Keen-Eyed Cohn

By admin  |  August 21, 2012  | 

by Noel Workman

Any well-read Deltan can quote the first line of this famous passage describing the Mississippi Delta. And most can name Greenville native David L. Cohn as its author. Ask any of them to tell you more about Cohn, however, his life, his times or his literary accomplishments and you’ll probably be met with a Dan Quayle-like, deer-in-headlights stare.

Surely Cohn had more than one memorable phrase. But as more and more years pass since his 1960 death, fewer and fewer people can offer first-hand memories of this prolific author.

Nobody knew the Delta more intimately that Cohn, or did a better job of recounting its stories and explaining its uniqueness to an unbelieving and often hostile world. He was best known for his first and most famous book, God Shakes Creation, which was expanded in 1948 into Where I Was Born and Raised. For a quarter century beginning in 1935, Cohn produced ten books and scores of articles and essays, including more than 60 in The Atlantic Monthly alone.

Brimming with vivid detail and keen insights, God Shakes Creation presented readers with a striking human and environmental portrait of the Mississippi Delta. While making it clear that the Delta was the undisputed domain of a high-living and sometimes heavy-handed white elite, Cohn also understood that blacks played a key role in shaping the pattern and setting the tempo of Delta life.

“A very, very talented individual…long gone, forgotten, ignored,” says Hugh McCormick, proprietor of McCormick Book Inn. “I’m not sure there was a great appreciation locally for his talents even when he was alive.”

“Cohn had one of those unforgettable personalities,” remembers Franke Keating of Greenville. “Somehow, when you finished talking with him you were still smiling. He was not bubbly-bubbly at all, but you would think about a conversation with him for a long time afterward,” she recalls.

“Whenever I think of Cohn, I’m reminded of Where I Was Born and Raised—a wonderfully accessible tribute, examination, and gentle criticism of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta,” says John Willis, history professor at the University of the South. “It’s the rare sort of book that both native folk and outsiders can appreciate.”

Among those best qualified to comment on Cohn is James L. Cobb, editor of The Mississippi Delta and the World: The Memoirs of David L. Cohn. “He was an extraordinarily gifted writer,” Cobb says. “Every time I pick up his autobiography I am increasingly struck by the fact that his prose was so memorable. He is known for specific snippets of that prose more than the overall thrust of what he was trying to say. He had one of the keenest eyes for cultural areas…always relating what he was seeing in the world to certain social arrangements or cultural patterns, overseas as well as in the Delta,” Cobb says.

Shortly after the Civil War, some of Cohn’s relatives emigrated from Eastern Europe and became cotton planters in the Mississippi Delta. His parents soon followed them to the then pioneer town of Greenville.

“There they met with unaffected kindness in an atmosphere hostile to bigotry,” Cohn wrote in a 1948 Atlantic Monthly article. “There I was born and raised. For as long as I can remember, the Roman Catholic Church, the First Baptist Church and the Synagogue have stood within a stone’s throw of one another. Living, their communicants got on well together. Dead, they were buried in adjoining grounds where weeping willows flow and mockingbirds make mimic song,” he wrote.

After graduating from the University of Virginia and Yale Law School he went into business, rising first to the head of Feibleman’s, a New Orleans department store, and ultimately as sales manager for Sears, Roebuck and Co. His brief, very successful business career allowed him to pursue his dream as a writer.

As an author, Cohn freely acknowledged his debt to William Alexander Percy, Carrie Stern and a number of other Greenville writers.

“For all his productivity and the breadth of his interests, David Cohn remains best known for his first book, the one that grew from his decision to return to Greenville where he began ‘to see with fresh eyes the scenes of my childhood,’ ” writes Cobb is his insightful and fascinating editor’s afterword for Cohn’s posthumous autobiography.

“When I returned to Greenville,” Cohn wrote in 1948, “William Alexander Percy took me into his own home, where I remained for over two years, as much at ease in his hospitable house teeming with friends and relatives as I could ever have been underneath my own roof, while he gave me, a frightened beginner at writing, his counsel and encouragement.

“Nor was this the end of my good fortune. For when Percy, shortly before his death, sat down to write his superb autobiographical Lanterns on the Levee, he who had hitherto written only verse had small faith in his ability to write prose. Then it was my privilege to do a little for him in the field where he had done so much for me,” he wrote.

“Comparing Lanterns on the Levee and Where I Was Born and Raised,” says McCormick, “they are different, but on an equal par, each reflecting a certain segment of society in that time and place.”

Quick to honor his upbringing, Cohn wrote, “In Greenville neither I nor any of my coreligionists, to my knowledge, suffered any indignity or lack of opportunity because of being Jewish. Gentiles and Jews rejoiced together in happiness and mourned together in sorrow. There were bigots in the town, it is true—Jews as well as Gentiles—but they were a tiny minority looked upon commiseratingly by the majority as unhappy aberrants.

