SECRET FEELINGS OF OUR OWN: AN INTRODUCTION
by Richard A. Lupoff
Okay, let’s confront the elephant in the room and get this out of the way so we can talk about Irvin S. Cobb, J. Exodus Poindexter, and this remarkable book.
The title, J. Poindexter, Colored, is politically incorrect. The novel is written from Poindexter’s viewpoint and in his voice, using the period dialect of an uneducated black man from Kentucky in the 1920s. Also, politically incorrect. If you’re willing to deal with these facts and read this book you are in for a pleasant surprise. Your preconceptions will almost certainly be turned on their head, and you will probably come away from the experience with a changed attitude toward its author, Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb, if indeed you’ve ever heard of him before, no less had an attitude toward him.
Cobb was born in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1876, one of four children in his family. They were not wealthy, even though Cobb’s father was a physician. The Civil War had ended only eleven years before, and Cobb was raised in a culture in which that calamitous struggle was still fresh in the memories of his seniors. Kentucky had been a “border state” during the war, its young men fighting in both the Union and Confederate armies. One of the themes which redound in many of the stories that Cobb would write as a man was the need for forgiveness and reconciliation between the veterans and sympathizers of both sides.
As a teen-ager Cobb worked as a reporter for the local newspaper, eventually becoming its managing editor. As a young man he married and fathered a daughter, his only child. He decided to make his way in the world of newspapers and moved to New York, alone, promising his wife that he would send for her and their baby as soon as he could afford to do so.
While remaining in Paducah, Cobb’s wife, Laura, and daughter, Elisabeth, spent much time in the company of the senior Cobbs and Irvin’s siblings. In 1945, the year after Irvin Cobb’s death, his daughter, Elisabeth, wrote a book-length memoir of her father, My Wayward Parent. In this book she describes the Cobb household in Paducah as follows:
“My father adored his mother. The tragedy of his life was that he thought she did not care for him. He told me that he had but one child—her eldest daughter Reubie. Reubie! Something went awfully wrong for her. She was a tiny woman with wonderful red hair, a face so piquant that it could be really lovely at times, and was always attractive. Add to this the figure of a pocket Venus, Cinderella’s feet (size one and a half triple A at the age of sixty), the ankles of a fairy princess. Here was a girl as witty, and as bitter, as a female Jonathan Swift, a girl in a million, a girl capable of anything. But something had happened to her when she was very young—what I think no human being ever knew, perhaps not even her own mother—but whatever it was, but from that minute she shut herself in the house, drew the blinds, and only peered from behind them all day long, to spy upon and mock and laugh at her neighbors—especially those with big feet—and not only cut herself off from all her own friends but managed to close the house so that the friends of her brothers and sister came there not at all. Do young girls still do this? Is the salt of the earth still spilled out, and lost, like this?
“For her this life continued for years. And then she got engaged to a charming and prominent man. They were engaged for forty years. Forty years! Every night of her life he came by for her after supper and they went for a ride in the country. The rest of her life changed not at all. Even in the days when she was shut away from life entirely, she had been most fastidious and ‘stylish.’ Now she took hours to dress for that nightly ride. It was not until she was well past middle age that the house was open to visitors. And three days after her mother died, when Reubie was in her sixties, she was married to her old beau. They neither of them lived a year.”
Irvin was finally able to send for Laura and Elisabeth. He landed a job with The New York Sun by sending an audacious letter to its editor. He made good at this paper, and was hired away by The New York World, a prestigious daily. Here he became a star by virtue of his outstanding reporting of the Portsmouth Conference, at which President Theodore Roosevelt brokered peace between Russia and Japan.
Over the course of several decades Cobb compiled a remarkable record as a reporter. Possibly the most sensational of his assignments was the trial of millionaire Harry K. Thaw for the 1906 murder of architect Stanford White. The centerpiece of the crime was Evelyn Nesbit, a young model and showgirl regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world. The case was immortalized in a number of books and motion pictures, most notably The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. For this film Nesbit was portrayed by a young Joan Collins. Nesbit herself served as technical advisor for the film.
Cobb was hired by the Saturday Evening Post, at that time a hugely successful and influential weekly. At the outbreak of the First World War he was sent to Europe to write a series of articles. The United States was a neutral power at that time, and Cobb, along with a party of associates, crossed the battle lines. He was able to file a series of reports on the progress of the war that added further to his own fame. He was regarded as one of the two highest paid and most influential reporters in the country, the other being his colleague and sometime friend Richard Harding Davis.
