Shadows & Light

Published:May 20, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


The man pictured above is James Branch Cabell, the Richmond-born author of fifty-two books, one of which, Jurgen (1919), was the subject of an obscenity suit in New York and briefly banned. And let’s face it, he looks like the sort of dude whose book might be banned for obscenity.

The portrait is by Carl Van Vechten, an Iowa native and the Harlem Renaissance’s foppish, controversial patron of the arts. Approximately 1,400 of his photographs are archived at the Library of Congress—they’re mostly of friends, black and white; everyone from Bessie Smith to William Faulkner to Sherwood Anderson and Julien Green to a famous and lovely image of Zora Neale Hurston.

His image of Cabell perfectly captures all that’s potentially creepy about a man who, as our entry points out, “led a life curiously marked by scandal” (an alleged orgy at William and Mary, a murder accusation in Richmond). I e-mailed our media editor, Matt Gaventa, to rave, and he replied:

Yep. I really like having the Van Vechten photo followed [in the entry] so quickly by that 1893 photo where Cabell is still really a boy. The younger photo is so decidedly vanilla, and the pairing begs the question of what happened in the interim.

Which is exactly right. Look at the entry and contrast those two images. One is all shadow, the other light. In this instance, Matt’s choice of images has suggested something about the subject that gets us beyond the mere text of the entry.

IMAGE: James Branch Cabell by Carl Van Vechten, 1935