The son of a Southern Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister, Caldwell wrote novels that were felt by some to be obscene. His were the kinds of books sold with sexually provocative covers and, after purchase, hidden away. Because his stories were so widely disseminated through millions of paperback reprints as well as adaptations for stage and screen, he may have spent more time combatting censorship than any other American author.
Caldwell’s first encounter with censorship occurred when he tried to sell his first novel, The Bastard (1929), in a Portland, Maine, bookshop. The local district attorney called it “obscene, lewd, and immoral” and threatened to arrest Caldwell unless all copies of the book were returned to the publisher in New York. Caldwell wrote an impassioned defense of his novel, denouncing New England Puritanism, and justifying his working-class subject matter and frank treatment of sexuality.
Caldwell’s masterpiece, Tobacco Road (1932), caused an outcry in his native South. Many felt that the book’s impoverished and morally degraded Lester family was a slanderous portrait of sharecroppers and the South in general. After the novel was made into a successful Broadway play, traveling productions met with censorship throughout the United States. A Chicago production was opposed by the Roman Catholic church and Mayor Edward F. Kelly, who called the work “a mess of filth and degeneracy.” In Washington, D.C., Congressman Braswell Deen of Georgia denounced the play from the floor of Congress. In thirty-six other cities the work was officially condemned.
God’s Little Acre (1933) also prompted censorship, this time from the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which took Caldwell’s publisher, Viking Press, to court. Many literary figures, including H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, and Sherwood Anderson, supported Caldwell. In a decision that vindicated both author and publisher, a New York magistrate argued that single passages of a sexual nature did not constitute sufficient evidence to condemn a book and that any successful argument for censorship must show that the tendency of the book as a whole was to inspire impure thoughts and desires.
These cases had a mixed effect on Caldwell’s publishing future. His next novel, Journeyman (1935), was limited to an edition of only 1,475 copies because Viking feared new legal challenges. Over the long run, however, the publicity enhanced Caldwell’s book sales. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, millions of copies of his books were published in cheap paperback...
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