Study Guide

Erskine Caldwell

Erskine Caldwell Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226216-Caldwell.jpgErskine Caldwell Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Erskine Caldwell was born in the community of White Oak, near Moreland, Georgia, on December 7, 1903, the only child of Ira Sylvester and his wife, Caroline Bell Caldwell. In following years, the little family moved often about the South, wherever Caldwell’s father’s duties as a minister and troubleshooter for his denomination took him, until they settled in Wrens, Georgia, in 1918. Caldwell’s mother, like Ernest Hemingway’s and Thomas Wolfe’s, kept her son in shoulder-length curls; she refused to allow the boy to attend school until he entered the seventh grade.

In Wrens, the nearest thing to a hometown Caldwell had, the family lived an uneventful life. His father assumed a permanent pastorate, and both parents took jobs at the institute (or high school). Ira Sylvester, a man of great good will and unflagging philanthropy (though modest athletic ability), organized the school’s first sports program and served for many years as its football, basketball, and baseball coach. Caroline Caldwell was a teacher of English. Known as Skinny, as much for his elongated frame as his first name, Erskine attended school under the watchful eyes of his parents and found his first job writing one summer for the Jefferson Reporter. In time he advanced to stringer status, serving as a correspondent for some city newspapers, mainly covering baseball games.

As son of a minister, Caldwell enjoyed a respectability in tiny Wrens very different from the reputation he was later to achieve after the shocking success in 1933 of the stage version of his Tobacco Road (1932). Misled by whopping lies that Caldwell told the gullible—as did many of his literary contemporaries—and by the subject matter of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933), books often read “behind the barn,” Americans came to believe that Caldwell himself had emerged from the people he depicted. The tall, redheaded, freckle-faced youth who ran in the Wrens One-Mile Relay on New Year’s Day, 1920, became in following decades the nemesis of the Watch and Ward Society, “America’s No. 1 cracker-barrel pornographer” (Time magazine, 1957), and a suspected agent of the Kremlin.

In Wrens, Caldwell wrote newspaper copy and an occasional story and chauffeured a doctor on rural house calls, where he saw how blacks lived and...

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Erskine Caldwell Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Caldwell’s two-fisted stories of baffled rural Americans struggling to survive in the merciless world around them won him the devotion of millions of readers who found his voice strong, his depictions honest, his prose style readable, and his courage admirable. He wrote forcefully about subjects other writers were afraid to confront, and he did so with a wild comic touch. If he emphasized sex, he did not neglect to expose the injustices everywhere in American life in the Depression years. Called a sensationalist by his detractors, he conveyed what Thoreau called “the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all men have.”

Erskine Caldwell Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The son of a well-known Presbyterian minister, Erskine Caldwell spent his boyhood in rural Georgia and South Carolina as his father moved from church to church. In 1920 he attended Erskine College for a year and a half; in 1923 he spent a year at the University of Virginia; and in 1924 he spent a summer at the University of Pennsylvania studying economics. After working for a brief time as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal, he left Georgia for Maine to devote his energies to full-time writing in 1926. Caldwell wrote nearly a hundred stories and novels before placing his first major publication with Maxwell Perkins and Scribner’s Magazine. His novels in the 1930’s, known primarily for their sexual suggestiveness and violence, firmly established him as a best-selling author. In 1937, in conjunction with the famous photographer Margaret Bourke-White, Caldwell published the remarkable You Have Seen Their Faces, a “photo-text” depicting the plight of the southern poor that deserves to be ranked as one of the finest examples of that genre. Caldwell was a war correspondent in Russia in 1942 and one of the few American journalists to cover the invasion of Russia. His later work is generally not as good as his early work (Faulkner once said that it “grew toward trash”), but the serious reader would do well to pay attention to Call It Experience (1951), his autobiography, and Deep South: Memory and Observation (1968), a nonfictional study of southern religion. In his later years, Caldwell turned more to nonfiction and autobiography. A lifelong smoker, he had two operations for lung cancer. Caldwell finally succumbed to the disease in 1987 at the age of eighty-three.

