Erskine Caldwell Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226216-Caldwell.jpg Erskine Caldwell Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Erskine Caldwell was born in the community of White Oak, near Moreland, Georgia, on December 7, 1903, the only child of Ira Sylvester and his wife, Caroline Bell Caldwell. In following years, the little family moved often about the South, wherever Caldwell’s father’s duties as a minister and troubleshooter for his denomination took him, until they settled in Wrens, Georgia, in 1918. Caldwell’s mother, like Ernest Hemingway’s and Thomas Wolfe’s, kept her son in shoulder-length curls; she refused to allow the boy to attend school until he entered the seventh grade.

In Wrens, the nearest thing to a hometown Caldwell had, the family lived an uneventful life. His father assumed a permanent pastorate, and both parents took jobs at the institute (or high school). Ira Sylvester, a man of great good will and unflagging philanthropy (though modest athletic ability), organized the school’s first sports program and served for many years as its football, basketball, and baseball coach. Caroline Caldwell was a teacher of English. Known as Skinny, as much for his elongated frame as his first name, Erskine attended school under the watchful eyes of his parents and found his first job writing one summer for the Jefferson Reporter. In time he advanced to stringer status, serving as a correspondent for some city newspapers, mainly covering baseball games.

As son of a minister, Caldwell enjoyed a respectability in tiny Wrens very different from the reputation he was later to achieve after the shocking success in 1933 of the stage version of his Tobacco Road (1932). Misled by whopping lies that Caldwell told the gullible—as did many of his literary contemporaries—and by the subject matter of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933), books often read “behind the barn,” Americans came to believe that Caldwell himself had emerged from the people he depicted. The tall, redheaded, freckle-faced youth who ran in the Wrens One-Mile Relay on New Year’s Day, 1920, became in following decades the nemesis of the Watch and Ward Society, “America’s No. 1 cracker-barrel pornographer” (Time magazine, 1957), and a suspected agent of the Kremlin.

In Wrens, Caldwell wrote newspaper copy and an occasional story and chauffeured a doctor on rural house calls, where he saw how blacks lived and...

(The entire section is 971 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Caldwell’s two-fisted stories of baffled rural Americans struggling to survive in the merciless world around them won him the devotion of millions of readers who found his voice strong, his depictions honest, his prose style readable, and his courage admirable. He wrote forcefully about subjects other writers were afraid to confront, and he did so with a wild comic touch. If he emphasized sex, he did not neglect to expose the injustices everywhere in American life in the Depression years. Called a sensationalist by his detractors, he conveyed what Thoreau called “the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all men have.”


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The son of a well-known Presbyterian minister, Erskine Caldwell spent his boyhood in rural Georgia and South Carolina as his father moved from church to church. In 1920 he attended Erskine College for a year and a half; in 1923 he spent a year at the University of Virginia; and in 1924 he spent a summer at the University of Pennsylvania studying economics. After working for a brief time as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal, he left Georgia for Maine to devote his energies to full-time writing in 1926. Caldwell wrote nearly a hundred stories and novels before placing his first major publication with Maxwell Perkins and Scribner’s Magazine. His novels in the 1930’s, known primarily for their sexual suggestiveness and violence, firmly established him as a best-selling author. In 1937, in conjunction with the famous photographer Margaret Bourke-White, Caldwell published the remarkable You Have Seen Their Faces, a “photo-text” depicting the plight of the southern poor that deserves to be ranked as one of the finest examples of that genre. Caldwell was a war correspondent in Russia in 1942 and one of the few American journalists to cover the invasion of Russia. His later work is generally not as good as his early work (Faulkner once said that it “grew toward trash”), but the serious reader would do well to pay attention to Call It Experience (1951), his autobiography, and Deep South: Memory and Observation (1968), a nonfictional study of southern religion. In his later years, Caldwell turned more to nonfiction and autobiography. A lifelong smoker, he had two operations for lung cancer. Caldwell finally succumbed to the disease in 1987 at the age of eighty-three.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Erskine Preston Caldwell was the son of a preacher, Ira Sylvester Caldwell. His mother was Caroline “Carrie” Preston (Bell) Caldwell of Staunton, Virginia. At the time Erskine was born, on December 17, 1903, the Reverend Caldwell was minister in Newman, Georgia, in Coweta County, forty miles from Atlanta. His wife, active in helping her husband in his ministry, also ran a small school. She taught Caldwell through much of his elementary and secondary education, both in her school and at home. He actually spent only one year in public school and one in high school.

Between 1906 and 1919, the Caldwells moved several times as the ministry dictated. This not-quite-nomadic existence and the straitened circumstances under which the family lived were probably influential in molding Caldwell into early self-reliance and in fostering a wanderlust that persisted throughout his youth and adult life. Caldwell left home at fourteen and roamed the Deep South, Mexico, and Central America. He did return home, however, to complete his high school education.

In 1920, Caldwell enrolled in Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina. From 1923 to 1924, he attended the University of Virginia on a scholarship; in 1924, he studied for two terms at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1925, he returned to the University of Virginia for an additional term, but he was never graduated.

While attending the University of Virginia, he married Helen Lannegan, and it was at this time that he decided to...

(The entire section is 617 words.)