David M. Brown's Blog

December 11, 2009

Ever heard of Irvin S. Cobb?

Filed under: Literature,Society and culture — davidmbrowndotcom @ 7:27 am

Me neither.

But thanks to an essay in Mencken’s first series of Prejudices (1919), “The Heir of Mark Twain,” I have heard of Cobb to the extent that I can ask whether you’ve ever heard of him. According to Mencken:

Nothing could be stranger than the current celebrity of Irvin S. Cobb, an author of whom almost as much is heard as if he were a new Thackeray or Molière. One is solemnly told by various extravagant partisans, some of them not otherwise insane, that he is at once the successor to Mark Twain and the heir of Edgar Allan Poe. One hears of public dinners given in devotion to his genius, of public presentations, of learned degrees conferred upon him by universities, of other extraordinary adulations, few of them shared by such relatively puny fellows as Howells and Dreiser. His talents and sagacity pass into popular anecdotes; he has sedulous Boswells; he begins to take on the august importance of an actor-manager. Behind the scenes, of course, a highly dexterous publisher pulls the strings, but much of it is undoubtedly more or less sincere; men pledge their sacred honor to the doctrine that his existence honors the national literature. Moreover, he seems to take the thing somewhat seriously himself. He gives his imprimatur to various other authors, including Joseph Conrad; he engages himself to lift the literary tone of moving-pictures; he lends his name to movements; he exposes himself in the chautauquas; he takes on the responsibilities of a patriot and a public man…. Altogether, a curious, and, in some of its aspects, a caressingly ironical spectacle. One wonders what the graduate sophomores of to-morrow, composing their dull tomes upon American letters, will make of it….

Poor Cobb is not on the same list as Twain, Thackery, Moliere, Poe, Dreiser, et al., is he? Mencken was a devotee of Twain who reread Huckleberry Finn once a year, so the title of the piece is not merely ironic, it is very ironic. Today we don’t care about Cobb. We care about whatever Mencken is saying even when we don’t care about his subject because the Bard of Baltimore is so ingeniously, buoyantly, imaginatively eloquent; and because the relevance of his criticism of long-forgotten fads extends beyond such targets.

In any age, certain persons acquire a knack for seeming better than they are, and others who can help the process along acquire a stake in doing so and may even feel sincere in their declared enthusiasm. Who are the Cobbs of today whose fame and influence will eighty or ninety years from now be regarded with faint and passing curiosity?

For more about Cobb, see Mencken’s essay. If reading HLM doesn’t deter you from trying to acquire one of Cobb’s volumes, at Amazon you’ll find used copies of his Speaking of Operation and Paths of Glory.



  1. I think Cobb wrote some infantile short stories BUT is wit was far better than Twain’s. Who the hell is Mencken anyway that we should hold his opinion so high?

    I discovered Cobb on Project Gutenburg and have read all his works to be found there.

    Comment by Lisa — December 8, 2011 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

    • Mencken was a colorful and controversial American journalist, literary and cultural critic, linguist and magazine editor who was probably most conspicuous on the American cultural scene in the 1920s. Britannica has a too-brief article about him. The best place to start for readers unfamiliar with him is probably Mencken’s Chrestomathy, his own selection of favorite essays and passages that he put together toward the very end of his career.

      I don’t quite understand questions of the sort, “Who is so-and-so to make judgment such-and-such?” when the so-and-so in question is at least obviously informed enough about the subject in question to make an informed judgment. Knowledgeable persons often disagree, of course, and then it’s up to other persons to exercise their own judgment when assessing critical claims. In the essay to which I linked, Mencken elaborates his criticism of Cobb, and his judgment seems credible to me. Nothing to counter it has been provided in the comment above. Perhaps Lisa could cite a single example of the Cobbian wit that she holds to be superior to Twain’s?

      Comment by davidmbrowndotcom — December 10, 2011 @ 7:56 pm | Reply

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