Erskine Caldwell Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Erskine Preston Caldwell was the son of a preacher, Ira Sylvester Caldwell. His mother was Caroline “Carrie” Preston (Bell) Caldwell of Staunton, Virginia. At the time Erskine was born, on December 17, 1903, the Reverend Caldwell was minister in Newman, Georgia, in Coweta County, forty miles from Atlanta. His wife, active in helping her husband in his ministry, also ran a small school. She taught Caldwell through much of his elementary and secondary education, both in her school and at home. He actually spent only one year in public school and one in high school.

Between 1906 and 1919, the Caldwells moved several times as the ministry dictated. This not-quite-nomadic existence and the straitened circumstances under which the family lived were probably influential in molding Caldwell into early self-reliance and in fostering a wanderlust that persisted throughout his youth and adult life. Caldwell left home at fourteen and roamed the Deep South, Mexico, and Central America. He did return home, however, to complete his high school education.

In 1920, Caldwell enrolled in Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina. From 1923 to 1924, he attended the University of Virginia on a scholarship; in 1924, he studied for two terms at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1925, he returned to the University of Virginia for an additional term, but he was never graduated.

While attending the University of Virginia, he married Helen Lannegan, and it was at this time that he decided to...

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Erskine Caldwell Biography (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

0111201180-Caldwell.jpgErskine Caldwell (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Author Profile

The son of a Southern Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister, Caldwell wrote novels that were felt by some to be obscene. His were the kinds of books sold with sexually provocative covers and, after purchase, hidden away. Because his stories were so widely disseminated through millions of paperback reprints as well as adaptations for stage and screen, he may have spent more time combatting censorship than any other American author.

Caldwell’s first encounter with censorship occurred when he tried to sell his first novel, The Bastard (1929), in a Portland, Maine, bookshop. The local district attorney called it “obscene, lewd, and immoral” and threatened to arrest Caldwell unless all copies of the book were returned to the publisher in New York. Caldwell wrote an impassioned defense of his novel, denouncing New England Puritanism, and justifying his working-class subject matter and frank treatment of sexuality.

Caldwell’s masterpiece, Tobacco Road (1932), caused an outcry in his native South. Many felt that the book’s impoverished and morally degraded Lester family was a slanderous portrait of sharecroppers and the South in general. After the novel was made into a successful Broadway play, traveling productions met with censorship throughout the United States. A Chicago production was opposed by the Roman Catholic church and Mayor Edward F. Kelly, who called the work “a mess of filth and degeneracy.” In Washington, D.C., Congressman Braswell Deen of Georgia denounced the play from the floor of Congress. In thirty-six other cities the work was officially condemned.

God’s Little Acre (1933) also prompted censorship, this time from the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which took Caldwell’s publisher, Viking Press, to court. Many literary figures, including H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, and Sherwood Anderson, supported Caldwell. In a decision that vindicated both author and publisher, a New York magistrate argued that single passages of a sexual nature did not constitute sufficient evidence to condemn a book and that any successful argument for censorship must show that the tendency of the book as a whole was to inspire impure thoughts and desires.

These cases had a mixed effect on Caldwell’s publishing future. His next novel, Journeyman (1935), was limited to an edition of only 1,475 copies because Viking feared new legal challenges. Over the long run, however, the publicity enhanced Caldwell’s book sales. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, millions of copies of his books were published in cheap paperback...

(The entire section is 1084 words.)

Erskine Caldwell Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201180-Caldwell.jpgErskine Caldwell Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Erskine Preston Caldwell, a prolific and popular writer of novels about the American South and of photojournalistic travelogues, has eluded easy definition. Styled variously as a humorist, social critic, and writer in the Southern Renaissance tradition, he has also been vilified as a pornographer and pulp novelist. Caldwell simply regarded himself as a writer, a storyteller about the worlds he observed in America and elsewhere. Based on the enormous, and continued, sales of his best-known works, Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre, his principal reputation continues to rest on his depictions of poverty and sensuality in the rural American South. Indeed, many stereotypes and metaphors about poor southern whites...

(The entire section is 1018 words.)