Erskine Caldwell Essay - Caldwell, Erskine (Vol. 1)

Caldwell, Erskine (Vol. 1)

Caldwell, Erskine 1903–

A Southern American novelist, Caldwell is noted for his graphically naturalistic novels and stories, especially Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

There is a special sort of humor in America, native to our earth and deep-rooted in our history. Its material is the man who has been left behind in the rush to develop our frontiers, the man who has stayed in one place, out of and away from the main current of our developing civilization, so largely untouched by what we think of as progress that his folkways and mores seem to us, at their best, quaint and a little exotic—and, at their worst, degenerate…. [This humor] has been the main source, as well as the great strength, of Erskine Caldwell's novels….

In technique [Trouble in July], rather than the all too famous Tobacco Road, is Caldwell's most successful book to date. Here comedy and violence blend together and support each other…. There is no clash between the comic mood and the horrid catastrophe into which it resolves. The effect of the book is thus powerful and unified…. When Caldwell is at his best—as I believe he is in Trouble in July—he reveals two special characteristics: the strangely powerful admixture of comedy and violence which he contrives, and the particular nature of the violence in which he deals….

There is, to sum it all up, no completely satisfactory attitude for the reader to assume toward [Caldwell's novels]. When we read them as comedies, Caldwell carefully and disconcertingly knocks the props from under the comic element; we look then for serious, socially-conscious reporting, and the comic element spoils our view; we resort, unwillingly, to taking them as exhibits of the picturesque, only to realize that Caldwell deserves more from his reader. So we come finally to the conclusion—for which we have been searching all along—that Caldwell's novels suffer from a multiplicity of meanings which are incompatible with one another. This is another way of saying that Caldwell's own attitude toward his materials is ambiguous.

W. M. Frohock, "Erskine Caldwell—The Dangers of Ambiguity," in his The Novel of Violence in America, Southern Methodist University Press, revised edition, 1957, pp. 106-23 (in the Beacon Press paperbound edition, 1964).

Caldwell's concentration on sex and economics has led to misunderstanding, readers criticizing him as they criticize Alberto Moravia for not presenting "higher" aspects of man…. The astonishing effect of many of Caldwell's novels results from his merging of violence and humor, theology and economics, diet and sex. We have no precise critical terminology to describe exactly that effect (p. 29)

Caldwell, now in such disrepute among academic critics, will one day be "discovered," and his reputation will rest on a few books. Although he is one of the American masters of the short story, many of his stories are much of a kind and many others are trivial. Yet one could make a collection of twenty-five of Caldwell's stories which would reveal his talent and which would be a minor classic of American literature, standing in relation to the giant works of our literature much as a selection of de Maupassant's stories stands in relation to French fiction. Although every reader will quarrel with a selection from a large body of short fiction, any selection would need to include such classics as "Country Full of Swedes," "Kneel to the Rising Sun," "The People v. Abe Lathan, Colored," "Candy-Man Beechum," and "After-Image." Some of the stories are chillingly terrifying and seem closer to the more recent visions of terror and absurdity than to the times in which they were first published. (p. 45)

James Korges, in his Erskine Caldwell ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 78), University of Minnesota Press © 1969 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).