Caldwell, Erskine (Vol. 14)
Caldwell, Erskine 1903–
A novelist and short story writer of the Deep South, Caldwell is best known for his novels Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre. Caldwell blends comic pathos and broad humor, often suggesting serious themes in a seemingly naïve manner. The family, race relations, and traditional moral values are confronted by ideological and social conflicts in many of Caldwell's finest works. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
T. K. Whipple
Mr. Erskine Caldwell's collection of stories "American Earth," is closer to [representing the simple American folk narrative] than any other book I know. To be sure, his field is limited—his first dozen sketches and incidents are entitled "Far South," his second twelve "Farthest East"—and he is so good a writer that the flavor of locality is strong in his work; but there is nothing necessarily local about the genre which he has chosen. It could be used equally well for all other parts of the Union.
While presumably one must not suppose that Mr. Caldwell's stories are autobiographical, it is as if he were telling offhand of things that had happened to him or that he had run into—insignificant in themselves perhaps, but somehow, though one could not say why, memorable. Always he is, or pretends to be, the unsophisticated raconteur. Character, emotion, significance, are secondary, at most implied; plot is nonexistent; he deals in sheer incident, the primal germ plasm of narrative. Of the many contemporary efforts to get back, in revolt against the overelaborate and artificial productions of recent art, to some unexhausted original rootstock, Mr. Caldwell's is one of the most successful.
Mr. Caldwell goes back even farther than the folk for his fresh start; he reverts to boyhood. Much of his best work shows that bright, wide-eyed innocent fascination with everything dirty, nasty, horrible or gruesome which is one of...
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Mr. Caldwell is a literary child of the "occult" magazines…. What I dissent from in Mr. Whipple's review [see excerpt above] is that he attacks precisely the portion of "American Earth" in which the author's original qualities are most evident.
I refer, of course, to the "disconnected bits of fact and phantasy" which compose the third section of the book. Here Mr. Caldwell achieves a sort of violent poetry, simple, romantic, arbitrary and effective; it is a mood unique in American prose…. His figures of speech are expressed in terms of hyperbolic action. (p. 131)
I don't mean to imply that the whole third section of the book is on the same high level. There are trite and sentimental passages which move one to personal fury against the author; there is also, as Mr. Whipple says, a good deal of preciousness and affectation. But for [certain] figures of speech …, and for the episodes which surround them, one could forgive any amount of faulty writing. Erskine Caldwell brings a new quality into American fiction: may due credit be given to the little magazines which recognized his talent. (p. 132)
Malcolm Cowley, "Two Judgements of 'American Earth': Part II," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1931 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. LXVII, No. 863, June 17, 1931, pp. 131-32.
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[Tobacco Road was] a potent influence in the transition of popular fiction from the sentimental romance to the sexual shocker. Before Tobacco Road the sort of explicit erotic scenes that appeared in the novel were found in works of limited circulation, sanctioned by claims of artistic integrity; after attempts to suppress Tobacco Road were successfully resisted, such material became a staple product of commercial fiction designed for mass consumption.
As a social document, Tobacco Road was a highly effective instrument in the various projects of soil conservation and social welfare of the time. The intellectual climate was favorable to a view of the underprivileged South that Caldwell had dramatized so powerfully. His picture of Tobacco Road was one that inclined urban intellectual society to take a tolerant view of its own shortcomings. It was particularly congenial to a society that was undertaking, in the New Deal, large-scale ventures in state control, for the people he wrote about were plainly in no condition to help themselves. And on literary grounds Jeeter Lester is a monumental figure. He is a joke, a comic-strip character, but also a genuine imaginative creation, like something out of folklore and legend—a comic King Lear in his elemental dignity and his tattered regal composure as he struggles with flat tires, or steals turnips and philosophizes quietly on the relations of God and man—a...
