Erskine Caldwell Long Fiction Analysis
Erskine Caldwell is the chronicler of the poor white. He has told the story of the diversions and disasters of the poor southerner with more detail and sympathetic attention than any other American writer of his time. In doing so, he has created memorable characters and unforgettable episodes and has provoked scandalized eyebrow-raising at his language, his imagery, and his view of life.
Obscenity charges have been filed against an inordinate number of Caldwell’s books, only to be fought down in court: One man’s obscenity is another man’s earthy realism. The attendant publicity generated more curiosity about his books, and sales soared. The self-appointed censors who attacked his books in court were only slightly more antagonistic than the reviewers who labeled his works “orgiastic litanies” and “particularly ugly stories” to be read with disgust and “a slight retching.”
Charges of obscenity barraged the publication of God’s Little Acre from New York to Denver. Tobacco Road had an arduous struggle to stay on the booksellers’ shelves. Tragic Ground ran into trouble with Canadian censors. But how obscene are these books? By today’s standards even God’s Little Acre seems only mildly lewd. Under the layer of animalistic sexual behavior and uncouth, uncultured dialogue, qualities of literary merit are readily discernible.
The most prominent and lasting quality of Caldwell’s fiction—the one that has made Tobacco Road a minor classic and several other of his earlier novels important literary pieces—is comic grotesquerie. Caldwell conveys a kind of ludicrous horror that becomes more horrible when the reader realizes that hyperbole does not negate the truth behind the most ridiculous episodes: The poor people of the South were deprived to the point of depravity. Writing in a naturalistic style, Caldwell allows the reader to observe the day-to-day activities of poor white families whose impoverished condition has created tragicomic eccentricities.
Those impoverished conditions are the key to understanding Caldwell’s main thrust in nearly all of his earlier novels. Living in hopeless hunger, illiterate, and essentially cut off from the world of progress, ambition, and culture, Caldwell’s characters seem not quite human. The veneer of civilized attitudes and activities has been ground away by the endless struggle to satisfy the daily hunger and to find some hope, in a vast vista of barren prospects, of a better day tomorrow.
Caldwell was deeply concerned that this segment of society he chose to depict in his work had been repressed by ignorance and poverty as an almost direct result of society’s indifference. In later works such as The Weather Shelter or even Claudelle Inglish, he shifted his attention from the thoroughly downtrodden to the merely browbeaten, but he continued to make a statement about society’s indifference to the poor and about the survival instinct of the poor that makes them persevere.
Caldwell’s earlier books are generally considered his better efforts; his themes and characters were fresh, and he had not yet begun to rework them with regularity. Still, there is a kind of plot formula in his first important novels: The main characters are introduced with a recounting of their day-to-day activities wherein their basic problem is presented; a new character is introduced, bringing what seems to be an opportunity for some degree of betterment; then tragedy strikes, usually resulting in the death of a sympathetic character. There are seldom any “bad guys” in Caldwell’s novels, no dastardly villains. The villain is society, which allows abject poverty, ignorance, hunger, and hopelessness to exist without trying to correct the circumstances that caused them. His characters, victims of society, flounder into tragic situations without knowing how to save themselves.
In the case of Tobacco Road , tragedy strikes as unpredictably as lightning, and the characters accept their lot as though it were a...
(The entire section is 2,698 words.)