Caldwell is one of few American writers to achieve both enormous popular and critical success. Known to millions of his fellow Americans, many of whom actually read Tobacco Road or God’s Little Acre, Caldwell’s name mentioned on a radio program in the 1930’s or 1940’s would instantly evoke howls of snickering laughter, because his books suggested raw humor and sex. Ensign Pulver in Thomas Heggen’s hit novel and play Mister Roberts (1946) was probably one of countless World War II sailors who had memorized the most scandalous passage in God’s Little Acre, which he could recite “flawlessly.”
If Caldwell meant “dirty books” to large numbers of Americans, he was something quite different to students of literature. Many considered him chiefly a protest or proletarian writer, one of those socially committed novelists of the Depression era who exposed injustices in American life, the plight of tenant farmers, or the outrageous conditions under which cotton mill workers or southern blacks lived. Left-leaning critics championed his work as properly Marxist, but they were often disappointed by what they considered irrelevant elements in his writing. What, they wondered, did all the slapstick and sex have to do with the class struggle? They wished he would simply concentrate on exposing the evils of capitalism. Even before World War II, the Soviet Union had put its stamp of approval on his work, and after the war the countries of Eastern Europe joined in so clamorously that Caldwell became a figure of some suspicion during the Cold War years.
On the other hand, many compared him to William Faulkner, whose critical reputation was growing in the early 1930’s but who could not command the sales that Caldwell could. Some said that Caldwell’s southern gothic tales were as profoundly metaphorical as those of Faulkner. Faulkner himself joined the chorus of praise, calling Caldwell the best writer in America. Other critics insisted on comparing him to James Farrell, whose naturalistic novel Young Lonigan (1932), the first in his trilogy about Studs Lonigan, appeared the year of Tobacco Road. Like Farrell, Caldwell wrote about heredity and poor families whose unhappy destinies were largely determined by the world around them, an environment where people were strictly on their own.
Still others stressed Caldwell’s humor. Not since Mark Twain, they said, had a southern writer made readers laugh so in showing humanity’s hopeless irrationality. They pointed to stories such as “Mid-Summer Passion,” in which Ben Hacket, fortified with fermented cider, pulls a pair of pink panties on Mrs. Fred Williams in a sort of panty raid in reverse, or to the shenanigans of “A Country Full of Swedes,” which won for him a Yale Award for Fiction in the mid-1930’s. Certainly readers found Jeeter Lester’s attempt “to get on the good side of the Lord” with the help of the zany evangelist Sister Bessie Rice or Ty Ty Walden’s gold-mining schemes—to mention only two of the obsessions of Caldwell’s simple-minded characters—hilariously funny.
Like Twain’s, too, was Caldwell’s interest in American places in a period when regional distinctions were much stronger than they would become after generations of television and a mobile society worked their homogenizing effects. Caldwell wrote about the South, where he was born, and northern New England, where he spent the most productive decade of his life. In his later years he continued to travel about the United States and the world, showing interest in regional writers and expressing great pride in his editing in the 1940’s American Folkways, a collection of studies of regional America by a host of writers. Although he left the South while still in his twenties, never to return except for temporary visits or Florida residencies, readers inevitably think of him still as a “Georgia boy.”
Caldwell’s writing, both his short stories and his novels, is uneven. It is not fair, however, to say that his muse abandoned him early in his career or that he sold out for big money after God’s Little Acre, charges that were often leveled against him. Neither accusation is true. He wrote weaker stories, such as “Dorothy” (1931) and “Strawberry Season” (1930), as well as strong ones from the start. Two little-known novelettes that he published on small presses before Tobacco Road, The Bastard (1929) and Poor Fool (1930), most readers will find unrewarding. Indeed, Scribner’s lost Caldwell as an author when the company decided not to accept his decidedly minor “Maine novel,” the book he wrote after Tobacco Road, published years later as A Lamp for Nightfall (1952). Although Caldwell could command generous advances and profitable contracts in his heyday, he continued to write just as dutifully when there was little demand for his work.
Caldwell wrote a plain style of American English that F. Scott Fitzgerald perceptively recognized as resembling Hemingway’s and told his stories, often about country folk, from an objective point of view—so objective, in fact, that many mistakenly thought he sympathized little with his characters. While the bulk of his writing is “realistic,” providing recognizable details of everyday life, his use of grotesquerie, like that of...
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