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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."
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American Earth 1931
We Are the Living 1933
Kneel to the Rising Sun and Other Stories 1935
*The Sacrilege of Alan Kent 1936
Georgia Boy 1943
Stories by Erskine Caldwell 1944
The Courting of Susie Brown 1952
The Complete Stories of Erskine Caldwell 1953
Gulf Coast Stories 1956
Certain Women 1957
When You Think of Me 1959
Erskine Caldwell's Men and Women 1961
Stories of Life North and South: Selections from the Best Short Stories of Erskine Caldwell 1983
Other Major Works
The Bastard (novel) 1929
Poor Fool (novel) 1930
Tobacco Road (novel) 1932
God's Little Acre (novel) 1933
Journeyman (novel) 1935
Some American People (nonfiction) 1935
You Have Seen Their Faces [with Margaret Bourke-White] (nonfiction) 1937
North of the Danube [with Bourke-White] (nonfiction) 1939
Trouble in July (novel) 1940
All Night Long (novel) 1942
Tragic Ground (novel) 1944
A House in the Uplands (novel) 1946
The Sure Hand of God (novel) 1947
This Very Earth (novel) 1948
Place Called Estherville (novel) 1949
Episode in Palmetto (novel) 1950
Call It Experience (autobiography) 1951
A Lamp for Nightfall (novel) 1952
Love and Money (novel) 1954
Gretta (novel) 1955
Claudelle Inglish (novel) 1958
Jenny by Nature (novel) 1961
Close to Home (novel) 1962
The Last Night of Summer (novel) 1963
In Search of Bisco (autobiography) 1965
Miss Mama Aimee (novel) 1967
Deep South (nonfiction) 1968
Summertime Island (novel) 1968
The Weather Shelter (novel) 1969
The Earnshaw Neighborhood (novel) 1971
Annette (novel) 1973
*Represents the first publication of this experimental work as an independent volume. The three sections appeared separately in various periodicals between 1929 and 1931, and the entire work was previously issued as part of the 1931 edition of American Earth.
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SOURCE: "Two Judgments of 'American Earth'," in The New Republic, Vol. LXVII, No. 863, June 17, 1931, pp. 130-32.
[In the following, Whipple generally praises the stories in American Earth but bemoans what he perceives to be the elitist influence of small literary journals on Caldwell. Cowley, on the other hand, defends the little magazines: "By publishing his work, the best and the worst of it, they have encouraged him to develop something original."]
Anyone who has ever spent much time where the untutored sons of these States forgather—as, for instance, in the army—must have heard, for hours on end, reminiscences poured forth in floods of anecdote—incidents pointed and pointless, significant and insignificant. In such story-telling is to be found the true popular or vulgar oral literature of America, the germ, the unformed beginning of narrative. The complaint is often made that this country has no folk tales; and while the complaint is mistaken, inasmuch as America is rich in folk tales, it is true they are local and generally have a look of quaint relics of a vanished age. But the endless stories which men tell each other of their own lives—into these taken in the mass, though each is individual in origin, the whole characteristic life of America is digested and distilled.
With such stories our politer letters have never condescended to have much traffic, perhaps for the excellent reason that most of our literary men, being somewhat orchidlike of nature, have seldom been where these recitals take place. Picaresque, proletarian, peasant America, though the most interesting as well as the largest part of the nation, has appeared in literature but little, and then as if viewed de haut en bas—almost never has it appeared in the terms of its own chosen mode of expression, the reminiscent anecdote.
Mr. Erskine Caldwell's collection of stories, American Earth, is closer to this kind of narrative than any other book I know. To be sure, his field is limited—his first dozen sketches and incidents are entitled "Far South," his second twelve "Farthest East"—and he is so good a writer that the flavor of locality is strong in his work; but there is nothing necessarily local about the genre which he has chosen. It could be used equally well for all other parts of the Union.
While presumably one must not suppose that Mr. Caldwell's stories are autobiographical, it is as if he were telling offhand of things that had happened to him or that he had run into—insignificant in themselves perhaps, but somehow, though one could not say why, memorable. Always he is, or pretends to be, the unsophisticated raconteur. Character, emotion, significance, are secondary, at most implied; plot is nonexistent; he deals in sheer incident, the primal germ plasm of narrative. Of the many contemporary efforts to get back, in revolt against the overelaborate and artificial productions of recent art, to some unexhausted original rootstock, Mr. Caldwell's is one of the most successful.
Mr. Caldwell goes back even farther than the folk for his fresh start; he reverts to boyhood. Much of his best work shows that bright, wide-eyed innocent fascination with everything dirty, nasty, horrible or gruesome which is one of the strangest and most unfailing traits of small boys. Even Mr. Caldwell's treatment of sex seems somehow preadolescent. His writing has a fresh, direct immediacy of juvenility which is extremely rare—and since his folk, even his adults, are the sort who stay juvenile all their lives, there is no incongruity.
One reason undoubtedly for his success is that, as the jacket of his book tells us, he has had a varied and extensive career among the people of whom—and like whom—he speaks. Not only, however, has Mr. Caldwell picked cotton in Tennessee, served as night cook in the Union Station at Wilkes-Barre, and reported for The Atlanta Journal; he has lately published his stories in Pagany, This Quarter, Transition and other such periodicals. And as his biography indicates the source of his strength, so do these names suggest his weakness, or at least the dangers which beset him. These occult magazines, priding themselves on making no compromise with common humanity, these purveyors of caviar, are insidious poison for Mr. Caldwell.
Since this is his first book—with the exception of The Bastard, which was privately printed—one expects the unevenness and uncertainty which one finds; the serious peril is not his occasional fumbling, but his too frequent affectation. His naïveté too often is plainly a self-conscious pose. He is not free from preciosity—and of all kinds of stories, preciosity is most fatal to his kind. In part, this quality springs from a too devoted imitation of Sherwood Anderson; in part from a deference, perhaps, to the journals which have printed Mr. Caldwell's stories but with which, one suspects and hopes, Mr. Caldwell has little really in common. Especially are these effects evident in the third part of American Earth, which contains only one long piece consisting of numerous tiny disconnected bits of fact and phantasy—a type of thing which seems, now at least, not to be the writer's forte.
Mr. Caldwell's unmistakable ability, his out-of-the ordinary and interesting talent, and his very remarkable achievement justify us in having great hopes of him. Let us pray, however, that he may be delivered from the highbrows.
T. K. WHIPPLE.
In a year of generally dispiriting fiction, Erskine Caldwell's book of stories is important enough to justify the publication of a dissenting opinion. Not that I disagree with most of Mr. Whipple's admirably phrased review: what he says about the anecdotes that compose more than two-thirds of the volume is acute and unexceptionable; but he adopts a more questionable position in his last three paragraphs, when he takes American Earth as an excuse for attacking the influence of the little magazines.
During the last twelve years, almost every new writer destined to have any influence on the history of American literature has begun by appearing in the little magazines. The statement is more than justified by the facts. Leaving aside The Little Review and Others, which would carry us far into the past; leaving aside Transition and Pagany for an opposite reason: namely, that most of the writers they introduced are still too young to be widely known, one can quickly gather an impressive list of publications and writers. There is The Dial, which brought forward E. E. Cummings, Glenway Wescott, Kenneth Burke, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Madox Roberts—Broom, which published Matthew Josephson and Kay Boyle—The Fugitive, which produced Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren among others—The Transatlantic Review, with Ernest Hemingway and Nathan Asch—The American Caravan (belonging at least in spirit among the little magazines), which first published the work of Erskine Caldwell himself, as well as printing Josephine Herbst, Katherine Anne Porter and others whose names are certain to be widely known. The list could easily be continued: it is enough to say that the primary function of the little magazines is discovering talent, and that they have performed this function successfully, having revealed such new talents as there were to be unearthed.
But the little magazines have a secondary function: that of encouraging experimental writing, which is another term for original writing. Originality is not a virtue mysteriously born into writers: it can be developed in talented people by force of reflection and reworking; it can also be destroyed in them if they write only for publications which demand that everything be done according to formula. The little magazines as a class have encouraged originality in the writers they printed. In so doing they have also encouraged affectation, mannerism and unintelligibility, but this, I think, was also desirable—not because I admire these literary vices for themselves, but because they often lead to admirable qualities. The young writer adopts them as a means toward developing a personal style; in the end he sloughs them off. If he doesn't, he isn't worth lamenting.
Mr. Caldwell is a literary child of the "occult" magazines, a child with eight foster-parents: The American Caravan, Blues, Front, The Hound and Horn, Nativity, Pagany, This Quarter and Transition. By publishing his work, the best and the worst of it, they have encouraged him to develop something original. What I dissent from in Mr. Whipple's review is that he attacks precisely the portion of American Earth in which the author's original qualities are most evident.
I refer, of course, to the "disconnected bits of fact and phantasy" which compose the third section of the book. Here Mr. Caldwell achieves a sort of violent poetry, simple, romantic, arbitrary and effective; it is a mood unique in American prose (though suggested by the poems of Phelps Putnam). His figures of speech are expressed in terms of hyperbolic action. "Once," says Mr. Caldwell, "the sun was so hot a bird came down and walked beside me in my shadow. .. . In the chill frost of winter," he says elsewhere, "I left Memphis and rode on the outside of freight cars all the way to the Atantic. The nights were so cold that my fingers froze around the iron bars and at daybreak each morning I had to bite them away with my teeth." The effect of hunger on the imagination is conveyed by one statement of fact: "A man walked into a restaurant through the front door and ate all he wanted to eat." Approaching death is a picture of buzzards in a field:
There was an old Negro who was almost a hundred years old. When he worked in his cotton patch, the buzzards walked behind him all day and clawed the red earth with their feet and pecked at it with their beaks, and at night they roosted on top of his house and flapped their wings till the sun rose.
I don't mean to imply that the whole third section of the book is on the same high level. There are trite and sentimental passages which move one to personal fury against the author; there is also, as Mr. Whipple says, a good deal of preciousness and affectation. But for figures of speech like those quoted, and for the episodes which surround them, one could forgive any amount of faulty writing. Erskine Caldwell brings a new quality into American fiction: may due credit be given to the little magazines which recognized his talent.
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SOURCE: "Modern American Writing," in New York Herald Tribune Books, September 24, 1933, p. 8.
[Burnett was an American critic, journalist, and editor. In the following review of We Are the Living, he greatly admires Caldwell's ability to "push through to the core of feeling" in the stories in the collection.]
Erskine Caldwell spends his winters in Georgia and his summers in Maine. Since he, of all the younger American short story writers, is one of the most naturally steeped in the special American qualities of his background, We Are the Living should interest not only followers of his artistic word, but also observers of the native mores.
Caldwell was not one of the American younger generation who went to Paris; when some of the rest of us were picking up a little French and less German, Caldwell was down among the cotton pickers or up among the people in the backwoods of Maine. His stories have the native smell of both spots. We Are the Living is a rich book, full of honesty, humor and feeling; picturesque, at times even burlesque; an authentic contribution to the best of modern-day American writing.
There are twenty stories in this collection, ranging from the lyrical young-love story "Warm River" to the New England levity of a frightened tight-lipped Maine family whose neighborhood is suddenly over-run with foreigners, "Country Full of Swedes." The bulk of the stories, fifteen of them, are stories of crucial, often poignant, sometimes comic, revelation, all of them involved with the sex impulse. Indeed, We Are the living might well be We Are the loving. With these characters, living is loving. The god of life is a goddess, Venus. Venus in a cottonfield, naked beneath her skimpy cotton dress; a tantalizing fifteen-year-old girl bride of a lazy Georgia farmer; a young wench who wants to get a husband and succeeds in snaring the traveling India Root Tonic professor; the tortured and defiant young girl who left her country home to be a city stenographer and comes home a harlot.
In America there was a time when writers hesitated to be forthright sensualists. Those days have gone. Caldwell may be the great American sensualist. He is in the tradition of Gautier and Dreiser; conversion to beauty, even to conscience, lies in the observed or remembered beauty of a shapely bosom. His treatment of sensuality is direct and open; his Venuses have breasts and thighs and healthy bodies; and in his best passages, sense and sensitivity spin out into lyrics.
Caldwell is a person with more than one string to his lyre. He evokes the cantankerous old codgers of New England better than a Down East fiddler. They harp and whine and display their cussedness in several stories which may well go into the language as classics of their kind: "Grass Fire," for instance, in which two cussed old neighbors, ornery as hound-dogs, almost burn themselves up rather than lend or take a helping hand, or good advice. "A Woman in the House" and "Over the Green Mountains" are stories of Venus in the North. And Venus shows her transmutations. Her transit to New England has warped the lady: her devotees are not at all the direct-actionists of love one finds in the stories of the South.
In the South, Caldwell's Venus is a lusty lass, who stands readily and willingly revealed beneath "shirtwaists" and under the one-piece garb of fifteen-year-old girls. His girls display themselves with the age-old art of the dancing girls of the East. And when they show themselves, in a cotton field, or on the top step of a front porch, their men become very living, very loving animals.
When Venus goes North with Mr. Caldwell, things are different. Her admirers burn but they do not marry, until, at least, they have the perverted additional satisfaction of, in so doing, getting the better of somebody.
