Columns: Why study the American South?
Cobb: If you had asked me when I was starting out, back in the late ’60s, I would’ve said it was because the South was such a problem for the country. We historians who were studying the South wanted to figure out where it went wrong, what had made it different, why it had endured as a sort of contradiction to what America was supposed to be about. But as we learned more and more about the rest of the country too, we realized that a lot of the traits we once ascribed solely to the South were not purely Southern at all. We found out that economic weakness, racism and other sorts of intolerance were just as typical throughout the nation. We have now come to understand that the South is actually an excellent window on America.
Columns: Why is it productive to study music and literature as social history in the South?
Cobb: Because the South has produced great writers and musicians who have been so skilled at capturing the emotions and the sentiment and the tensions across social classes. Sometimes we historians succeed in documenting these things, but we don’t illustrate or convey them as well as writers can. Also, even though much of our music is now commercialized, it does stem from a base that was a pretty clear cultural expression of what was going on at any one time. I can’t think of two forms of music more revealing in this regard than country music and the blues.
Columns: Why should the South be viewed in a global context?
Cobb: The South has probably been the most globalized part of the U.S. throughout the nation’s history. It was the area most affected by market conditions elsewhere in the world-even before New England was-and the Industrial Revolution in Europe was the force behind the international demand for cotton and the expansion of slavery. The economy of the South has always been globalized, and now we’re on a cusp in that regard-simultaneously losing jobs because of industrial migration to cheaper labor markets while on the receiving end of some of the country’s best direct foreign investment. So our economy, being much more globally connected than many people have realized, should not be studied in isolation.
Columns: How important is writing style to a historian?
Cobb: I always tell my students that no matter how smart you are or the value of what you’ve got to say, if you can’t say it effectively you’re not going to have very much impact. Hawthorne pointed out that “Good reading is damn hard writing.” Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t want to do the work-to put in the extra time, sometimes wrestling with every sentence and every word, so as to get the maximum impact from the way they express themselves. I don’t think you can cover for a lack of ideas with good writing, but you can certainly enhance the power of the ideas you do have with good writing.
Columns: What is the main message of your new book, The South and America Since World War II?
Cobb: Over the course of the book, you get an idea of how much has changed in the South, but the title-The South and America-is what it’s really about, because it shows that the South was always an integral part of America. It hasn’t just recently rejoined the union. Everything that was happening in the South you could also find elsewhere in the country. People were just distracted because it was happening so much more dramatically in the South. What I’d like for people to take away from the book is that you can’t really understand the South or America except when one is seen as a reflection of the other.