Irvin S. Cobb Essay - Critical Essays

Cobb, Irvin S.


Cobb, Irvin S. 1876-1944

(Full name Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb) American novelist, short story writer, journalist, essayist, and screenwriter.

Although largely forgotten by the end of the twentieth century, during the years that followed the end of the nineteenth century and up to the time of the Great Depression, Cobb was known and loved not only as a writer, but as a national personality. His humorous stories, especially those surrounding his characters Judge Priest and Jeff Poindexter, earned him comparisons with his friend Will Rogers, and even with Mark Twain. But Cobb also wrote suspenseful tales which likewise inspired praise of his work as part of a grand American tradition, in this case the macabre stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Also a journalist, popular speaker, screenwriter, and actor, Cobb was a well-known public figure and a favorite of caricaturists, who depicted his prominent paunch and cigar. His work was a significant part of American literature in that his transition from the character of Judge Priest to that of the hapless "fat man" of numerous sketches marked a movement from nineteenth- to twentieth-century forms of humor.

Biographical Information

Cobb was born in Kentucky a decade after the Civil War, and he grew up surrounded by the images of the South that he would later preserve in his Judge Priest stories. In fact his father was one of several men who helped to form the model of the Judge, but the elder Cobb's story was not so lighthearted: he drifted into alcoholism, and his son had to quit school at age sixteen to support the family. Cobb entertained a number of ambitions, but ended up in newspaper work with the local Paducah Daily News, for which he became managing editor at age nineteen and in which capacity he served as local correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. In 1904, after a series of newspaper jobs in various states, Cobb—already a married man—set off to New York City alone to break into the newspaper business there. Partly through the clever use of a humorous form letter to editors, he gained a job with the Evening Sun, where he proved himself with a series of human-interest sketches on the Russo-Japanese peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1905. Joseph Pulitzer hired him on the New York Evening and Sunday World, and Cobb's reputation as a humorist grew. He continued to cover straight news stories such as the infamous Harry K. Thaw murder trial, always doing so from a human-interest perspective. One of his most impressive talents was his ability to churn out copy of extremely high quality and quantity. Soon Cobb began to produce short stories, first in the suspense genre; by the time he published his second book in 1912, he had introduced Judge Priest and friends to the world. Cobb followed this with a series of successful books, not just the Priest stories but a number of travel narratives, as well as his first-hand portrayal of events during World War I. During this time, Cobb also wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and later for the Hearst empire. His gentlemanly style of humor contrasted sharply with the acid wit of his contemporary H. L. Mencken. Cobb suffered large losses in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and though he would recover financially through his involvement with Hollywood and as a popular and well-paid speaker, his role as an influential commentator rapidly ebbed. By the time he published his memoirs, Exit Laughing, in 1941, he had already become a figure of historical rather than current interest.