Some of the best stories in the book are lyrics of childhood, with young awakening characters like the boy in "Indian Summer" . . . , who is halted and made aware of the difference in a girl at the moment he and his chum are vengefully plastering her body with river mud; the poor girl in "Rachel" who dies of poisoning from cast-off food; the girl on the operating table in a rented-room in one of the most directly treated stories of that sort yet written in this country.
The volume has a curious unity, in spite of its range from North to South. The life in the title is the sex of these people, simple and direct with the simple and direct, and tortured into strange and fragile shapes with the more complex. The ability to push through to the core of feeling is amply demonstrated in the best of the stories in the volume, and feeling at its best, in "Crown Fire" and "The Empty Room," has transcended itself into poetry.
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SOURCE: A review of We Are the living, in The New York Times Book Review, October 1, 1933, p. 6.
[In the review below, Strauss praises the authenticity of the pieces in We Are the living, declaring that "Caldwell's stories are as indigenous to the American soil as a corncob pipe or a Ford car. "]
We have come to think, through the blithe dichotomy of some old Greek, of tragedy and comedy as two absolute moods. The reviewers of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road called it a novel of terse tragic power; and these same gentry hailed its very similar successor, God's little Acre, as the work of a leading American humorist. We now have the advantage of glimpsing, however briefly, the varied aspects of Caldwell's genius. It is only in this volume of short stories [We Are the living] that we see that his work is not to be labeled comedy or tragedy, or even short story or novel. We feel that Caldwell is constantly and purposefully denying us the formal satisfaction to which we are accustomed. His stories, like organic life, have no beginning and no end. They contain within themselves the actuality of mere living—the living of the defeated and all but disinherited Maine farmer and Georgia share-cropper. In one story, "After-image," Caldwell says:
The words are a jumble. The sounds they make are sometimes loud, sometimes soft. None of them is of any im-portance whatever. Only feeling matters. It is of that which has been told. I have been telling of feeling, of the quiver of her heart against my heart.
This story is simply the jumbled impression of a man who hears a weary girl confess how her husband had deserted her and how his family had taken their child away from her and how she was powerless to get it back.
She had been standing beside me, her hands on the rail, looking out across the Sound. . . . One moment I was standing beside her, and the next moment she was gone. A thing like that can be an occurrence, an event, a tragedy, or merely the final act of living. I don't know what this was; but she was gone.
That is Caldwell's answer to the question of his wooing the tragic or the comic muse. The titles of his two collections of stories, American Earth and We Are the living, reveal his awareness of the nativity and immediacy of his work. He finds his material in the States between which he divides his residence, Maine and Georgia; and his characters are his contemporaries. A boy's prank, a homecoming, a moment of sexual excitation, a drunken spree are enough to induce a verbal snapshot. And the snapshots come along without the literary tags of humor and pathos.
In Caldwell's very actual world, his people are driven by sexual and economic urges which are only inhibited by puritanism and farm mortgages. His characters, like animals long accustomed to a cage, lead debilitated and incompetent existences, and most of the stories are prompted by a last rebellion or by the climax of an emotional or an economic suicide. They are tragic when the progress toward death is rapid and inevitable; and they are comic when the end is far away and the predicament not too close to our own. But we need not use these words at all.
"The People's Choice," in which a newly elected deacon celebrates so well that he disgraces himself, is a hilarious example of a run-down mainspring of life; "The Grass Fire," on the other hand, is its tragic counterpart. Between these poles are "Country Full of Swedes" and "Picking Cotton." Of course, the Waiden family and their futile digging for gold (in God's little Acre) is Caldwell's best picture of economic self-annihilation. In the shorter form he is more frequently concerned with the defeat or deflection of the sex urge. "Meddlesome Jack," for instance, is an uproarious variation on this theme; it is a simple anecdote about the sleep-dispersing bray of a jackass. "The Medicine Man" is the almost farcical story of the seduction of a moral hypocrite by the village spinster. In others, such as "Mama's little Girl," the point of tragedy is nearer, and the long process of self-destruction only echoed in its results.
For completeness we must add that there are two stories which simply describe fatal accidents; one or two. "Warm River" and "The Empty Room," which are wrung out of conventional tear-jerking situations; one or two which are merely droll; and finally some written long ago which we hope are only youthful indiscretions. As a whole, Caldwell's stories are as indigenous to the American soil as a corncob pipe or a Ford car. We like his novels better, but we cannot deny—and this is high praise—the claim of his people that they are the living.
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SOURCE: "Caldwell: Maker of Grotesques," in The New Republic, Vol. LXXXII, No. 1062, April 10, 1935, pp. 232-35.
[Burke is one of the foremost American scholars—and perhaps the most controversial literary figure—of the twentieth century. His approach to literature combines pragmatism with aesthetics and ethical concerns. Burke regards language as symbolic action and perceives the critic's function to be the analysis and interpretation of the symbolic structures embedded in works of art. His eclecticism is demonstrated by his use of the multiple perspectives offered in the works of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, and in such fields of study as linguistics, sociology, psychology, and theology. In the essay below, Burke examines the interrelation of themes, symbols, and characterization in Caldwell's work.]
Erskine Caldwell's most revealing work is a "sport." I refer to the last story in American Earth, The Sacrilege of Alan Kent. It is divided into three sections, with wholly non-Caldwellian titles, "Tracing life with a Finger," "Inspiration for Greatness," and "Hours Before Eternity." In these words we catch a tonality of brooding which, though so much a part of America as to have been pronounced by Poe, is more generally associated with the pious satanists who developed the ways of Poe in Europe: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, lautréamont, and the early Gide. This work is as unique to Caldwell in manner as it is in mood. Whereas his other stories, long or short, are written with the continuity of the undulations along a moving caterpillar's back, The Sacrilege is a chain of brief numbered paragraphs, each bluntly set off from the rest. Done with the solemnity of a farewell or a testament, they contain a kind of aphoristic rhetoric, except that the aphorisms are less ideas than tiny plots. We note here a formal resonance, a stentorian quality, obtained by a swift recital of plagues, monstrosities, horrors, obsessions, disasters and gigantesque imaginings, set against a tender counter-theme: "I never heard a girl whose face and body and eyes were lovely say anything but lovely words." Here we have the symbol of the wanderer, driven by unnamed sins and called by vague visions of a homecoming in female sweetness. The swift segments shunt us back and forth between brutality and wistfulness. Perhaps the grandiose, the violent, and the gentle qualities of the piece are all fused in this bit of purest poetry: "Once the sun was so hot a bird came down and walked beside me in my shadow." A section in Pagany containing this item was the first thing by Caldwell I ever saw. For days I was noisy in my enthusiasm—but I could not understand how it went with some of his other work.
Now that we have five books to examine, the connections are more easily discernible. It seems to me that Caldwell has elsewhere retained the same balked religiosity as distinguishes The Sacrilege, but has merely poured it into less formidable molds. We may detect it, transformed, as the incentive leading him to blaspheme and profane for our enjoyment. We may glimpse this balked religiosity in the symbolic transgressions and death penalties that give shape to the plots of Tobacco Road and God's little Acre. It is the explicit subject matter of much conversation in all his novels. It is revealed by an almost primitive concern with sexual taboos, and with fertility rites rising in opposition to the theme of castration. In its temperate, more social aspects, it shows as a tendency to deny humans their humaneness, as though the author, secretly abased, wanted to "drag others down" with him. Entertainingly, it appears in still more attenuated form as caricature and humor, the mental state of "refusal" here inducing extravagant incongruities that sometimes can be received with laughter, but are frequently so closely connected with degradation and acute suffering that the effect is wholly grim. Towards the end of his longer works, the goad of balked religiosity provokes grandiloquent moralistic passages wherein his sub-normal mannikins, strangely elated by the story's symbolism, transcend themselves and speak of vital purpose with almost evangelical fervor (plus a slight suggestion that they had read D. H. Lawrence). And in an unexpected episode of Journeyman, his latest book, Caldwell has even gone so far as to introduce a quality of otherworldliness into the very midst of his human rabbit hutch—for in no other way can I interpret the section (which Horace Gregory has selected for approval) where three men take turns at peering out through a crack in the wall of the barn, while one sermonizes: "It's sitting there and looking through the crack at the trees all day long that sort of gets me. I don't know what it is, and it might not be nothing at all when you figure it out. But it's not the knowing about it, anyway—it's just sitting there and looking through it that sort of makes me feel like heaven can't be so doggone far away."
In taking balked religiosity as the underlying theme upon which his successive works are the variations, I do not want to imply that Caldwell, like Hemingway, is preparing himself for a return to Rome. His recent powerful story in Scribner's, "Kneel to the Rising Sun," indicates that he can make the change from negativism to affirmation by choices usually called secular. In so far as he is moved by the need of salvation, he seems minded to find it in the alignments of political exhortation, by striving mainly to see that we and he take the right side on matters of social justice. But as partial vindication of my proposal that his cult of incongruity seems to stem from the same source as his social propaganda, I should note that, precisely in this story of a lynching, his emphasis upon the playful scrambling of the old proprieties abates: instead of the humorist's refusal, as shown in his earlier zest to garble the conventions, we get a sober assertion of positive values. He does not merely act to outrage an old perspective by throwing its orders of right and wrong into disarray: he subscribes to an alternative perspective, with positive rights and wrongs of its own, and with definite indications as to what form he wants our sympathies and antagonisms to take. Incidentally, this development suggests the ways in which a motivation essentially non-political or non-economic can be harnessed in the service of political or economic criticism.
Whether one so apt at entertaining us by muddling our judgments will be equally fertile in stabilizing judgments remains to be seen. My guess would be that he won't, since he would have to master a whole new technique of expression. His very abilities tend to work against him. Recently I heard one man complain that Caldwell "has yet to learn that the revolution begins above the belt." And I incline to suspect that, in the learning, he may begin to find himself psychologically unemployed. A literary method is tyrannical—it is a writer's leopard-spots—it molds what a writer can say by determining what he can see; hence I should imagine that Caldwell would have to develop by satirizing more complex people rather than by pleading unmistakably for simple ones. But that is a guess about tomorrow's weather.
When I say that Caldwell's particular aptitude has been in scrambling or garbling proprieties, I refer to his deft way of putting the wrong things together. An unendowed writer, for instance, might strain to engross us by lurid description of the sexual act—and the result would be negligible. But such an uninventive writer would probably be quite "proper" in the sense that he accepted the usual conventions as to the privacy of this act. Caldwell can be much more stimulating by merely so altering the customary situation that people are looking on and commenting in the blandest fashion, as in the comically inappropriate episode of this nature in God's little Acre. Or he may have Ty Ty say, without confusion, such things to his daughters and daughter-in-law as would "properly" be said only under the greatest of morbid intensity. By an astounding trick of oversimplification, Caldwell puts people into complex social situations while making them act with the scant, crude tropisms of an insect—and the result is cunning, where lawrence, by a variant of the same pattern, is as unwieldy as an elephant in his use of vulgar words for romantic love-making. Probably only in the orgy at the end of Journeyman does Caldwell become so undiplomatic in his treatment. Here, with almost the literalness of an inventory, he has us observe in each member of the congregation that phenomenon which so mortified Saint John of the Cross, the fact that, since the body has less channels of expression than the mind, acute religious ecstasy may be paralleled neurologically by sexual orgasm.
In the psychology textbooks, we read accounts of experiments whereby the higher centers of an animal's brain are removed, with the result that the animal's responses to stimuli are greatly simplified. A frog, so decerebrated, may jump when prodded, eat when fed, and croak when caressed—but it is evident that with the operation the poor fellow's personality has vanished. He has become less like a living organism, and more like a doorbell, which rings when you press the button. He has lost the part of himself that is sometimes called free will and which Bergson names the "center of indetermination." And his ways, as compared with the ways of a whole frog, are distinctly grotesque. Caldwell often seems to have performed such an operation upon the minds of his characters. As Ty Ty Waiden complains in God's little Acre, "There was a mean trick played on us somewhere. God put us in the body of animals and tried to make us act like people." It is a just complaint of Ty Ty's, as the creature of his own private creator. What the decerebrated frog is to the whole frog, Caldwell's characters are to real people. In view of which, it is positively incredible that his extravaganzas, imagined in a world essentially as fantastic as Swift's, should ever have passed for realism.
Pearl, the image of better things in Tobacco Road, does not even speak. Anderson's gropers stuttered, but in this book the golden-haired child-wife who is charged with the novelistic duty of upholding a little corner of glory in the midst of degradation, is totally inarticulate. For her there is no such verbal key as that with which the great sonneteer unlocked his heart. Though married, she sleeps alone; she will not look at her uncouth husband; she refuses to discuss his appetites with him (she cries when he beats her, but "Lov did not consider that as conversation"); and in the end, still wordless, she vanishes, doubtless to become a prostitute in Augusta. Silk stockings in the city, we feel, is her noblest conceivable Utopian negation of the physical and spiritual impoverishment all about her; but to her understanding of this little, she will bring a deep, innate delicacy, invisible to all but the novelist and his readers.
