William (Sledge) Cobb Biography
William Cobb comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Eutaw, Alabama, 1937. Education: Livingston State College, 1957-61, B.A. in English 1961; Vanderbilt University, 1961-63, M.A. in English 1963; Breadloaf School of English, Middlebury College, 1967-68. Career: Professor of English, 1963-89, and since 1989, writer-in-residence, both University of Montevallo, Alabama. Awards: Story Magazine 's Story of the Year Award, 1964; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1978, for creative writing; Atlantic Center for the Arts grant, 1985, for playwriting; Alabama State Council on the Arts grant, 1985, for playwriting, and 1995, for fiction writing. Agent: Albert Zuckerman, Writers House, 21 West 26th St., New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.
Coming of Age at the Y. Columbia, Maryland, Portals Press, 1984.
The Hermit King. Columbia, Maryland, Portals Press, 1987.
A Walk Through Fire. New York, Morrow, 1992.
The Fire Eaters. New York, Norton, 1994.
Harry Reunited. Montgomery, Alabama, Black Belt Press, 1995.
A Spring of Souls. Birmingham, Alabama, Crane Hill Publishers, 1999.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Year of Judson's Carnival," in The Sucarnochee Review, 1961.
"A Single Precious Day," in Livingston Life, 1961.
"The Time of the Leaves," in Granta, 1963.
"The Stone Soldier," in Story, Spring 1964.
"'Suffer Little Children …,"' in Comment, Spring 1967.
"The Iron Gates," in Comment, Winter 1968.
"The Hunted," in The Arlington Quarterly, Summer 1968.
"A Very Proper Resting Place," in Comment, Autumn 1969.
"An Encounter with a Friend," in Inlet, Spring 1973.
"Walk the Fertile Fields of My Mind," in Region, November 1976.
"Somewhere in All This Green," in Anthology of Bennington Writers, edited by John Gardner. Delbanco, 1978.
"The Night of the Yellow Butterflies," in Arete, Spring 1984.
"Old Wars and New Sorrow," in The Sucarnochee Review, Spring1984.
"Faithful Steward of Thy Bounty." N.p., n.d.
"The Queen of the Silver Dollar," in Amaryllis, Spring 1995.
The Vine and the Olive (produced Livingston, 1961).
Brighthope (produced Montevallo, 1985).
Recovery Room (produced New Orleans, 1986).
Sunday's Child (produced Montevallo, 1986; New York, 1987).
A Place of Spring (produced New York, 1987).
Early Rains (produced New York, 1988).
Vanderbilt University Library, Nashville, Tennessee.
A strong influence, perhaps the strongest, on the structure of Harry Reunited is Robert Altman's wonderfully funny film Nashville, which I saw years ago when it was first released and have since watched countless times on video. I wanted to write a novel about a disparate group of people whose only real connection is something ephemeral—in this case a vague and distant past—whose lives touch others' lives in various ways as they pass through a sequence of events, and who are finally brought together and at the same time separated by one apocalyptic event. I did not, of course, want to retell Nashville. It had to be my own story.
Since I had not attended my own high school class's 25th reunion (I was somehow left off the invitation list; I'm still not sure what that says about me!), I was able to pose a hypothetical question to myself: What happens when a man goes back home, into an artificially created environment that attempts to mirror, even recreate, a period in his past, and he has to confront all the demons from that past? As I began to work on the novel all sorts of other nuances and themes began to appear, among them the inevitable facing of middle age, that middle passage in which we invariably begin to look both backward and forward with varying emotional consequences. And as a Southern writer, I've always been fascinated with the presence of the past, of our histories both individually and collectively, and with the notion of the abiding importance of "place," and as I wrote I found those themes emerging as well.
And I quickly fell in love with Bud Squires. Even though it's Harry's book, it is Bud's book, too, because it is he who provides the counterpoint to Harry's semi-comfortable life. It is Bud who is the avenging angel, and I was able, in a way, through my creation of Bud, to exorcise some of the guilt I suspect I still carried around with me for the cruel things I must have done in my own adolescence and which I have conveniently forgotten or blacked out. Bud became a wonderful comic character for me, a man who awakens, in varying degrees and in various startling ways, all the people in the book—and gives a kind of new life to them.
