Thursday, July 31, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Ladies and Gentlemen, by Irvin S. Cobb

Ladies and Gentlemen, by Irvin S. Cobb

A review by Rich Horton

Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944) was an extremely popular author early in the 20th Century, probably best known for his Judge Priest stories and for his newspaper writing. He was born in Paducah, KY, and was managing editor of the Paducah Daily News by the age of 19! By 1904 he had moved to New York, where he worked for the Evening Sun and later the Saturday Evening Post. Later he was part of the staff of Cosmopolitan, and he also wrote a widely syndicated humor column. He also worked on silent films, and by the '30s he was even acting in a few films. He was also the host of the 1935 Academy Awards ceremony. And he was a leading opponent of Prohibition.He was, for a time, on top of the world.

His daughter was a writer herself, of novels and plays and also a memoir of Irvin S. Cobb: My Wayward Parent. Her daughter, Cobb's granddaughter, was Buff Cobb, a television personality of the 1950s and the second wife of Mike Wallace.

And by now, it's fair to say, I think, that he's all but forgotten. Sadly, this process seems to have started while he was still alive. His writing seems to have dated rather quickly. He also apparently grew somewhat bitter in his last years -- perhaps his health was an issue, likely finances were an issue, his declining popularity (underscored by the abrupt cancellation, in about 1940, of his humor column) was a major issue. Early in his career he had a fairly good reputation on matters of race: he was a vocal opponent of the Klan, he wrote an influential article for the Saturday Evening Post praising black soldiers in World War I. But, still, he was a creature of his time -- born in the South shortly after the Civil War (albeit not born in a Confederate state) -- and his attitudes about black people, which seem to have been somewhat patronizing, never changed, and what seemed, perhaps, almost mainstream in 1915 was offensive in 1940.

I should add that he wrote some well-regarded horror stories, perhaps most notably "Fishhead"  and "The Unbroken Chain", both of which are regarded as significant influences on Lovecraft.

Ladies and Gentleman is a collection of stories, published by Cosmopolitan Book Corporation in 1927. Those stories that I can trace to earlier magazine publication appeared in Cosmopolitan between 1924 and 1927 -- I'm not sure if the other stories appeared in other magazines or if they are new to this book. The stories have definitely dated -- they are slickly enough done, often fitfully amusing, but they don't convince, and they can seem quite contrives. One critic called him "the last disciple of O. Henry", and not in a good way. As with many writers of the past, he doesn't compel revival on his merits, but he does seem worth a look simply to understand what was very popular in those times, and to acknowledge those skills he had, which were not negligible.

Here's a quick look at each of the stories. The dominant mode is somewhat comic, and some of that remains, despite the datedness, but some is lost on the contemporary reader. But that's by no means the only mode -- there's some sentimentalism, and some stories more in a crime mode.

"A Lady and a Gentleman" (7100 words) ... an aging Confederate veteran gets lost looking for a place to stay in a town hosting a reunion of Civil War veterans, and ends up being hosted by a mysterious woman. The two, over the brief time of his stay, strike up a friendship, even though it is clear that the man has no idea that she is not a "Lady", nor does he realize what business her house in engaged in.

"The Order of the Bath" (10300 words) ... somewhat sub-Wodehousian comedy about an English novelist visiting a town in New Jersey on a lecture tour, and the chaos that ensues when the lady of the house is convinced by her brother to employ a butler during the novelist's stay.

"Two of Everything" (8300 words) ... a man narrowly avoids getting caught in a landslide in northern Montana, and realizes he can fake his death to escape a trying marriage. The title turns on his habit of always carrying two of everything, and how that messes up his plans.

"We of the Old South" (9700 words) ... another story of an aging Confederate veteran treating a woman of iffy character with great respect and getting good results... this time the man has been lured to Hollywood to do character acting. He stays in a boarding house and strikes up a friendship with a starlet who hasn't had a break yet. She pretends to be Southern, and he chooses to believe her story ... His kindness ends up getting her her big chance while he takes a role in a Civil War film -- alas, it's about the battle of Gettysburg, and he chooses to "fight" for the wrong side.

"Killed with Kindness" (6600 words) ... Another story about a Madam ... in this case, she and one of her clients become associates ... he helps out her business dealings, all the while becoming more and more prominent, which has unfortunate consequences when he runs for the Senate ...

"Peace on Earth" (10800 words) ... another comic story: a New York couple decide to skip the over-commercialized Christmas in the city, and engage a house in rural upstate New York, only to realize that neither the area nor the inhabitants match their idea of innocent traditional bucolicness.

"Three Wise Men of the East Side" (6200 words) ... a bit of a caper story: a man on death row inveigles his lawyer into helping him escape the chair in exchange for the location of some stolen money ... all three people involved in the scheme end up the worse for things.

"The Cowboy and the Lady and her Pa" (8600 words) ... a rich man from Pittsburgh and his wife are appalled when their daughter falls for a cowboy at the dude ranch they are visiting. The man hatches a scheme to separate the two ... wobbly in tone and uncharitable, to my mind.

"A Close Shave" (2700 words) ... Story of a state Governor, a violent prisoner, the warden and his pretty wife ... again, people's bad motives end up leading them into trouble.

"Good Sam" (8000 words) ... The title character is a Good Samaritan whose every attempt at benevolence turns out wrong.

"How to Choke a Cat without Using Butter" (2200 words) ... a nouveau rich man foolishly allows himself to be written up in a business magazine, which his wife is convinced will ruin their chances of being accepted in society.

No comments:

Post a Comment