In this discussion of Pearl, I may seem to have involved myself in a contradiction. For I speak of Caldwell's subhuman characters, yet I credit them with great delicacy. Here we come to the subtlest feature of Caldwell's method. Where the author leaves out so much, the reader begins making up the difference for himself. Precisely by omitting humaneness where humaneness is most called for, he may stimulate the reader to supply it. When the starved grandmother in Tobacco Road lies dying, with her face ground into the soil, and no one shows even an onlooker's interest in her wretchedness, we are prodded to anguish. When these automata show some bare inkling of sociality, it may seem like a flash of ultimate wisdom. I suspect that, in putting the responsibility upon his readers, he is taking more out of the community pile than he puts in. Perhaps he is using up what we already had, rather than adding to our store. He has evoked in us a quality, but he has not materialized it with sufficient quantity. In any event, the silence of Pearl in Tobacco Road and the sober burlesque of the men peering through the crack in Journeyman are of a piece with the strange albino of God's little Acre, the "conjur" who makes the simple, lyrical declaration to Darling Jill (herself graced with one of the loveliest names in all fiction):
"I wish I had married you," he said, his hands trembling beside her. "I didn't know there was a girl so beautiful anywhere in the country. You're the prettiest girl I've ever seen. You're so soft, and you talk like bird-song, and you smell so good. . . ."
I have denied that Caldwell is a realist. In his tomfoolery he comes closer to the Dadaists; when his grotesqueness is serious, he is a Superrealist. We might compromise by calling him over all a Symbolist (if by a Symbolist we mean a writer whose work serves most readily as case history for the psychologist and whose plots are more intelligible when interpreted as dreams). In The Saturday Review of literature a few months back [November 24, 1934], Dr. lawrence S. Kubie took as particularly significant the absence of the motherly woman in Caldwell's fictions, with attendant cult of sterility. And his article gave many relevant clues as to the non-rational linkages involved in the imagery of God's little Acre.
In books of complex realistic texture, such as the great social novels of the nineteenth century, we may feel justified in considering the psychologist's comments as an intrusion when he would have us find there merely a sublimation of a few rudimentary impulses. The important thing is not the base, but the superstructure. With fantastic simplifications of the Caldwell sort, however, the symbolic approach has more relevance. Thus, the selection of extreme starvation as a theme for Tobacco Road is found to take on a significance besides that of realistic justification when we link it with passages in God's little Acre where Ty Ty, admiring Griselda, declares that the sight of her "rising beauties" makes him feel inspired to "get down and lick something." How possibly explain as mere reporting the episode in God's little Acre about the girls who have replaced the men in the factory, and of whom we read the dreamlike statement, "When they reached the street, they ran back to the ivy-colored wall and pressed their bodies against it and touched it with their lips. The men who had been standing idly before it all day long came and dragged them home and beat them unmercifully for their infidelity"? A factory that could induce such surprising antics must have peculiar connotations not realistically there. And perhaps we come closer to them when recalling how, in this same factory, where the rebellion of the workers takes very unreal forms, Will finally fulfills his determination to "turn on the power," but only after his perverted rape of Griselda. When the old grandmother dies, the sight of her face in the dirt simply reminds her son Jeeter that the soil is right for planting. Immediately after, he is destroyed by fire.
The symbolic relations submerged here begin to suggest themselves when we recall the following facts: In both Tobacco Road and God's little Acre we are told that there are two types of people, those who stay on the farm and those who go to the factory. Both Jeeter of Tobacco Road and Ty Ty of God's little Acre are the kind that stay on the farm, the first hoping to plant again (a frustrated hope) and the second digging in the bowels of the earth for gold (an exceptional obsession to motivate an entire book about contemporary Georgia, though we may legitimately remember here the golden-haired Pearl of Tobacco Road). In one of the short stories, "Crown Fire," we learn from the course of the plot that the fire symbol is linked with partial female acquiescence; and in The Sacrilege, where the "offense" is unnamed, we are told, "My mother saw from her bed the reflection in the sky of red wind-fanned flames. She carried me out into the street and we sat in the red mud shivering and crying"—sitting in this same soil with which Jeeter is so impotently preoccupied (since he cannot buy the seed for planting) and which Ty Ty turns into sterility by digging there for gold. After Will carries out in actuality the perverse inclination Ty Ty speaks of, Will can "turn on the power" in the factory. But though Will here seems to deputize for Ty Ty, Ty Ty's son commits a murder and must run away. Ty Ty moans that blood has been spilled upon his land, whereupon he is freed of his obsession to dig gold; and as the son is leaving, Ty Ty wills that God's little acre be always under him. Both books are thus permeated with symbolic sins, symbolic punishments, followed by symbolic purification. At the end of each, and following the orgy in Journeyman, there is the feeling that a cleansing had taken place, that the character who, at the last transformation, is the bearer of the author's identity, is free to "start anew." All this is magic, not reason; and I think that we are entitled to inspect it for the processes of magic. The balked religiosity of which we spoke is evidently linked with the devious manifestations of "incest-awe"; the plots are subtly guided by the logic of dreams.
I am not by any means satisfied by the psychoanalytic readings of such processes to date, though I do believe that in moralistic fantasies of the Caldwell type, where the dull characters become so strangely inspired at crucial moments, we are present at a poetic law court where judgments are passed upon kinds of transgression inaccessible to jurists, with such odd penalties as no Code Napoleon could ever schematize.
The short stories (republished in American Earth and We Are the living) as a whole seem too frail. They are hardly more than jottings in a diary, mere situations that Caldwell, with his exceptional turn for narrative and his liquid style, manages to palm off as plots. I call them diary jottings because they often give the impression of having suggested themselves to him in this wise: If you were sitting alone in a strange room, you might think, "What if someone knocked at the door?" If Caldwell were similarly placed, such a thought might occur to him, and there he would have his story.
He has a sharper sense of beginnings than most writers, as witness in the long story, Journeyman, Semon Dye's formal entrance in the lavishly balky and noisy car. Here is a mock announcement of the hero's approach, done with such a blare and fanfare of brasses as Wagner summons to herald the approach of Siegfried. Thus, the author tends to begin with some oddity of situation, which as likely as not suggested itself without a resolution, so that the story merely fades away rather than closes. He shows a surprisingly naïve delight in all the possible ramifications of the thought that girls may be without panties, and he seems to have searched the length and breadth of the country for new situations whereby some significant part or parts can be exposed for us. The basic formula seems to be the use of two unrelated orders of events until they are felt to be related. He gets very appealing pictures of adolescent Love—but his most successful venture in the shorter form is probably "Country Full of Swedes," where a family returns to their house across the road after a couple of years' absence, and their sudden prevalence in the locality is amusingly magnified until, for all their obvious peacefulness, they take on the qualities of a vast invasion.
Caldwell's greatest vice is unquestionably repetitiousness. He seems as contented as a savage to say the same thing again and again. Repetition in his prose is so extreme as almost to perform the function of rhyme in verse. In analyzing the first four chapters of Tobacco Road, I found that it was simply a continual rearrangement of the same subjects in different sequences: Jeeter wants Lov's turnips, Lov wants Jeeter to make Pearl sleep with him, Jeeter's own turnips all have "damn-blasted green-gutted turnip-worms," hair-lipped Ellie May is sidling up to Lov, Dude won't stop "chunking" a ball against the loose clapboards, Jeeter hopes to sell a load of wood in Augusta—about ten more such details, regiven in changing order, make the content of forty pages. Sometimes when reading Caldwell I feel as though I were playing with my toes.
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SOURCE: "Progress or Retrogression?" in Partisan Review, Vol. II, No. 8, July-August, 1935, pp. 61-3.
[In the mixed review below, Rolfe finds many of the stories in Kneel to the Rising Sun amusing and pleasant, but he also considers them evidence that Caldwell's writing has stagnated, failing to address profound and complex issues.]
Erskine Caldwell has become more certain of himself during the past few years. The seventeen stories in his new volume [Kneel to the Rising Sun] are written with ease of manner, and, in most cases, with surety of execution. Occasionally, he finds a theme important enough for his abilities at their best, and the result is a remarkably moving tale like the title story of this collection or—even better—"Masses of Men". "Kneel to the Rising Sun," a narrative of the events leading up to a lynching, and of the lynching itself, deserves to be included in every collection of modern American short stories. The same can be said for "Masses of Men," in which a destitute widow, whose three children are starving, prostitutes her little ten-yearold girl to a stranger for twenty five cents.
These, however, are the only two stories that approach major importance in the entire collection. Of the others, four are definitely good ("Candy-Man Beechum," "The Walnut Hunt," "Daughter" and "Blue Boy") and four are (despite Caldwell's distintive treatment, in which an original twist gives the story a character of its own) decidedly mediocre. The remaining seven tales are written, and must be treated, on a different and lower plane. They are evidence of Caldwell's most flippant and purposeless mood, despite their momentary humor. They belong to the category which I characterized as "anecdote writing" in a review of his first book, American Earth, four years ago.
Strangely enough, Caldwell has improved even in this limited phase of his work. His special talent for handling slight, almost meaningless material deftly, bringing out the maximum effect with the appearance of almost effortless ease, is unparalleled in modern American fiction. In this connection, his work is greatly similar to that of David Garnett, notwithstanding their differences of approach, of temperamet, of stylistic method. But even in these slight humorous stories, which comprise the bulk of his published work, Caldwell makes a contact with reality beyond the scope of his localized, limited material. Whether he does so intentionally or unconsciously, this is the saving virtue of nine-tenths of his writing. One has only to read his American Earth, and We Are the living, and the novels, Tobacco Road, God's little Acre and Journeyman, to verify this statement.
It would be comparatively easy to dissect several of Caldwell's stories—even the more successful ones—and to show where he fails in specific cases to reveal character, to develop his situations, to probe more deeply into his people's motives. But it would be difficult to take a single story of his and explain its general failure to go beyond a certain point; to determine just why his work very rarely achieves a major mood. The answer can, however, be stated in general terms.
Caldwell as a writer operates primarily on a sensory plane. He has seen and he knows the life of the people about whom he writes. He understands them and has a great tolerance toward, and compassion for them. This is why is he able to record their lives, their tantrums, their petty qualities and their occasional heroism faithfully and convincingly, so that the reader sympathizes, laughs with or at them. But here his virtues as a writer end, and the real reason for his larger failure begins. The lives of his characters are too seldom transmitted to that higher region of the mind where alone they can be resolved into completely meaningful personalities. They are almost never perceived in their entirety, merely felt as scattered and fragmentary points of contact. James T. Farrell, for example, possesses this higher sensitivity and perception, this ability to understand his material on a rigorous intellectual level; and these things give Farrell's work major possibilities. But Caldwell, handicapped by the lack of them, has failed so far to progress beyond a pleasant, easy competence, and a preoccupation with themes that seldom advance beyond trivial and fragmentary stages.
Erskine Caldwell is still coasting along in that easy manner which he had mastered when his first book, American Earth, appeared. I say "manner" advisedly; it is not a style. Unless he applies himself more painstakingly to his art, unless he attempts larger themes, he may never fulfill any of his early promise, but end in a literary grave next to another American writer whom in many ways he resembles, Bret Harte. Harte also emerged once with a new and racy talent, with a gift for portraying the people of a strange locale; but he played the same tune on the same guitar over and over again. His works are almost completely forgotten today.
Caldwell seems to be following too closely this fatal line of least resistance. It is about time he discarded the meaningless guitar for a sturdier, more intricate and more developed instrument; time that he attempted to study new themes. He may fail at first. But such a failure will be preferable to the stagnation which threatens him.
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SOURCE: "Sweet Are the Uses of Degeneracy," in The Southern Review, louisiana State University, Vol. 1, No. 3, Winter, 1936, pp. 449-66.
[In the excerpt below, Wade surveys Caldwell's early work in an effort to "assess the Caldwell virtues and to wonder whether they are virtues good enough and numerous enough to sustain for very long the impression that he is important. "]
Mr. Erskine Caldwell was born in rural Georgia in 1903. His father is a Presbyterian minister, an intellectual, solicitous about the well-being of the poor; and his mother is a school teacher. During his youth, his parents roved over most of the Southeast, and the boy went to the public schools at whatever place his father happened at the time to be preaching. There are tales of his having early, like Shelley, become convinced of the perfidy and dishonesty of school-masters. By the time he was twenty, he had ended a brief matriculation at the University of Virginia, and was ready for the great world.
According to the jacket of his first published book, he has been a farm hand, a cottonseed oil mill and lumber mill worker in Georgia; a cotton picker and hack driver in Tennessee; a book reviewer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and also in Houston, Texas; a stage hand in a burlesque theatre and a soft-drink dispenser in Philadelphia; a lecture-bureau manager in Scranton; night cook and waiter in the Union Station at Wilkes-Barre; and a professional football player in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He worked for a year as a reporter on the Atlanta Journal, and then, auctioning off the contents of three suitcases, he went to Maine, to live in Portland and the town of Mt. Vernon.
While all of this was going on, he found time to marry, and, once he was nineteen (1922), to write and rewrite stories and send them away to magazines and receive them back, and send them off to other magazines repeatedly, till 1929. In that memorable year, his first published story appeared in The New Caravan, and the hero came into his own. He has continued to live in Maine, but he breaks his residence there by long winter-visits to his parents in the small Georgia town of Wrens, close to Augusta. And he continues to write, with no promise of abatement. All of this busy rushing from place to place and from one occupation to another with what seems a keen and proud enjoyment of the process is typical of this era—a new Renaissance. . . .