By this time Cobb had already begun writing and selling short stories, most often to The Saturday Evening Post. The first such story featuring his most famous creation, Judge William Pittman Priest, was published in the Post in 1911. Judge Priest was an elderly veteran of the Civil War. A kind of benevolent tyrant, he ruled a Kentucky town not specifically named but clearly based on Cobb’s home town of Paducah.
A wily, gray-haired character, Judge Priest worked to bring about reconciliation between Union and Confederate sympathizers. He also held racial views which, by Twenty-first Century standards, may seem narrow and primitive, but in the first decades of the Twentieth Century were remarkably advanced and liberal. Both Judge Priest in the stories and Irvin Cobb in reality were bitter opponents of the Ku Klux Klan.
Judge Priest employed Jefferson Exodus Poindexter as valet, houseman, and general factotum. Both Judge Priest and Jeff Poindexter were based on real denizens of Paducah: Judge Priest being modeled primarily on Judge William S. Bishop; and Jeff Poindexter on a chiropodist named Connie Lee.
The Post stories were so popular that by 1915 they were adapted for the stage and ran on Broadway under the title Back Home. Judge Priest was portrayed by John W. Cope; Jeff Poindexter, by Willis P. Sweatman.
Irvin Cobb moved in the literary and political circles of the era like a visitor from Olympus. He hobnobbed with leading authors and actors and palled around with Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson to Herbert Hoover. He campaigned for Al Smith in 1928.
There were two motion pictures about Cobb’s most famous characters. In Judge Priest (1934) the Judge was played by Cobb’s close friend Will Rogers. In The Sun Shines Bright (1953) the role was assumed by Charles Winninger.
Jeff Poindexter was played in both films by Lincoln Perry under his nom de screen of Stepin Fetchit.
While the majority of Cobb’s fiction reflected a good-natured regionalism, he experimented successfully with other genres. Two of his horror stories were praised by the greatest author of dark fantasy of the Twentieth Century. In his book-length essay, Howard Phillips Lovecraft wrote:
“Still further carrying on our spectral tradition is the gifted and versatile humourist Irvin S. Cobb, whose work both early and recent contains some finely weird specimens. Fishhead, an early achievement, is banefully effective in its portrayal of unnatural affinities between a hybrid idiot and the strange fish of an isolated lake, which at the last avenge their biped kinsman’s murder. Later work of Mr. Cobb introduces an element of possible science, as in the tale of hereditary memory where a modern man with a negroid strain utters words in African jungle speech when run down by a train under visual and aural circumstances recalling the maiming of his black ancestor by a rhinoceros a century before.”
It is worth noting that “Fishhead,” while praised by a series of slick magazine editors, was rejected by them all as too powerful and horrifying for their genteel readership. The story was finally bought by Cobb’s friend Robert H. Davis, at that time the editorial director of the Frank H. Munsey magazine chain, and published in Cavalier for January 11, 1913. The second story which Lovecraft describes but does not name was “The Unbroken Chain,” which was published in Cosmopolitan for September, 1923.
Originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and published in book form by the George H. Doran Company in 1922, J. Poindexter, Colored, was Cobb’s first novel. Judge Priest, having been invited to visit his niece in Denver, leaves Jeff behind in Paducah. Jeff, in turn, is invited by one Dallas Pulliam, a wealthy white Paducahan to accompany him to New York as his valet. Jeff accepts, and his early adventures in New York bear a striking resemblance to Cobb’s own early days in that city.
The central conceit of the novel is that of the brainless, shallow playboy who blunders into one all but hopeless mess after another, only to be rescued by his far cleverer and more worldly servant. P. G. Wodehouse had achieved great success with this formula with his immortal creations Bertie Wooster and Reginald Jeeves as early as 1917. Dorothy L. Sayers would follow with Lord Peter Wimsey and his man Bunter in 1923.
