Letters of George Sterling to James Branch Cabell

By Maurice Duke

The Friendship between George Sterling the prolific but ill-fated San Francisco poet, and James Branch Cabell, the Richmond novelist much in vogue in the 1920's, began at the point when the latter's reputation as a literary figure was in the ascendency and the former's on the decline. This was in 1919, just prior to the much publicized seizure, trial, exoneration, and subsequent fame of Cabells Jurgen, on the charges that it was a "lewd, lascivious, indecent, obscene and disgusting book."(1) At that time Sterling had published fourteen volumes, most of which had not been well received; and he was only seven years away from his death by suicide, in his room In San Francisco's Bohemian Club on November 17, 1926, In all, twenty-six of his books were published, six posthumously.

From January, 1920, to August, 1924, Sterling wrote Cabell a total of eight letters(2) the correspondence beginning when Sterling sent Cabell an inscribed copy of Lilth: A Dramatic Poem, with the simple inscription, "For James Branch Cabell with my very sincere admiration. George Sterling. San Francisco, Dec, 31st 1919" The relation ship ended suddenly in the late summer of 1924, apparently after a misunderstanding between the two. Cabell had sent Sterling a monograph(3) which later turned up on the booksellers market in New York, Learning of this, Cabell assumed that Sterling had sold it, and thereupon, it seems, demanded the return of a similar Item, Sterling's cryptic reply, of August 5th? 1924, constitutes the last letter in the correspondence.

In his letters to Cabell, Sterling reveals himself as a poet who feels unjustly treated by critics and editors alike. Thus the letters are biographically of prime importance. Further, they give a clear insight into his attitude toward many of his individual poems, in that he often mentioned by tide the ones he considered his best. Cabell, an ardent collector of his colleagues' works,(4) carefully saved all books Sterling sent him, placing between the end-papers of each the letters the poet had posted earlier. Sterling sometimes marked the indices of these books he had sent, then commented upon his marks in the letters, which Cabell carefully preserved. Taken together, the books and the letters form a composite portrait of Sterling as a friend and correspondent, but more important, as a poet.


Jan, 21, 1920.
Dear Mr. Cabell:

It delights me to think that you liked "Lilith," for I was hoping that you would, just as Mencken did. You and he are among the few persons outside of California to whom I sent it. Devotees of the "new poetry" will not like it at all, I know.

I trust it won't seem too much like "mutual admiration" to say how much I like "Beyond Life," "The Cream of the Jest" and "Jurgen," the only books of yours I've so far read. "Jurgen" is all that Mencken claims for it, and more, for I like its ending, as he doesn't seem to. It's a splendid book, all beauty, fire and imagination, with more poetry in it than in all but a few modern books of verse.

You make me smile "a little sadly" when you recall "The Testimony of the Suns," Seventeen years ago! I remember how I swelled up visibly under the generous (too generous) praise of Bierce,(5) Well, the years are great deflaters. I let Robertson(6) publish my verses so as to have books to give away; so if you should care about having any of them, it would give me decided pleasure to send them to you. The list is: The Testimony of the Suns,
A Wine of Wizardry,
The House of Orchids,
Beyond the Breakers and
The Caged Eagle.
There is also a book of "frothing mad" war verses, which I'm trying to forget, I hope Mencken never sees it!

This isn't a plot to Inveigle you into a correspondence; but I do want you to know how much pleasure your letter gave me, and I should like to send you the books. You'd not have to read everything in them, nor to comment on them to me: those disliking them have done that already, in brutal print!

Sincerely yours,
George Sterling


The next letter is in reply to Cabell's January 30, 1920, letter to Sterling, in which the former requests the poet to write Robert M. McBridc & Co., Cabell's publisher, in defense of Jurgen, Cabell also asked Sterling to gamer support from "other Western literati who think well enough of the book to send such notes," Jurgen had just been indicted in New York-January 14-as the result of efforts by John S. Sumner and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. For complete details see Between Friends: Letters of James Branch Cabdl and Others, pp. 151-179.

Only three of Cabell's letters to Sterling have thus far been located. Each is mentioned, where appropriate, in this article.

Dear Mr. Cabell:

I'm writing to Mr. Holt(7) at once. I'll have James Hopper(8) write too (I am mailing "Jurgen" to him today), and am speaking to Dobie(9) and one or two others. As a matter of fact, we've few literati hereabouts; most of our scribblers belong to the Saturday Evening Post school, which they consider the summit of attainable glory. As soon as any of our young folk of the west make any sort of a hit, they streak promptly for New York.

