Erskine Caldwell Short Fiction Analysis
Erskine Caldwell’s reputation as a short-story writer rests mainly on the collections published in the 1930’s: American Earth, We Are the Living, Kneel to the Rising Sun, and Other Stories, and Southways. Most of these stories reflect a social protest against the racial and economic oppression in the South during the Great Depression. Along with writers such as John Steinbeck and James T. Farrell, Caldwell wrote of the struggles of the poor and is therefore a favorite of Marxist critics; he was also highly regarded in the Soviet Union. Although Caldwell’s fiction deals with social injustice, he is not overtly didactic or doctrinaire. He may have written of the violence of racial prejudice, the hypocritical state of fundamentalist religion, or the economic agonies of sharecropping worn-out farmland, yet his first concern as a writer was always with the portrayal of individual characters rather than with lofty social issues. His ideology did not interfere with his art, and the result is a clean, stark narrative that often exhibits the ultrareal qualities of nightmare.
Good literature always bears the burden of altering the comfortable preconceptions of the world, and Caldwell’s best fiction produces a disturbing effect on the reader. He is fond of placing his characters in complex situations, yet he has them react to these situations with the simple tropisms of instinct or the unthinking obedience to social custom. At the heart of one of his stories may be a profound moral point—such as a white dirt farmer’s choice between defending his black friend or else permitting an unjust lynching—but Caldwell’s characters face moral predicaments with the amoral reflexes of an automaton. There is rarely any evidence that Caldwell’s characters grasp the seriousness of their situation. They do not experience epiphanies of self-redemption or rise to mythic patterns of suffering, but rather continue to submit, unaffected, to the agonies and absurdities of their world. For this reason, Caldwell’s work was frequently banned in the 1930’s as pornographic and for appearing to promote gratuitous violence.
“Saturday Afternoon,” for example, is the story of an offhand killing, by a mob of whites, of a black man named Will Maxie for supposedly talking to a white girl. The fact that Will Maxie is innocent is never in question. Everyone admits that he is a “smart Negro,” always properly deferential and a hard worker, but the whites hate him anyway because he makes too much money and has no vices. Will is chained to a sweet-gum tree and burned alive. Yet “Saturday Afternoon” is a compelling story, not because of its sensational violence, but rather because of the chilling indifference shown by the two central characters, Tom the town butcher and Jim his helper. The story opens in the back of the fly-ridden butcher shop as Tom is settling down for an afternoon nap on the butcher block, a slab of rump roast as a pillow. Jim bursts in and tells him that a lynching party is being formed, and they hurry out to join it. The two, however, are merely following the social instinct of herding animals rather than exercising any overt malice toward Will, and even the tone of the actual killing is casual, almost nonchalant: The local druggist sends his boy to sell sodas to the crowd, and Tom and Jim are as interested in swapping slugs of moonshine as they are in Will’s death. Once the spectacle is over, they return to the butcher shop for the Saturday afternoon rush, business as usual. The violence may seem gratuitous, but Caldwell’s carefully controlled tone undercuts its severity and reinforces the theme that mindless indifference to brutality can be more terrifying than purposeful evil. The moral impact of the story bypasses the consciousness of the characters but catches the reader between the eyes.
“Kneel to the Rising Sun”
In “Kneel to the Rising Sun,” the title story of Caldwell’s 1935 collection, he shows that both racial oppression and economic oppression are closely linked. The central conflict in the story is between the white landowner Arch Gunnard and his two sharecroppers—Lonnie, a white, and Clem, a black. It is late afternoon and Lonnie has come to Arch’s gas station to ask for extra food because he is being “short-rationed.” The black tenant Clem has asked for extra rations and gotten them, but Lonnie cannot be so bold. The unspoken rules of the caste system are strong, even between a white tenant and a white landowner. As Lonnie tries to make his request, Arch calmly takes out his jackknife and cuts the tail off Lonnie’s dog. Lonnie leaves hungry and emasculated,...
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