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.