In so far as he belongs to a "school"—pretty far, that is—he follows the styles of brevity, simplicity and sharpness of expression, and violence of action. His world is the one standard to modern intellectualism, in which the reign of sordidness or weakness in the world is broken only by persons indifferent to all of the traditional assumptions of whatever it is that has passed for civilization. look not to rich-man, doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief (or pastor or master, for that matter) he seems to say, for any solace; that can be gained only from poor-men, beggar-men, thieves, rogues, vagabonds, common liars, and so on. The formula is well known, and its reason for being, in the arts as well as in ordinary human thinking, is plain to anybody who has observed the principle of action and reaction in the universe. But comprehension does not of necessity involve a blind endorsement, and misgivings as to the over-simplification of Sir Walter Scott are not to be allayed in any real and helpful sense by reading Ivanhoe word for word backward.
The parts of Caldwell's writing that are most dependent upon this formula are probably doomed. The formula is faddish and topical; it is school-boyish in its preoccupation with easily shocked Miss Nancys; and, to cap all, there is little evidence, except that of current popularity, for its being basically sensible. A great artist often transcends the limitations of the artistic convention that governs him. If his acceptance of that convention is interpreted as having been on the whole sincere—and only time seems able to determine satisfactorily on this score—the artist's acceptance is rated as perhaps charmingly naïve and quaint; but it is, after all, tolerated for the sake of qualities it is bound up with and is not admired independently.
It is interesting to assess the Caldwell virtues and to wonder whether they are virtues good enough and numerous enough to sustain for very long the impression that he is important. He is, of course, important in a certain sense—it would be impolite and even silly to suggest the contrary. In a sense we are all of us important—the writer of these words, and the Idiot Boy and any Unknown Soldier, and William Shakespeare, and Mr. Sinclair lewis. The question is, and it would seem to be a pertinent one from Mr. Caldwell's standpoint, to know whether 1945 will maintain the 1935 rating of him any more faithfully than 1935 has maintained the 1925 rating of Mr. Sinclair lewis. If it will, why, indeed, will it?
He is, as one of his advocates in New York has pointed out, "an original American humorist with a gift for selecting his material from indigenous sources, and he has an instinct for converting a casual episode into a symbol." That is fine indeed. And he develops his situations through characters (created with a tenderness unknown to Mr. lewis) that are more likely to prove constant than either Carol Kennicott or Babbitt or Arrowsmith. His humor and his sympathy, then, are the attributes that he must look to for permanence. Whether those attributes will be worth searching for after ten years under the welter of fashionable but transitory trappings he ties onto them, nobody can say surely. A good American should know that a good vein is worth mining thoroughly, and, since journalists of the sort we know are a glut in America, it is worth remembering, in Mr. Caldwell's connection, that a man who can be both humorous and sympathetic, and who can write, would do well to get the newspapers once and for all well out of mind.
American Earth is made up almost entirely of stories, many about the South and many about New England; the remainder of it, called The Sacrilege of Alan Kent, is a prose production, some thirty to forty pages long, divided and subdivided formidably into Roman-numeraled sections running about three or four to the page. This composition, it seems, is impressionistic autobiography. It talks first and last about most things, including God and Sex; and so many of its divisions are so very simple that the entire production may well be listed as poetry. As for instance:
Section xxxvii in Section II, "A man walked in a restaurant through the front door and ate all he wanted to eat"
Section xlii in Section III, "When the daily temperature was nearly 100 degrees in the shade, and often more than that, the heat of the midday sun was maddening."
As there is no further poetry in the seven books published, it must be concluded that the author's judgment forbade him for the time at least to work farther in that medium. It was a prohibition nobody will quarrel with.
The stories deal with country and village people, among whom, as the publisher's blurb makes clear, "Love is direct and immediate; hate the same." They deal, in short, with just the sort of people that sophisticated New Yorkers and would-be New Yorkers—the major part of the book-buying population of America—can at once most envy and marvel over and deplore, with the sort of people best calculated to satisfy at once the current vogue for primitivism and the constant vogue of metropolitan complacency. Here is God's plenty to prove that country people are, when not amusingly simple, quite horribly brutal; it is all a very sad commentary on the unhappy folks who have not had the wit to move to some of the nation's many Fifth Avenues or Greenwich Villages, or perhaps even Boweries. And it is all very authentic-sounding, written by one who clearly knows the regions he describes. There is no end of direct and immediate sex; there is a bona fide lynching with coca-cola served during the intermissions; there is an idyl of two utterly brutal white men monkeywrenching five gold teeth from the mouth of a dead negro; there is another idyl (admirably handled, be it said) of a fine and innocent girl who, to avoid starving, is said to have been obliged to become a prostitute. The New England countrymen are in their essentials much like the Southerners, as stupid, if less violent, and more frustrated and niggling. . . .
We Are the living holds to the Caldwell story-book formula established in American Earth. It is predominantly concerned with rural people in the South and in New England, but the characters are in general of a fairly satisfactory socio-economic order. From an artistic standpoint it is the bravest of the author's publications; he here frequently runs the risk of impressing his audience without an eternal clanging of the gongs of wonderment and stupefaction—and he succeeds beautifully. Two or three of the Southern stories and all of the four New England stories are examples of the robustious, gusty humor that is among the best of their author's qualities. Only about half of these few stories turn definitely upon the idea of sex and even these treat the subject with gratifying circumspection.
One of the humorous stories, "The People's Choice," is in the long tradition of anti-democratic political satire that Americans from Brackenridge to Mark Twain have at times written in exuberantly. Proud of his election as Baptist deacon, Gus Streetman goes to a village carnival on the night before his induction into his new office. As the evening flies on, he becomes so thoroughly drunk that it is impossible the next morning to sober him up thoroughly before it is time for him to go to church. He goes none the less, to mistake the soprano soloist for one of the carnival artists whose performances he had much enjoyed only a few hours since. He exhorts the lady so ardently to enliven her performance, as he had with success exhorted the other lady a little earlier, that he is arrested; and the meeting is utterly broken up. The crowd follows him to jail by way of seeing the episode through, and there in front of the jail resolves, in response to his eloquence, to elect him sheriff of the county, come the next election. "Country Full of Swedes" is an uproarious account of the bewildered stupidity of native Down-Easters—the characters excellently presented—before the stupidity and recklessness of some transient foreigners. In most of the remaining stories the reader is asked to marvel over the mental attitudes rather than over the physical actions of the characters. The writer is apparently a Sherwood Anderson who has profited by the experiences of Winesburg; the discerning tenderness of his sympathies is largely evident.
Very seldom in We are the living does the writer attain his standard degree of pure sexiness; but if a disappointed Caldwellian inferred upon the publication of the book that his favorite author had undergone a change of heart, there was encouragement waiting for him around the next corner [in Journeyman]. And if he inferred, to his confusion, from the complacency of the good Baptists in "The People's Choice" that Southern country folks are not, after all, dominated by reprehensible evangelicalism, there was encouragement on that score too, quickly to be made manifest. . . .
The more direct and harsh manifestations of sex are a diminishing factor in Kneel to the Rising Sun. And as time goes on, Mr. Caldwell tends to become less emphatically engrossed in Southern matters. Of the seventeen stories in Kneel to the Rising Sun, six only are based upon essentially Southern themes. It seems that the first grade of the author's violence and recklessness is still available mainly when he is looking South, but the second grade is good and bloody, and at times even the non-Southern stories are all that the most despondent could ask of them.
Three of the Southern stories treat of poor whites; in one of them the hero is victimized by his own stupidity and mildness, in the other two, by economic want. One man, in crazed frustration, shoots his dog, named Fiddler, and beats it to death with an axe; another shoots his eight-year-old daughter because he cannot bear to hear her say she is hungry. Of the stories involving negroes, one exemplifies the vulgar pleasure with which a group of "respectable" white people at a New Year's dinner witness the antics of an adolescent, imbecile negro boy, kept by their host as a sort of court-fool. Another tells of a magnificent and perfectly innocent negro wantonly shot to death. The third, the story from which the title of the book is taken, offers, by way of establishing "atmosphere," a harrowing description of a foul and brutish landlord's obscenely cutting off the tail of a dog belonging to one of his white tenants named lonnie, and also, a hardly more harrowing description of lonnie's starving old father, eaten up bodily by fat hogs. Finally, lonnie's fellow share-tenant, a negro named Clem, is lynched—as innocent as he was at birth—despicably betrayed by his friend lonnie, who had let his racial affiliations take precedence over his occupational affiliations. That is the sort of story this is, and it is told with gruesome effectiveness—and Clem's bullet-torn body lies on the earth for the red, round rising sun to make of it what it can.
Three of the stories in this volume have to do with the troubles that assail city dwellers. Two of the characters are fine young girls (one, aged nine) who are forced by hunger into prostitution; another is a man, through no fault of his own unemployed, who is run down and killed by a callous and very rich young fellow in—of all places—Augusta, Georgia, that well-known haunt of the Crocuses. . . .
[The] rapid and sensible introduction to Some American People, (a little sermon in Travel, it is) gives evidence—as there is plenty of evidence through all his books—that the writer is a man of considerable power. And it is likely that his entire literary output would be more impressive if—a good Southerner still—he were not as plaintively anxious as he is to please the kind and class of people that he has come to be affiliated with—the detached, nervous, thrill-goaded metro-cosmopolitans of his own day.
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SOURCE: "A Caldwell Item," in The New York Times Book Review, December 20, 1936, p. 7.
[In the following review of The Sacrilege of Alan Kent, written at the time of the work's publication as a separate volume, Strauss finds it an interesting but "youthful and unsuccessful" experiment.]
Erskine Caldwell has had a curious literary career, and the obscure record of his publications will tantalize and delight the collectors, for whom this handsome volume [The Sacrilege of Alan Kent] is obviously designed. His early work was privately printed, and his first short stories appeared in such out of the way and now extinct little magazines as Clay, Contact, Contempo, Folk-Say, The lion and Crown, The New English Weekly and Pagany. A collection of stories appeared under the title American Earth, and was passed by almost unnoticed. Tobacco Road first brought Caldwell to the attention of the public, although it didn't sell well until its phenomenally successful dramatization was produced.
Then, in rapid succession, Caldwell received a Yale Review prize, published his second novel, God's little Acre, and his second collection of short stories, We Are the living. His stock soared. Critics began to debate whether his work was superbly comic or profoundly tragic. The rising school of proletarian literature claimed him for its own, although it was obvious that he emerged straight from post-war impressionism.
The Sacrilege of Alan Kent was apparently first published in a magazine in 1931. It dates from Caldwell's experimental days and clearly reveals the influence of impressionism upon him. In fact, it is nothing more than 136 numbered impressions of about fifty or sixty words each, roughly arranged to comprehend the life span of a young man of humble origin who drifts through the South witnessing acts of violence and brutality, struggles for a living, and dreams eternally of an ideal woman.
The early impressions are carefully ordered and easy to follow. Such an episode as this leaves its clear mark upon a youthful mind:
In the peach orchard my father had a small apiary. I chucked a rotten peach into one of the wooden boxes and a bee shot from the hive plumb to my eye. I beat my head on the red clay in unbearable torment until my father came and ran with me in his arms two miles or more along a road deep with red dust.
The record of labor and struggle follows swiftly upon the record of youth, but with the inception of the dream of the ideal woman the sequence of impressions becomes confused. We move swiftly from reality to vision and back again, and between episodes of the utmost horror we find recurrent notes such as this:
I began searching again for the girl whose eager face I had first seen in the crowd. No one could ever know how lonely I felt without her.
The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (the meaning of the title is obscure) is a youthful and unsuccessful experiment in a form to which Mr. Caldwell will undoubtedly never return; yet it throws an interesting light on the technique for which he is now known.
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SOURCE: "Caldwell Has Seen Their Faces," in New York Herald Tribune Books, June 19, 1938, p. 5.
[In this review of Southways, Soskin detects a change in these stories from Caldwell's earlier work, observing a greater brevity and intensity: "he writes the bare, bedrock story hammered into an immediate situation as though he could not bear to write at greater length. "]
One of the least profitable of industries is that of classifying and cataloguing Erskine Caldwell. Ever since American Earth and Tobacco Road appeared, and even when a lesser known and privately circulated novel called The Bastard made Mr. Caldwell's talents apparent, reviewers and readers have been arguing the questions of whether he is primarily a comic satirist, an amoral sensationalist, a social propaganda writer, a plain realist, or—since his home ground in Georgia lends itself to all these categories—just a writer with the South in his mouth.
Nobody seems to have won a decision in the free-for-all discussion, and so far as the general public is concerned, Mr. Caldwell is best known for a clumsy and rather misleading dramatization of Tobacco Road. His recent stories collected in the volume Southways, will give the classifiers and cataloguers little help, since Mr. Caldwell continues to write comedy, satire, bawdy stuff, realism and—more than before—social propaganda founded on a greater realization of the agony of poverty and the brutality of social injustice than he has ever expressed. The stories are shorter now, and reduced to a sharper, more bitter distillate, but this is not a circumstance of technique. In Tobacco Road and in American Earth Mr. Caldwell used to dwell on the realistic details Lovingly, and to draw out the slow-motion scenario of the life of the South's peasants with a sense of writer's relish. Now he deals, for the most part, with the intense immediate tragedies of men and women starving to death, of dispossessed mothers dying in childbirth, of share croppers driven into slavery—and he writes the bare, bedrock story hammered into an immediate situation as though he could not bear to write at greater length. Caldwell has seen their faces, and now he cannot forget their faces.
