The Southern Literary Journal 35.1 (2002) 108-122
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George Washington Cable and Bonaventure:
A New Orleans Author's Literary Sojourn into Acadiana
In 1888, when George Washington Cable, the New Orleans author who had gained fame through his Creole stories and novels, published three stories of Acadian Louisiana as a novel titled Bonaventure, the book was the product of a longstanding interest on Cable's part in Acadiana and its people. Yet the book also became a way in which Cable could step away briefly from the controversies in which he was involved regarding civil rights for African Americans—a cause he espoused in the face of bitter opposition from much of the white South. In a very real sense, Bonaventure, with its emphasis on romance and its idyllic descriptions of Acadian life, became a kind of literary vacation on its author's part. That status contributes to both the novel's virtues—careful re- creation of Acadian language patterns, realistic description of the Acadian landscape—and its sentimental flaws.
Cable had been interested in the Acadian area of Louisiana as far back as 1866. Then a young man of twenty-three, Cable was considering a career as a surveyor and had joined a surveying party collecting data in the Atchafalaya River area (Butcher, Cable 91). But his work as a rodman for the surveying party ended on July 23, when he was stricken with a case of malaria so severe that he did not recover fully from the ravages of the disease for another six years (Turner 37). Cable returned to Acadiana a decade and a half later, at the behest of Colonel George E. Waring, Jr., [End Page 108] who was collecting data for the tenth census of the United States. While on his way to New Orleans in 1880, Waring read Old Creole Days, and he was so impressed by Cable's painstaking recreation of Louisiana life that he looked up the young author and hired him as an assistant (Turner 109). Cable's research assignment took him into Acadiana. While there, he recorded his observations regarding the Acadian people and their landscape.
By coincidence, Cable happened to be in Acadiana at one of the greatest times of change in the region's history. The 1880 completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad had brought to Acadiana many people of non-French background, affirming the economic vitality of the rice-growing region but also creating a situation that seemed to threaten the Acadians' traditional culture (Rushton 135). It is interesting to wonder if the dynamic social situation of Acadiana at that time might have interested Cable in writing one day about the Acadians, as he had written about the Creoles during a comparably fluid time in Creole history. The Acadian notes Cable took turned out not to be useful for census purposes, but they later provided a foundation of fact on which Cable built the fictions of Bonaventure (Butcher, Northampton 64; Rubin 191; Turner 235).
By late 1883, Cable had sent a draft of an Acadian story to the offices of the Century magazine in New York (Turner 235-236). Throughout the mid-1880s, Cable continued to express an interest in the Acadians and their unique history. In January of 1885, for example, while Cable was in the midst of a reading tour with Mark Twain, he expressed to a reporter for a St. Louis newspaper his intent to write about the Acadians. In the interview, Cable acknowledged that the Acadians had faced much disdain from the Creoles; but he insisted on the beauty of the Acadians' cultural heritage, and set forth his belief that they would provide Louisiana with its leaders at some future date (Cardwell 41). Cable added, "I intend to write of them before long, and hope to express that which I allude to in them" (qtd in Lorch 481). Two months later, as the reading tour ended, Cable paid another visit to the parishes of Acadiana (Turner 236).
That same year, Cable published his first...