Major Works

Cobb published more than fifty books, hundreds of stories, and hundreds more sketches and essays, most of them humorous. Many of the latter he compiled in collahections, of which Cobb's Anatomy (1912) and Cobb's Billof-Fare (1913) are representative. Later he applied his humorous style to travel narratives such as Europe Revised (1914); Roughing It De Luxe, a 1914 account of a trip out West; and Some United States (1926). He offered more serious journalistic accounts of current events, particularly World War I, in works such as Paths of Glory (1915). As for his fiction, he started out publishing suspenseful tales such as those found in The Escape of Mr. Trimm (1913), but his forte in the realm of fiction—as with nonfiction—lay in the area of humor. Most famous among his creations was Judge Priest, whose first stories were collected in 1912 as Back Home. The Judge was a quirky, somewhat absurd figure of a peculiarly Southern type, who, along with his friends, reminisced about the Civil War—the stories were set in the 1890s—while keeping an eye out for Yankees and other varmints. Almost as popular were the Judge's associates, particularly his black valet Jeff Poindexter, celebrated in J. Poindexter, Colored (1922). In spite of Cobb's stated desire to debunk myths about Southerners, he helps to perpetuate them with the stereotypical character of Jeff, who was fittingly portrayed by Stepin Fetchit in the 1934 John Ford film Judge Priest, in which Will Rogers played the title role. If Jeff and the Judge belonged to the nineteenth century, however, Cobb's "fat man" character is very much a creature of the twentieth. This figure—not so much a single character as a type that recurs in Cobb's work—made his most notable appearance in the writer's most popular book. Speaking of Operations—(1915), which sold some 100,000 copies in its first year of publication, described what Cobb viewed as his inhumane treatment at the hands of hospital personnel when he checked in for an appendectomy. Though the style was humorous, there was a somewhat frightening sense of the individual being swallowed in the machinery of modern life. The fat man was usually Cobb himself, as in The Abandoned Farmers (1920). Such work helped gain Cobb a reputation as an inheritor of Mark Twain's mantle; but, unlike Twain, he was apt to succumb to sentimentality and to avoid portraying genuine evil. Most of his later work continued along one of the threads he established in the 1910s and 1920s, and at the end of his career, Cobb summed up his life with his 1941 memoir, Exit Laughing.

Principal Works

Back Home: Being the Narrative of Judge Priest and His People (short stories) 1912

Cobb's Anatomy (essays) 1912

Cobb's Bill-of-Fare (essays) 1913

The Escape of Mr. Trimm: His Plight and Other Plights (short stories) 1913

Europe Revised (travel essays) 1914

Roughing It De Luxe (travel essay) 1914

Paths of Glory; Impressions of War Written At and Near the Front (journalism) 1915

Speaking of Operations—(satire) 1915

The Abandoned Farmers (notebook) 1920

J. Poindexter, Colored (short stories) 1922

Some United States; A Series of Stops in Various Parts of the Nation with One Excursion Across the Line (travel essays) 1926

Exit Laughing (memoirs) 1941


Pendennis (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: "My Types—Irvin S. Cobb," in The Forum, Vol. 58, October, 1917, pp. 471-86.

[In the following essay, Pendennis interviews Cobb, discussing with him the inspiration for his characters. ]

Looking like Cyrano de Bergerac, in white flannels; hovering like a lazy bumble-bee over the honey-pots of literature, on a dreamy morning in August, Cobb prolonged his reputation for being the best newspaper man in the country.

Cyrano de Bergerac, as you remember, was a poet with a gift for wit in seeing life and a gallantry for believing well of his fellow-men. He should have been a Southerner. There was in him that slumbering soul of the rebel, slow to be...

(The entire section is 3669 words.)

H. L. Mencken (essay date 1919)

SOURCE: "The Heir of Mark Twain," in Prejudices: First Series, Alfred A. Knopf, 1919, pp. 97-104.

[In the following essay, Mencken finds Cobb's work "superficial and inconsequential. "]

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...

(The entire section is 1658 words.)

Grant Overton (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: "Cobb's Fourth Dimension," in When Winter Comes to Main Street, George H. Doran Company, 1922, pp. 166-86.

[In the following essay, Overton provides an overview of Cobb's work.]


A three-dimensional writer, Irvin S. Cobb has long been among the American literary heavy-weights. Now that he has acquired a fourth dimension, the time has come for a new measurement of his excellences as an author.

Among those excellences I know a man (responsible for the manufacture of Doran books) who holds that Cobb is the greatest living American author. The reason for this is severely logical, to wit: Irvin Cobb always sends in his...

(The entire section is 4016 words.)

Thomas L. Masson (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "Irvin Cobb," in Our American Humorists, Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1931, pp. 91-103.

[In the following essay, Masson praises Cobb's work and solicits from Cobb an overview of his career.]

Irvin Cobb has written things about himself, I was about to add, "in a quite impersonal way," when I remembered that he had written about his being fat and had referred to the fact that he was homely, whereas he is nothing of the sort. Also, other people have written about him, but neither he, nor anyone else, has ever done him justice, not even Bob Davis, or Grant Overton.