Finally, it was the comic mode that most drove me as I created this book. I very consciously wished to return to the comedy of my first novel, Coming of Age at the Y, and I wanted to paint this story with broad strokes. It is full of the kind of humor that I love, subtle and sly and almost slapstick at the same time. A humor of character. I love all these characters—Bernie Crease, as ineffectual as he is; Marie, as innocently slutty as she is; the foul-mouthed adolescents in the Sacristy before the Sunday morning service; the little black kid in the fish-net shirt; the three women at the yard sale; Cholly Polly, poor, poor Cholly Polly; Vera Babbs, the "message artist," and on and on; I love them all! That is the gift that comic writing like this gives back to the writer. I got the richest, warmest laughs of all. And I, too,—even though I was not invited—was finally reunited!
* * *
William Cobb studied with the last of the Fugitives at Vanderbilt, and his fiction is deeply rooted in the southern soil that the Agrarians revered; however, his political views have not always been in keeping with the conservative views of his mentors. Throughout his work there runs a deep respect for spirituality, the importance of family, and the necessity of maintaining a sense of place. Many readers feel that Cobb is at his best as a comic writer (his flair for the profane is certainly apparent); however, his more serious civil-rights novel, A Walk Through Fire, brought Cobb national acclaim. Cobb's body of work includes an impressive number of short stories, four novels, and three plays that were produced in New York.
Cobb's first national recognition came in 1964 when his story "The Stone Soldier" won the prestigious Story Magazine 's Story of the Year Award and was the title story in that year's collection. "The Stone Soldier" has since been anthologized a number of times. Cobb's flair for the vulgar was apparent in his vivid description of Lyman Sparks, a scalawag who preys on the families of Civil War soldiers. His "sausage legs" and "squiggly eyes" are indelibly printed in the reader's mind.
Another short piece of fiction was recognized as an outstanding contribution in the premier edition of Arete: A Journal of Sport Literature, published at San Diego State University . In "The Night of the Yellow Butterflies" the main characters are a minor league baseball coach and his star player, Luke Easter—who may or may not be an apparition. The theme of baseball, with its hopes and dreams—often lost ones—is recurrent in Cobb's work. This particular story weaves the real and the supernatural in a mysterious manner that is quite convincing.
There was some negative response to the bawdy nature of Cobb's satirical novel Coming of Age at the Y. Certainly, he took some chances writing a satirical coming-of-age story with a female protagonist (not always considered politically correct as early as the 1970s). However, it is hard to see how any reader could miss the tone of the book from its title. Though some readers felt that his heroine, Delores Lovelady, was a bit passive, most felt that it was a fine attack on sexism—loaded with irony. Lucille Weary, the "worldly" traveler on the Greyhound with Delores, is a wonderfully funny echo of The Wife of Bath cramped in a century full of the New South and Shoney's Big Boys.
Cobb's second novel, The Hermit King, is a more traditional coming-of-age novel. The main story line here is between two runaway adolescents and an old black man who has lived a hermit's life much like Thoreau's a century earlier in quiet protest to the setting tradition offers him. Cobb's descriptive power is clear.
Cobb also has an ear for dialogue that seemed to lead him inevitably to write for the stage. Horton Foote, who admired his work, suggested that he send a trilogy to H. B. Playwright's Studio in New York. All three plays were done there over a two-year period. Herbert Berghoff said that Cobb's plays are like Foote's plays in that they are domestic plays that deal with quiet human conflicts.
Cobb's third novel, A Walk Through Fire, was well received. Both Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly gave the book a strong endorsement in 1992, its year of publication, and the West Coast Review of Books declared it one of the most important books of the year. Caught up in an interracial triangle, the three main characters spin a story filled with passion and strength. The reader can see clearly Cobb's firm sense of place in the following scene, where O. B. Brewster, a white farm implement dealer (and former baseball player), offers to help an old black farmer plow his field:
The black earth turned smoothly on each side of the shiny blade. I am not too far removed from this soil that I can't feel its message again, in my legs and in my heart. The loamy earth was damp, and it smelled fecund and rich, fertile as life itself. Tears misted his eyes, one droplet spilling down his cheek, but he could not wipe his face because he held to the handles of the plow.
Reviewers have said that Cobb has undoubtedly had his turn at the plow in that soil. His description of the violence and pain of our collective history during those years is seared into the minds of his readers through the fire imagery that permeates the book. Most importantly, we are reminded that those with intense faith can walk through fire.
Many of Cobb's central characters have a quiet strength that comes from life lived close to the earth. The setting is almost always southern, but the struggles of the human heart transcend the regional boundaries and make valuable commentary on life in the last half of the 20th century in the United States.
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