No one knew the Mississippi Delta more intimately or told its story more eloquently than did David L. Cohn (1894-1960). Between 1935 and 1960 he produced ten books including his best known, God Shakes Creation, later expanded into Where I Was Born and Raised—and scores of articles and essays, including more than sixty such pieces in the Atlantic Monthly alone. One of his greatest frustrations, however, was not finding time to organize and prepare for publication the memoir he began in 1953.
James C. Cobb discovered Cohn’s memoir in 1985 in the David L. Cohn Collection at the University of Mississippi. Struck by its richness and convinced that it should be published, he undertook the task of arranging and editing the material. What Cobb has brought forth is an immensely valuableand entertaining work of both literary and historical significance that plots one extraordinary man’s course through the changes of the twentieth century.
Cohn was in essence a “cosmopolitan provincial,” an observer who realized that the problems and circumstances of the Delta were at the same time unique and universal. A native of Greenville, he was educated at the University of Virginia and Yale University Law School. A brief but highly successful career in business allowed him to pursue his dream of being a writer. He traveled widely but remained faithful to his Delta roots, counting among his close friends both William Alexander Percy and Hodding Carter. He was intensely interested in politics and served as speechwriter for Democratic party leaders, including Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, and Lyndon Johnson.
Lamenting the trend toward overspecialization, Cohn did not shrink from expressing his views on a wide array of topics: race and religion, free trade and internationalism, technology and culture, and materialism and matrimony, among others. Southern to the marrow and an almost zealously patriotic American, he was also a Jew, and he managed a harmonious integration of all three identities rather than the separation or suppression of any one.
In his Introduction, Cohn describes his memoir as “primarily an evocation of persons and places . . . the physical and spiritual terrain of my youth,” a period that takes him from birth through approximately 1934. Cobb picks up the thread in a concluding essay, surveying Cohn’s later life and analyzing his literary career in light of his southern origins, racial views, ethnic ties, and internationalist perspective. Perhaps better than any other single work by Cohn, The Mississippi Delta and the World reveals that he was a truly learned commentator on the human condition, one who benefited enormously both from his travels and from his determination to maintain his ties to the place where he was “born and raised.”
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