Cobb is wrong about himself and others are wrong about him. I am the only one...

(The entire section is 3867 words.)

Fred G. Neuman (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: "Style and Manner," in Irvin S. Cobb: His Life and Letters, Rodale Press, 1938, pp. 183-99.

[In the following essay, Neuman outlines Cobb's methods of writing.]

Those who look upon the writing profession as an easy thing meet with little encouragement from Irvin S. Cobb. The famous scribe once said that he could write "a million words about a pin," but he did not indicate it would be an easy undertaking. Some persons gather from the remark that the only requirements for literary work are pencil and paper. He says it is a toilsome business and must be learned like any other profession.

"You would not expect to become a lawyer, a doctor or a...

(The entire section is 4431 words.)

Robert van Gelder (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: "The Last Autobiography," in The New York Times Book Review, March 10, 1941, p. 4.

[In the following essay, van Gelder reviews Exit Laughing, finding it entertaining, but ultimately unsatisfying.]

Irvin S. Cobb learned his trade in a rugged school where facility in writing was the reward for energy and vanity, and where politeness was the price of safety. He has, of course, been writing autobiography for years. A strong instinct for self-preservation early taught him to believe that the humor that picks on what is ridiculous in other white men is a spurious brand. The proper study for the genuine droll, he considers, is that droll himself, and as Mr....

(The entire section is 1146 words.)

William Allen White (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: "The Humor of the Self-Kidder," in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXIII, No. 22, March 22, 1941, p. 5.

[In the following essay, White praises Exit Laughing as a peculiarly American autobiography.]

This book [Exit Laughing] is only incidentally the "life story" of Irvin S. Cobb. It is an adventure in humorous American humor. Taking it by and large, the humor in Irvin Cobb's autobiography, which bubbles like eternal Pierian springs on every page, is the humor of the selfkidder. He has a lot of stories about others, but if he laughs at a poor devil, it is only to reveal the fact that Cobb is not superior to the poor devil, but is his brother...

(The entire section is 1185 words.)

Judith D. Hoover (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Between Times: 19th Century Values in the 20th Century," in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Spring, 1986, pp. 49-57.

[In the following essay, Hoover discusses Cobb's shaping values, which she views as being rooted in the American South of the nineteenth century.]

Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944) had access to more of the media of mass culture in America than perhaps any other man of his day. He wrote two novels and more than 300 popular short stories, as well as speeches, jokes, quips, essays and opinion pieces for magazines; for more than ten years he reported daily human interest "news" for New York newspapers; he wrote screenplays and acted in films; he...

(The entire section is 3355 words.)

Works Cited

"American Humorists: Irvin S. Cobb." The Journal of the National Education Association 14 (Mar. 1925): 102.

B., H. I. "Irvin S. Cobb, Who Strikes the True Note of Southern Life." New York Times 8 Dec. 1912.

Bobbs-Merrill Archive. Collected reviews. Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.

——, Letter from D. L. Chambers to Irvin Cobb. 13 March 1934.

——, Memorandum from Andy to Mr. Chambers. 13 March 1934.

——, Note from D. C. to Lawrence. 9 April 1934.

——, Publicity layout.

——, Unsigned readers reports.

"Censorship or Not." The...

(The entire section is 7592 words.)

Further Reading


Lawson, Anita. Irvin S. Cobb. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984, 254 p.

Most comprehensive study of Cobb's life and career.


Maurice, Arthur Bartlett. "The History of Their Books: Part VII, Irvin S. Cobb." Bookman Vol. 69 (July 1929): 511-14.

An engaging overview of Cobb's stories and of his method of writing.

Walker, Stanley. "Mellow and Friendly As His Native Bourbon." New York Herald Tribune Vol. 17, No. 29 (March 16, 1941): 1-2.

A review of Exit Laughing with a hint of nostalgia for the heyday of...

(The entire section is 119 words.)