A prolific nonfiction writer born in the Mississippi Delta, David L. Cohn was the son of a Polish-born Jewish immigrant who moved to Greenville in the 1880s to become a dry goods merchant. Cohn wrote three memoirs, the last of which, The Mississippi Delta and the World, was published long after his death. The changes between God Shakes Creation (1935), Where I Was Born and Raised (1947), and The Mississippi Delta and the World show the ways Cohn became increasingly concerned with his place in the racial and class hierarchies of twentieth-century Mississippi. His best writing showed his attempts to understand his home region, of which he famously said, “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.”
God Shakes Creation is in part a memoir, with considerable discussion of Cohn’s family and friends in the Greenville area; above all, however, it is a study of African American life in the Delta. He took the title from a sermon in which an African American preacher described the end of winter in the Mississippi Delta: “De seeds dey sleeps in de ground and de birds dey stops dey singing. Den God shakes creation in de spring.” After describing the natural environment of the Delta and briefly discussing plantation-owning families, Cohn spends most of the book on African Americans’ family and sex lives, the medical and folk practices he called “Delta Magic,” crime, sharecropping, and religion. Part folkloric with long quotes, part descriptive, and part defensive, the book alternates between great respect for what he called African Americans’ “joy of living” and a paternalistic sense that sharecroppers were better off in situations where they were secure and knew who was in charge. Cohn wrote of the Delta neither as a problem or a paradise, but he clearly loved the region’s land, people, and complexities.
In 1948 Cohn added 150 pages to God Shakes Creation and titled his new book Where I Was Born and Raised. The title and new chapters placed Cohn more at the center of the book. He wrote as an insider, someone “born and raised” in Greenville, but he did not write as a member of a landowning elite. In addition, he wrote as an expatriate who no longer lived in the Delta. The main theme of the new chapters is that technological change and the migration of thousands of agricultural workers were creating a new Delta that Cohn found troubling. Thus, the more things changed, the more Cohn seemed to admire the way things used to be. In fact, Where I Was Born and Raised seems much more similar in tone than God Shakes Creation to the 1941 Lanterns on the Levee by Cohn’s friend and fellow Greenville author William Alexander Percy.
In the 1940s and 1950s Cohn wrote several nonfiction books and countless magazine articles for popular audiences on an array of topics he found compelling: New Orleans architecture, the history of cotton, the effects of the Sears-Roebuck catalog, the automobile, the American military, and the Democratic Party. He also published Love in America: An Informal Study of Manners and Morals in American Marriage (1943). He wrote with considerable wit and a taste for social criticism. Despite his cosmopolitanism and wide travels, he never chose to condemn or work against racial segregation, usually describing it as a tragedy for the South to solve and critiquing the moral certainty of nonsouthern critics and reformers.
Cohn showed great interest in American internationalism. He urged the United States to take a more aggressive stance against world hunger, communism, and especially anti-Semitism. He was a friend and adviser to several Democratic leaders and wrote speeches for, among others, Sen. William Fulbright and Sen. Adlai Stevenson. Cohn died in Copenhagen in 1960.
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- David L. Cohn, Love in America (1943)
- David L. Cohn, The Mississippi Delta and the World, ed. James C. Cobb (1995)
- David L. Cohn, This Is The Story (1947)
- David L. Cohn Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi