Robert A. Heinlein and James Branch Cabell

by John Holbo on October 14, 2017

A few weeks ago Henry linked to the pledge page for Farah Mendlesohn’s forthcoming Robert A. Heinlein book. I’m glad to see she’s now hit the mark but it’s not too late for you to join the cultural clamor of folks banging their desks, demanding hefty Heinlein monographs! I just chipped in modestly to the tune of an e-version of the final version, but I’ve already been working through a draft she was kind enough to share. I’m not going to quote pre-print stuff but I’ll pass along one detail I never would have guessed. Heinlein was, apparently, a huge James Branch Cabell fan. He loved Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice. I have just started rereading Jurgen myself, since I’m done with Dunsany. (I’m not making any systematic early 20th century fantasy circuit, mind you. We just shifted houses and, somehow, an old, long-unregarded 60’s paperback copy of Jurgen floated to the top. Perhaps this universe’s God is a Richard Thaler-type, giving me a nudge. Also, Mendlesohn is apparently not the first to note that Heinlein liked Cabell. Wikipedia knows. I am, apparently, last to know. But perhaps you have been in that sorry boat with me.)

This isn’t a major theme of her monograph, but Mendlesohn suggests Heinlein wanted to be a satirist in a Cabell-ish (and/or Swiftian, Twainian, Sinclairian, Kiplingesque) vein, in some of his works. But he didn’t really have it in him. He’s too earnest and convicted, albeit eccentrically so. He doesn’t do ironic equivocation. (I imagine if Cabell had tried to write Jurgen as a boy’s adventure book – Have Fine, Snug, Well-Fitting Garment With Curious Figures On It, Will Travel – he might have encountered equal and opposite stylistic incapacities in his soul.) This suggests an interesting category I’ve mused about before. Not anxiety of influence. More like anxiety of lack thereof. Sometimes artists who genuinely have a lot of creative talent have an impulse to create something that doesn’t happen to be the thing they have a talent for creating. The Ramones, it has been said – don’t know if it’s true! – wanted to sound like the Beach Boys.

Once you know Heinlein liked and was influenced by Cabell it’s certainly possible to see it. Sitting down to reread Jurgen, I’m trying to see through Heinleinian eyes. It’s a fatalistic time-travel novel.

“As for that, dearie, ask what you will within the limits of my power. For mine are all the sapphires and turquoises and whatever else in this dusty world is blue; and mine likewise are all the Wednesdays that have ever been or ever will be: and any one of these will I freely give you in return for your fine speeches and your tender heart.”

“Ah, but, godmother, would it be quite just for you to accord me so much more than is granted to other persons?”

“Why, no: but what have I to do with justice? I bleach. Come now, then, do you make a choice! for I can assure you that my sapphires are of the first water, and that many of my oncoming Wednesdays will be well worth seeing.”

“No, godmother, I never greatly cared for jewelry: and the future is but dressing and undressing, and shaving, and eating, and computing percentage, and so on; the future does not interest me now. So I shall modestly content myself with a second-hand Wednesday, with one that you have used and have no further need of: and it will be a Wednesday in the August of such and such a year.”

Mother Sereda agreed to this. “But there are certain rules to be observed,” says she, “for one must have system.”

As she spoke, she undid the towel about her head, and she took a blue comb from her white hair: and she showed Jurgen what was engraved on the comb. It frightened Jurgen, a little: but he nodded assent.

“First, though,” says Mother Sereda, “here is the blue bird. Would you not rather have that, dearie, than your Wednesday? Most people would.”

“Ah, but, godmother,” he replied, “I am Jurgen. No, it is not the blue bird I desire.”

So Mother Sereda took from the wall the wicker cage containing the three white pigeons: and going before him, with small hunched shoulders, and shuffling her feet along the flagstones, she led the way into a courtyard, where, sure enough, they found a tethered he-goat. Of a dark blue color this beast was, and his eyes were wiser than the eyes of a beast.

Then Jurgen set about that which Mother Sereda said was necessary.

It’s about spiritually reconciling time-slice selves. Past selves who naively project meaning and satisfaction into the future; future selves who, too late, see meaning and satisfaction planted in ‘the garden between dawn and sunrise’. ‘Youth is wasted on the young’ is not exactly a fresh conceit, but there are less and more clever ways to metaphysicalize implications, satirico- systematically. Garnish with reserved incest, to taste.

In related news, I was teaching Heinlein’s classic fatalistic time-travel tale, “‘All You Zombies-‘” last week. I asked the students, among other things: what if you read it as a love story? (Mendlesohn, too, notes it is sentimental, as mousetraps go.) I needed something for the PPT slide, so I whipped up a bit of the old “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. Didn’t have Photoshop handy to do it up proper, but you get the idea.

Speaking of jokes, I don’t find Jurgen funny enough, rereading it. I liked it better in my youth – ah, unrecoverable youth. But I do like the bit about King Smoit committing two different horrible crimes on the same calendar day and to the hour, hence being paradoxically doomed to haunt two places at once.

