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James Branch Cabell collection

Identifier: M 214

Scope and Contents

The collection contains James Branch Cabell’s personal papers along with materials by other creators related to Cabell. Cabell corresponded with a number of American and British authors such as H.L. Mencken, Ellen Glasgow, Sinclair Lewis, and Theodore Dreiser, as well as with family, friends, editors and publishers. Other materials of note include his manuscripts with Cabells handwritten edits, his notebooks containing information about his published works along with poems and other writings, and the materials found inside the books of his personal library. The materials provide insight into Cabell's writings and personal interests based upon the content he placed within the books of his collection.

Series I contains correspondence between Cabell and his contemporaries in the literary world, family and friends.

Series II includes various Cabell manuscripts as story ideas, notes, early drafts, school work, essays and poems.

Series III is composed primarily of materials found placed inside Cabell’s books and includes ephemera, pamphlets, newspaper clippings, etc.

Series IV are materials from the Cabell Society and contain correspondence between its founders and correspondence between Cabell and Nelson Bond and Cabell and Frederick Eddy.

Series V has materials related to the book Between Friends: Letters of James Branch Cabell and Others, edited by Padraic Colum and Margaret Freeman Cabell.

Series VI consists of various criticisms of Cabell’s writings, most of which were collected by Jean Maurice Duke while writing James Branch Cabell: A Reference Guide.

Series VII includes works by Cabell printed in various periodicals. He often published essays, short stories, and other fiction in periodicals before later revising them into book form. The majority of this series is made up of bound volumes. Each volume is named for a published Cabell book and contains the full periodical where the content originally appeared before he developed it into a book.

Series VIII contains plays, poems, and other works inspired by Cabell’s work.

Series IX includes scrapbooks and notebooks containing clippings, letters, notes, poems, and other writings by Cabell.


  • Creation: 1860-1971


Access Restrictions

The collection is open to research.

Use Restrictions

There are no restrictions.

Biographical / Historical

Richmond author James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) is best known for his controversial book, Jurgen (1919), a fantasy set in Cabell's mythical medieval world of Poictesme (pronounced Pwa-tem). The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice contended the book was obscene. A trial over its content brought the reclusive writer national fame. Throughout the 1920s, Cabell's literary peers, including H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, praised his works.

Cabell was born April 14, 1879, at 101 E. Franklin St., the present site of the Richmond Public Library. His father was Robert Gamble Cabell, II (1847-1922), a physician; his mother Anne Harris (1859-1915), daughter of Col. and Mrs. James R. Branch. Cabell's great grandfather was William H. Cabell, governor of Virginia from 1805-1808. Cabell had two brothers, Robert Gamble Cabell, III (1881-1968) and John Lottier Cabell (1883-1946). His parents divorced in 1907.

After attending the College of William and Mary (1893-1898), where he taught courses in French and Greek while an undergraduate, Cabell worked briefly at the Richmond Times as a copyholder. In 1899 he moved to New York City and worked for the New York Herald as a social reporter. He returned to Richmond in 1901 and worked several months on the staff of the Richmond News. During the next ten years, he performed genealogical research and wrote numerous short stories and articles, which he contributed to national magazines such as Harper's Monthly Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post.

In 1911, Cabell worked as a bookkeeper for his uncle James R. Branch's coal mine in West Virginia. Returning to Richmond in 1913, he married Rebecca Priscilla Bradley Shepherd (1874-1949), a widow with five children by her previous marriage. They had one son, Ballard Hartwell Cabell (1915-1980).

Although he had written for newspapers, Cabell's first published nonfiction work was "The Comedies of William Congreve," which appeared in the April 1901 edition of International. He published his first book, The Eagle's Shadow, in the autumn of 1904 after it appeared serially in the Saturday Evening Post during that summer. His work was slow to draw critical attention. However, by 1918 he had published ten major works and began attracting critical admirers. In an article for the New York Evening Mail, H.L. Mencken described Cabell as "the only first-rate literary craftsman that the whole South can show." Cabell's stature and fame as an author increased with the 1919 publication of Jurgen.

On January 14, 1920, the New York State Society for the Prevention of Vice charged Cabell's publishing editor, Guy Holt, with violating the anti-obscenity provisions of the New York State Penal Code by publishing Jurgen. The controversy over the charges and the attempt at censorship brought Cabell much notoriety. Writers defended the artistry of Jurgen and Cabell's right to publish it.

