Erskine Caldwell American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2207

Caldwell is one of few American writers to achieve both enormous popular and critical success. Known to millions of his fellow Americans, many of whom actually read Tobacco Road or God’s Little Acre, Caldwell’s name mentioned on a radio program in the 1930’s or 1940’s would instantly evoke howls of snickering laughter, because his books suggested raw humor and sex. Ensign Pulver in Thomas Heggen’s hit novel and play Mister Roberts (1946) was probably one of countless World War II sailors who had memorized the most scandalous passage in God’s Little Acre, which he could recite “flawlessly.”

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If Caldwell meant “dirty books” to large numbers of Americans, he was something quite different to students of literature. Many considered him chiefly a protest or proletarian writer, one of those socially committed novelists of the Depression era who exposed injustices in American life, the plight of tenant farmers, or the outrageous conditions under which cotton mill workers or southern blacks lived. Left-leaning critics championed his work as properly Marxist, but they were often disappointed by what they considered irrelevant elements in his writing. What, they wondered, did all the slapstick and sex have to do with the class struggle? They wished he would simply concentrate on exposing the evils of capitalism. Even before World War II, the Soviet Union had put its stamp of approval on his work, and after the war the countries of Eastern Europe joined in so clamorously that Caldwell became a figure of some suspicion during the Cold War years.

On the other hand, many compared him to William Faulkner, whose critical reputation was growing in the early 1930’s but who could not command the sales that Caldwell could. Some said that Caldwell’s southern gothic tales were as profoundly metaphorical as those of Faulkner. Faulkner himself joined the chorus of praise, calling Caldwell the best writer in America. Other critics insisted on comparing him to James Farrell, whose naturalistic novel Young Lonigan (1932), the first in his trilogy about Studs Lonigan, appeared the year of Tobacco Road. Like Farrell, Caldwell wrote about heredity and poor families whose unhappy destinies were largely determined by the world around them, an environment where people were strictly on their own.

Still others stressed Caldwell’s humor. Not since Mark Twain, they said, had a southern writer made readers laugh so in showing humanity’s hopeless irrationality. They pointed to stories such as “Mid-Summer Passion,” in which Ben Hacket, fortified with fermented cider, pulls a pair of pink panties on Mrs. Fred Williams in a sort of panty raid in reverse, or to the shenanigans of “A Country Full of Swedes,” which won for him a Yale Award for Fiction in the mid-1930’s. Certainly readers found Jeeter Lester’s attempt “to get on the good side of the Lord” with the help of the zany evangelist Sister Bessie Rice or Ty Ty Walden’s gold-mining schemes—to mention only two of the obsessions of Caldwell’s simple-minded characters—hilariously funny.

Like Twain’s, too, was Caldwell’s interest in American places in a period when regional distinctions were much stronger than they would become after generations of television and a mobile society worked their homogenizing effects. Caldwell wrote about the South, where he was born, and northern New England, where he spent the most productive decade of his life. In his later years he continued to travel about the United States and the world, showing interest in regional writers and expressing great pride in his editing in the 1940’s American Folkways, a collection of studies of regional America by a host of writers. Although he left the South while still in his twenties, never to return except for temporary visits or Florida residencies, readers inevitably think of him still as a “Georgia boy.”

Caldwell’s writing, both his short stories and his novels, is uneven. It is not fair, however, to say that his muse abandoned him early in his career or that he sold out for big money after God’s Little Acre, charges that were often leveled against him. Neither accusation is true. He wrote weaker stories, such as “Dorothy” (1931) and “Strawberry Season” (1930), as well as strong ones from the start. Two little-known novelettes that he published on small presses before Tobacco Road, The Bastard (1929) and Poor Fool (1930), most readers will find unrewarding. Indeed, Scribner’s lost Caldwell as an author when the company decided not to accept his decidedly minor “Maine novel,” the book he wrote after Tobacco Road, published years later as A Lamp for Nightfall (1952). Although Caldwell could command generous advances and profitable contracts in his heyday, he continued to write just as dutifully when there was little demand for his work.

Caldwell wrote a plain style of American English that F. Scott Fitzgerald perceptively recognized as resembling Hemingway’s and told his stories, often about country folk, from an objective point of view—so objective, in fact, that many mistakenly thought he sympathized little with his characters. While the bulk of his writing is “realistic,” providing recognizable details of everyday life, his use of grotesquerie, like that of such moderns as the Czech novelist Franz Kafka, is meant to show that the reaches of human experience cannot be captured by the photographic realism of the past, that something more is needed to depict, for example, the iniquity of the perverse preacher Semon Dye in Journeyman (1935) than merely faithful reproduction of externals.

Although he believed in the primacy of feeling and often seemed to view sex, as did the slightly older English novelist D. H. Lawrence, as bringing out the god in man, Caldwell’s view of life is often as pessimistic as that of any naturalist. Jeeter Lester and his wife are killed in a fire in Tobacco Road. Will Thompson, the charismatic labor leader, is shot to death in God’s Little Acre, as is Clem, the saintly black Christ figure in “Kneel to the Rising Sun” (1935). Semon Dye successfully bilks the town of Rocky Comfort in a revival meeting before moving on.

Thus an unresolved contradiction underlies much of Caldwell’s work. He trusts that social justice will eventually bring better times to poor whites and blacks; he believes that the human spirit is indomitable, that there is a mystic force in the blood and soil, and that in listening to one’s deepest instincts one listens to the voice of God. At the same time, he acknowledges that people are irrational and the world is a cruel place where the wicked often triumph over the good. Caldwell himself saw no such contradiction; rather, he called his work only a realistic balance between “the depiction of the violent and ugly, of poverty and class conflict” and “spasms of laughter, the horseplay of humor, and the enjoyment of living.”

