“The constantly shifting cultural landscape of contemporary Georgia,” writes James C. Cobb, “presents a jumbled panorama of anachronism, contradiction, contrast, and peculiarity.” A Georgia native, Cobb delights in debunking familiar myths about his state as he brings its past to life and makes it relevant to today. Not all of that past is pleasant to recall, Cobb notes. Moreover, not all of today’s Georgians are as unequivocal as the tobacco farmer who informed a visiting journalist in 1938 that “we Georgians are Georgian as hell.” That said, a great many Georgians, both natives and new arrivals, care deeply about the state’s identity and consider it integral to their own. Georgia Odyssey is the ideal introduction to our past and a unique and often provocative look at the interaction of that past with our present and future.
Cobb begins by looking at how our historical understanding of segregation has evolved since the Brown decision. In particular, he targets the tenacious misconception that racial discrimination was at odds with economic modernization--and so would have faded out, on its own, under market pressures. He then looks at the argument that Brown energized white resistance more than it fomented civil rights progress. This position overstates the pace and extent of racial change in the South prior to Brown, Cobb says, while it understates Brown’s role in catalyzing and legitimizing subsequent black protest.
Finally, Cobb suggests that the Brown decree and the civil rights movement accomplished not only more than certain critics have acknowledged but also more than the hard statistics of black progress can reveal. The destruction of Jim Crow, with its “denial of belonging,” allowed African Americans to embrace their identity as southerners in ways that freed them to explore links between their southernness and their blackness. This is an important and timely reminder of “what the Brown court and the activists who took the spirit of its ruling into the streets were up against, both historically and contemporaneously.”
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."
The agricultural section consists of 25 thematic entries that explore issues such as Native American agricultural practices, plantations, and sustainable agriculture. Thirty-eight shorter pieces cover key crops of the region--from tobacco to Christmas trees--as well as issues of historic and emerging interest--from insects and insecticides to migrant labor. The section on industry and commerce contains 13 thematic entries in which contributors address topics such as the economic impact of military bases, resistance to industrialization, and black business. Thirty-six topical entries explore particular industries, such as textiles, timber, automobiles, and banking, as well as individuals--including Henry W. Grady and Sam M. Walton--whose ideas and enterprises have helped shape the modern South.