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Deep South Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In this nonfiction work, Erskine Caldwell reflects on his life as a minister’s son in the American South. He describes the social norms of white, rural, Fundamentalist sects that—while varying widely in their religious practices—share an unwavering faith in the virgin birth, the second coming of Christ, the direct creation of humanity by God, miraculous healing, answers to prayers, personal salvation, and physical life after death.

Caldwell sets his reflections against the landscape of the South so vividly portrayed in his best-known novels, Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933). This is a land of muddy, rutted roads lined with tumbledown shacks and trod by impoverished tenant farmers. Once-white paint peels on sagging country churches where wasps buzz under the eaves. The region’s only change between the 1920’s and the 1960’s was the displacement of the horse by the automobile.

Caldwell’s reminiscences focus on his father, Ira Sylvester, a pastor of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian faith who, at various times, held church posts throughout the South. Wherever they went, father and son attended religious observances: all-night camp meetings, baptismal immersions in streams, foot-washings, blood-drinking communions, snake-handlings, and speaking in tongues. Ira Sylvester hoped the wide-ranging experience would protect his son against the tyranny of dogma and prejudice.

A dignified clergyman of conservative nature, Ira Sylvester found himself in perpetual conflict with Fundamentalism. On one occasion, Florida church elders demanded that he resign because dark-skinned Cubans were attending services. At other churches, he was condemned for failing to preach “old time religion.” His assistance to poverty-stricken families of all colors and denominations earned him disapproval in several locales.

A moderate man—restrained in temperament and intellectual by nature—he condemned religious ecstasy as a dangerously addictive narcotic for those gripped by poverty and despair. He advocated the Ten Commandments as a code of conduct and denounced evangelists who incited feverish emotionalism...

(The entire section is 468 words.)