Caldwell, Erskine 1903-1987
(Full name Erskine Preston Caldwell) American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, journalist, autobiographer, and scriptwriter.
Considered one of the most popular and controversial American authors of the early twentieth century, Caldwell is best known for his works of fiction that depict the plight of impoverished Southerners through graphic realism and comic pathos. He is cited with such authors as John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway as a significant contributor to the development of social themes in contemporary American literature. A fervent opponent of social exploitation, Caldwell frequently portrayed grotesque rustics who are reduced to animalistic states of ignorance, bigotry, and violence by arbitrary economic and political forces. Several of Caldwell's works, particularly the novels Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre have been recurrently banned and censored due to explicit sexual content, yet they have earned acclaim for their vivid evocation of Southern dialects and folkways. Caldwell published over one hundred short stories during his career, and it was for his writings in this genre that he received his earliest and highest praise from critics.
Caldwell was born in a small town in Georgia, the son of a Presbyterian minister and a teacher. His father's missionary work necessitated numerous relocations, and Caldwell was raised in a series of towns throughout the South. He received his early education from his mother but attended high school in Wrens, Georgia. It was during his high school years that he became interested in being a writer and obtained a job at the Jefferson Reporter, later he worked as a freelance correspondent for the Augusta Chronicle. Caldwell attended Erskine College in South Carolina, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Virginia, but did not earn a degree, leaving school in 1925 to become a reporter for the Atlanta Journal. The following year he moved with his first wife to rural Maine in order to devote himself to writing fiction. After several years of dedicated work, he had his first story accepted for publication. Several other successes quickly followed and Caldwell soon established himself as a promising young writer. He published his first novel, The Bastard, in 1929 and his first short story collection, American Earth, two years later. Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, his most popular and controversial novels, were issued in 1932 and 1933, respectively. In the late 1930s Caldwell collaborated with photographer Margaret Bourke-White—whom he married in 1939—on a series of nonfiction volumes in which Caldwell's text accompanied photographs by Bourke-White. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Caldwell edited the twenty-five-volume American Folkways Series of studies of regional American life. He continued writing novels and nonfiction works well into the 1970s. Caldwell died of lung cancer in 1987.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Although he is perhaps better known as a novelist, Caldwell first gained recognition as a short story writer. His stories, collected in such volumes as American Earth, We Are the Living, Kneel to the Rising Sun and Other Stories, and Southways, often feature disenfranchised characters whose private conflicts expose widespread social inequities. "Candyman Beechum," one of Caldwell's most frequently anthologized stories, revolves around a spirited black muleskinner who dies rather than obey a racist white sheriff. Another piece, "Daughter," focuses on a poor man who murders his beloved child rather than allow her to starve. Following his arrest, a mob of equally impoverished people gathers around the jail, but rather than lynch him as expected, they overwhelm the authorities and release him. In "Kneel to the Rising Sun," a black sharecropper speaks out against his landlord on behalf of another tenant, a white man, who later betrays his comrade when forced to choose between their friendship and racial loyalties. In addition to collections of short stories Caldwell also produced The Sacrilege of Alan Kent, a fictional autobiography that Malcolm Cowley has characterized as a "prose poem that corresponds on a lesser scale to Whitman's 'Song of Myself." Also described as a novella and a series of stories, this experimental work consists of 136 numbered paragraphs, some containing only a single sentence, each expressing an image or impression. Georgia Boy, considered one of Caldwell's best if most overlooked works, has also been variously categorized as a short story collection and a novel. A series of fourteen linked stories, Georgia Boy portrays the complex relationships between the twelve-year-old narrator, his eccentric parents, and his best friend, a young black farmhand.
Caldwell was long heralded as the world's bestselling author. By the early 1960s over sixty million copies of his books had been sold. For the most part, however, his reputation among critics has not matched his popularity. Despite the early enthusiasm of such reviewers as Malcomí Cowley and others who praised the authenticity and realism of Caldwell's depictions of rural American life, by the 1950s commentators began to dismiss his works as "flawed and trivial," as Ronald Wesley Hoag has put it. Some critics regarded Caldwell's fusion of humor and social commentary as inappropriate, and they disparaged his characters as caricatures. Others found the quality among Caldwell's stories uneven, with brilliantly crafted pieces alternating with rudimentary sketches. More recently, however, Hoag and others have risen to Caldwell's defense. Writing about Georgia Boy, Hoag has argued that the volume's "structural integrity and thematic depth should rank it with another major American story cycle, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio." Numerous critics, including Ioan Comsa and James E. Devlin, have commented on the wide range of themes, subjects, and moods in Caldwell's short works. William Peden, while acknowledging the weakness of some of Caldwell's stories, has greatly admired their remarkable variety, "ranging from the darkest tragedy to high comedy." At his best, Peden has noted, Caldwell "is a sophisticated and disciplined craftsman. His stories move quickly; his instinct for the specific detail, gesture, or action can be superb."