Saturday, July 31, 2021

Coleman Cox Hates You and Other Observations

At a recent trip to a thrift store, I came across Straight Talk from Coleman Cox, a 1928 collection of the "witty sayings" of a Coolidge era sales manager.

Though advertising itself as containing "more than nine hundred thoughts," it really just contains nine hundred variations on "You deserve to be poor" and "get back in the kitchen, woman!" 

I'm exaggerating a bit.  Some of his thoughts are just basic observations that he thinks are funny for some unfathomable reason.  Consider the very first entry in the book:

 A lot of jokes don't age well because the references become obscure, or sensibilities change, but this joke fails wholly on its merits, and the scope of that failure is undiminished over nearly a century.  It also fails as a useful, or even interesting, observation.  Some business partners don't get along!  

I want to provide a full unedited page to give you a good sense of how little this man has to say, and how proud he seems to be of saying it.

My first inclination would be to describe Cox as the poor man's H. L. Mencken, but Cox hates the poor.

His firm belief that wordplay makes wisdom is so unshakeable, that he doesn't even try to make sense half the time.  When he says "Traffic officers and not employers are the ones who caution young men against speeding up and trying to go ahead of every one," who is he complaining about?  Is he reprimanding the employers?  Does he think the young men should behave this way in business?  And what the hell is his problem in the last entry on the page?  Is he complaining about employees being busy?  Does he distrust the phrase "busy as a bee?"  I really can't suss out what he's trying to convey here. If you're wondering how this got past an editor, you might be shocked to find out there wasn't one.

Coleman's success as a writer came though self-publishing small booklets that he would sell to business owners, who would then distribute them to their employees.  As the blurb on the back of the hardcover puts it "Great executives have distributed millions of Mr. Cox's booklets of advice because they realized these friendly suggestions would help their employees work better and live better."

Fun stuff!

If you're wondering, does Coleman Cox have anecdotes that only a man completely lacking in imagination could find profound, then you're in luck!

I've found that people who greatly overestimate their own intelligence or perceptiveness tend to drastically underestimate the same qualities in others.  Does he believe that the meaning is so cleverly conveyed that the reader must go back to grasp it?  Does he believe repeating this common idea about perseverance will so rock his audience that they must pause and read it again once the shock has worn off?  Perhaps I'm being mean here.  After all, he's acknowledging that people who get thrown down can come back stronger, so maybe that's a sign of empathy?

Well, fuck you too, Coleman.  And in case anyone noticing the dialect in the above was wondering, yes, there are racist entries, but they're gross in a way that's not funny or interesting, so I'm not excerpting them here.  His misogyny gets personally revealing though.

The first question that comes to my mind is why is Cox going to these cabarets he finds so murder-inducing.  I'm also not sure who he's planning on murdering in this scenario.

There's something fascinating in a person who is so lacking in self-awareness and empathy.  Everything bad that happens to people is their own damn fault, and how dare my employees cause me to lose money.  

This book is, at its heart, marginalia from the side of the roaring twenties generally omitted when discussing American literature.  When we talk about the 1920s, the focus is almost exclusively on the authors of Lost Generation, Algonquin Round Table, or of those who shared similar cultural values.  But the flipside of the jazz and luxury was the gross exploitation that succeeded the Progressive Era, and the broad adoption of social darwinism and laissez faire by industry and government in this decade.  It's likely that the number of Americans who read Coleman Cox in 1928 is significantly larger than of those who read Ernest Hemingway or Dorothy Parker, despite his now complete obscurity.

Well, he has no one to blame but himself.


  1. Vector Conversions said it best: Thank you So much for this Important and Useful Information. I'm sorry to say that it appears his book was reprinted in 2009.

    Are you going to update the Cross Section sometime with Sorry to Bother You?

    1. Vector Conversions is my number one fan (don't tell Best Essay Writing Service I said that).

      I honestly haven't even thought of going back to the Cross project in a couple years at this point. Sorry to Bother You is amazing though, and I wouldn't mind an excuse to rewatch it.

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