Tobacco Road

First published: 1932

Type of work: Novel

Dirt-poor Georgia tenant farmers lose their family and their lives at planting season.

Tobacco Road, Caldwell’s fourth novel (counting The Bogus Ones, discovered in 1978), remains the book for which he is best remembered. Narrated in an episodic fashion, it quickly reveals more of theme and meaning than would a more organically developed effort. In Tobacco Road, Jeeter Lester and his wife, Ada, live in a decaying cabin with his silent mother and two of their fifteen children, the hare-lipped Ellie May and her younger brother Dude. Like the tobacco road on which they live, once a means of delivering hogsheads of tobacco to the Savannah River, and like the fields around them, they are obsolete and worn out.

When Lov Bensey arrives to seek Jeeter’s help in getting his child-wife, one of Jeter’s daughters, to speak to him and sleep with him, Jeeter regards the visit as an opportunity to steal turnips he suspects are in the sack Lov carries. Times in Georgia are so hard that “Captain” John has moved to Augusta, cutting off the credit that his tenant farmers like Jeeter need to eat and to acquire seed cotton and fertilizer for the tired soil. In no more than three brief chapters of Tobacco Road, Caldwell reveals the silent, loveless existence of his exploited country people and exposes the obsolete sharecropping system that controls their empty lives.

Lov is soon robbed of his turnips and seduced by Ellie May in a scene that is mostly suggested in the novel but was graphic enough to have titillated a decade of theatergoers. Seen from another perspective, Ellie May’s seduction appears only the desperate act of a neglected teenager, starved for affection. Indeed, Caldwell later suggests that Ellie May is the proper mate for Lov, who married her sister mostly because she lacked Ellie May’s disfigurement. In Tobacco Road, Caldwell comments obliquely and with great economy on a number of problems: human sexuality and love, agriculture in the South, hunger in America, the plight of the old, the place of labor in human life, and people’s relation to God.

With the appearance of Sister Bessie Rice, Caldwell investigates this latter theme, though not to the extent that he does in God’s Little Acre. Bessie, almost forty, decides that God has directed her to marry Dude and conduct a revival crusade. Like so many Protestants of fundamentalist background, Caldwell distrusts clergy, believing that a person’s relationship with God must be direct, not attained through the office of fallible intermediaries—let alone via half-baked ignoramuses such as Bessie.

Although he is lazy, dishonest, mean-spirited, and lecherous, Jeeter often provides the reader with the author’s viewpoint. Caldwell approves of Jeeter, who, despite his myriad faults, obeys his deepest instincts and trusts in God and the land. Strangely enough, the reader comes to feel the same way. Although there is little reason to believe that Jeeter will ever change his ways, in death he seems a sacrificial victim. Ultimately, one is ready—or almost ready—to believe Dude, who, in eulogizing his father, suddenly speaks about growing “a bale to an acre like Pa was always talking about doing.”

God’s Little Acre

First published: 1933

Type of work: Novel

Shifting again the acre consecrated to God, Ty Ty Walden makes a last effort to find the gold he believes lies beneath his Georgia farm.

God’s Little Acre, published on the heels of Tobacco Road, appeared in 1933 to favorable reviews and a highly publicized fracas with the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice that focused enormous public attention on the new novel. Here Caldwell brought in more concentrated form many of the ideas that had interested him in the earlier book. Again he sought to explain that “feeling,” trust in oneself and in God—a state very similar to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s self-reliance—is the natural goal of humankind.

In God’s Little Acre, as in Tobacco Road, Caldwell treads an uneasy line between preaching that a divinity waits inside human beings to be freed and showing humans at their most irrational. In other words, he is never quite sure if he is a romantic who believes that humans are limitless or a naturalist who sees them as helpless victims of economic forces, their emotions, and their biology.

In depicting Will Thompson, the visionary leader, Caldwell resorts to an even more poetic style than he used in describing Jeeter’s love for the soil, one that recalls Caldwell’s early ambitions as a poet and his impressionistic prose poem The Sacrilege of Alan Kent, privately printed in 1936, though written in stages much earlier. When Will Thompson reluctantly appears at Ty Ty Walden’s farm to help his father-in-law in his foolish search for gold, Caldwell’s episodic story takes an aberrant turn. What at first seems to be only a rollicking story of rural eccentrics becomes an account of labor unrest, infidelity, and murder.

In God’s Little Acre, as in Tobacco Road, a patriarchal figure embodying a host of contradictions becomes a sort of spokesman for Caldwell in the solemn stillness of the book’s conclusion. Ty Ty Walden endorses the strength, joie de vivre, and sexual vitality of his daughter’s husband and recognizes (unlike his jealous sons) Will’s qualities of leadership. Though Will represents a threat to familial unity and to the virtues of his sister-in-law Griselda (his other sister-in-law, Darling Jill, has no virtue to worry about), Ty Ty must acknowledge the divinity he discerns within him. Will’s raging libido becomes, in the course of the novel, a positive force, as it is from the love and admiration of three women that he acquires the strength to lead the mill workers in opening the mill, shut by selfish monied interests.

After Will, who has gradually been identified with Christ, has distributed his garments (by throwing his torn-up shirt out the window of the seized mill), he is killed by soldiers (out-of-state guards hired by the mill owners). In the aftermath of his death comes more tragedy, but readers are left with the belief, haltingly explained by Ty Ty, that Will’s life has been a model for all and that conventional morality plays little role in the lives of heroes whose lives are at the service of the masses.

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