Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In his lifetime, Cobb was hailed as the successor to Mark Twain. Given Twain’s popularity, it seems inevitable that a younger local color writer would be strongly influenced by him. Certainly similarities exist in the subjects and styles of the two writers. Like Twain, Cobb wrote nostalgic stories about a quiet little town on the Mississippi River. Both writers were strongly influenced by the oral tradition and attempted to reproduce the dialect patterns and speech mannerisms characteristic of the region. Both also used talkative old men to tell stories of unusual local residents. Another significant shared influence was frontier humor. For example, Allen’s boasts that he is “half horse” and “half alligator” reflect the bragging that river men used to intimidate the people they were preparing to fight; this dialogue echoes the language used by Twain and earlier writers associated with the Old Southwest humor tradition.

Most of Cobb’s stories can be classified as local color. Cobb portrays somewhat sketchily drawn characters who can be identified by some eccentricity. The intent is to portray a quaint way of life that is on the verge of disappearing. The result is a nostalgic narrative intended primarily to evoke sympathy for the characters and provide an understanding of their culture.

Local color frequently employs the frame story, and “Dogged Underdog” gains much of its effect from Cobb’s use of this technique. The narrator relates stories he heard as a young boy when he accompanied his uncle to a gathering of Judge Priest’s friends, but this narrator quickly fades into the background as these old friends begin to tell their stories. Cobb can allow these old men to move from accounts of the past to philosophical discussions about various definitions of courage. Because the reader is twice removed from the action being described, the narrative takes on the quality of myth, as Judge Priest and his friends seem to speak for the Mississippi Valley culture of the early twentieth century.