A New Biography of Kentucky Writers' Hall of Fame Inductee Hits Shelves This Month
From the Paducah Daily News to Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, the New York World, Irvin S. Cobb made a name for himself as one of the early twentieth century's most celebrated writers. Born in Paducah, Kentucky in 1876, Cobb rose from humble beginnings to become one of the highest-paid journalists in the United States. Critic H. L. Mencken dedicated a chapter of his 1919 book Prejudices to Cobb, saying, "He is at once the successor to Mark Twain and the heir of Edgar Allan Poe." In Irvin S. Cobb: The Rise and Fall of an American Humorist, historian William E. Ellis explores the entire scope of Cobb's life and career. Ellis uses previously unavailable sources, along with the entirety of Cobb's published work spanning nearly fifty years, to document the life and work of the versatile-and at times controversial-humorist.
At the age of sixteen, Cobb was forced to quit school to provide for his mother and siblings. He began an apprenticeship at the Paducah Daily News. By nineteen, he was their managing news editor, reportedly the youngest in the country. Cobb went on to write the humor column "Kentucky Sour Mash" for the Louisville Evening News. Encouraged by his success, he moved to New York City in 1904. Cobb's coverage of the Russian-Japanese peace conference for The New York Evening Sun ran in newspapers across the country, and Cobb quickly gained popularity. He went on to write a nationally syndicated column for the New York World and later, began covering World War I for The Saturday Evening Post.
Cobb was a man of many interests who covered everything from war to whiskey. As an anti-prohibitionist and influential member of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, Cobb authored Red Likker, a novel dedicated to the whiskey industry. Boasting about his personal whiskey ancestry in Kentucky, Cobb authored Irvin S. Cobb's Own Recipe Book after Prohibition ended. Known for his hyperbolic wit and humorous Kentucky tales, Cobb found fame in Hollywood as well. After some of the humorist's short stories were adapted into films, he tried his hand at both screenwriting and acting.
Cobb's writing often reflected his Jackson Purchase upbringing. His Kentucky roots molded him into a gifted storyteller, keenly observant reporter, engaging humorist, and a racist. As the times changed in the late 1920s, his southern perspective began to fall out of favor. Ultimately, it was Cobb's continued subtle racism that caused his reputation to fade, but his influence on subsequent writers as divergent as William Faulkner and H. P. Lovecraft remains evident. In total, Cobb authored sixty-nine books, including novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, and collections of articles.
In Irvin S. Cobb, Ellis examines the life of this significant literary figure. A quintessential writer of his time and beloved personality, Cobb was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in 2017. Ellis explains Cobb's role as a vibrant American writer who displayed burning ambition and incredible wit. He also assesses Cobb's influence in early twentieth-century America and situates Cobb in the broader context of literary history, bringing this influential Kentucky writer to life for modern readers.
William E. Ellis, Foundation Professor Emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University, is the author of several books, including The Kentucky River and A History of Education in Kentucky. In 1999, he received the Governor's Award for Robert Worth Bingham and the Southern Mystique.