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 natural, unalterable phenomenon. This book, perhaps his best-known work, is the story of a family of ignorant poor white Georgians who at the outset are at the depths of degradation. They have no food, no prospects, and no apparent opportunity to get either. They have settled into a bleak routine, planning to plant a crop in the vague future and hoping for something to happen to change their lot. Jeeter Lester, the patriarch, has the last trace of a noble love of the land and a strong inherent need to farm his land and produce a crop, yet he cannot or will not do any of the practical things that must be done for serious, lifesaving farming. He has no money and no credit, and he will not leave his farm to find work in the town to get the money for seed and fertilizer. Thus, he drifts from day to day with good intentions but takes no positive action. Survival for him and his family has reached an “every man for himself” level. His mother is treated with less consideration than a dog: When any food is acquired, as when Jeeter steals a bag of turnips from his son-in-law, the old mother is not given any. The others in the family—Jeeter’s wife Ada and the two remaining children, Ellie Mae and Dude—are equally unfeeling.
These people seem to be as far down the scale of humanity as anyone can get, yet the story relates a series of episodes that carries them progressively further to degeneracy and death. The casual attitude toward sex, as shown in the scenes with Dude and his “new” wife Bessie, brings to mind the blasé attitude that farmers show toward the breeding of their farm animals. There is no particularly lewd interest in the family’s attempts to spy on the “honeymooning” couple. Rather, their curiosity seems born of boredom or the simple need for distraction. Because Caldwell has narrated these episodes in blunt, realistic language, a puritanical mind might see a moral looseness in them that could be (and was) attributed to an immoral intent on the part of the author. Viewed from the perspective of fifty years, however, the actions of the characters appear not obscene but merely uncivilized.
Another scene involves the accidental killing of an African American in a wagon. Rammed and overturned by the new car acquired by Bessie (as a not-very-subtle enticement to persuade Dude to marry her), the black is crushed by the wagon. The Lesters, having caused the accident, go blithely on their way. Their only concern is the wrecked fender of the car....
(The entire section is 2698 words.)