Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1931
Erskine Caldwell’s reputation as a short-story writer rests mainly on the collections published in the 1930’s: American Earth, We Are the Living, Kneel to the Rising Sun, and Other Stories, and Southways. Most of these stories reflect a social protest against the racial and economic oppression in the South during the Great Depression. Along with writers such as John Steinbeck and James T. Farrell, Caldwell wrote of the struggles of the poor and is therefore a favorite of Marxist critics; he was also highly regarded in the Soviet Union. Although Caldwell’s fiction deals with social injustice, he is not overtly didactic or doctrinaire. He may have written of the violence of racial prejudice, the hypocritical state of fundamentalist religion, or the economic agonies of sharecropping worn-out farmland, yet his first concern as a writer was always with the portrayal of individual characters rather than with lofty social issues. His ideology did not interfere with his art, and the result is a clean, stark narrative that often exhibits the ultrareal qualities of nightmare.
Good literature always bears the burden of altering the comfortable preconceptions of the world, and Caldwell’s best fiction produces a disturbing effect on the reader. He is fond of placing his characters in complex situations, yet he has them react to these situations with the simple tropisms of instinct or the unthinking obedience to social custom. At the heart of one of his stories may be a profound moral point—such as a white dirt farmer’s choice between defending his black friend or else permitting an unjust lynching—but Caldwell’s characters face moral predicaments with the amoral reflexes of an automaton. There is rarely any evidence that Caldwell’s characters grasp the seriousness of their situation. They do not experience epiphanies of self-redemption or rise to mythic patterns of suffering, but rather continue to submit, unaffected, to the agonies and absurdities of their world. For this reason, Caldwell’s work was frequently banned in the 1930’s as pornographic and for appearing to promote gratuitous violence.
“Saturday Afternoon,” for example, is the story of an offhand killing, by a mob of whites, of a black man named Will Maxie for supposedly talking to a white girl. The fact that Will Maxie is innocent is never in question. Everyone admits that he is a “smart Negro,” always properly deferential and a hard worker, but the whites hate him anyway because he makes too much money and has no vices. Will is chained to a sweet-gum tree and burned alive. Yet “Saturday Afternoon” is a compelling story, not because of its sensational violence, but rather because of the chilling indifference shown by the two central characters, Tom the town butcher and Jim his helper. The story opens in the back of the fly-ridden butcher shop as Tom is settling down for an afternoon nap on the butcher block, a slab of rump roast as a pillow. Jim bursts in and tells him that a lynching party is being formed, and they hurry out to join it. The two, however, are merely following the social instinct of herding animals rather than exercising any overt malice toward Will, and even the tone of the actual killing is casual, almost nonchalant: The local druggist sends his boy to sell sodas to the crowd, and Tom and Jim are as interested in swapping slugs of moonshine as they are in Will’s death. Once the spectacle is over, they return to the butcher shop for the Saturday afternoon rush, business as usual. The violence may seem gratuitous, but Caldwell’s carefully controlled tone undercuts its severity and reinforces the theme that mindless indifference to brutality can be more terrifying than purposeful evil. The moral impact of the story bypasses the consciousness of the characters but catches the reader between the eyes.
“Kneel to the Rising Sun”
In “Kneel to the Rising Sun,” the title story of Caldwell’s 1935 collection, he shows that both racial oppression and economic oppression are closely linked. The central conflict in the story is between the white landowner Arch Gunnard and his two sharecroppers—Lonnie, a white, and Clem, a black. It is late afternoon and Lonnie has come to Arch’s gas station to ask for extra food because he is being “short-rationed.” The black tenant Clem has asked for extra rations and gotten them, but Lonnie cannot be so bold. The unspoken rules of the caste system are strong, even between a white tenant and a white landowner. As Lonnie tries to make his request, Arch calmly takes out his jackknife and cuts the tail off Lonnie’s dog. Lonnie leaves hungry and emasculated, his tailless dog following behind. In the second part of the story, Lonnie awakens in the night to find his old father gone from his bed. Clem helps him with the search, and they find his father trampled to death in Arch’s hog pen where, in a fit of hunger, he went looking for food. As all three men view the torn body, Clem again shows the courage that Lonnie cannot by openly accusing Arch of starving his tenants. An argument ensues, and Arch leaves to drum up a lynching party. Lonnie is torn between loyalty to Clem as a friend and loyalty to his own race. He promises to lead the mob away from Clem’s hiding place, but once Arch arrives, Lonnie leads him to Clem in stunned obedience. Clem dies in a hail of buckshot, and Lonnie returns home to his wife, who asks if he has brought extra food. “No,” Lonnie quietly replies, “no, I ain’t hungry.”
