Irvin S. Cobb Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.