Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2698
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. They philosophize that “niggers will get killed.” The killing of another human being is as casually natural to them as the killing of a dog on a highway.
The most inhuman and inhumane episode involves the death of Mother Lester, who is hit by the car in the Lester yard. She is knocked down and run over, “her face mashed on the hard white sand.” She lies there, unaided by any of the family, hardly even referred to beyond Ada’s comment that “I don’t reckon she could stay alive with her face all mashed like that.” The old woman struggles a bit, every part of her body in agonizing pain, and manages to turn over. Then she is still. When Jeeter at last decides something must be done with his old mother, he looks down and moves one of her arms with his foot, and says, “She ain’t stiff yet, but I don’t reckon she’ll live. You help me tote her out in the field and I’ll dig a ditch to put her in.”
When Caldwell depicts the indifference of the family members to Mother Lester’s slow, painful death, he is really depicting the degeneracy of people whom society has deprived of all “human” feeling. Thus, when in the last chapter the old Lester house catches fire and burns up the sleeping occupants without their ever waking, the reader may well feel that poetic justice has been served: The Lesters have lived a subhuman existence, and their end is fittingly subhuman. Yet, one does not entirely blame the Lesters for their lack of humanity; Caldwell moves his readers to wonder that a rich, progressive country such as the United States could still harbor such primitive conditions.
The comic quality that is so much a part of Caldwell’s work saves Tobacco Road from utter grimness. Some of the episodes with the car, Jeeter’s maneuverings to get money from his new daughter-in-law, the turnip filching—all create a climate that lightens the pervading ugliness. The sexual adventures are irreverent and bawdy; the dialogue is the ridiculous, repetitive gibberish of single-minded illiterates engrossed in their own narrow concerns. There is a particularly comic quality in Jeeter’s serious pronouncements, which bespeak a completely unrealistic creature, out of touch with himself and his true condition. The enduring ridiculousness of Jeeter and his family is undercoated with a pathos that is obvious to the thoughtful reader. The condition and ultimate end of Jeeter and Ada are perhaps atypical but are still symptomatic of the condition and ultimate end of the many others like them living in the destitute areas of the South.
God’s Little Acre
Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre was considered by some critics his best work up to that time. A Forum review said it was “the first thing [Caldwell] has done which seemsto justify in any way the praise the critics have heaped upon him.” There are flaws, as some reviewers were quick to point out, including repetitiousness and a too sudden and unexpected transition from a comic atmosphere to violent tragedy, yet it is second in quality only to Tobacco Road among Caldwell’s novels.
God’s Little Acre tells the story of Ty Ty Walden, a Georgia dirt farmer who for fifteen years has been digging enormous holes in his land looking for gold. Ty Ty, who is in most other respects a man with considerable mother wit, has a curious tunnel vision where this quest for gold is concerned. Because of it, he neglects his farming to the point of endangering his livelihood and that of his family. Worse yet, he fails to see the peril in the growing tension among the members of his family living on the farm with him. The inevitable tragedy results from the fact that he has two beautiful daughters and an even more beautiful daughter-in-law, Griselda. Ty Ty himself praises Griselda so much to anyone who will listen that he is largely instrumental in encouraging the fatal allure she has for the other men in the family. When these men—a son, Jim Leslie, and a son-in-law, Will Thompson—make advances toward Griselda, her husband Buck understandably becomes enraged. He is thwarted in his revenge against Will Thompson by another calamity—Will, a mill worker, is killed during a strike action—but Jim Leslie does not escape his brother Buck’s wrath, nor does the tragedy stop there, for Buck’s action is harshly punished.
The opening episodes of the novel are comic: Pluto Swint, the fat, lazy suitor of the younger daughter, Darling Jill, is clearly a comic character in the mold of the sad clown. The enthusiastic search for the albino Dave, who according to black lore can divine gold lodes, is humorous: The process of finding him, roping him, dragging him away from his home and wife, and keeping him under guard like a prized animal is handled with a matter-of-fact detachment that makes these actions acceptable, predictable, and ridiculous, all at once. Darling Jill’s sexual promiscuity and amoral attitude are refreshingly animalistic, even though some readers might disapprove of her untouched conscience.
When Darling Jill steals Pluto’s car to go joyriding; when Ty Ty, along with the rest, goes to town to ask the well-off son Jim Leslie for money to help him through the winter because of inadequate crops; when Rosamond finds Will Thompson, her husband, in bed with her sister Darling Jill and chases him, buck-naked, out of the house—these richly comic scenes create a humorously cockeyed view of the Georgia poor white.
The deaths that occur later in the novel, however, are not funny, nor are their reasons; the comic existence Caldwell has depicted turns somber. This shift in tone has been described as a flaw, but such a judgment assumes that God’s Little Acre is a comic novel gone astray. In fact, it is a serious story about people who in their daily lives do things that seem comic to those who observe them from a distance. Caldwell begins with a feckless existence that gradually becomes tragic; the comical infighting and escapades of Ty Ty’s clan assume a grim inevitability.
Ty Ty has set aside one acre of his land for God. His intent is to farm the land, raise a crop, and give the proceeds to God through the church. Ty Ty has been digging for gold all over his farm, however, and there is very little land left that can still be farmed. Because he needs to raise a crop to feed his family and the two black families who tenant-farm for him, Ty Ty must constantly shift the acre for God from place to place. He readily admits that he will not dig for gold on God’s little acre because then he would be honor-bound to give the gold to the church. He has no compunctions about doing God out of what he has declared is God’s due. Later in the story, however, when he learns of Will Thompson’s death, he has a sudden need to bring the acre closer to the homestead: He felt guilty of something—maybe it was sacrilege or desecration—whatever it was, he knew he had not played fair with God. Now he wished to bring God’s little acre back to its rightful place beside the house where he could see it all the time.He promised himself to keep it there until he died.
After this decision, however, blood is shed on God’s little acre: Buck kills his own brother, Jim Leslie. The bloodletting on God’s ground is almost a ceremonial sacrifice wherein Ty Ty, albeit involuntarily, atones for a life spent giving only lip service to God. This ironic justice has the tragicomic grotesquerie characteristic of Caldwell’s best work. The fall of hisprotagonists is both inevitable and absurd, utterly lacking in dignity.
Beginning in 1936, Caldwell produced different work. Perhaps he was aware that he had gone to the well often enough and needed to find new or different subjects. At any rate, traveling about the United States and Europe, with the drama of Adolf Hitler’s Germany taking form, he wrote other books on uncustomary subjects: North of the Danube, You Have Seen Their Faces, Some American People (1935), Southways, Say! Is This the U.S.A.? (1941, with Margaret Bourke-White), All-Out on the Road to Smolensk, Russia at War, and more.
The novels that poured from Caldwell’s pen on into the 1940’s, 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s more or less followed the pattern of his early work. Reviewers observed that Caldwell seemed to have grown lackadaisical, content with repeating himself. He no longer seemed to instruct the reader subtly about the social and economic problems of the South; his work had begun to take on the dullness that results from the same joke and the same protestations repeated too often in the same way. He continued to use the same old formula without the zest and the imagination that made Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre so memorable.
Of the more than thirty novels Caldwell wrote over more than forty years, it is disappointing to find that two written in the 1930’s—Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre—are the only ones likely to endure. Still, Caldwell is considered to be among the significant twentieth century writers produced by the South. His major contribution was his naturalistic comedic approach to his subjects. His best work depicts, with admirable craftsmanship, the harsh life of the sharecropper and tenant farmer through painful explicitness and comic vigor, juxtaposing social issues with the grotesque.
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