“With Mr. Cable along to see for you, and describe and explain and illuminate, a jog through that old quarter is a vivid pleasure.”
—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
Southern reformist George Washington Cable (1844-1925) has been called the most important Southern artist of the late-nineteenth century as well as the first modern Southern writer. He was the first fiction writer in the South to outwardly challenge the accepted literary tradition of the old South and its aristocracy. In his writings, he faithfully campaigned to reform the racial caste system and eradicate political corruption. Cable also touched on many other realities of the time, including violence, interracial marriage, and a vanishing Creole culture. Through his pioneering use of dialect and skill with the short-story form, Cable helped lead the local color movement of the late 1800s.
Cable was born and raised in New Orleans. He dropped out of school at the age of fifteen following the death of his father and was forced to help support his family as a clerk. At nineteen, he volunteered for the Confederate army, joining the Fourth Mississippi Cavalry. Two years later, he returned home, where he found work as a columnist and reporter for the New Orleans Picayune. There he penned the popular “Drop Shot” column, featuring criticisms, humorous essays, and poetry.
In 1872, Cable was given access to the city’s archives, located at the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral, to conduct research for a series of articles. He turned his discoveries into vibrant stories, dramatizing New Orleans’ records and highlighting the city’s cultural and racial diversity. His 1879 publication of Old Creole Days, a collection of seven short stories, established the genre of Southern local-color fiction.
Cable’s widely acclaimed novel The Grandissimes, published in 1880, was met with numerous negative reviews, particularly in New Orleans, for its portrayal of forbidden love and the clash of cultures during post-Civil War Reconstruction. Some powerful voices, however, came to the defense of the work, including local writer Lafcadio Hearn. Today the novel is considered a masterful critique of racial and social inequality that continues to resonate with readers.