The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Grandissimes, The
GRANDISSIMES, The, by George W. Cable. No one has approached George W. Cable in portraying and interpreting the charm of picturesque New Orleans. After scoring a brilliant success in his first volume of short stories, ‘Old Creole Days,’ he undertook the more ambitious task of writing the novel, ‘The Grandissimes.’ The setting is the old Spanish-and-French city that centered about the Rue Royale — “a long, narrowing perspective of arcades, lattices, balconies, dormer windows, low, tiled roofs, red and wrinkled, huddled down into their own shadows. . . . The human life which dotted the view displayed a variety of tints and costumes such as a painter would be glad to take just as he found them.” If the scene of action shifts, it is to some historic building like the Cabillo, or the cathedral, or a stately mansion situated on the outlying bayous that then infested the suburbs.
The historic setting is that of the early years of the 19th century when the Americans had come into possession of the city and State. Agricola Fusilier, the representative of the proud families of the old régime, struggles somewhat tragically against the new order represented by the Americans and others with more modern ideas. Honoré Grandissime, the more progressive member of the Grandissime family, had been educated in Paris, where he had caught something of the revolutionary ideas that were remaking modern life. He makes the inexcusable mistake of “going over to the enemy,” which phrase meant, in the language of the reactionaries, “affiliation with Americans in matters of business and of government, the exchange of social amenities with a race of upstarts.” It implied a craven consent “to submit the sacredest prejudices of our fathers to the newfangled measuring-rods of pert and imported theories upon moral and political theories.”
There are many other types of characters, notably the descendants of the De Grapions, a charming mother and her daughter, of the Creole type without the social prejudices of their clan and in a sense the victims of the social ideas that had prevailed. There are all sorts of negro types: Bras-Coupé, a former African king and now a slave; Clemence, the pedler, who goes through the streets singing the African folk-songs with a sort of weird incantation; and the two mulattoes, Palmyre and “the free man of color," who bears the same name as his white counterpart, Honoré Grandissime. These last two characters have naught in common with the members of the race to whom they are linked by reason of the slightest tincture of negro blood, and yet they are shut out from all the privileges and possibilities of the white race. At the end they disappear mysteriously from New Orleans and go to France to end their tragic careers.
To these various types must be added one who is for a long time an outsider — Joseph Frowenfeld, a German immigrant with scientific training sufficient to make him the prosperous owner of a drugstore, and with sufficient knowledge of modern intellectual and social ideas to make him a disinterested critic of the existing order in his adopted city. In fact, he is a sort of chorus through whom the author expresses his own views. He is told by the representatives of the old régime that he must “fall in” with the ideas of the community in mind, in taste, in conversation. He does not do so, but gradually wins to himself all the more progressive types of the novel, and especially the love of the charming daughter of a distinguished Creole family.
Aside from the setting and characters, the interest of the novel centres in this interpretation of a vanished social order. There has been much controversy as to whether the author rightly and justly portrays the people of New Orleans, and still more as to his views of the negro problem. It seems as if, in his sense of the tragedy of the free people of color under the old order and the suggestion that the same injustice still prevails now that slavery has passed away, he becomes in the novel less of the pure artist that he was in his first volume and more of the propagandist that he was in a later book, ‘The Silent South.’ Whatever may be said of the justice of these criticisms, the novel remains one of the most ambitious attempts in American fiction and a very suggestive, if not convincing, contribution to the question of the relations of the races.