From the point of view of literary craftsmanship and considered as entertainment, the stories that reach deep into the troubled hearts of submerged people—"A Knife to Cut Corn Bread With," "Wild Flowers" and "Man and Woman"—are the least important; but Caldwell's work illustrates with extraordinary clarity the reason why literary artistry is in disrepute these days. Knowing these things, knowing of the fate of a dispossessed people, a writer of Caldwell's stature is compelled to report them bluntly, passionately and from the core of his conscience. He differs from most of his proletarian colleagues in that their work usually makes the reader wonder why they do not confine themselves to writing political pamphlets and economic reports rather than persist in the attempt to make fiction and drama out of badly digested proletarian slogans. A simple story of a starving farmer, however, planning a form of cannibalism to satisfy his wife's hunger, gauche and lurid and melodramatic as it may be, becomes in Caldwell's hands a moving drama, a vehicle for the large emotion and the strong compassion he has. It forces us to put aside considerations of literary art and realize that the man is doing what he has to, writing what all men must know today not in political terms or in economic formulas, but in terms of human feeling.
That is why it is silly to make literary judgments about Erskine Caldwell at present. He is the creature of an extraordinary period, an artist whose essential nature is hurled about and hammered and burned in a chaotic social era. If he remained a consistent artist, smoothly developing and untouched by these driving forces, he would have to be a lesser man.
That he can still write the American Earth kind of comedy is convincingly demonstrated in such stories as "Hamrich's Polar Bear," wherein a group of Georgia housewives and yokels are made to apply broomstick beatings to a mysterious polar bear that appears on back-porches. Before he is through Mr. Caldwell achieves something of a comic Breughel landscape, much as he did in the famous story "Country Full of Swedes." Another tale, "A Small Day," contains the familiar type of high-jinks that went into Journeyman—a good deal of horselaughter about an elderly gallant's desire to marry a healthy wench and about his further desire to "handsel" her three days before the marriage. Nobody can achieve a more carnal and profane effect than Mr. Caldwell does in such stories, and it must irritate censors and purity committees not to be able to put their accusing forefingers on any specifically immoral word or sentence in these hot little opera.
Gentler and softer humor may be found in "Uncle Henry's Love Nest," wherein Aunt Jenny becomes a considerate and lavish wife when she learns that her spouse has another establishment on Centre Street, and in "Snaeker," a really extraordinary study of a callow College Joe who brings the prettiest girl in the State, whom he has never met or known, to the football banquet merely by going to her home in another town and asking her.
The elements of sadism and macabre fantasy which have marked some of Mr. Caldwell's work are also present in this volume. "The Negro in the Well" has to do with a white man who leaves a Negro to drown in a well because the Negro won't agree to swap off two hound dogs. And "The Fly in the Coffin" involves the question of whether the fly that is locked in Old Dose Muffin's coffin can tickle Dose's nose. It is, I think, the high in fantastic abandon for this week, at least, and it requires considerable imaginative power on the part of the reader.
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SOURCE: "Caldwell's Stories," in The New Republic, Vol. XCV, No. 1231, July 6, 1938, p. 258.
[In the review of Southways below, Ferguson asserts that this collection of short stories is less imaginative but more mature than Caldwell's earlier efforts.]
If you have any interest in the way the quick turn of a short story can give you glimpses of people living their lives, you couldn't do much better today than Erskine Caldwell's new collection [Southways].
Caldwell is getting closer than ever to bringing two ways of seeing and feeling into a single way of writing. In most of the early stuff you could (many did) trace a social meaning if it pleased you, but it hadn't been consciously put there: it was a mere necessary adjunct to a writer's delight in his material and his craft. But ideas were afoot and Caldwell knew a writer just couldn't sit around and be delighted. So he began to impose social point from outside, and one of the classic examples of the dividing line between what is inside and what is spread on is still God's little Acre, where the unspoiled real-fantasy of the first half (almost as if the writer had read a copy of The Daily Worker overnight) turns into the last half, where the symbols of fun-in-bed and strike-in-the plant are brought together, to their mutual confusion and embarrassment. The writing is of course swell all the way through: you can't unlearn to be a writer just by reading the exhortations of those who aren't.
Southways has two types of story: the picture of men being stunted or wrecked by powers as immanent, inscrutable and everlasting as the old gods; the picture of men caught in their own foibles or catching them by the tail, bawdy and unashamed on the lower levels of sophistication, drinking, handseling, swapping hound dogs or beating the old woman a little, all with more natural shrewdness and pure gusto than it takes to get into the Senate or the magazines. Still, I cannot remember one of the sixteen pieces in which the idea is not conceived and worked out in the vein appropriate to it. The wretched ways of social injustice crop up in more places than that of the primary boss-worker conception. Three stories are concerned with the tragedy of white over Negro, one of them comical on the surface. Three have to do with some warping personal devil. But while there are in addition only two direct class indictments ("Wild Flowers" and "A Knife to Cut the Cornbread With"), there is felt throughout, just as you might sense it in the ordinary world, the many strong teeth just under and behind the easy grin.
For a touch of humor in humanity, a touch of sweetness, I'd pick "Uncle Henry's Love Nest"; for deepness of human trouble, "Return to Lavinia" and the two purely social ones mentioned. "The Night My Old Man Came Home" is nearest to the Caldwell of "The Grass Fire" and the way they preserved God's little acre—but the old crazy zest seems to have sobered a little. The wild march-grass of the imagination is thinning, and at the same time a more utilitarian crop, with deeper roots, is being matured.
Without prediction or devices of exhortation (the lord knows a man of Caldwell's prose could tell any critic writing today to go read his own work for a change), I should say this book was an interim report. Caldwell has been most successful as he has brought his life-as-observed material into the fantasy of story-telling and legend, by such tricks of private vision and such an ear for the lift of speech, by such imperceptible planning and joining, that he couldn't help being book-reviewed as a "realist" from the first. But from this book you can see that he is handicapped in handling straight tragedy by the very simplification, and heightening to the unreal, which served him so well in the earlier vein. He seems to plot and stage and stack the cards a little. But if at the same time he can bring what he has in him out in something of novel length and flight, he will have something there.
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SOURCE: "Southern laughter," in The New York Times Book Review, April 25, 1943, p. 6.
[In this review, Du Bois considers Georgia Boy "an unalloyed delight" and declares that one "would have to go back to Huck Finn to find a more companionable storyteller" than William Stroup, the narrator of these linked stories.]
Erskine Caldwell has come back from the steppes at last. He returns with a heart-warming book about the South he understands so completely, a book in which the Caldwell trademarks of dry rot, degeneracy and despair are conspicuous by their absence. His admirers may rejoice now that his stint as a Russian correspondent has ended.
Georgia Boy might well have been subtitled "life With Father on the Tobacco Road." The comparison between Clarence Day and the Morris Stroup of these light-hearted sketches is inevitable—and more apparent than real. Both characters are "universals" in the best sense of Plato's term. But the life story of Pa Stroup, as glimpsed through the mind of his 12-year-old son, William, is a magnificent tribute to the inertia that dwells so comfortably in the Southern soul. Morris Stroup is sly as a hound dog as he pursues his ease and the elusive half dollar; he is singleminded as a mule in his misconception of a citizen's duty in a democracy. In short, he is Jeeter lester with the psycopath burned clean away—as disarming a no-account as you will meet in a month of Sundays.
"My old man always said a nap after breakfast made him feel a lot better for the remainder of the day," says William. The elder Stroup followed this regime religiously—especially when his wife, Martha, was gathering washing at the neighbors' back steps. Thanks to Mrs. Stroup's unflagging efforts the family managed to stay above subsistence level, though the margin was narrow at times. They even managed to maintain a few hens in the barn, a yardboy named Handsome Brown and a mule named Ida.
Mr. Caldwell's readers need not be reminded that his Georgia is far removed from the ruined pillars of Margaret Mitchell's Tara or that his people are worlds apart from Berry Fleming's red-clay rogues. The Caldwell cosmos is a part of the pine barrens that sweep south across the Florida line to Okeechobee—a land of palmetto scrub and chinaberry trees and played-out sandy loam that manages to look bone-dry an hour after a downpour. Its people are the incredible residue of British migration, inbred and aloof; most of them, it would seem, were born to share-crop since the days of Oglethorpe —or, like Morris Stroup, to dream of easy riches in the shade.
It is unfair to complain if these people seem cunning or corrupt or fanatically unjust. Most of them are too amoral for such easy judgments, too hopelessly removed from the revolutions that rock the world today. Mr. Caldwell has dissected them before with searing bitterness. In Georgia Boy he writes of them with a tolerance that comes close to tenderness.
Perhaps this mellow mood is a by-product, after all. For it is evident from the first page, that young William Stroup Loves his wily old scoundrel of a father with all his heart, that he would follow him in all his hare-brained plots to lick the world—providing the licking did not require too much effort. When Pa sets out to make his fortune collecting scrap-iron, it seems only natural to William that they should include the neighbors' washtubs and pump-handles. When the elder Stroup enters into a "swopping match" with a band of gypsies, William is not surprised to see his old man vanish into the haymow with the queen—and emerge, an hour later, with the queen's bankroll. For Pa considers himself the first Casanova of the county, as well as its most sapient philosopher: his come uppance with a perfumed traveling saleswoman (when Ma is away at the ladies' Aid) is an hilarious case in point. You will also go a long way to find a funnier story than the Stroups' misadventures in the Universalist belfry, during the mailman's wedding. Or Pa's brief career as a dog-catcher in Sycamore—a chance at a political future which he promptly abandons when he sees that even politics can turn into a full-time job.
But no synopsis can do justice to the engaging quality of Georgia Boy. Take Handsome Brown, the soft-spoken, dim-witted Negro yardboy—a perfect case of arrested development in a race groping for its destiny. Take Ida the mule, and College Boy the fighting rooster, both of whom are as real as your Congressman, and much more amusing. Take the bitter moment when Pa realizes that Ma has served up College Boy in a pie. Or Handsome Brown's Iliad with five goats on the Stroup roof. Or the companion piece, wherein a flock of shirt-tailed woodpeckers mistake the yardboy's head for a tree.
Other Southern writers, such as William Faulkner, have refracted their social satire through a child's mind with greater brilliance and depth; Mr. Caldwell himself has used children before as pure biblical symbols of fate in the making. Georgia Boy can stand on its own special merits, for all that. This reviewer would have to go back to Huck Finn to find a more companionable story-teller than Pa Stroup's William.
The story that William tells is too slight to be called a novel, though Mr. Caldwell's publishers have given it that arbitrary label. It is rich with character for all its slightness; the social meaning is there, under its easy comedy. Probably the pundits will lose no time in blue-printing all its people, including Ida; probably they will find fixations without number, and abundant overtones of evil. But this is the plain duty of pundits, when dealing with a writer of Erskine Caldwell' stature. This reader admits that he enjoyed Georgia Boy for its laughter, and let the overtones fall where they may. Taken in that spirit, it is an unalloyed delight.
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Pocket Book of Erskine Caldwell Stories, edited by Henry Seidel Canby, Pocket Books, 1947, pp. vii-xvi.
[Canby was an American educator, critic, biographer, and the co-founder and first editor of the Saturday Review. In the following essay, which was first published in 1944 as Canby's introduction to a collection of Caldwell's stories, the critic likens Caldwell to a sociologist for his detailed examinations of humanity in his short fiction.]
Erskine Caldwell is one of those rare men in human experience who have done both what they wanted and what they have thought that they wanted. He thought that he wanted most of all to "go places," to see people in a living experience of the sociology he picked up at the University of Virginia. However, he began his travelling—more accurately described as vagabondage—long before he ever heard of sociology. In childhood and youth he was a resident of six Southern states, and wandered through all of them as an amateur tramp, with a tramp's experience, but the mind of an artist and observer. Then, when his reputation was made, he travelled in a big way as a correspondent, notably in Russia.
But something in him wanted all this time to write. He says he would have preferred to be a working sociologist, which reminds me of Vachel lindsay's passionate desire to be known as an art critic. Yet apparently only the desire to write could neutralize the vagabond in Caldwell, who was always finding his immediate environment too small. And, indeed, as his prefatory notes to the collection of his short stories called Jackpot show, many of these tales were written en route by bus or train from one place to another. The truth is, of course, that these two dominant wants in Caldwell's life are as closely related as ploughing, planting, and harvesting. His stories came out of the soil on which he has lived and over which he has wandered. The inexplicable urge which forces the born writer to symbolize life in words and create the significance which actual experience hides in a confusion of events, has done the rest. Gross experience accurately recorded and stastically explained is sociology; but if a man is an artist, this experience sets his imagination to work, and he is not content until he has drawn out the inner truth which is so much more revealing than the facts. That Caldwell has this peculiar sensitiveness, which is indispensable for fiction, is sufficiently indicated by the record. In fifteen years of writing he has published twenty volumes of short stories, novels, social studies, war correspondence, and travel notes, which have so impressed the contemporary world as to be represented in thirteen nations and twelve languages in addition to his own.
