Cobb’s The Most Southern Place on Earth: A Review
In The Most Southern Place on Earth, James Cobb reveals the Mississippi Delta region as a place of life’s extremes, especially to those who spent a great deal of their lives in the region from one generation to the next. These extremes range from the region’s shifting environmental conditions to its diversity in social class and power. Cobb’s main concern is to answer why the unrelenting planter dominance in the region perpetuated from the 1830s until the time after the civil rights era. Cobb asserts that the planters’ adaptability as well as their sophisticated use of the federal government and of their external financiers maintained their sovereignty in the Mississippi Delta. Cobb even goes on to argue that federal programs subverted the great civil rights breakthroughs during the 1960s which eventually kept economic power in the grasp of the Mississippi whites.
The argument of Cobb is successful because he is able to provide statistics and other detailed information which supports most of his central claims in his book. For instance, Cobb cites figures with regard to the disparities in the Delta region, specifically the numbers pertaining to the lynching of blacks between the years 1900 and 1930. Using such figures, Cobb goes on to assert that the blacks who refused to leave the region and opted to remain were left with no other choice but to accept and comply with the caste system that is filled with “inerrant consistency and an almost exaggerated vigor” (p. 153). The situation faced by Mississippi blacks reaffirms the claim of Cobb that the Mississippi Delta region was a place where “white affluence and privileged” not only were sustained but thrived to “equally striking levels of black deprivation and powerlessness” (p. 153).
The fact that Cobb used the previous works of several authors who focused on the conditions in the Mississippi Delta on specific periods gives credence to the narrative book. More importantly, those previous works together with Cobb’s own researches illustrate the survival of the planters such as Andrew J. Polk and George Collins to name a few despite the odds that they faced. Here we find one of the extremes that Cobb is trying to point-out—the region became “the domain of an exceptionally prosperous, powerful and socially and politically conservative planter elite” (p. 125). At the same time, Cobb also emphasizes the other side of such an extreme, one that has also survived the years partly because of the prevailing caste system and partly because of the social forces that tied the blacks to peonage despite the social breakthroughs. That other side is the case of the blacks whose only autonomy is that of the autonomy to transfer from one field to the next, under one plantation owner to the next.
Apparently, the weakness of the book rests on its use of in-depth research and statistics as bases to prove the major points of the author. Its use of a narrative style in approaching the task of revealing the conditions in the Mississippi Delta through the years helps readers get a closer feel of such conditions. On the other hand, some of the weaknesses of the book include its seemingly hurried discussion of the civil rights movement during the 1950s and the 1960s. Its quick discussion of the Delta Blues music, although central to our understanding of the conditions in the Mississippi Delta, appears close to the end of the book, thereby making it a fleeting topic that serves to close the social narrative rather than one that opens up more worthwhile topics for discussion.
Cobb, James. The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.