The obscenity trial over Jurgen began October 16, 1922, and ended three days later with an acquittal of all charges. The presiding judge, Charles C. Nott, stated in his decision "...the most that can be said against the book is that certain passages therein may be considered suggestive in a veiled and subtle way of immorality, but such suggestions are delicately conveyed" and that because of Cabell's writing style " is doubtful if the book could be read or understood at all by more than a very limited number of readers."

Throughout the 1920s, he continued to publish in the style of Jurgen, a combination of satire, symbolism, and fantasy, set in a mythical medieval French province of Poictesme. The name was a compound of two provinces located in the South of France, Poitiers and Angouleme. Cabell blended an assortment of myths and legends laced with puns, anagrams, and allegories in these books. These works eventually became part of an eighteen-volume collection entitled The Biography of the Life of Manuel; the last volume was published in 1930.

Cabell had become well regarded by prominent writers of the period and maintained an extensive correspondence with a wide circle of literary artists and friends, including Mencken, Joseph Hergesheimer, Burton Rascoe, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Carl Van Vechten, and fellow Richmonder and close friend Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945). He had known Glasgow since his days at William and Mary. He served as editor of the Virginia War History Commission (1919-1926) and later joined Dreiser, Eugene O'Neil, and others on the editorial board of the American Spectator (1932-1935). In 1937, Cabell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

While the controversy over Jurgen ensured Cabell an audience throughout most of the 1920s, interest in his books dropped sharply in the New Deal era of the 1930s and continued to decline. In 1932, in an attempt to break away from his past, he began publishing under the name Branch Cabell. During the next three decades, he wrote and published nearly twenty more books. They were grouped in a series of trilogies. He returned as James Branch Cabell in 1947 with the publication of Let Me Lie. It was the first installment of his fifth and last trilogy, consisting mainly of semi-autobiographical essays filled with remembrances of Virginia.

Cabell continued to live and work in Richmond, residing at 3201 Monument Avenue. By 1935 he and his family began spending most of their winter months in St. Augustine, Florida, due to Cabell's reoccurring bouts of pneumonia. During their stay in Florida in 1949, his wife died of heart failure. In 1950, he married Margaret Waller Freeman (1893-1983), whom he had known for many years. Cabell suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1958, and on May 5, he died at his home in Richmond.

Cabell's writings, published in various magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, included numerous short stories, poetry, essays, book reviews, and one play. He authored more than 52 volumes of work, including three devoted to genealogy. Cabell is recognized as one of the first contemporary writers from the South. Like his friend, Ellen Glasgow, Cabell was not afraid to satirize what he saw as the South's contradictions. Others, noting Cabell's unique blending of classic myths and legends with his imagination, consider him a pioneer of fantasy writing.

Soon after the establishment of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in 1968, created by the merger of the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) and Richmond Professional Institute (RPI), the University began construction for a new library on the Monroe Park Campus. RPI had already planned for a new library and approached Margaret Cabell about naming it for her husband. VCU approved the name, and in 1970, the James Branch Cabell Library opened its doors.


10 Linear Feet (Also includes 3000 volume library)

Language of Materials



Collection is arranged alphabetically. Series I -- Correspondence (1860s-1960s); Series II -- Manuscripts; Series III -- Ephemera, printed material, illustrations, newspaper clippings, etc.; Series IV -- Cabell Society (1963- 1971); Series V -- Between Friends; Series VI -- Criticisms of Cabell's work; Series VII -- Periodicals (essays, reviews and fiction by Cabell); Series VIII -- Dramatic and musical interpretations of Cabell's work; Series IX -- Scrapbooks, notebooks and oversized items.

The collection includes materials removed from books in Cabell’s personal library. When Jean Maurice Duke cataloged the book collection he assigned a number (written in pencil) to each item indicating what volume the materials was taken from. Please see James Branch Cabell’s Library: A Catalogue by Duke, for reference.

A Guide to the James Branch Cabell collection, 1860-1971
Special Collections and Archives staff
2002 By Virginia Commonwealth University. All rights reserved.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the VCU James Branch Cabell Library Repository

Special Collections and Archives 901 Park Avenue
Richmond Virginia 23284 USA US
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