Cable’s first novel, it won him immediate success, including a speaking tour with Samuel Clemens. It was first serialized in Scribner’s from November 1879 to October 1880. However, as popular tastes moved to realism and naturalism, what Michael Kreyling refers to as Cable’s “genteel, romantic habits of mind” and local color stories fell out of favor, and Cable never enjoyed any comparable success with his later work. While contemporary readers enjoyed the romantic aspects of the novel, they were less sympathetic to his outright opposition to slavery and a color-based caste system. Cable himself was German, which made him an outsider in the Creole society of New Orleans about which he wrote. After the publication of his 1885 Freedman’s Case in Equity, in which he voiced his objection to the condition of African Americans in the South, he had to move to Massachusetts for his safety.
He was discovered by Edward King from Scribner’s, and was included in his “Great South” series (which many credit with the “invention” of Southern literature). The novel is an examplar of local color, as it relies heavily on dialect and dramatizes life within the complex racial hierarchy of New Orleans life immediately following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. As a local color novel, it uses detail and dialect to present such an unfamiliar world to its readers—and its very unfamiliarity makes it easier to justify While the local color conventions relies upon an outsider who is won over to the local customs (thinking as far back as even Swallow Barn), Cable is doing something different here. The novel relies heavily on a sense of nostalgia as well as a focus on domestic, every-day problems such as paying bills. The combination of such mundane details with such deep, resonant feelings, allows for a critique of the system—particularly the role of women in this society, as it shows how their options are limited by societal norms. Poor women can’t simply go out and get a job.
The novel follows various members of the Grandissime family—black, white, mixed-race, rich and poor. The story begins when Honoré Grandissime, the scion of the white branch of this powerful New Orleans clan, takes in Joseph Frowenfeld, a young man from Philadelphia whose entire family has died from yellow fever. Honoré's conversations with Joseph about the New Orleans caste system shed light on the dilemmas at the center of the novel. Honoré finds himself caught between an idealistic Joseph, who advocates sweeping social reforms that would end slavery but essentially erase Creole culture, and his prideful uncle Agricola Fusilier, who ostensibly holds onto a racist past in order to preserve the Grandissime way of life—one built on the foundations of slavery. Honoré wants to establish a business partnership with his quadroon half brother (Honoré f.m.c.) and do right by Aurora Nancanou, who was widowed and destitute when Agricola murdered her husband over a gambling dispute. Yet his decisions regarding this tarnished family history are further complicated by his secret love for Aurora.
The story of Bras Coupé, retold several times, connects the novel's divergent strands and is suggestive of Honoré's struggle against his past and a New Orleans society that remains tainted by slavery. Bras Coupé, an enslaved African prince on a Spanish Creole plantation, is engaged to Palmyre, Aurora's maid. Inspired by the indignity of his plight, Bras Coupé attacks his white overseer, and is soon viciously pursued by a mob of Creole aristocrats (including Agricola) through the New Orleans swamps. Honoré tries to prevent the African prince's punishment but to no avail. Upon his capture, Bras Coupé issues a curse on both his master and his plantation. He is summarily beaten to death, though only after his ears are cut off and his hamstrings slashed. Bras Coupé, literally meaning "arm cut off" in French, personifies the cruelty of slavery and the degeneracy that lies at the heart of a so-called genteel southern society.
Character responses to the story are as important as the story itself, through its frequent repetition. Further, the Bras Coupé story shows that even if you ignore race, another caste system will emerge. Cable illustrates that tragedy is the preferred genre for societies which stake a lot on nobility, as tragedy requires an inversion of order. Myths require replacement, and as Americans are a people without a history, then novel dramatizes the necessity of storytelling and myth. As a nineteenth century novel, it ends with a sort of reconciliation plot, although with a twist of ending, after a final declaration of love, on Aurora saying “No” to M. Grandissime.