin 96), he advocates Honoré Grandissimes’ tactics of compromise rather than Joseph’s crusade of truth as a way of reforming New Orleans society. Joseph’s influence, however, causes Honoré to break the spell of complacency that he fell into when he returned from a more egalitarian France where he had gone to school with his half brother, Honoré f.m.c. Cable shows that although the catalyst for change may come from an outsider who robs an insider of “his pleasant mental drowsiness,” reform is best accomplished by an insider who has the trust of the community and who knows how to use the social conventions. Working with the new American governor, Honoré brings the Creoles into the new government.
In The Grandissimes George Washington Cable solves the riddle of the southern question, concluding that “You have to overturn something stronger than government. . . . conventionality.” However Cable spend much time showing how tradition rigidifies a society and little time showing how conventions are changed. The novel itself seems evidence of the difficulty of reform. Cable realistically exposes the complex problems of the transition from a caste to a democratic society, only to solve them romantically through marrying members of feuding families, Honoré Grandissime and Aurora Nancanou, and conflicting regions, Joseph Frowenfeld and Clotide Nancanou. If the resolution of the cultural conflict is romantic,k the lack of resolution of the racial conflict is realistic. Although Cable proves the equality of the races, he could not envision a way to integrate them, a problem disclosed by the novel’s three endings: marriage for whites, French exile for quadroons, and death for rebellious blacks. Although the novel’s ending does not entirely break with nineteenth-century romantic conventions, the novel itself breaks with the traditions of the plantation novel that preceded it.
This essay is a condensed and slightly revised version of Suzanne W. Jones’s “Foreword” to The Grandissimes, used with permission by the University of Georgia Press.
1. “Ethnic Diversity in America’s Largest Population Centers, 1820.” from Richard Campanella’s Geographies of New Orleans. Lafayette, Louisiana: Center for Louisiana Studies, 2006.
2. G. C. Cox: George Washington Cable, ca. 1879. The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1993.127.
3. First Edition of The Grandissimes. Wade Hall Collection of Southern History and Culture, W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library, The University of Alabama, and featured in Publishers’ Bindings Online, 1815-1930: The Art of Books (bindings.lib.ua.edu).
Cable, George Washington. The Negro Question. Ed. Arlin Turner. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
Cable, George Washington. The Grandissimes. . Foreword by Suzanne W. Jones Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Marble Faun: or, the Romance of Monte Beni. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866.
James, Henry. Hawthorne. London: Macmillan and Co., 1879.
”Review of The Grandissimes.” Critical Essays on George W. Cable. Ed. Arlin Turner. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1980.
Rubin, Louis D., Jr. George W. Cable. New York: Pegasus, 1969.
Turner, Arlin. George Washington Cable, A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966.
Wilson, Edmund. “Citizen of the Union.” Critical Essays on George W. Cable. Ed. Arlin Turner. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1980.