Where the nation is heading?Reviewed by Deborah Boykin
Vol. 15, No. 2, 1993, pp. 25-27
The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Southern Identity, by James C. Cobb (Oxford University Press, 1993, 333 pages, index).
James Cobb's title, The Most Southern Place on Earth, is a depressing one for Southerners. This is not because he failed to see or document many of the Delta's special charms, such as its gift of "The Blues," its substantial contributions to literature, and its irrepressible devotion to excess. It is because Cobb's thesis is (without much overstatement) that the Delta is cutthroat capitalism at work and probably a good indicator of where the rest of the nation is heading.
This is probably not the picture that first pops to mind when the adjectives "most Southern" are heard. Hot or battle scarred, racially torn or mended, demagoguery, or complicated families, perhaps: these are customary images, and the Mississippi Delta has all that in abundance. Cobb sorts out the history of this rich section between
Page 26Memphis and Vicksburg (which is really the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta) with balance and precision, and it is not necessary to share his conclusion to appreciate his work.
Drawing primarily upon the papers left behind by boom-and-bust planters, old tax and census records, and the observation of a score of writers (including this one) who have explored the Delta, Cobb takes us from the days of the "pioneers" who first ventured into the swamps to the triumph of agribusiness and black voting strength in the 1980s. Black accounts of the days before the Civil Rights movement are skimpy, which is undoubtedly due to the scarcity of any writings left by sharecroppers and possibly also to Cobb's decision to avoid oral history. Even with that limitation it is a dramatic and brutal story, involving the conquest and eradication of wetlands and hardwood forests full of bear and panthers, fortunes risked on weather and fluctuations in the world cotton market horrifying tales of labor amounting to torture, and personal disasters and triumphs in the contests against racial oppression and the relentless Mississippi, with its power to flood the whole damn place up to the chimney tops.
The Delta produced an extra measure of unreconstructed politicians, like Senator James O. Eastland, and a few leaders who acquired a more moderate reputation, such as LeRoy Percy. These men had money and the incredible conceit that the prosperity of the nation was somehow inextricably tied to the fate of their fertile thirteen counties. So successful were they in selling this idea that the more accurate title for Cobb's book might be, "The Most Federalized Place on Earth."
Beginning in 1879, when Congress adopted the idea that controlling Mississippi River floods was a national responsibility, federal dollars and programs have steadily inundated the area. Now private land holdings are deemed arable from the towering levees of the Mississippi to the granite-reinforced, channelized banks of the Yazoo. The New Deals cotton plow-up program, which Cobb treats thoroughly and well, devastated the sharecropper system and led to crop subsidies, land stabilization, and environmental regulation. And then came, unwelcomed by the old planters, civil rights enforcement, redistricting, the poverty programs, and expanded public welfare.
It would be hard to find another place in America where so much daily activity is directly regulated by, and so much of the population receives direct benefits from, the federal government.
And it still may be the poorest place in the country.
Cobb also provides a detailed account of the early Civil Rights movement, from the lynching of Emmett Till through the birth of the White Citizens' Council in Indianola and the heroic career of Fannie Lou Hamer. His lack of attention to that remarkable 1960s experiment in Head Start, Friends of the Children of Mississippi, is curious, as is the limited coverage of Parchman Prison, which by its ominous presence in Sunflower County has served as a constant reminder of the consequence of offending white justice.
After eleven chapters of linear history, Cobb adds a twelfth on the "blues" and a final one entitled "More Writers per Square Foot..." Almost every recorded blues musician of renown came from the Delta or nearby, demonstrating that the area has been, and continues to be, an organic part of the black experience. And writers galore. Why have so many, William Alexander Percy, David Cohn, Hodding Carter, Shelby Foote, Walker Percy, Ellen Douglas, Willie Morris, Ellen Gilchrist, and more,
Page 27emerged from a class-bound, racist, farming region? One answer is that the planter culture admired the arts and served as patrons to the artists. Another is that the vivid contrasts everywhere apparent in the Delta provoke literary expression.
To my mind the society of this fertile spot is enduringly odd. Cobb, however, after tracing its history with above-average objectivity for three hundred pages, reveals at the end that he sees it in a different light. He suggests that the economic and social polarization "that is synonymous with the Mississippi Delta" may be in the process of reducing the American dream, throughout the United States, "to a self-indulgent fantasy." And he wonders whether, as "socioeconomic disparity and indifference to human suffering become increasingly prominent features of American life," the "same economic, political, and emotional forces that helped to forge and sustain the Delta's image as the South writ small may one day transform an entire nation into the Delta writ large." For those who would elect to be neither master nor slave, that is a frightening thought.
Tony Dunbar practices law in New Orleans. He is the author of Delta Time, and Our Land, Too, the 197l Lillian Smith Book Award winner. With the permission of the writer and Southern Changes, an abridged version of this review appeared first in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.