Mistaking bigness for greatness

Mississippi author David Cohn (1896-1960) achieved a measure of immortality with his oft-quoted observation, “The Delta begins in the lobby of Hotel Peabody and ends at Catfish Row in Vicksburg.”

A Greenville native, Cohn was educated at the University of Virginia and Yale Law School. Intensely interested in politics, he wrote speeches for Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, and Lyndon Johnson, but was best known for articles reflecting his diverse interests, from religion to technology, free trade, culture, and internationalism.

After Yale, he recalled, “I went into business instead of writing because my family went bust on a cotton plantation they had bought. I had a successful business career in New Orleans, rising to the head of a large mercantile corporation. In 1934, I quit to write.”

He wrote 10 books, the most famous “God Shakes Creation,” and scores of articles and essays, including more than 60 for the respected Atlantic Monthly.

Recently, rummaging through the flotsam and jetsam of past decades, I ran across a browned, crumbly clipping from the old Memphis Press-Scimitar, of an interview with Cohn by columnist Clark Porteous. Cohn’s observations then could well be applied to current times:

“We’ve tried to be Good Time Charlies in the midst of the most terrifying events ever seen in the world.

“It is part of our gross spiritual decline, and it has come from confusion of synonyms: We mistake bigness for greatness. We have forgotten this was a great country long before it was a big country. For a long time, Memphis and every other community have been chasing greater bigness instead of bigger greatness.

“We go for quantity rather than quality. We are just existing. We confuse comfort with civilization. We need something like Emerson’s Transcendentalists, who went for plain living and high thinking. You can have a fine life without a Cadillac. We confuse price and value, a standard of life with a standard of living.

“Before Sputnik [the first space satellite, launched by Russia in October 1957], we were concerned with reducing taxes, so we could pile up more money to buy liberty. I think we can catch up [in space]. But we must be willing to pay the price…

“I would think that the price will be devotion to the task and sublimation of a great deal of our nonsense … For American life to meet this challenge is not just the question of a couple of billion dollars more. In the words of the old spiritual, ‘There is No Hiding Place Down There.’”

The “devotion to task” by an American leadership and a people united in a fierce determination to not only succeed but to be the best, resulted in one of mankind’s greatest triumphs — the space program and man on the moon, undergirded by manufacturing, business, and technology sectors that were the envy of the entire world.

But somewhere, we got off track; we became a nation of Good Time Charlies, paying little heed to our profligacies or giving thought to the day of reckoning sure to come.

Once again the challenge faces us: Can we, as a nation, unite in that “devotion to task”?

We can hope so.

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