The institutional enemy in Caldwell’s fiction, as in much of his social criticism, is not so much racial bigotry as the economic system which fosters it, for bigotry is a by-product of an agrarian system which beats down the poor of both races. Like the plantation system it replaced, cotton sharecropping enriches the few at the expense of the many, and the violence of Clem’s death in “Kneel to the Rising Sun” is no worse than the starvation leveled on Lonnie’s family. Blacks are beaten into submission, and whites are evicted from the land. As one cotton-field boss says in You Have Seen Their Faces, “Folks here wouldn’t give a dime a dozen for white tenants. They can get twice as much work out of blacks. But they need to be trained. Beat a dog and he’ll obey you. They say it’s the same with blacks.” Caldwell treats the same issues, although in more melodramatic fashion, in the stories “Wild Flowers” and “A Knife to Cut the Cornbread With.”
“The Growing Season”
Caldwell’s prose style is plain and direct, and his method of narration depends entirely on concrete details and colloquial dialogue. It is not a method conducive to presenting symbolic import or psychological introspection, and Caldwell’s critics often accuse him of creating flat characters. Yet Caldwell’s carefully controlled manipulation of external descriptions can give rise to intense states of psychological unrest, as in one of his best stories, “The Growing Season.” In the story, Jesse, a cotton farmer, has been working in the fields all morning trying to keep the wire grass away from his crop. He has made little headway because twelve acres of cotton is too much for one man to work. As he breaks at midday, his eyes burning bloodshot from the sun, Jesse hears “Fiddler” rattle his chain. Jesse cannot eat, and his attention repeatedly turns to the wire grass in his cotton and the rattling of Fiddler’s chain. Unable to bear the heat and the weeds and the noise of the chain any longer, he herds Fiddler into a gully and brutally kills him with his shotgun and ax. The violence done, Jesse sharpens his hoe and returns to the fields, optimistic that he can save his crop. Caldwell never specifies what kind of creature “Fiddler” is, but after several close readings, it becomes clear that he is not a dog or a mule but a human being—perhaps a retarded child or a black.
Jesse’s psychological state is externalized; he is what he sees and feels, and the surreal qualities of the outer world reflect his psychosis. He rubs his knuckles in his eye sockets as the sun blinds him, he cannot eat or sleep, and even Fiddler changes color. Caldwell’s characters often experience a disruption of physical appetite and sensory perception as they engage in headlong pursuit of their bizarre idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, Fiddler’s death produces a cathartic effect on Jesse. Caldwell implies that the choking circumstances that beat heavily on the poor require sure action to overcome them—even if that action is a violent one.
Although Caldwell’s plain prose style eschews most of the traditional literary devices, the rhetorical structure of his fiction utilizes the varied repetition of details and dialogue. In “Candy-Man Beechum,” Caldwell incorporates the repetitions of colloquial black speech patterns to give the story the oral rhythms of a folk ballad in prose. The narrative line of the story is simple and episodic: Candy-Man leaves the rural swamp where he works as a sawmill hand and heads for town on a Saturday night to see his gal. The language of “Candy-Man Beechum,” however, is the language of the tall tale, and the opening of the story ascribes to Candy-Man the larger-than-life qualities of the folk hero: “It was ten miles out of the Ogeechee swamps, from the sawmill to the top of the ridge, but it was just one big step to Candy-Man.” At each stop on his journey to town, someone asks the question, “Where you going, Candy-Man?” and he supplies various boastful answers. These questions and answers give structure to the story in much the same way that a verse and refrain give structure to a popular ballad, and, again like a popular ballad, they move toward a tragic end. As Candy-Man nears the white folks’ town, the questions become more ominous until a white-boss policeman asks the final question, “What’s your hurry, Candy-Man?” Candy-Man, however, will not compromise his vitality by acquiescing to his demands and is shot down in the street; even in death he maintains his own exuberant sense of identity. Caldwell uses similar kinds of repetition to heighten the erotic effect of other stories such as “August Afternoon” and “The Medicine Man.”
Caldwell is often referred to as a local color writer of the “southern gothic” school, but the range of his work shows him to be one of the most diverse and voluminous (and neglected) writers of the twentieth century. If the subject matter of his short fiction seems somewhat limited, it is only because Caldwell insisted on writing about what he knew best by firsthand observation. He once said in an interview:I grew up in the Great Depression in Georgia. I know how poverty smells and feels. I was poor as to eating. Poor as to clothes. Poor as to housing. And nearly everybody else was too, and you can’t know about poverty any better way. You don’t like it and nobody else does but you can’t help yourself. So you learn to live with it, and understand it and can appreciate how others feel about it.
It is this genuine “feel” of poverty and its accompanying themes of violence, bigotry, frustration, and absurd comedy that ensures a lengthy survival of Caldwell’s best works.
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