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Thirty years divide Tobacco Road from Annette: Mr Caldwell's obsession with stunted sexuality remains. The sharecropping paupers of Georgia might seem a far cry from middle-class life in the suburban South, but the differences between Tobacco Road and Flower Street, Zephyrifield, are superficial. The clash continues between baffled male brutality and traumatized female innocence….
[Annette's] glibly appropriate fate reflects on Mr Caldwell's glum view that all girls are innately concupiscent and get their just deserts.
Sylvia Millar, "Deflower Street," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3793, November 15, 1974, p. 1277.
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Like many travel books, Erskine Caldwell's "Afternoons In Mid-America" is fragmentary. Since neither plots nor characters generally hold travel books together, the point of unity is usually the author's observing eye. But Caldwell's eyes never stay on one thing long enough to connect it with anything else. "Afternoons In Mid-America" rushes off in all directions at once, leaving the reader dizzy and, depending on temperament, annoyed or amused.
"Afternoons In Mid-America" skips from the banks of the Mississippi, up to the Dakota Badlands, back to the town of Ogallala, Nebraska, then down into cowboy country and what used to be the dustbowl. With periodic leaps of the imagination to just about anywhere from the mountains of Tibet to the streets of Budapest, Caldwell devotes each chapter to a different mid-American town….
Caldwell fights his own centrifugal force by focusing on similarities among the inhabitants west of the Mississippi; the people interviewed repeatedly express love of the land and a sense of roots deeply embedded in a particular locale…. These people enjoy their quiet, predictable routines, appreciate the simple way of life and do not yearn for great wealth or power.
Such attitudes appear in many of Caldwell's 40-odd books, especially in those classics of his fiction, "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre." In his new book Caldwell generalizes about these attitudes and often seems...
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In many of his stories Caldwell's style is so spare and so completely unadorned that the reader learns just how few of the traditional literary devices a writer can use and still create stories which are meaningful and effective. While the hallmark of Caldwell's prose style is simplicity, however, a careful investigation of the stories in such collections as American Earth, We are the Living, Kneel to the Rising Sun, Southways, Jackpot, The Complete Stories, and Georgia Boy shows that Caldwell has worked successfully with a variety of technical devices. Particularly impressive is his extensive experimentation with repetition. (p. 213)
Some of the repetition in his stories is a reflection of the Steinesque idea that people continually repeat themselves in conversation, that, in fact, repetition is one of the most fundamental qualities of speech. Nearly every character in Caldwell's fiction habitually repeats seemingly offhand phrases and sentences which often serve as indices to aspects of the character's personality. Further, instead of purposely avoiding repetitive detail in descriptive passages, Caldwell normally presents the reader with a few well-chosen aspects of a scene and then repeats them whenever the setting needs comment. The result is simple but vivid description often made memorable by the degree to which the simplicity reflects the unsophisticated lives of the characters.
In much of...
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[Caldwell's theme] is one of degeneracy—the reduction of the human being to the lowest possible levels of his experience. In appearance, at least, his rural characters bear no resemblance to the Jeffersonian yeoman whatsoever. Grotesques responding only to a basic physical urge, they represent an abstraction not merely from the human to the animal but from the complete animal to a single instinct…. Caldwell insists upon keeping his readers at a distance—on presenting his [characters] entirely in terms of externals and, in the process, dehumanizing [them]. (p. 112)
Nearly all of his country folk (the title seems a much more appropriate one than "farmer") operate between the poles of greed and sexual desire, and such comedy as his novels possess is generally the result of the violence that either or both of these instincts tend to provoke. In fact, the comic note is at its wildest in his fiction when the two instincts actually clash, throwing the victim of the subsequent cross fire into confusion. (pp. 112-13)
Caldwell owes a profound debt to the Southwestern humorists, and to George Washington Harris in particular—a debt that is betrayed among other things by their common dependence on a broad and grotesque type of comedy. The specific borrowings from Harris are at their most obvious in Georgia Boy,… in which the boy of the title recounts the antics of his "old man," and in the process draws us the...
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