Erskine Caldwell was born in the middle of December, 1903 (the exact date has been lost), in the hill country south of Atlanta, Georgia, eight miles from the nearest post office. His father, a minister in the Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church, and a North Carolinian, was also a wanderer, who moved on from church to church through the South every year or two, on an average salary of $300 a year. At seventeen, the boy left home to go to school in South Carolina, but spent more time riding freights and as blind-baggage than in school, with arrests for vagrancy and rich opportunities to see life in its picaresque aspects. Just how, with this rich but not concentrated education, he got into the University of Virginia, is not clear—there must have been more direction in his wishes than he admits. But he did stay there—more or less—two years, supporting himself by working in a poolroom as helper and bouncer.
He left to become a cub reporter on The Atlanta Journal, which had been his ambition, married and began a family. But he discovered, as so many journalists have done, that newspaper work is not creative writing, and that if to write in a creative way is what you want, journalism is the wrong profession. The only way to write creatively is to write creatively, and forego, at whatever risk, daily news writing. So, with admirable audacity, Erskine Caldwell got as far away from his old environment as possible, perhaps subconsciously feeling the need to get it into perspective. For years he "holed in in Maine," raised potatoes and chopped wood to feed his family, "vowing not to come out until I had got myself published." But in three years—as is recorded in one of his books—he had sold a story (over the telephone) for $350, though he would have willingly taken $50 for it if necessary, and his public career had begun.
I myself regard Caldwell as primarily and essentially a short-story writer. His fame among the masses is due of course to the incredible success of the play, Tobacco Road, written by another, but based on a long short story or nouvelle, as the French call such stories, by Caldwell. But at his most original, most effective, and certainly at his best, Caldwell belongs in the distinguished list of American short-story writers who have made their place in world literature, beginning with Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe. And it is as a short-story writer that I shall discuss him. .. . In this career, to an extent surpassing any other American story writer except perhaps Sarah Orne Jewett or William Faulkner, the literal, actual facts of his own country, and thus of his own biography, are vitally important. And in the above-mentioned list of great American short-story writers, Erskine Caldwell is, I should say, the first who has consciously viewed the rich materials of his native experience as sociology, and then turned them into successful art.
Of course, the short story is beautifully adapted to this service. The writer of short stories, if he is gifted in that art, keeps his eye on life until it turns for a moment dramatic, then rebuilds the circumstances and retones the atmosphere to give that moment emphasis. For him, mere action is not necessarily, nor even usually, dramatic; rather it is the revealing word or look or dead which makes action burst into significance. Hence, though his choice of descriptive words or of indicative phrases requires the subtlest and most imaginative discrimination, his technique of construction is—once he has learned it—very simple. All it consists in, is to hold the reader's interest in suspense until the climax is ready, which is not a step in the story but really the story itself, for which all the rest is just a build-up. Note in the stories here included, how true this is of such a tale as "Candy-Man Beechum" or "Saturday Afternoon."
Perhaps this is why Mr. Caldwell gets so irritated with the "Professor Perkins" whom he constantly addresses in the paragraph prefaces to the stories he put in Jackpot. "Professor Perkins" is always discussing the construction of the story, whereas there are a dozen possible ways of building most of these Caldwell stories, provided the vital moment, with its implications, is thrown in high relief. If I were "Professor Perkins" and had Erskine Caldwell before my class, I would ask him to retell Bret Harte's "Outcasts of Poker Flat" in his own fashion, and so prove the point very readily. Mr. Caldwell would have liked to rewrite that story, which, under his hands, would change from high-colored (and excellent) melodrama to a rich and objective narrative, as in his "Martha Jean," with the sentiment concentrated into pity and driven down into the roots of the story, where the careless reader might easily miss it. Caldwell and Harte would tell the same story; that is, the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century writers would each give you a Mary Magdalene revealed, but as the result of very different methods.
Probably Erskine Caldwell's grandfather, whom he constantly quotes, was right. The true story teller is a man who seems to be too lazy to do more than experiment with all kinds of living. Actually the thorough-going livers of life have lazy imaginations. The writer's eager fancy plucks him away from experience as soon as he sees its significance. Then he must choose a symbolic movement and give his energies to turning that into the reality of fiction which is always more real because more complete and self-explanatory than actual happenings. Note Caldwell's famous story called "Country Full of Swedes," which is nothing but a symbol of the disturbing rush of vitality over the unvital, like a comber over a sterile beach. Or the simple tale of "Big Buck," which is essentially a description of exuberant life. Or that most terrible of lynching stories, "Saturday Afternoon," where the horror is not in the lightly stressed lynching, but in the naively callous pleasure of the onlookers who have been saved from a dull afternoon.
Naturally, therefore, a short-story writer is most effective when he writes from deep layers of the subconscious, which every poignant memory stirs into a warmth of emotion. Caldwell's Maine stories, such as his "The Midwinter Guest" and his "Grass Fire". . . are humorous studies of eccentricity—usually of obstinacy or of fear. They are like tall tales or local anecdotes told over the cracker barrel, and they are good.
He can do the same thing with Georgia, as in the "Handsome Brown" and "My Old Man" stories, than which it would be hard to find much more amusing reading. This is the Mark Twain tradition and it is a good one. Indeed in these tales, and others which throb with indignation against a maladjusted world in spite of the horse-play and mock innocence on top, Caldwell is Mark Twain's spiritual heir.
But when Erskine Caldwell comes home to Georgia he soon drops the quip and the crank for something much hotter and sometimes of deadly power. Tobacco Road, by no means as deadly as some of his briefer stories, shows how the artist takes his revenge on life as he remembers it. Jeeter lester and Preacher Bessie have entertained thousands of playgoers—but the play, which Caldwell did not write, leaves out the background of the story and it is this that gives it power. What made the play so successful was probably the humor of primitive sexuality brought out by skillful acting. But in the story itself you see why these lamentable decadents are so much more than comic-strip satire. Shreds and tatters of moral codes still hang about them, and a pathetic confidence that God will make up to them for their misfortunes. But that they are helpless and hopeless victims of their own Love of the land which they have ignorantly, obstinately exploited until it will not support a rat, they never guess. This is the dynamic idea behind the story. The boy Caldwell saw them as he walked along Tobacco Road, laughed at them, probably despised them, then began to wonder. The mature Caldwell keeps the memory of their humor, but now can understand what had happened to them, and so he makes their degeneracy human and significant.
The same, of course, is true of his white-and-Negro stories. The classic tale of a lynching is not to be found in Lillian Smith's recent Strange Fruit, effective as that novel is, but in Caldwell's very brief "Saturday Afternoon"—where the fly-specked butcher that everyone likes is awakened from his nap just in time to go to the lynching; or in the very terrible "Kneel to the Rising Sun." Here is entire objectivity. Every word in these stories describes the scene as the actors saw it. The fury of rage with which the author wrote is carefully concealed: It is for you to feel, and, unless you are as naïve as the actors, of course you do feel it. Not even Hemingway's "The Killers" is a more terrible story than these.
Richer and more humorous are the stories of Negro types. Of these, "Big Buck" is a classic of irrepressible vitality. And "Candy-Man Beechum" is the best of all, for here Negro exuberance is checked when it reaches the limits set by the governing race, and is cut down like a weed. There is no preaching in these stories, but only the most insensitive reader can miss the passionate revolt against a vicious system which holds the Negro down in order that a decaying white culture can keep some self-respect in its ignorance and poverty. If Caldwell's sympathy seems always with the Negro, it is probably because he feels that the Negro has retained more humanity and vitality than his oppressors. He is evicted, beaten, shot, lynched, but it is the decadent white who really has been most deeply scarred by what has happened.
This sociologist's understanding of ultimate causes explains the tolerance that enables Caldwell to present his scenes so objectively. There is a false idea that his popular reputation depends upon the freedom he allows himself in describing sexual experience. Read these stories carefully and you will see that this is not really true. Sex spices his stories certainly, but never makes them. Sex, like keeping the Negroes down, is the release from the dull and futureless life of the Georgia whites, who Love their very Lovable sunshine and piney woods, but never seem to be able to get beyond the most elementary efforts to stay fed and clothed. Sex is the one pure joy and adventure left in a starved environment. This sex element in such an excellent story as "Maud Island" is as pagan as in Naomi Micheson's Greek stories. The women (after youth) still keep up the reprobation that makes amorousness an adventure, but in general this sex experience comes from a primitive instinct which seldom rises to Love, and is respected even by husbands and fathers whom it injures. It is vulgar in the true sense of that word. Some of Caldwell's most effective stories, such as "Man and Woman," and "Martha Jean," are made from blind, unanalyzed lifts of this primitive instinct into something more civilized.
Probably—though you would never guess it from his flippant prefaces—Caldwell's chief stock of emotion is pity. In the perfectly delightful stories in Georgia Boy, this pity does not have to be exercised. The Old Man of these stories is just as worthless as the poor whites of the grimmer stories, and could be just as ruthless if his Negro or his neighbor interfered with his peculiar way of life. But in these stories he is in the sun, and does not have to be cruel in order to keep his meal ticket.
Shift from such stories into the shadow and see how the emphasis changes. Read "Kneel to the Rising Sun," the ruthless story of the starved share-cropper whose father is gnawed to death by the boss's hogs. He has so little of a man in him that his loyalty to the plantation (which is all he has left of his morale) will not let him protest, forces him to help the lynchers catch his Negro friend who has dared to tell the boss what he thinks of his inhumanity. Or the story of the sadist who collected the tails of his tenants' dogs. Or "The End of Christy Tucker." In all these narratives, the rage of the writer is tempered and suppressed by his pity for the victims—these Negroes and poor white trash who do not know what is wrong or how to escape it.
The white brutes who are the villains in such stories as these are, with a few exceptions, not creatures of pure evil. They are the same easy-living, land-Loving individuals as in "My Old Man," except that the decline of their economic culture has hurt them more psychologically because they have more to lose. Instead of greed, which is the inevitable reaction in a homogeneous community such as one might find in France, their humor and humanity have degenerated into suppressed fear, unacknowledged cowardice, and open and callous cruelty.
Mr. Caldwell has a very good time bantering the critics in his little prefaces in the volume Jackpot. He thinks, and rightly, that they know too much about the alleged rules of writing and too little about life and the art that springs freshly from it. He may think I am taking him too seriously in the remarks above, but that I doubt. He is well aware that many of his stories are only clever anecdotes; yet his eagerness to get in a punch at his reviewers before their gloves are on, shows that not only does he take his own art hard, but fears and expects it will be misunderstood. In this (and in other ways) he is like Chekhov, who wrote with such regard for the seeming trivialities of life, that he was often thought to be only a photographic realist. Mr. Caldwell's art is definitely an art of understatement—understatement, I mean, of the deep issues of the story, though overstatement and repetition often of the humors, the absurdities, and the eccentricities of his characters. He is not a naturalist, like Dreiser or Zola, in spite of his sociological basis; he is not a realist, if being a realist means to let life speak for itself without focus upon some inner significance; he is certainly not a romanticist, except about the land, where, indeed, his characters often speak in pure idealistic romance which gives their author great satisfaction. No one of these critical terms seems of much use in describing Mr. Caldwell's work, unless negatively. He will not be pigeon-holed easily by literary historians.
I should prefer to characterize him finally by a comparison with a very great artist indeed. The little corner of Georgia with which his mind is obsessed is, in some respects at least, like the misgoverned, decadent, economically backward Spain where Goya painted. In its minor way, Caldwell's Georgia presents individuals as racy in their decay as Goya's Spaniards, and also a community as regardless and as truly ignorant of what had happened to it as was Spain in its collapse after greatness. I do not wish to push the comparison further, except to suggest that Caldwell, like Goya, paints what he sees, and feels with evident intensity, yet never sentimentalizes or falsifies the scene by letting his artist's consciousness leak into his words. The decadence, the economic degradation, the pathology of racial or class conflict are for you to feel if you can. The poor white starving on his sand hills, or the Spanish peasant caught in factional warfare, sees no controllable causes, but only the devil in action, or the wicked rich oppressing him, or sins of his youth now remembered by an avenging God.
But let us drop comparisons, and say simply, that the best of these short stories are symbols of an American experience of quite frightening significance, of which the actors are entirely unaware. And that, being unaware, they can be and are utterly themselves—which means as trivial or worthless or amusing or callously inhuman, as most of us are when food is scarce and the satisfactions of vanity hard to find. Whether this be realism or not, it is certainly a powerful way in which to present reality. And for many a reader the sand hills, and eroded cotton fields, the tottering houses, the easy acceptance and hearty laughter of the middle South, will be most vividly remembered in Erskine Caldwell's interpretation. He has made that country particularly human, by giving the life there a worldwide human significance.
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SOURCE: An introduction to Kneel to the Rising Sun, in Critical Essays on Erskine Caldwell, edited by Scott MacDonald, G. K. Hall & Co., 1981, pp. 227-28.
[The following essay was first published as the introduction to a 1951 edition of Kneel to the Rising Sun. Caldwell here defends the short story form, arguing that "the most exciting and memorable happenings are usually brief and explosive" and therefore well suited to the compact structure of short stories.]
The seventeen short stories in this volume [Kneel to the Rising Sun] probably would never have been written if, many years ago, I had accepted the advice that the novel was the only form of fiction worthy of major effort and that a young and ambitious writer would do well not to handicap himself by following a belief that short-story writing in the age of large-circulation magazines could produce anything of permanent value. The trouble with counsel on the subject of authorship, always to be found offered freely on all sides, is that it is deceptively akin to appreciation and encouragement, and many young writers eagerly accept it without realizing that they are actually getting questionable advice.
