Nell Irvin Painter


Review by Nell Irvin Painter, New York Times Book Review, 7 March 1993.
Reprinted with permission of the New York Times.

By James C. Cobb
391 pp.
New York: Oxford University Press $27.50
Review By Nell Irvin Painter

During the recent debates, President George Bush castigated Governor Bill Clinton's state of Arkansas as the "lowest of the low," summing up what prejudiced Northerners say about the South. Arkansans may murmur "thank heaven for Mississippi" when they come in next forty-ninth on the quality of life charts, for Mississippi is the South's South. James C. Cobb, the Bernadotte Schmitt Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, would remind us further that the Mississippi Delta is Mississippi's Mississippi, or, in the words of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, "America's Ethiopia." With a black majority that has long remained susceptible to the all the ills that accompany abject poverty, the Mississippi Delta's quality of life usually comes in at the bottom. Meanwhile, the few at the pinnacle of Delta society are rich, leisured, and cultured. With no middle class to speak of, its masses oppressed, its rich rolling-in-dough, the Mississippi Delta may qualify as "the most southern place on earth."

Where is it, exactly? Not in the triangle in Louisiana where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi Delta is the flood plain of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers, an abundantly fertile stretch of swamp that begins, in the words of local writer David Cohn, "in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg."

James Cobb begins his history of the Delta in the second decade of the nineteenth century, with the arrival of the non-Indians who cleared the forests and planted cotton. Because the Delta was so thickly forested and had to be drained before cultivation, the planters who financed the transformation had to be rich initially: They had to own and supply a good-sized workforce before marketing a first cotton crop. Here the workers do not come into focus at the beginning, but the planters quickly emerge as something special, even for the Old South. Unlike the aspiring potentates of the piedmont, who began modestly and passed through an awkward stage of nouvelle richesse, the Delta plantation aristocracy came to the place already made. When--like the legendary Percy family--Delta planters succeeded, they spent their fortunes with a headstart in good taste.

This all took some time, however. As soon as the railroads came to the cotton and the aristocracy got itself established, the Civil War intervened. The Union Army invaded the Delta in 1862, raiding plantation storehouses and barns but affording planters a lucrative black market for cotton. The end of the war meant emancipation, then Reconstruction, which together gave black workers more economic and political power than ever before, despite a punitive black code. Cooperative arrangements between white Democrats and black Republicans, Delta politics staved off the extinction of black opportunity until 1890.

Cobb blames the federal government as much as the local Delta elite for the collapse of democracy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The military kept hands off the war that overthrew the Reconstruction state government in 1875, and, in Williams v. Mississippi (1898), the United States Supreme Court upheld the Mississippi constitutional convention of 1890 that disfranchised black voters. At the turn of the century the Delta entered a period of subjugated labor and white supremacy that only began to end after the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

According to Cobb, the New Deal of the 1930s marks a watershed, in which the federal government became a major source of wealth for planters, who administered federal programs for the poor as well as the rich at the local level. Since then, planters have continued to receive tens of thousands of dollars per year in government payments, while workers scrape by on relief and food stamps. Washington's policies in the Delta have tilted a tenuous interrelationship between laborers and employers in the favor of wealthy employers. As planters turned out tenants in favor of herbicides and mechanization--particularly after the introduction of a practicable mechanical cotton picker in 1947--displaced sharecroppers and farm laborers have been forced to migrate out of the Delta.

Even though its agriculture is now diversified and some industry (if you call catfish farming an industry) has come to the region, the Delta still consists mostly of people who are either rich or impoverished. Visitors make comparisons with the Third World, but James Cobb sees something more American. Echoing Howard Zinn's 1964 realization, Cobb cautions that the Delta is not different from America; it epitomizes an American core value: the freedom to exploit other people for one's own private ends. Surveying the United States in 1991, when the pursuit of wealth seemed to have overwhelmed the ideals of justice and equality, Cobb warns that indifference to human suffering could turn the whole United States into a Mississippi Delta writ large.

In this sense, the Mississippi Delta is the most American place on earth, for as Cobb says, access to trunk routes and federal subsidies made the Delta what it was and is today, gross inequities of wealth, white supremacy, reactionary politics, and all. He might also have recalled that slavery was a national institution until well into the nineteenth century, and racism knows no regional boundaries. In any case, THE MOST SOUTHERN PLACE ON EARTH is a lively and likeable book based on a wealth of sources that Cobb uses skillfully: Making the point of white skin privilege, he quotes a landlord telling a sharecropper, "This is a place for me to make a profit, not you." [p. 112]

Yet for all its wit, this book of tantalizing cleverness falls short of fulfilling its promise. Like so much Southern history, THE MOST SOUTHERN PLACE ON EARTH is written out of an inadequate conceptual framework, which condemns its analysis to superficiality and squanders too many of its insights. Its single, emblematic illustration is on the dust jacket--the famous Dorothea Lange photograph from the 1930s of a white Mississippi planter before a country store, with five black men in the background looking subordinate. Just as Lange's white planter possesses the photo, so Delta whites dominate this book by controlling its structure. Virtually each chapter begins with the rich, and their concerns and perceptions mold the author's main themes. The shape of the exposition makes its own point, before Cobb can present his own analysis.

Nell Irvin Painter teaches southern history at Princeton University.

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