A planter, newspaper editor, and politician, Joseph Beckham Cobb published three books during his relatively short life, but he is today most remembered as the author of Mississippi Scenes, a collection of thirteen sketches in the style of southwestern humorists such as Johnson Jones Hooper, George Washington Harris, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, and especially Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, like Cobb a Georgia native who relocated to the Magnolia State.
Cobb was born near Lexington, Georgia, on 11 April 1819, the son of Thomas W. Cobb, a US congressman and later senator. Joseph was educated at the Willington Academy in South Carolina and the University of Georgia in Athens, where he studied law but did not complete the requirements for a degree. On 5 October 1837 he married Almira Clayton of Athens, and the following year they moved to Noxubee County.
Cobb flourished in Mississippi, first as a planter and then as a politician. He won election to the state legislature in 1841 but resigned two years later after refusing to attend a special session. In 1844 he moved to Columbus in Lowndes County and established Longwood Plantation, his home for the rest of his life.
From January 1845 to November 1846 he edited the Columbus Whig, advocating Unionist policies opposing the nullificationist and secessionist ideologies of Democrats. In the early 1850s he again turned to politics, first as a delegate to the Mississippi state convention to ratify the Compromise of 1850 and then as a delegate to an 1851 convention in Nashville to consider the Wilmot Proviso. In 1853 he lost a bid to serve in the US House of Representatives.
Cobb’s first book, The Creole; or, The Siege of New Orleans (1850), is a historical novel set for the most part following Andrew Jackson’s January 1815 victory against the British. The novel is a loosely organized romance whose hero, Henri La Sassuriere, was both a French marquis and one of Lafitte’s pirates (or corsairs, as Cobb called them) who loses his lover first to another man and then to death.
The title of Cobb’s second book, Mississippi Scenes; or, Sketches of Southern and Western Life and Adventure, Humorous, Satirical, and Descriptive, Including the Legend of Black Creek (1851), consciously mirrored Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes, which had inaugurated the genre of southwestern humor when it was published in 1835. Cobb dedicated his collection to Longstreet, then serving as president of the University of Mississippi. Though many of Cobb’s sketches were modeled on those by Longstreet, other influences included eighteenth-century British writers such as Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Samuel Johnson, and American writer Washington Irving.
Like works by other southwestern humorists, Mississippi Scenes often offered insightful observations regarding the customs and mores of the people about whom the author was writing. Cobb’s journalistic approach toward morally questionable characters and situations gave the book a much more modern sense of realism than is found in many similar works published in the antebellum South. Cobb’s narrator was an urbane, reasonable gentleman who abhorred excesses and pretenses, and he objectively scrutinizes a number of common northeastern Mississippi predilections and predicaments. Country bumptiousness, credulousness, and religious enthusiasm were among the excesses noted in the six “Rambler” sketches, while the remaining seven focus on the absurdity of campaign rhetoric, a Virginia woman’s steadfast patriotism during the American Revolution, and slavery. Two of the most noteworthy sketches in the book were superstitious tales patterned on those written by Irving.
Cobb’s final book, Leisure Labors; or, Miscellanies, Historical, Literary, and Political (1858), was a collection of essays he had earlier contributed to the American Whig Review. Most were lengthy reviews of books, though he also conveyed a strong sense of his Whig political sympathies and his views on slavery and the slave trade. He did not oppose slavery itself, but he argued that the Constitution allowed Congress the power to limit the spread of slavery. The final essay in the book, “The True Issue between Parties in the South: Union or Disunion,” staunchly rejected the growing southern movement toward secession: “I am a Southerner by birth and education—a Southerner in pride of land and in feeling—a Southerner in interest, and by every tie which can bind mortal man to his native clime; and I shall abide the destinies of the South. But I venerate the Federal Constitution. I love the Union.”
These proved to be among Cobb’s last published words, as he died in September 1858 at the age of thirty-nine from what cemetery records termed “dropsy of the stomach.” He left to his wife and four children an estate of fifteen hundred acres and more than one hundred slaves.
- George T. Buckley, American Literature (May 1938)
- Elmo Howell, Mississippi Home-Places: Notes on Literature and History (1988)
- Robert L. Phillips Jr., in Lives of Mississippi Writers, 1817–1967, ed. James B. Lloyd (1981)