“Yes, I treacherously slew him, and escaped in an impenetrable disguise to Glathion, where not long afterward I died. My dying just then was most annoying, for I was on the point of being married, and she was a remarkably attractive girl,— King Tyrnog’s daughter, from Craintnor way. She would have been my thirteenth wife. And not a week before the ceremony I tripped and fell down my own castle steps, and broke my neck. It was a humiliating end for one who had been a warrior of considerable repute. Upon my word, it made me think there might be something, after all, in those old superstitions about thirteen being an unlucky number. But what was I saying? — oh, yes! It is also unlucky to be careless about one’s murders. You will readily understand that for one or two such affairs I am condemned yearly to haunt the scene of my crime on its anniversary: such an arrangement is fair enough, and I make no complaint, though of course it does rather break into the evening. But it happened that I treacherously slew my gaoler with a large cobble-stone on the fifteenth of June. Now the unfortunate part, the really awkward feature, was that this was to an hour the anniversary of the death of my ninth wife.”

“And you murdering insignificant strangers on such a day!” said Queen Sylvia. “You climbing out of jail windows figged out as a lady abbess, on an anniversary you ought to have kept on your knees in unavailing repentance! But you were a hard man, Smoit, and it was little loving courtesy you showed your wife at a time when she might reasonably look to be remembered, and that is a fact.”

“My dear, I admit it was heedless of me. I could not possibly say more. At any rate, grandson, I discovered after my decease that such heedlessness entailed my haunting on every fifteenth of June at three in the morning two separate places.”

“Well, but that was justice,” says Jurgen.

“It may have been justice,” Smoit admitted: “but my point is that it happened to be impossible. However, I was aided by my great-great-grandfather Penpingon Vreichvras ap Mylwald Glasanief. He too had the family face; and in every way resembled me so closely that he impersonated me to everyone’s entire satisfaction; and with my wife’s assistance re-enacted my disastrous crime upon the scene of its occurrence, June after June.”

“Indeed,” said Queen Sylvia, “he handled his sword infinitely better than you, my dear. It was a thrilling pleasure to be murdered by Penpingon Vreichvras ap Mylwald Glasanief, and I shall always regret him.”

“For you must understand, grandson, that the term of King Penpingon Vreichvras ap Mylwald Glasanief’s stay in Purgatory has now run out, and he has recently gone to Heaven. That was pleasant for him, I dare say, so I do not complain. Still, it leaves me with no one to take my place. Angels, as you will readily understand, are not permitted to perpetrate murders, even in the way of kindness. It might be thought to establish a dangerous precedent.”

“All this,” said Jurgen, “seems regrettable, but not strikingly explicit. I have a heart and a half to serve you, sir, with not seven-eighths of a notion as to what you want of me. Come, put a name to it!”

“You have, as I have said, the family face. You are, in fact, the living counterpart of Smoit of Glathion. So I beseech you, messire my grandson, for this one night to impersonate my ghost, and with the assistance of Queen Sylvia Tereu to see that at three o’clock the White Turret is haunted to everyone’s satisfaction. Otherwise,” said Smoit, gloomily, “the consequences will be deplorable.”



Mike Schilling 10.14.17 at 6:23 am

One of Heinlein’s last novels was called Job: A Comedy of Justice.


John Holbo 10.14.17 at 6:32 am

I know! I never put 2 + 2 together. I am not proud of that fact and make no excuses for my obtuse nature.


David D. 10.14.17 at 7:02 am

For what it’s worth I’ve only read Jurgen once ten years ago (when I was 20) — and I didn’t find it funny then. But possibly I was (am) just missing out.


rm 10.14.17 at 9:01 am

Kim Stanley Robinson is influenced by Philip K. Dick, but is nothing like him.


David W. 10.14.17 at 2:22 pm

Everybody is influenced by P.K. Dick, which would please him.


Whirrlaway 10.14.17 at 2:28 pm

My Dad published a few stories in John Campbell’s Astounding SF, and in that naive company Heinlein was a culture hero, no eccentric. It was easier to confuse liberal and libertarian in those days.


alfredlordbleep 10.14.17 at 4:45 pm

Curious, or not so, JBC influenced Finney’s Circus of Dr Lao (wiki) another from my youthful enthusiasms.

For me what holds up over the years is genre traipsing Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, a frequent nominee for best comic novel of the 20th c. (I haven’t trespassed on his SF and Bondian exfoliations). It’s easy to begin rereading a scene from that novel and taking thirty to forty pages with it.


nnyhav 10.14.17 at 4:48 pm

There is a little story involving Mark Twain in connection with Mr James Branch Cabell’s recently published The Soul of Millicent. Some years ago Mr. Cabell wrote a short story for Harper’s in the vein of medieval romance, and for the sake of local colour wrote under its title “translated from the French of Nicolas of Caen”—a purely imaginative personage. When the story was published in book form Mr. Cabell referred, entirely at random, to an untranslated book of the same author, the Roman de Lusignan. Mr. Clemens found the first book to his liking, and advised Mr. Cabell to “translate” the Roman de Lusignan also, and Mr. Cabell did so in The Soul of Millicent. the good inhabitants of Caen, however, were not aware that the story was written around a title invented previously for a non-existent book by a fanciful author. After its appearance in magazine form they started a fund to commemorate Micolas as one of the town’s notables. After ransacking the Bibliothèque Nationale they were unable to find out anything about him and wrote Mr. Cabell for information.

—”Chronicle and Comment”, The Bookman, V38 (Sept 1913)


Mike Schilling 10.14.17 at 5:07 pm

#2: Speaking of obtuse, I was 40 years old before it occurred to me why omega and omicron are called that.

#6: Heinlein did get weirded (or hide it less) as he got older.


Blair 10.15.17 at 12:30 am

Heinlein name-checks Cabell in his first published novel, where the “Man from the Past” makes fun of smartass college kids of his era who “Read nothing but the American Mercury and Jurgen and then knew it all.”


Owlmirror 10.15.17 at 6:01 am

Beyond the subtitle, I thought the obvious Cabellian reference was the fact that the higher-up of Yahweh and Satan was called Koshchei. I read The Silver Stallion before Jurgen, and the fate of wossname, the Christian knight who was accidentally picked up by a Valkyrie on his death, and ultimately ended up hanging out with a similar über-boss Koshchei, stuck in my head.

I had a vague memory of something else more explicitly Cabellian in Job, but I’ve no copy to hand, and Google books only has snippet view. Oddly, and perhaps appropriately, when I searched Google books for [heinlein job], one of the results was “Jurgen”.

Make of that what you will.

One more point: The biblical book of Job is traditionally supposed to be about God’s justice, or perhaps, “justice”.


dave heasman 10.15.17 at 10:35 am

“I was 40 years old before it occurred to me why omega and omicron are called that.”

I’m older than that and realised 25 seconds ago.


steven t johnson 10.15.17 at 11:54 am

Blair@10 writes “Heinlein name-checks Cabell in his first published novel, where the
Man from the Past’ makes fun of smartass college kids of his era who ‘Read nothing but the American Mercury and Jurgen and then knew it all.’”

Good recall.

There is apparently a fine line between calm about influence, and plagiarism. If I remember correctly a character in his Social Credit novel actually quotes Twain. The battle scenes in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress are I think closely modeled on Jack London’s The Iron Heel (chapter The Chicago Commune.) Blair’s quote above is I think the kind of metacomment that is supposed to turn imitation into hommage. Hanging a lantern on it I think is the Hollywood slang. I suggest that H.L. Mencken of the American Mercury is much more of a stylistic inspiration (to be coy) than Swift or Cabell. And I would add Colonel Ingersoll.

But, I’m a little puzzled by the notion that Kiplingesque satire was a thing. Kipling’s influence on Heinlein was immense, so much so that he paid tribute to Kipling by turning him into the American bard Rhysling in his fiction. Most of his juveniles have Captains Courageous DNA, but one is basically a rewrite of Kim, albeit with truly American heavy-duty wish fulfillment.

To be sure, Kim endorsed English imperialism, and Citizen of the Galaxy has an unlikely anti-imperialist message tacked on. But Heinlein’s entire juvenile series preached decolonization, which was American style free trade versus its rivals, and tried to steal Commie thunder. The OP is entirely correct that Cabell isn’t the type to feel strongly about opening the minds of boys to the moral case for preventive war (the story endorses it, the characters waver, which permits the reader to escape the gravity of the plot.)


J-D 10.16.17 at 4:10 am


Evan 10.16.17 at 7:55 am

I disliked Friday intensely until I reread it and discovered it was a political satire.

I still don’t like the story particularly, but at least I understand it better. It is strange, after decades of reading (and enjoying) Heinlein’s narrative voice as earnest and straightforward, to realize he’s tugging my leg.

It might be interesting to have a second look at some of the other books I dislike, to see if they carry any sign of satire. (But, good lord, I don’t think I can bring myself to read The Cat Who Walks Through Walls or To Sail Beyond the Sunset again…)


Theophylact 10.17.17 at 1:15 am

“So goes this criss-cross multitudinous moving as far as thought can reach : and beyond that the moving goes. All moves. All moves uncomprehendingly, and to the sound of laughter. For all moves in consonance with a higher power that understands the meaning of the movement. And each moves the pieces before him in consonance with his ability. So the game is endless and ruthless: and there is merriment overhead, but it is very far away.”


Mike Schilling 10.17.17 at 4:45 am

#15 The most famous Heinlein quote is “An armed society is a polite society”, from Beyond This Horizon. In one of its first scenes, we see a bravo insulting his intended victim, his plan being that honor will force the victim to challenge the bravo to a duel that would amount to legal murder.

Heinlein can be much subtler than he usually gets credit for.

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