Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 971
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 discovered the living conditions of tenant farmers on the sandy roads that crisscrossed the countryside outside the town. In Wrens Caldwell developed the searing social conscience that boils below the apparent indifference of his fiction.
After finishing high school, Caldwell left for his father’s alma mater, Erskine College, in South Carolina. He stayed there only a year and a half before transferring to the more challenging University of Virginia on an obscure scholarship for a descendant of a Confederate veteran. At Charlottesville, Caldwell discovered the “little magazine,” the trying ground for young writers, that he was soon to deluge with short stories from his own typewriter. There, too, he read Theodore Dreiser’s powerful Sister Carrie (1900), some of the stories of the young Ernest Hemingway (just coming into prominence), and a book that affected his whole generation, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919). He also studied writing formally.
At the end of his second year, Caldwell pushed north as far as Philadelphia, where he spent a summer term at the Wharton School of Finance before moving to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to unpack crates in the cellar of Kresge’s—a discount store, the predecessor of Kmart. On the basis of limited football experience at Erskine College, he played right end for three games on a semiprofessional team, where he found himself completely outclassed. Experiences such as these, greatly exaggerated, eventually adorned his book jackets to serve as evidence of a life colorful enough to rival Jack London’s.
The next spring Caldwell eloped with the first of his four wives and took a twenty-dollar-a-week job at the Atlanta Journal. In addition to reporting, he wrote book reviews which he sent to other papers and worked on short stories at night, determined now to be a writer himself. After a single year, he quit Atlanta for rural Maine to write only stories, and he sent them out until, in 1929, he got the first one published and then anthologized.
Soon F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby (1925), recommended that his own editor, Max Perkins of Scribner’s, accept Caldwell’s work. Not only did Perkins then print several of Caldwell’s stories in Scribner’s Magazine, but he also arranged for Caldwell to publish a collection, American Earth (1931). Further, he accepted Caldwell’s new novel, Tobacco Road, which became a smash Broadway hit in Jack Kirkland’s version. The notoriety the sexy play received guaranteed a huge audience for Caldwell’s next novel; suddenly Caldwell’s name was on everyone’s lips, and the phrase “tobacco road,” meaning a rundown white neighborhood, entered the American language.
As his marriage began to founder, Caldwell accepted offers from Hollywood and produced more short-story collections, another novel, and a book of reportage. These were less enthusiastically received. World War II gave brief impetus to his career, as servicemen devoured his earlier, risque novels and Caldwell broadcast from Moscow while the Nazis poured into Russia. By then he had married Margaret Bourke-White, the photographer known for her combat photos in the pages of Life magazine. The end of the war marked the end of Caldwell’s critical acclaim and, soon after, his popularity as well. Caldwell refused to acknowledge any decline, deliberately ignoring the judgment of those whom he felt were late to recognize him in the first place and whose opinions were not worth much anyway.
Although he wrote many more books, he had been so completely forgotten by the time of his death on April 11, 1987, that the obituaries of major American newspapers were obliged to explain in great detail who he was.
Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 102
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.”
Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 270
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617
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 write for a living. With his wife and growing family of three children (Erskine Preston, Dabney Withers, and Janet), he lived in Maine between 1925 and 1932 while he wrote and earned a living at odd jobs; seven years of writing elapsed before any of his work was published. In his lifetime, Caldwell had experience as a mill laborer, cook, cabdriver, farmhand, stonemason’s helper, soda jerk, professional football player, bodyguard, stagehand at a burlesque theater, and once even a hand on a boat running guns to a Central American country in revolt.
He published his first article in 1926. Soon Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, discovered some of his works and was enthusiastic and encouraging about his talent. Subsequently, Perkins published American Earth and Tobacco Road, which brought Caldwell his first real recognition. When Caldwell and Perkins had a serious disagreement, Caldwell switched his publishing allegiance to the Viking Press.
Divorced from his first wife in 1938, Caldwell married the photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White in 1939. They collaborated on several successful books, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1942. That same year he married June Johnson, with whom he had one son, Jay Erskine. In 1957, after divorcing his third wife, he married Virginia Moffett Fletcher.
During the 1940’s, Caldwell traveled to China, Mongolia, Turkestan, and Russia. Because of the powerful, enthusiastic way in which he wrote about Russia and in turn indicted certain aspects of American capitalism, some accused him of being a Communist, a charge he emphatically denied.
Caldwell was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Authors League of America, the Phoenix Press Club, and the San Francisco Press Club. Active as a writer and lecturer, Caldwell toured Europe in the 1960’s under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State. In the 1970’s, he made a series of speeches in Georgia to promote the paperback reprint of his 1937 book You Have Seen Their Faces. He used this opportunity to decry the remaining poverty in the South despite the region’s industrialization.
In 1974, Caldwell underwent surgery for the removal of a growth on his lung; he submitted to similar surgery the following year. He regained enough health to publish two collections of short stories and two nonfiction volumes in the 1980’s. Caldwell died in Arizona on April 11, 1987.
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