In those days, fifteen or twenty years ago, and perhaps today as well, well-meaning but unperceptive persons, many of whom still look upon the short story as being merely a space filler for magazines of large circulation, argued that only a novice or an outright foolish author would ever devote the larger portion of his time and talent to writing anything other than a novel. If all authors believed this and wrote accordingly, it is doubtful if a short story could ever be defined as anything more than an incident or episode that had failed to fit into the structure of a novel.
Perhaps I did have a desire to refute this argument; but whether it was a conscious desire or a cantankerous notion, I did wish to prove to myself that a short story was capable of being just as interesting and enthralling to a reader as a work of fiction of extended length. I set out to prove this for my own benefit, and this collection of seventeen stories, called Kneel to the Rising Sun, was the result of eighteen months of writing. I still feel that it was time well spent and, regardless of whether I proved anything or not, I would not trade this particular book for any novel I have written.
As a writer, I have always felt that there were many incidents and episodes in life that could be told more effectively and compellingly in the compact space of a short story than could be related in a chapter or portion of a longer and often artificially extended work on fiction. After all, there are relatively few dramatic moments in life that require a hundred thousand words for the telling; the most exciting and memorable happenings are usually brief and explosive. The elastic nature of the short story as a form—within which tales are told in as few as several hundred words or as many as several thousand words—is ample reason for its existence and popularity.
Some may argue that none of the stories in Kneel to the Rising Sun would qualify as fiction of major effort. However, as long as these stories continue being read—pleasurably or critically—I will feel that they are capable of speaking for themselves and that there is no necessity for raising my voice in their behalf.
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SOURCE: "Mr. Caldwell's Moods," in The New York Times Book Review, November 22, 1953, pp. 4, 46.
[In the following review of The Complete Stories of Erskine Caldwell, Nichols includes the author's own recollections about the composition of such stories as "Country Full of Swedes" and "Kneel to the Rising Sun."]
[The Complete Stories of Erskine Caldwell] is, of course, the definitive collection of all the short stories written by Erskine Caldwell—ninety-six of them. Here are the familiar ones and those less familiar, the short ones and the long. Here are those which have been dramatized time and again (although perhaps never so thoroughly as Mr. Caldwell's Tobacco Road ) and those which were born to blush practically unseen in now departed little magazines.
As the pages turn—and a lot of pages there indeed are—Mr. Caldwell roams through a writer's moods. He appreciates, as only an observant Southern visitor could, the niceties of the New England character. About New England, he is mainly sunny. But he appreciates, too, as an observant Southerner, that there are many things about share-cropping and poverty that are far from sunny.
Some of the stories are brief character sketches, almost plotless and resembling notes set down in a day book. Some find Mr. Caldwell in sympathetic laughter. But there are others, a great many others, where he is far from genial, where the words on the page and the incidents described are calculated to stand the hair on end. So here they are, all kinds, the life-time short story output of Erskine Caldwell.
The lifetime output? Not quite. The published output. For like many another, Mr. Caldwell had his troubles before getting the ninety-six.
"I've always been writing stories," he said the other day. "Probably I started when I was about 8. But I had the longest period of wastebasket days on record.
"For years I kept the rejection slips. Then, when the first one sold—early in the Thirties—I had a huge bonfire of the slips. It made a fine private celebration."
Which stories, of the ninety-six, most appealed to the man in position to know them best? Mr. Caldwell stirred uneasily.
"Me," he said, "I like 'em all. But if I had to pick, maybe 'Country Full of Swedes,' maybe 'The Windfall.' If I had to narrow it down, perhaps 'Horse Thief should go in, and 'Yellow Girl,' and if it's to be five, 'Kneel To the Rising Sun.'"
The case of Mr. Caldwell's favorite, "Country Full of Swedes"—it is about New England—furnishes an excellent example of the path which leads from a private bonfire to the lead-off position in an anthology.
"I moved to Maine in '29," he said. "Having lived in the South all my life, I wanted to get as far away as I could, and still stay in the country. A lot of writers were going to Europe then, but I went to Maine. I wanted to see the contrast.
"A mixture of nationalities was new to me, and I suppose that gave me the idea. I wrote the story early in the Thirties, and tried to sell it for over a year.
"It was turned down by sixteen or eighteen magazines. Editors just didn't turn it down, but would write and say why. One of them, a good one, too, said to forget the whole thing. Then it went to The Yale Review, which took it right away. In addition, they gave it a $1,000 prize. That was a lot of money then. Still is."
Although only fifth on Mr. Caldwell's list, "Kneel to the Rising Sun" is one of the most familiar of the stories. This is about the South and the killing of a Negro who talked back.
"'Kneel' was the culmination of a lot of things," Mr. Caldwell said. "As a boy I lived a long while in the sharecropper country and it made a great impression on me. Summers I picked cotton and hired out as a farmhand and so saw the whole thing.
"After leaving the South I had the story in mind for about five years. I was living in New York in a $3 basement room when I went to work on it. It didn't take long to write.
"I sent it to Scribner's magazine. Max Perkins wanted to publish it but couldn't persuade the others. Scribner's sent it back. Then a month later Max wrote that he couldn't get it out of his mind, and to return it. He put it in the next issue."
Mr. Caldwell is a tall man, just this side of 50, with a crew cut, an Arizona tan and a once broken nose. This broken nose came about when he once played semi-pro football in the coal regions of Pennsylvania.
"I'd been working in Philadelphia in an orange-drink stand," he said. "Came the fall and a night shift in an open stand and I almost froze. Having lived in the South, my blood was pretty thin. I had to get out of there, and the only job I could find was as stock boy in Kresge's in Wilkes-Barre. Another boy there got me into football—Wilkes-Barre in the Anthracite league. The salaries weren't great."
His wanderings are a little hard to follow, although there is a rhythm about them and a purpose beyond the Arizona tan.
"I left the South at 21, when I'd finished preliminary education. Then there were eight years in Maine, a few in New York, some in Connecticut and eight in Tucson. I make it a practice never to live anywhere more than eight years, so I recently rented a studio in Phoenix. Only 125 miles away, but a move."
Author of a dozen novels and other matters besides the ninety-six stories, Mr. Caldwell never mixes them up. This is the year for working on a novel (title undetermined, but about life in the United States), while next year may be one for stories. It was from one of the novels that Broadway and the rest of the civilized world received Tobacco Road, which ran for interminable centuries.
"I don't consider myself part of it," Mr. Caldwell said. "Someone else did the dramatization, not me. But I tried to go at least once a year. I wanted to see what they were up to, that year."
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SOURCE: "Erskine Caldwell: A Note for the Negative," in College English, Vol. 17, No. 6, March, 1956, pp. 357-59.
[Bode was an American critic, educator, and poet. In the excerpt below, he disparages Caldwell's artistry generally but judges his short stories superior to his novels: "the sagging architecture which weakens all his novels does not develop in the short stories. They are better for being brief."]
God's little Acre and the rest of Caldwell's hot and shoddy novels make much money for him but add nothing to his literary reputation. This is not true for his short stories. The Complete Stories of Erskine Caldwell (1953) gives us a chance to see him to better advantage.
Most of these tales are set, as one might expect, in the same South as God's little Acre. A few of the remainder are set in New England, where Caldwell spent several early years trying to sell what he wrote. The rest of the stories are unlocalized. The Southwest—he now lives in Arizona—furnishes him with no material at all. His characters in these narratives are rarely individual. The poor whites act much alike. Although some of his stories of social injustice are as moving as anything he has ever written, it is hard to tell one suffering Negro from another. If we had to fix the time within which these beaten-down white and colored sharecroppers move, it would apparently be the depth of the Great Depression. Caldwell has selected the period, as he has selected the place, which offers him the best chance for grimy melodrama. The pressures of poverty and exploitation weigh on his people. Actually, the New Deal, World War II, and the postwar boom in the South have all come to relieve those pressures, but Caldwell wisely continues to ignore this fact.
When he abandons his picturing of the impoverished South, his writing nearly always suffers. His conclusion to "The lonely Day," for example, the story of a Maine farm girl, is pure mawkishness. "The first light of day broke through the mists and found her lying in the road, her body made lifeless by an automobile that had shot through the darkness an hour before. She was without motion, but she was naked, and a smile that was the beginning of laughter made her the most beautiful woman that tourists speeding to the Provinces had ever seen." When he tries to philosophize about life for the women's magazine market, he sounds just as false, though in a different way. In "Here and Today," first printed in Harper's Bazaar, he takes up the problem of the eternal triangle. The solution he recommends pontifically is that the woman who wants to keep her husband must make herself more alluring than the other woman. Says the heroine to her wandering husband, "I've been fighting you all this time, trying to take you from her and bring you back to me. I know now that it is up to me to make you think I'm the most attractive." With Olympian wisdom, the husband agrees.
Half a dozen writers in the prizewinning short story annuals, almost any year, write better than Caldwell. Yet he has achieved some reputation and he once won a literary prize himself. The kind words he has received are not always justified. He has the ability to put vivid sense impressions into simple words, the ability .. . to keep the action moving, and finally—in his short stories at any rate—the ability to stop before the reader has caught up with him. A fair share of his short stories are memorable ones, although that is partly the result of his matter rather than his manner. Even his crudely constructed stories linger in our mind when they are tragic enough, though a visit to the morgue will too. In general, however, the sagging architecture which weakens all his novels does not develop in the short stories. They are the better for being brief.
One other factor in Caldwell's favor should be mentioned. It appears so obvious that it is sometimes taken for granted yet should not be. It is his literary vitality, his ability to keep on writing nowadays at about the same level he reached two decades ago. More than one able writer has drained his imagination and thereafter has either written less or written aridly, but not Caldwell.
Among the collected stories, "Candy-Man Beechum" clearly proves Caldwell's power to portray pathos and dignity; this is a sharper, keener story than the better known "Kneel to the Rising Sun." "The Medicine Man" is a first-rate sample of what some people have called his Rabelaisian humor, although it is really pornography with a horse laugh. And "Evelyn and the Rest of Us" compresses into three pages the whole story of the loss of childhood innocence. Nor are these stories the only excellent ones.
There is a place in the world of literature between William Faulkner and les Scott. Mythologist of the South and holder of the Nobel award for literature, Faulkner is a great novelist. les Scott, whose works attracted the animated attention of Congress's Gathings committee of several years ago, is well represented by such a labor of commercial Love as his novel She Made It Pay. Between these two men Erskine Caldwell can be set.
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SOURCE: "Down Tobacco Road Into Town," in The New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1957, p. 5.
[In this review, Dempsey contends that Certain Women demonstrates a decline in Caldwell's talent.]
In twenty-eight years of writing, Erskine Caldwell has published the impressive total of thirty-two books (four of these in collaboration with Margaret Bourke-White). His best short stories have been collected in two additional volumes and his novels have been taken apart, divested of their more serious sections, and re-assembled as an omnibus volume of humor. But sheer productivity has seldom been kind to the reputations of American novelists, and Caldwell, more than most, is a victim of his own success. His latest, and thirty-third book, Certain Women, is an example not only of an obvious decline in talent but of a related inability to find a social focus for his work.
Partly, this is a result of circumstance. The South of God's little Acre, Tobacco Road and Kneel to the Rising Sun—three books that have made Caldwell one of our most popular authors abroad—is passing. The "poor whites" of the tobacco country are no longer quite so poor, nor is the Negro entirely at the mercy of an oppressive rural economy. The violence of Caldwell's stories, the explicit sexual episodes, are staple ingredients in American fiction, so that what was a subject for censorship twenty-five years ago is passed off today with hardly a shrug.
Moreover, he suffers from the complacency brought on by good times. It was Caldwell's fortune to share with James T. Farrell, Steinbeck, Dos Passos and (to a lesser extent) William Faulkner the public's indignation at conditions that prevailed during the Depression. Alone of this group, Caldwell comes closest to being a folk writer, with a folk writer's simplification of character and incident. And yet, in contrast to the "quaint," frequently sentimentalized mountain people who obtained in the American novel prior to 1929, he gave us a pitiless and yet bizarrely comic picture of an isolated, backward environment.
It was Caldwell's gift to make us angry at the same time that he made us laugh, to transform the tail end of the social pecking order, with its victimization by the top, into something irrational and absurd. In this connection, probably the most notable influence on his work is Uncle Tom's Cabin—one of the standard characters in a Caldwell book is an unreconstructed Simon Legree, in whose evil nature sex has been substituted for slavery—and it can be said that he kept the theme of "life among the lowly" alive simply by making it funny.
Caldwell's troubles began when he attempted to inject sophistication into his stories—or at least more sophistication than could be found along tobacco road. Certain Women belongs with the group of latter-day novels and short stories that have been moved out of the share-cropper's fields and into town. In making this transition (and possibly in making money), Caldwell seems to have lost the indignation that once accounted for such novels as Trouble in July and the fine documentary You Have Seen Their Faces.
His new book is a collection of seven long stories, unified by a common locale (the town of Claremore) and the social desuetude of its heroines, who whether they Love men or hate them are always designing. On the one hand there's Nancy, who says: "I'll never get married again; I've made up my mind about that once and for all. I tolerate men now, and I have dates with them once in a while, but I'll never live with one again. I've found out that they're not my kind. . . ." On the other hand, there's Selma: "When she came to Claremore, Selma had only one purpose in mind. She was determined to be married as soon as possible—and not later than the Christmas holidays if she had her way—in order to be able to give up teaching for the remainder of her life."
