[Marxism] “All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw”

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 19 08:29:46 MDT 2014

NY Times, April 19 2014
Lost in Literary History: A Tale of Courage in the South
Critic’s Notebook


Nineteen seventy-four was a good year for nonfiction writing in America. 
Robert A. Caro’s monumental biography of Robert Moses, “The Power 
Broker,” came out. So did Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “All the 
President’s Men.” So did “Working,” by Studs Terkel, and Robert M. 
Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

Each was a finalist for the National Book Award. Yet the winner in 
general nonfiction — the category was then called contemporary affairs — 
was “All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw,” an oral history of an 
illiterate black Alabama sharecropper. Its author, the man who compiled 
it from extensive interviews, was a writer named Theodore Rosengarten.

Forty years later, we remember “The Power Broker,” “All the President’s 
Men,” “Working” and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” But in 
a troubling quirk of history, “All God’s Dangers” has all but fallen off 
the map.

Somewhere along the line, people stopped talking about it. Friends of 
mine who talk about nothing except Southern literature have barely heard 
of the book. I pounced on it after I discovered that Richard Howorth, 
the well-read owner of Square Books, the independent bookstore in 
Oxford, Miss., utters its title aloud every time a customer asks the 
question, “What one book would you say best explains the South?”

I wish I could say that, this early spring, I read “All God’s Dangers” 
in one sitting. It’s not that kind of book. It’s a meandering thing; its 
pleasures are intense but cumulative. This book rolls. But it is superb 
— both serious history and a serious pleasure, a story that reads as if 
Huddie Ledbetter spoke it while W. E. B. Du Bois took dictation. That 
it’s been largely forgotten is bad for it, but worse for us.

“All God’s Dangers” collected euphoric reviews in 1974, from Robert 
Coles and Studs Terkel himself, among others. On the cover of The New 
York Times Book Review, H. Jack Geiger wrote that in Nate Shaw, America 
“had found a black Homer, bursting with his black Odyssey.”

“All God’s Dangers” remained in print for years as a Vintage paperback. 
In 1989 it was turned into a one-man play, starring Cleavon Little. (If 
the clips on YouTube are any indication, it was unwatchable.) These 
days, a hefty paperback edition is available from the University of 
Chicago Press. But it seems to have vanished from the culture at large.

This book has a back story. Nate Shaw is a pseudonym. The sharecropper’s 
real name was Ned Cobb (1885-1973). Mr. Rosengarten changed the name for 
the safety of Mr. Cobb’s family— a grim commentary on race relations in 
Alabama in 1974.

In 1969 Mr. Rosengarten was a recent Harvard graduate who went to 
Alabama with a friend who was researching a defunct organization called 
the Alabama Sharecroppers Union. Someone suggested they speak to Mr. 
Cobb, then 84.

Mr. Rosengarten relates what happened: “We asked him right off why he 
joined the union. He didn’t respond directly; rather, he ‘interpreted’ 
the question and began, ‘I was haulin’ a load of hay out of Apafalya one 
day ...’ and continued uninterrupted for eight hours. He recounted 
dealings with landlords, bankers, fertilizer agents, mule traders, gin 
operators, sheriffs and judges — stories of the social relations of the 
cotton system. By evening, the fire had risen and died and risen again, 
and our question was answered.”

No fool, Mr. Rosengarten returned many times, over several years, to 
speak with Mr. Cobb. He’d found a powerful American voice, one that 
cracked open a world never so fully explored in print. The result is 
“All God’s Dangers,” which deserves a place in the front rank of 
American autobiographies.

There are many reasons, in 2014, to attend to Ned Cobb’s story. It is 
dense and tangled social history, a narrative that essentially takes us 
from slavery to Selma from the point of view of an unprosperous but 
eloquent and unbroken black man. In some ways, the book is a reverse 
photographic image of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” the 1941 classic 
from James Agee and Walker Evans. Agee and Evans scrutinized the lives 
of white tenant farmers; in “All God’s Dangers,” we witness a black 
tenant family through three generations. The book is Faulknerian in its 
weave. Mr. Cobb’s working years, Mr. Rosengarten notes, “span 
approximately the same years as the Snopes family odyssey in William 
Faulkner’s trilogy.”

The book has its share of drama. We read about Cobb’s joining the 
radical union, about getting into a shootout with police while 
protecting a friend’s property from a fraudulent foreclosure, about his 
12-year prison stint. But, in general, it moves gently; it’s more a 
stream than a river.

You will learn more about wheat, guano, farm implements, bugs, cattle 
killing and mule handling than you would think possible. Mr. Cobb loved 
and took good care of his working mules. About one, he declares: “She 
was just as pretty as a peeled onion.”

“All God’s Dangers” also happens to be a dense catalog of the ways that 
whites tricked and mistreated blacks in the first half of the 20th 
century. “Years ago I heard that Abraham Lincoln freed the colored 
people,” Mr. Cobb says early on, “but it didn’t amount to a hill of 
beans.” About his white neighbors, he declares, “Any way they could 
deprive a Negro was a celebration to ’em.”

The book’s title comes from these sentences: “All God’s dangers ain’t a 
white man. When the boll weevil starts in your cotton and go to 
depositin’ his eggs in them squares, that’s when he’ll kill you.”

Perhaps the best thing about “All God’s Dangers” is that it is so direct 
about the injustices piled upon Mr. Cobb’s family and other blacks in 
Alabama, while remaining so buoyant. Mr. Cobb had an unshakable sense of 
moral justice, but he did not want his heart to curdle with bitterness. 
“Good God, there wasn’t but few privileges that we was allowed,” he 
remarks. Yet he always had “big eyes and high hopes.” He becomes one of 
the first black farmers in Alabama to own a car.

Ned Cobb is full of advice about how to live. Some of this advice is 
funny. If you marry a sickly girl, he says, “you might just marry a 
doctor’s bill.” About farming and any kind of labor, you often get your 
best work done when you’re most tempted to nap. “Look out,” he advises, 
“for off times and rainy days.”

The real lessons in “All God’s Dangers” are the old, primal ones, 
lessons that Mr. Cobb manages to make fresh: Stand up for what you 
believe in; remain awake to experience; any job worth doing is worth 
doing well. Mr. Rosengarten went on to become, in 1989, a MacArthur 
Fellow. His later books include “Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter” 

The exceptional man he presents to us in “All God’s Dangers” says, “Some 
folks don’t use the time God gives ’em; that’s why they’re liable to 
come up defeated.”

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