But Irvin Cobb alone had the audacity and the astonishing courage for his time, to make the wealthy fool a white Southerner and his far cleverer savior a black man. And while Jeff Poindexter speaks and writes in seemingly ignorant dialect, his thoughts are deep and moving. Consider the following rumination:
“Another way I looks at it is this way: There’s a whole heap of white folks, mainly Northerners, which thinks that because us black folks talks loud and laughs aplenty in public that we ain’t got no secret feelings of our own; they thinks we is ready and willing at all times to just blab all we knows into the first white ear that passes by. Which I reckon that is one of the most monstrous mistakes in natural history that ever was. You take a black boy which he working for a white family. Being on close relations that-a-way with ’em he’s bound to know everything they does—what they is thinking about, what-all they hopes and what-all they fears. But does they, for their part, know anything about how he acts amongst his own race? I’ll say contrary! They maybe might think they knows but you take it from J. Poindexter they positively does not do nothing of the kind. All what they gleans about him—his real inside emotions, I means—is exactly what he’s willing for ’em to glean; that and no more. And usually that ain’t so much. Yes sir, the run of colored folks is much more secretious than what the run of the white folks give ’em credit for. I reckon they has been made so. In times past they has met up with so many white folks which taken the view that everything black men and black women done in their lodges or their churches or amongst their own color was something to joke about and poke fun at. Now, you take me. I is perfectly willing to laugh with the white folks and I can laugh to order for ’em, if the occasion appears suitable, but I is not filled up with no deep yearnings to have ’em laughing at me and my private doings. ’Specially if it’s strange white folks.
“Furthermore there’s this about it: I’ve taken due notice that, whites and blacks alike, pretty near anybody will resent your coming to ’em on your own say-so and telling ’em right out of a clear sky that they is making a grievous big mistake in doing this or that. If they themselves takes the lead—if they seeks you out of their own accord and says to you, confidential-like, they is in a peck of trouble and craves to know how they is going to get out from under the load—why, that’s different. Then you can step in, in friendship’s name, and do your best to help ’em unravel the tangle which they has got themselves snarled up in it. If you asks me, I would say that advice gets a heap warmer welcome where you goes hunting for it than where it comes hunting for you. And, likewise, sympathy is something which you appreciates all the more if you went out shopping for it yourself. You don’t want it to come knocking at the door like one of these here old peddlers taking orders for enlarging crayon portraits and forcing its way right into your fireside circle whether or no, and camping there in your lap.”
Once Jeff Poindexter had broken the barrier, he was followed by Octavus Roy Cohen’s Florian Slappey. Cohen was a prolific an hugely popular contemporary of Cobb’s, a Southern Jew who wrote many mysteries as well as mainstream novels. His use of “nigger humor” was egregious.
Cobb continued to write fiction until, rather surprisingly, he discovered that his talent for such endeavors had dried up. But by this time he was a well established figure. He wrote a syndicated humorous newspaper column for many years, became a radio personality, and eventually a successful character actor in a number of films.
His reputation, however, suffered from his identification as a so-called “Professional Southerner,” and by his last years he had become very much a back number on the national scene. In 1941, however, he surprised many critics who had written him off as washed up and irrelevant by producing Exit Laughing, a massive and highly successful autobiography.
Upon Cobb’s death in 1944, his final work was revealed. It was a letter. It begins:
“To Whom It May Concern: “In death I desire that no one shall look upon my face and once more I charge my family, as already and repeatedly I have done, that they shall put on none of the bogus habiliments of so-called mourning. Folds of black crepe never ministered to the memory of the departed; they only made the wearers unhappy and self-conscious.
“I ask that my body be wrapped in a plain sheet or cloth and placed in an inexpensive container and immediately cremated—without any special formality or ceremony. If anybody tries to insert me into one of those dismal numbers run up by the undertaker’s dressmaking department, I’ll come back and ha’nt ’em. Nor do I crave to make my mortal exit in a tailcoat with white tie and artificial pearl studs. I’ll be done with after-dinner speaking forever, so why dispatch me hence in the regalia of the craft? When a man dies with his sins let the sins die with the man. That’s what I say and it sums up such speculations as I might have had touching on the future state, if any. For me a suitable epitaph would be: ‘Anyhow, He Left Here.’ But never mind that. It might offend some of the pious and I hate to go on giving offense after I’ve quit living.”
Cobb’s final wishes were in large part carried out, and his ashes lie beneath a natural boulder in Paducah, Kentucky. The hotel there which was named for him was later converted into an apartment house. The brand of whiskey and cigars that bore his name have disappeared. A century ago he was regarded as a national treasure and the natural successor to Mark Twain. Today he is a forgotten man, a fate which he did not deserve.
— Richard A. Lupoff
Cobb, Elisabeth: My Wayward Parent: A Book about Irvin S. Cobb, Indianapolis, 1945
Cobb, Irvin Shrewsbury: Myself to Date, New York, 1923
Cobb, Irvin Shrewsbury: Exit Laughing, Indianapolis, 1941.
Lawson, Anita: Irvin S. Cobb, Bowling Green, 1984.
Thaw, Harry K.: The Traitor, Philadelphia, 1926.