I'm sending you several of my books of verse, with the prayer that you'll not try to read them all at once! I'll indicate in their indices which of the poems I think you may find least boresome,(10) My next book will be characterized by more maturity of thought, I hope, The Socialist(11) has had me well strung for awhile, I'm obliged to confess. Otherwise I'm old- fashioned.

Axe you ever tempted to come to California? We should love to see you in San Francisco.

George Sterling.


Dear Mr. Cabell:

Not so very long ago, someone (I think Dreiser) told me you'd written some lines on the subject of Hergesheimer(12) joining the A.I.oA.aL(13) As one who refused membership in that body, I think I'm entitled to a copy of said verses, and herewith present any claim for it, also some rhymes of my own, in partial compensation.

Sincerely yours,
George Sterling.


July 16th, 1921,
Dear Mr, Cabell:

I Had wondered who'd been so kind as to have "The Reviewer"(14) sent me. Thank you! The periodical interests me, and is quite readable. You are indeed kind in giving them your precious stuff! I'll be glad to give them poems now and then, and shall soon be sending them. one. They may have "In His Own Country" if I can't sell it. Fm perennially hard- up, and write so many unavailable poems that I have to make all the "available" ones count.

I'd have said all this before, but have delayed, hoping to find out, despite my memory (a cross between a joke and disease!), who had told me that you had satirized Hergesheimer, As Mencken and several others disclaim having done so I've about made up my mind it must have been Dreiser.

I enclose a few poems that may please you. You don't have to acknowledge their receipt, "The Reviewer" could have the sonnet on Poe, had not I sold it to "The Nation," I'm sorry now, for it would have been appropriate for a Virginia magazine.

Sincerely yours,
George Sterling.


Aug. I4th, 1921,
My Dear Mr. Cabell:

As I've already written, I was very glad to do something to help "The Reviewer," especially at your suggestion, and I take pleasure in "submitting" a few more poems.

Do with them as you wish. God He knoweth that they are quite un- salable, most of what I write being as black opal to those titmice, the magazine editors. And these are too long for "Smart Set" You may notice that I've not used the "S" sound in either of them-a discipline to which I set myself for my art's good!
I hope God will make you go on writing books for me!

Sincerely yours, George Sterling.

P.S. I too liked this number of The Reviewer. I suppose you see Finger's "All's WelL"(15) If not, I'll have it sent to you.


Sept, 30th, 1921.
Dear Mr. Cabell:

Here are two of my recent poems that the editors of The Reviewer may use, if they care to. They may appear in the west, however, before they can be made use of in the east, as they are incorporated in a book that may be out by the first of November, Few eastern folk, though, are likely to see the volume, (I'll be glad to send one to you, of course.) So it is up to the young editors to do as they wish about the poems. I'm bothering you in the matter because you are best able to advise them. Trusting all's well with you, I remain

Very sincerely yours,
George Sterling.

P. S. I find I've given Mencken one of the poems! I enclose the other.


Sept. 22nd, 1923.
Dear Mr. Cabell:

With silent prayers that you will pardon this raid on your leisure, I set forth as follows:
Our main, and most likeable, bookseller in San Francisco, is one J. J. Newbegin, Jr.(16) He is well-known to most of the writers of consequence that visit San Francisco, for he keeps open shop and is a despiser of corks-pre-Volstead(17) It may be that Mencken or Walpole(18) has spoken of him to you. Said Newbegin is a particular admirer of the works of one Cabell, whom he "boosts" in and out of season, and having, as a collector of first editions, a set of your own, he has often expressed to me the hope that you might visit California, that so he might beg you to inscribe these volumes.

As you are unlikely to take so long and wearisome a journey, I have suggested that were he to send you these books you might be moved to inscribe them, an honor which he comes as near to deserving as any of us dwellers on the edge of the western world. I hope I'm not too pre- sumptuous in asking you to do so. The most formal of inscriptions is enough, and you may be sure that the volumes will always remain in his hands.

If "the rest is silence," I shall infer that such inscribing is not your custom.

Very sincerely yours,
George Sterling.

Cabell replied, saying he had stopped the practice of autographing his books, but would be willing to write slips which Newbegin could paste in the books.


Aug. 5th, 1924.
Dear Mr, Cabell:

Referring to the enclosed item, I should like to say that I gave the Horgesheimer monograph19 to a friend who collected books. His collection was subsequently sold, in N,Y, I do not want you to think I'd sell a gift from you.

George Sterling.

Foot Notes:

1 See Padraic Colum and Margaret Freeman Cabell, Between friends; Letters of James Branch Cabell and Others (New York, 1962), p. 157.

2 These letters are in the possession of Mrs. Margaret Freeman Cabell, the novelist's widow. They are reproduced here with her kind permission, and with the permission of James E. Skipper, University Librarian of the University of California, Berkeley, holder of the literary property rights Co the Sterling estate.

