- Irvin S. Cobb: The Rise and Fall of an American Humorist by William E. Ellis
Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb went home to Paducah, Kentucky, in December 1922 and guest-edited the local paper for a day. His fame was such that the stunt received press coverage across the country. Cobb gained wealth and renown as a journalist, an author of magazine stories and books, a humorist, a raconteur on radio, and an actor in the movies. Yet today, hardly anyone outside of Paducah remembers him—and of that number, even fewer have read his works. William E. Ellis, an emeritus professor at Eastern Kentucky University and experienced biographer, tells Cobb's story with much affection and some exasperation.
Cobb flourished in a golden age of print journalism. He learned his craft at the Paducah Evening News and the Paducah Democrat, then to Louisville (home to four daily papers), and on to New York City and Pulitzer's Evening World. He made his reputation at the 1905 Portsmouth Peace Conference, with stories that Ellis describes as characteristically "verbose" but "interesting" (p. 18). As a journalist, Cobb reported sensational events at home and traveled to France to cover the Great War and then its aftermath. Despite what Ellis perceives as continuing insecurities about his origins, Cobb took his place among the city's (and the nation's) best-known writers, and like many of them turned to fiction for the mass-market magazines as a lucrative sideline. Soon, Cobb's prodigious output, first for the Saturday Evening Post and then for the Hearst magazines, made him as wealthy as well as famous. His suburban neighbor, publisher George Doran, reprinted the stories in collections that sold well, too.
Ellis struggles to create drama in a life filled with steady hours at [End Page 95] the typewriter and such fame that "everything he wrote was published" (p. 122). Ellis wants Cobb to write a great novel and he prefers the "'grim' short stories" to Cobb's better-known humor (p. 56). However, Ellis also admits that Cobb tended toward the nostalgic and formulaic, and early writing at space rates encouraged a digressive approach even to short stories. Yet, Ellis likes Cobb and the scornful jabs at Cobb's writing from critic H. L. Mencken and others bug him, even though Cobb himself never seemed to care.
Cobb's inclinations and opportunities led him toward "whatever was popular and lucrative," which meant radio and movies and California (pg. 173). There his friend Will Rogers starred in Judge Priest, the 1934 film version of Cobb's literary "gold mine," a Kentucky jurist featured in two novels and more than forty short stories (pg. 48). The Judge Priest stories and the movie were also suffused with racism, which makes the fiction hard to stomach and the movie unwatchable. Ellis is at his best in identifying the ways that race (and African Americans) functioned in Cobb's fiction—from casual bigotry to the more complex attempt at a novel about Jeff Poindexter, the judge's servant and a recurring character. Ellis notes that Cobb's racism was genteel rather than genocidal and his stories' popularity reveals the universality of racist assumptions shared by his white American middlebrow audience. Yet Cobb hated Prohibition and was indifferent, at best, to organized religion. This independence of mind made him a critic of the second Ku Klux Klan and makes the racism even more regrettable. Ellis concludes, convincingly, that Irvin S. Cobb might be unread today, but the poor boy from Paducah won fame and fortune in his own time. For that, and for what his popularity tells about mass media and audiences then, he ought to be remembered. [End Page 96]
JOHN T. KNEEBONE is department chair and associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the co-creator of the digital history site "Mapping the Second Ku Klux Klan, 1915–1940," which can be accessed through VCU Libraries' website.