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Joseph Beckham Cobb
Joseph Beckham Cobb

Joseph Beckham Cobb

A planter, newspaper editor, and politician, Joseph Beckham Cobb is today most renowned as the author of Mississippi Scenes, a collection of thirteen sketches in the style of Southwestern Humorists such as Hooper, Harris, and Longstreet, to whom the book is dedicated. Though the book is obviously modeled on Longstreet's earlier Georgia Scenes, other influences on Cobb include eighteenth-century British writers such as Addison, Steele, and Johson and closer to home, the American writer Washington Irving.

Cobb was born near Lexington, Georgia, on April 11, 1819, the son of Thomas W. Cobb, who would later represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate. He was educated at the Willington Academy in South Carolina and later at the University of Georgia, where he studied law but did not complete the requirements for the degree. On October 5, 1837, he married Almira Clayton of Athens, Georgia, and moved the following year to Noxubee County, Mississippi.

Cobb flourished in Mississippi, first as a planter and then as a politician. He was elected to the state legislature in 1841, but he resigned two years later after refusing to attend a special session. In 1844 he moved to Longwood Plantation near Columbus, where he lived for the rest of his life.

From January 1845 to November 1846 he edited the Columbus Whig, where he championed Unionist policies in opposition to the nullification and secessionist ideologies of Democrats. In the early 1850s he again turned to politics, first as a delegate in 1850 to the Mississippi Convention to ratify the Compromise of 1850, and then in 1851 as a delegate to a convention in Nashville to consider the Wilmot Proviso. In 1853 he lost a bid to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. When he died in September 1858, he left to his wife and four children (three boys and one girl) an estate valued at $117,000.

Cobb published three books during his lifetime. His historical novel The Creole: Or, the Siege of New Orleans (1850) is set for the most part following Andrew Jackson's victory against the British in New Orleans in January 1815. The novel is a loosely organized romance patterned after the typical literary interests of the times, which include Walter Scott, Byron, and the popular sentimental novel.

In 1858 he published Leisure Labors: Or, Miscellanies, Historical, Literary, and Political, a collection of essays Cobb had earlier contributed to the American Whig Review. Most are lengthy reviews of books, though he also conveys a strong sense of his Whig political sympathies and his views on slavery and the slave trade, arguing for a legitimate interpretation of the Constitution. Though he does not oppose slavery itself, he does argue that the Constitution allowed Congress the power to limit the spread of slavery.

It is for his 1851 book Mississippi Scenes, however, that Cobb is most remembered. "I have written," he writes in the Introduction, "as a journalist or sketcher, not as an essayist or a politician," and indeed it is with a detached and objective viewpoint that the narrator describes the actions in the sketches without a trace of moral judgment. In the manner of the Southwestern humor that had earlier been written by Longstreet, Cobb's narrator is an urbane, reasonable gentleman who abhors excesses and pretenses. Under his narrator's objective scrutiny are depicted a number of predilections and predicaments common in northeastern Mississippi during the mid-nineteenth century. Country bumptiousness, credulousness (upon observing shoeblacks, patent medicine vendors and the like), and religious enthusiasm are among the excesses noted in the six "Rambler" sketches, while the remaining seven focus on the absurdity of campaign rhetoric, a Virginia woman's steadfast patriotism during the American Revolution, and slavery. Two of the seven are superstitious tales patterned on the tales of Washington Irving, "The Legend of Black Creek" and "The Bride of Lick-the-Skillet."

Cobb's journalistic approach toward his morally questionable characters and situations in Mississippi Scenes makes his book seem more modern than some later Realists and has secured it an important place in the realism of the antebellum South.

Related Links & Info


The following web sites feature essays on Southwestern Humor:

Introduction: Southwestern Humor

Comic Anti-Heroes in Southwestern Humor

"Southwestern Humor and Mark Twain, by Angel Price.

Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth (1950), an online book by Henry Nash Smith.

Publications

Fiction:
  • The Creole: Or, Siege of New Orleans: A Historical Romance: Founded on the Events of 1814-15 (novel). Philadelphia: A. Hart, 1850.
  • Mississippi Scenes: Or, Sketches of Southern and Western Life and Adventure, Humorous, Satirical, and Descriptive, Including the Legend of Black Creek (stories and sketches). Philadelphia: A. Hart, 1851.

Nonfiction:
  • Leisure Labors: Or, Miscellanies, Historical, Literary, and Political (essays). New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1858.

Bibliography:

Articles:
  • Buckley, George T. "Joseph B. Cobb: Mississippi Essayist and Critic." American Literature 10 (May 1938): 166-78.
  • Phillips, Robert L., Jr. "Cobb, Joseph Beckham: 1819-1858." Lives of Mississippi Writers, 1817-1967. Ed. James B. Lloyd. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1981. 95-98.


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