Caldwell, Erskine (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Erskine Caldwell 1903-1987
(Born Erskine Preston Caldwell) American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, journalist, autobiographer, and scriptwriter.
One of the most popular and at the same time controversial American authors of the early to mid-twentieth century, Caldwell is best known for his works of fiction that graphically depict the plight of impoverished Southerners. He was a fervent opponent of social exploitation, and his writings frequently portray grotesque rustics who have been reduced to an animalistic state of ignorance, bigotry, and violence by the economic and political realities of the world in which they live.
The son of an itinerant preacher, Caldwell was born in 1903. His first two novels, The Bastard (1929), the story of a man whose deprived childhood figures in his later criminality, and Poor Fool (1930), which examines corruption in boxing, garnered little critical or popular attention. However, his next two novels, Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933), achieved widespread notoriety upon being named in a highly publicized obscenity trial. Business, agricultural, and political groups in the South charged Caldwell with exaggerating the degraded living conditions in their region; in several instances the author was accused of being a propagandist for communism. Nevertheless, Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre eventually became the cornerstone of Caldwell's literary reputation and won international acclaim for their powerful depictions of social and economic conditions that dehumanize the poor and undermine such American values as hard work and individualism. Caldwell died in 1987.
Tobacco Road centers on the Lesters, a family of Georgia sharecroppers who are so debased by poverty that they disregard the needs of others to fulfill their own immediate physical wants and sexual desires. As a result of their blind pursuit of personal gratification, the Lesters are ultimately destroyed as a family. God's Little Acre chronicles the declining fortunes of the Waldons, another sharecropping family. At the bidding of their obstinate patriarch Ty Ty, the Waldons obsessively dig for gold they believe is on their property, thereby rendering the land useless for growing crops. As in Tobacco Road, the characters in God's Little Acre come to ruin due to their ignorance, greed, and unrestrained sexuality. These two novels were the beginning of a ten-novel series that Caldwell later termed his “cyclorama of Southern life.” Although none of these novels is linked by common characters or events into a consistent historical framework, Caldwell's “cyclorama” provides a comprehensive portrait of the milieu of the American South of his times. Such novels as Journeyman (1935), the story of a self-proclaimed preacher whose passionate revival meetings release the repressed sexuality of his congregation, and Trouble in July (1940), which focuses on a complacent sheriff's involvement in a lynching, earned praise for their incisive treatment of social ills. Later works in the cyclorama include Tragic Ground (1944), A House in the Uplands (1946), The Sure Hand of God (1947), This Very Earth (1948), Place Called Estherville (1949), and Episode in Palmetto (1950). While most of Caldwell's novels failed to attain the renown of Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, several are recognized for their effective rendering of his characteristic themes and concerns, including The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (1936), Georgia Boy (1943), and The Weather Shelter (1969).
In addition to his novels, Caldwell also published several collections of short stories and nonfiction works that similarly dealt with the deprived conditions throughout the Southern United States. Prominent among these titles are the story collections We Are the Living (1933), Kneel to the Rising Sun (1933), and Southways (1938); You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a collaborative effort with his second wife, the renowned photographer Margaret Bourke-White; and the autobiographical works Call It Experience (1951), an informal recollection of the author's writing career, Deep South (1968), a memoir of his father, and In Search of Bisco (1965), about Caldwell's attempt to find the black playmate whose childhood friendship influenced his racial attitudes.
While a number of critics condemned Caldwell's often lurid narratives of Southern life, especially for his fusion of humor with social commentary, others agreed with Sylvia Jenkins Cook that Caldwell skillfully “increases the burden of comic horror the reader has to bear until the episodes finally become intolerable and a recognition of their tragic implications is inevitable.” Several of Caldwell's works, particularly Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, have been recurrently banned and censored due to explicit sexual content, yet have earned extensive praise for their vivid evocation of Southern dialects and folkways. Despite the fact that critics generally consider his later works to be repetitive of his earlier fiction, Caldwell is cited with such authors as John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway as a significant contributor to the development of social themes in twentieth-century American literature.
The Bastard (novel) 1929
American Earth (short stories) 1930
Poor Fool (novel) 1930
Tobacco Road (novel) 1932
God's Little Acre (novel) 1933
Kneel to the Rising Sun (short stories) 1933
We Are the Living (short stories) 1933
Journeyman (novel) 1935
Some American People (novel) 1935
The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (novel) 1936
You Have Seen Their Faces [with Margaret Bourke-White] (nonfiction and photographs) 1937
Southways (short stories) 1938
Trouble in July (novel) 1940
Say, Is This the U.S.A. (nonfiction) 1941
All Night Long (novel) 1942
Palmetto Country [editor] (novel) 1942
Georgia Boy (novel) 1943
Tragic Ground (novel) 1944
A House in the Uplands (novel) 1946
The Sure Hand of God (novel) 1947
This Very Earth (novel) 1948
Place Called Estherville (novel) 1949
Episode in Palmetto (novel) 1950
Call It Experience (autobiography) 1951
A Lamp for Nightfall...