3 The copy of Cabell's monograph on Hergesheimcr, inscribed for Sterling has recently been acquired by the James Branch Cabell Library of Virginia Commonwealth University. See also letter VIII.

4 See my "James Branch Cabell's Personal Library," Studies in Bibliography, XXIII (1970), 207-216.

5 Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?). His newspaper column "Prattle," written in California between 1887 and 1896, made him the most influential Literary critic on the west coast He disappeared id Mexico in 1913.

6 A.M. Robertson, San Francisco publisher.

7 Guy Holt, Cabell's editor at Robert M. McBride & Co,T Publishers.

8 Jame Marie Hopper (1876-1956) was a journalist, war correspondent, novelist, and short story writer who emigrated to the U.S. from France, settling in Carmel, California.

9 Charles Caldwell Dobie (1881-1943)  was a native San Franciscan who was well known locally as a short story writer and playwright.

10 Fortunately Cabell preserved the books Sterling sent him, and he owned the following works by the poet: The Testimony of the Suns, and Other Poems, 1907; Rosamund, A Dramatic Poem, 1920; Sails and Mirage, and Other Poems, 1921;  Lilith, A Dramatic Poem 1919; The House of Orchids 1911; Beyond the Breakerst and Other Poems, 1914; A  Wine of Wizardry, and Other Poems, 1901; and The Caged Eagle,and Other Poems, 1916.  Several of these volumes bear corrections  in Sterling's hand, but of greater importance are Sterling's markings in the tables of contents of several books, dearly indicating which of his poems he considered his best. The marked poems are: "A "Wine of Wizardry." "The Lover Wails," "To Edgar Allan Poe," "In Extremis," "Oblivion," "The Dust Dethroned," "The Night of Gods," "A Dream of Fear," "Night in Heaven," "Duandon," "Aldebaran at Dusk," "The Chariots of Dawn," "The Huntress of Stars," "The Black Vulture," "The House of Orchids," "Sonnets on the Sea's Voice," "Autumn," "The Swimmers,"  "Music at Dusk," "An Altar of the West," "The Faun," "The Gardens of the Sea,"  "Moonlight in the Pines," "White Magic,"  "Three  Sonnets  by the Night Sea," "The Midges," "The Ashes in the Sea," "Beyond the Breakers," "The Master Mariner," "The Voice of the Dove," "The Muse of the Incommunicable," "The Thirst of Satan," "Ballad of Two Seas," "The Rack," "Willy Pitcher," "That Walks in Darkness," "In the Market Place," "The Hunting of Dian," "Omnia Exeunt in Mysterium," "The Abandoned Farm," "The Last Days, "Father Coyote," "The Witch," "To Twilight," "Conspiracy," "Mediatrix," "In Autumn," "The Caged Eagle," 'Three Sonnets on Sleep," "The Little Farm," "The Summer of the Gods," "To Imagination," "The Testimony of the Suns," "The Spirit of Beauty" and "To My Sister."

11 Sterling is probably referring to a journal here. The Union List of Serials many which were called The Socialist.

12 Joseph Hergesheimer (1880-1954), Pennsylvania novelist and friend of Cabell and his circle.

13 These initials almost surely stand for the American Institute of Arts and Letters, which Sterling is probably confusing with either the National Institute of Arts and Letters, or the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a section of the former organization. The National Institute of Arts and Letters, considered to be pretentious by a number of people, had among its membership some of the Leading writers of the day. Cabell submitted his resignation from the organization in a brisk little note to the Assistant Secretary, Felicia Geffen in November, 1942.

14 The Reviewer, a Richmond based little magazine, was published from February, 1921, to October, 1925. It was guest edited briefly by Cabell, who saw three issues through the press in late 1921, and in other ways expressed an interest in the journal during its life. Absorbed by the Southwest Review in April, 1926, its original purpose was to promote Southern writers. Sterling published four poems in The Reviewer For a complete study of this journal see my "The Reviewer: A Bibliographical Guide to a Little Magazine," Resources for American Literary Study (Spring, 1971), 58-103.

15 Charles J. Finger edited the monthly little magazine All's Well, Or The Mirror Repolished, from December, 1930, to December, 1935, During his editorship it was a vigorous expression of uncensored opinion.

16 Newbegin's Book Shop is still operating.

17 Andrew Joseph Volstead (1860-1947), US Congressman from Minnesota and author of the Volstead Act, Passed in 1919, this act made provisions for the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. That Amendment introduced Prohibition.

18 Hugh Seymour Walpole (1884-1941), English novelist 2nd friend of Cabell and his circle.

19 See footnote 3, above.

American Literature, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Mar., 1972) , pp. 146-153