“In that town there walked saints. Whiskey-drinking, poker-playing, quail-hunting, pleasure-loving saints. Sinners hate. Saints hate, too. But they hate injustice. Greenville has always had men who were saints in this respect,” he wrote.

Commentary in national magazines was one thing, but perhaps Cohn’s greatest contribution to Greenville’s reputation as a relatively tolerant and intellectually dynamic community was the key role he played in bringing Hodding and Betty Carter there to establish the Delta Democrat-Times.

In 1935, Cohn attended a conference in Baton Rouge and met Hodding Carter there. By that time Cohn had left Feibleman/Sears, Roebuck in New Orleans, where he was a friend of Betty’s mother, Mrs. Philip Werlein. Cohn had recently returned to Greenville to write his first book. Hearing Carter’s laments about his troubled Hammond, Louisiana, newspaper, Cohn suggested that Carter come to Greenville to run a newspaper there. Cohn promised to help round up local investors in such a project.

Within a matter of months the Carters moved to Greenville, to establish what would become the Delta Democrat-Times, thanks to the farsighted investment of Will Percy, wholesale grocer Alexander Fitz Hugh of Vicksburg, attorney W.T. Wynn, wholesale grocer Edmund Taylor, automobile dealer Frank England, lumber dealer Joe Virden, Coca-Cola bottlers J.S. and J.Q. Strange, the civic-minded Mrs. Paul Gamble, planter Walter Swain of Leland, hardware storeowner Harry Wetherbee and “a modest sum of my own,” as Cohn wrote in his autobiography.

For a Jew, Cohn was a man of catholic tastes, judging from the titles of some of his Saturday Review and Atlantic Monthly articles: “Styles of a Nation Glorying in Victory,” “The Negro Novel: Richard Wright,” “How the South Feels,” “You Can’t Eat Democracy,” “Finland Under the Guns,” “I’ve Kept my Name” and “Are Americans Polygamous?”

Or his books, which included Picking America’s Pockets, The Good Old Days (A History of American Morals and Manners as seen through the Sears, Roebuck Catalogs 1905 to the Present), The Life and Times of King Cotton, Love in America and Combustion on Wheels.

“Cohn is my favorite writer of the Greenville crowd,” McCormick says. “He seems to have [had] a power of observation keener more than anyone else. His book, Good Old Days, was a social history of America based on what he found in the archival catalogs of Sears, Roebuck…and what he didn’t find.”

Unlike his early years in commerce, Cohn’s life as a writer led him around the world. “He was always conscious of his Jewish identity which actually made for a sort of tripartite observation,” Cobb says. “Looking at the Middle East…but thinking of the Delta or in China and thinking of the Jews as well as the Delta experience.”

“After World War II he spoke to the Greenville Chamber of Commerce,” McCormick says, “and warned ‘Beware of Iraq and Iran’. When I came across that, it truly stunned me. He saw a problem back then—not the same problem we face today, but similar.”

Cohn’s travels and contacts in many parts of the nation resulted in his behind-the-scenes work for the Democratic Party. His strong ties with the party weren’t confined to speech writing for Adlai Stevenson and William Fulbright, but included a surprising Delta connection by way of Texas.

Cohn met Texas businessman Ed Clark at a number of political functions. Clark was a confidant of Lyndon Johnson and ultimately U.S. Ambassador to Australia during Johnson’s White House years. Clark’s daughter Leila married Greenville attorney Doug Wynn and she subsequently became a significant contributor to Mississippi’s literary and educational scene.

As early as 1948, Johnson was preaching “Cohn-isms” from “Texarkana in the North to Port Arthur in the South.” Cohn maintained his ties to Johnson, advising him on the public image of the oil industry and other topics. During those years Cohn was also close friends with historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., economist John Kenneth Galbraith and Senators Stuart Symington and George McGovern.

“My father and Cohn were friends and fellow jokesters,” Leila Wynn recalls. “He was a great wit with a marvelous sense of humor. In the 1940s and ’50s, telegrams functioned like emails do today and time and again he would send my father an outrageous message via telegram…always signed with an equally outrageous and completely fictitious name,” she recalls.

Cohn was unmarried until he was nearly 60. His wife, Lillian, “was extremely interested in Greenville even though he had not lived here or visited much for some years,” Wynn recalls. “But he felt very affectionate toward this part of the world.”

Cohn’s passing was noted in The New York Times and in papers around the world, but nowhere was he more fittingly eulogized than in his hometown, where his old friend Hodding Carter honored the “brilliantly versatile” Cohn.

“He was scholar and writer and wit, urbane traveler, and confidante of statesman,” Carter wrote. “His compassionate, far-ranging mind could discover social meaning in mail order catalogues, world danger in tariffs on buttons, warning of disaster in the glance of an Asiatic Coolie. Successful at an age when most of us are just getting started, he withdrew from business to win more meaningful success as a multi-faceted author and as an interpreter of our region, our nation and our times. And withal, he was as much at home and happy at a catfish fry as anywhere.” DM

Delta Magazine January/February 2011


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