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SOURCE: “Fifty Years since Tobacco Road: An Interview with Erskine Caldwell,” in Conversations with Erskine Caldwell, edited by Edwin T. Arnold, University Press of Mississippi, 1988, pp. 218-32.
[In the following interview, originally published in 1984, Caldwell discusses his life in the South, his early literary influences, and his opinions about censorship and racism.]
On the evening of July 15, 1982, Erskine Caldwell and his wife, Virginia, paid a visit to Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota for the opening of an exhibit celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Tobacco Road. Austin McLean, curator of the Special Collections and Rare Book Library, organized the exhibit and arranged for the Caldwells to come from their home in Scottsdale, Arizona for the occasion. The program, attended by more than one hundred Friends of Special Collections, included reminiscences by Edward P. Schwartz, a book collector, founder of the Henry Miller Literary Society, and friend of the Caldwells; a presentation by the author of a facsimile of his 1929 broadside, “In Defense of Myself” (Palemon Press), which was added to the Library's collection; and a reading by Professor Göran Stockenström, Chairman of the University's Department of Scandinavian Studies, of the author's early story, “Country Full of Swedes.”
The centerpiece of the evening was an...
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SOURCE: “The Moment of ‘Three Women Eating’: Completing the Story of You Have Seen Their Faces,” in Syracuse University Library Associates Courier, Vol. 29, 1994, pp. 61-74.
[In the following essay, McDonald discusses the significance of the photograph “Three Women Eating” to the collection of photographs in You Have Seen Their Faces.]
In 1936 Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White merged their respective talents to produce one of the great documents of Depression-era America, the photo-text study You Have Seen Their Faces. There have been several accounts of the circumstances under which Caldwell and Bourke-White agreed to collaborate on this project, including their own autobiographical recollections.1 Missing from each of these accounts, however, is any mention of an early goodwill gesture from Bourke-White that must have finally convinced a dubious Caldwell that he had indeed found a partner capable of understanding what he wanted this new book to be, and a photographer capable of imaging its spirit.
By 1936, of course, Bourke-White was highly respected as one of America's foremost industrial and commercial photographers. In 1929 Henry Luce had recruited her as the first staff photographer for Fortune, and during the next few years, at home and abroad, her advertising work and photo essays on iron- and steelworks, meat processing...
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SOURCE: “Changing South, Unchanging Writer: Caldwell in Decline—and in Resurgence,” in The People's Writer: Erskine Caldwell and the South, University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp. 118-54.
[In the following essay, Mixon argues that Caldwell's later works were less successful than his early writing because he failed to recognize major social changes in the American South.]
In the course of a relationship that lasted for six years, three as illicit lovers and three as husband and wife, Caldwell and Bourke-White collaborated to produce four books, two of which dealt with people in the United States. Late in 1940, they set out on a cross-country journey that resulted in a book much different from You Have Seen Their Faces. Say, Is This the U.S.A. is a hodge-podge that lacks the unity of the earlier collaboration. Appearing when Americans were passionately engaged in debate over their country's response to war in Europe, the later book is by and large a celebration of America.1
From St. Johnsbury, Vermont, to San Diego, California, writer and photographer attempted to capture the strength and diversity of a great nation. Yet when they reached the South, whose treatment occupies one-fifth of the volume's contents, Caldwell's focus was racial injustice. In Soso, Mississippi, a black school principal complained about inequities in salaries paid to black teachers and...
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SOURCE: “Laughing Over Lost Causes: Erskine Caldwell's Quarrel with Southern Humor,” in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 1, winter, 1996, pp. 51-68.
[In the following essay, Silver contends that Caldwell's departure in Tobacco Road from traditional nineteenth-century Southern humor opened the way for the social criticism of later Southern writers.]
Since its publication in 1932, Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road has been both lionized and disparaged, described by some critics as the seminal work of an author in the “front rank of American writers”1 and by others ridiculed as “drug-store stand trash.”2 While in the first decade of its existence Tobacco Road was adopted (however uncomfortably) by leftists eager to awaken the South to their cause and canonized in universities throughout the nation, the last five decades have reversed such critical headway, and the academy has largely come to regard the novel as a perverse derivative of the frontier humor dating back a century to Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes. Louis Rubin, representative of those critics most discomfited by Caldwell's fiction, writes:
Caldwell had a genuine talent for a certain sort of low-life humor, and it comes … out of a longstanding regional literary tradition. … If we grant Caldwell an underlying seriousness of...
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