With an embarrassing predictability, these women suffer the effects of Simon Legreeism. Some have fathers intent on getting them off the payroll; some are ordinary mortals with the seven-year itch; one is an ex-prostitute who contrives to get married to a minister; another is a schoolteacher who loses her fiance to the proprietor of the rooming house where she lives. In all cases the women are cuckolded, sometimes quite brutally, and Simon goes unpunished.
The best that can be said for these stories is that they illustrate Caldwell's talent for portraying evil humorously. But without a purpose, devoid, even, of a good regional setting, they lack conviction. They entertain on the level of the comic strip. One feels that this book will find its best market in paper covers, for Caldwell, who has lost his critical followers, still reaches the so-called mass audience—ironically, since he is himself working largely in a vacuum.
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SOURCE: An introduction to Men and Women by Erskine Caldwell, edited by Carvel Collins, little, Brown and Company, 1961, pp. 3-9.
[Collins was an American critic, educator, and editor, In the essay below, he accounts for Caldwell's great popularity by pointing to the sexual content of his stories, their element of social protest, and their humor.]
In addition to his many novels Erskine Caldwell has published a hundred and fifty short stories. When he recently asked whether I would read his stories and select those I thought best, I was pleased to have the opportunity to reexamine an important part of the work of the world's most popular author of fiction.
Several of his stories, "Kneel to the Rising Sun" and "Candy-Man Beechum" and "Country Full of Swedes" among them, are classics of what Budd Schulberg calls "the one cultural expression in which our country seems to have excelled—the short story." And I knew that Erskine Caldwell takes great pleasure in writing short fiction, for in an Atlantic Monthly interview in [July] 1958 he told me, "I don't think there is anything to compare with the short story. I think it's the best form of writing there is." When I had asked why he thought it was a better form than the novel, he had replied, "Well, I think you can tell as much in a story as you can in a novel, but it's more difficult to do. It's hard to accomplish a good short story because you have to concentrate it so much. So I like the discipline of it." The pleasure Caldwell takes in his stories obviously has been shared by readers, for short stories make up a significant portion of the fiction published in his thirty-eight books—of which over sixty-one million copies have been sold!
There has been much speculation about the reason for this immense response to Caldwell's work. Sex has been one of the standard answers, and many writers seem to have tried that route in an attempt to reach Caldwell's popularity. Kenneth Burke possibly explained their failure when he remarked that "unendowed" writers "might strain to engross us by lurid description of the sexual act—and the result would be negligible .. . By an astounding trick of oversimplification, Caldwell puts people into complex situations while making them act with the scant, crude tropisms of an insect—and the result is cunning, where lawrence, by a variant of the same pattern, is as unwieldy as an elephant in his use of vulgar words for romantic Love-making." And a writer for the New York Herald Tribune has observed that though some consider the sexual behavior of Caldwell's characters looser than that of real people, the "Kinsey report has seemed to indicate that the Caldwell men and women behave much as actual men and women do" in comparable levels of our population, and that possibly "many thousands of readers find in Caldwell what seems to them the first realism about sex they have ever encountered in print."
But something other than its treatment of sex must account for the astonishing popularity of Caldwell's fiction. The psychoanalyst Dr. lawrence S. Kubie, dealing with this point in an essay on Caldwell, says that as long as there are "people who cannot be fooled or consoled by romance, whether it be cheap and tawdry or delicate and sophisticated; as long as there are those who refuse to content themselves with the cold comfort of an ironical sneer; and as long as those who reject either of these escapes have courage and honesty, there will be a literature which seeks to write its way out of confusion and restraint into some pathway of passionate relief and happiness." And both Dr. Kubie and Kenneth Burke may have touched on an additional reason for the popularity of Caldwell's fiction by relating it to dreams. Burke denies "that Caldwell is a realist. In his tomfoolery, he comes closer to the Dadaists; when his grotesqueness is serious, he is a Superrealist. We might compromise by calling him over all a Symbolist (if by a Symbolist we mean a writer whose work serves most readily as a case history for the psychologist and whose plots are more intelligible when interpreted as dreams)." Dr. Kubie, making a comment on God's little Acre which can apply to other Caldwell works, supports this view by saying that in Caldwell's fiction just as "in many dreams, one may recognize two groups of characters . . . some shrouded and ominous figures who hover dimly in the background like those unseen persons in a dream . . . others who stand out with all the hallucinatory vividness of the lions and tigers of a child's nightmare. Their clarity is a tribute to the author's skill, particularly because, despite their sharp outlines, they retain their fantastic and unreal quality; and when closely examined . . . fuse until they seem to become different aspects of a single human spirit, split up by a legitimate and effective literary artifice into the semblance of separate things." Holding a similar opinion, the poet and critic Horace Gregory says of Caldwell that "like all writers of the first rank he has an instinct for converting a casual episode into a symbol that carries profound meaning."
Another feature of Caldwell's fiction which surely accounts for some of its popularity is the power of its social protest. While "A Woman in the House," "Meddlesome Jack," and "A Small Day" may appeal to us by their humorous treatment of sexual unconventionalities, Caldwell's outrage at injustice, with his effective understatement of that outrage, has made such stories as "Kneel to the Rising Sun" and "Candy-Man Beeehum" rank well in the fiction of man's inhumanity to man. This must give satisfaction to Caldwell, for in one of his autobiographical books he responded to the question, "Why don't you write about the pleasant things in life?" by replying, "Those enjoying the pleasant things in life are fewer than those enduring the unpleasant. When this social condition no longer exists, I'll feel there is no longer any purpose is writing about the effects of poverty on the human spirit."
Caldwell's fiction not only shows man's inhumanity to man but the astonishing ability of some men to rise, with great nobility, above their muddy circumstance. In "Horse Thief" the hero will go to jail rather than put the slightest stain on the name of the girl he Loves. Candy-Man Beechum, facing the stupid officer, dies with as much flair as he has lived. Though the defeated tenant in "Kneel to the Rising Sun" shows the depths of appalling weakness to which too many of us can descend, the braver tenant, Clem, is magnificent in his support of the right and in his dignity when confronting the most extreme viciousness. In "A Short Sleep in louisiana" the aged traveler proves indomitable despite his years.
Another aspect of Caldwell's fiction high on the list of probable reasons for its popularity is its humor, now ironical, now wry, now wild. Here too, even in the stories with the wildest humor, Caldwell, as the poet Randall Jarrell says, "generally depends on understatement and repetition, rather than exaggeration." And readers in their thousands seem to have shared Mr. Jarrell's belief that the "best thing one can do with Mr. Caldwell's peculiar variety of humor is to accept it with gratitude."
Closely related to this humor for which we are grateful is Caldwell's ability to dupe us. "Soquots," "The Growing Season," and "Country Full of Swedes" illustrate that talent at its best. Showing Jesse's mounting frenzy under the stress of heat and frustrated labor, "The Growing Season" gives us a psychological study, almost an explanation, of violence. But as Jesse moves toward his frenzied, therapeutic killing of Fiddler, the story turns into a masterpiece of duping the reader: partly for humor of an extreme kind and partly to present Jesse's frenzy in almost laboratory isolation and clarity, the author skillfully keeps Fiddler unidentified and unidentifiable (although one critic, I find, has mistakenly assumed Fiddler to be a dog; and another, especially fooled, has assumed Fiddler to be a "donkey"). "Country Full of Swedes" also dupes us skillfully: at the start it seems to be setting the stage humorously to demonstrate the falsity of the inhibited farmers' prejudices against their neighbors; at the end the ebullient Swedes live up to part of the farmers' fearful expectations, and the reader is tricked again. In longer works this sort of thing can easily get out of hand and lose effect, but in short stories such as "Country Full of Swedes" and "The Growing Season" many readers find it extremely welcome. Apparently, though, editors at first did not like "Country Full of Swedes"; for Caldwell has said it "was rejected by practically every magazine in the United States" and that "editors, not content with merely turning it down, felt called upon to accompany their refusals with advice that the story was (a) not true to life, (b) a denial of man's nobility, (c) injurious to my reputation, (d) an incitation to violence, (e) not understandable to readers (Hello, Bill!), and (f) evidence of a disordered mind." Then The Yale Review not only published it but gave it an important award, and it has been reprinted in anthologies and textbooks ever since.
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SOURCE: Erskine Caldwell, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1969, pp. 10-12.
[In the following excerpt, Korges discusses The Sacrilege of Alan Kent, considering it essential to understanding "Caldwell's full range and his place in contemporary literature. "]
To understand Caldwell fully and thus to illuminate his best books as well as to prevent oversimplification, one needs to know the early The Sacrilege of Alan Kent. The book is made of three sections, each separately published: "Tracing life with a Finger" (1929), "Inspiration for Greatness" (1930), "Hours before Eternity" (1931)—titles significantly different from those of the other short novels published during the same years: The Bastard (1929) and Poor Fool (1930). Kenneth Burke in his remarkable chapter on Caldwell in The Philosophy of literary Form calls this early work a "sport," in that it is so different from other works by Caldwell. The book is closer to a series or a collection of Joycean "epiphanies" than to a novel or collection of three stories. The numbered paragraphs, some as short as a sentence, are about what is remembered and about the tricks of memory as the central character recalls moments made sharp by intense feeling, whether of pain or joy. The moments are not idyllic; the tone is often downright grim: life is a sacrilege, we live in pain and hurt.
One section (II: 8) sounds like the beginning of a film by Ingmar Bergman: "I lived for a while in a room with two girls. Neither of them could speak English nor understand it, and I never knew what they were talking about." That rich scene is left in this epiphanal form, as in Hemingway's figure of a short story as an iceberg, only a small amount actually showing. In Caldwell's notations, most of each story is left unstated. Occasionally sections sound like the "deep images" of Robert Bly, James Wright, and other members of the "Sixties" group, as in II: 11: "Once the sun was so hot a bird came down and walked beside me in my shadow." At the end of Part II, the narrator returns to his hometown, but the place is inhabited by strangers except for a girl whose "breast was bursting like a blossom in the warm sunshine."
Part III follows the central character through a winter journey and various odd jobs, including a carnival in which Caldwell, with a great imaginative stroke, has the fortuneteller go crazy. Repeatedly the images lie in one's mind and are suddenly transformed—as in the scene in which the central character sees a girl so beautiful that the sight of her beauty scars his eyes (III: 8). One recalls a later work, James Dickey's remarkable poem on faces seen once only. The section contains a good deal of fine ribald humor which foreshadows later plot devices. In III: 17 an employer keeps Negro girls for his satisfaction, until one girl defeats him: "The man brought another Negro girl to the house but she had greased her body with lard and he could not hold her." That is the essence, the reader being left to add the usual details of a great tall story in the manner of Twain or Faulkner—the Negro girl lowering herself to the status of greased pig to maintain her higher conception of herself. But that is part of the submerged iceberg, part of the unspoken available.
The book is strange, at times brilliant. Caldwell would not again use this method, except in passages of description in the novels and in pointed details in the essays, as when in an essay in Some American People he places an action in perspective by syntactical means: the scene is North Dakota, the time is August 1934, the action is "The last Roundup" in which the federal government in two days cleared the Badlands of ten thousand head of cattle, shipping them to pastures not destroyed by drouth: "The last great roundup is over, the bones of the culls that fell by the wayside have been picked clean, and the painted canyons of the Badlands are unchanged." The Sacrilege of Alan Kent is one of the books we must look to if we are to understand Caldwell's full range and his place in contemporary literature.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4766
SOURCE: "Repetition as Technique in the Short Stories of Erskine Caldwell," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 2, Autumn, 1977, pp. 213-25.
[In the following essay, MacDonald details Caldwell's use of repetition in his characters ' speeches, in descriptions of settings and events, and in the structures of his short stories.]
James Dickey has said [in Sorties, 1971] that Thomas Wolfe's work is "so rhetorical that it is almost a shameful act. But there should be such rhetorical writing, as the indication of a kind of limit." The converse might be said about Erskine Caldwell's short fiction. In many of his stories Caldwell's style is so spare and so completely unadorned that the reader learns just how few of the traditional literary devices a writer can use and still create stories which are meaningful and effective. While the hallmark of Caldwell's prose style is simplicity, however, a careful investigation of the stories in such collections as American Earth, We are the living, Kneel to the Rising Sun, Southways, Jackpot, The Complete Stories, and Georgia Boy shows that Caldwell has worked successfully with a variety of technical devices. Particularly impressive is his extensive experimentation with repetition.
With the exception of Gertrude Stein, there has probably never been a writer more fascinated with the possibilities of repetition than Erskine Caldwell. While the amount and the kind of repetition used in Caldwell's stories varies considerably, repetition itself is both the most obvious and the most important literary device in much of his best work. Some of the repetition in his stories is a reflection of the Steinesque idea that people continually repeat themselves in conversation, that, in fact, repetition is one of the most fundamental qualities of speech. Nearly every character in Caldwell's fiction habitually repeats seemingly off-hand phrases and sentences which often serve as indices to aspects of the character's personality. Further, instead of purposely avoiding repetitive detail in descriptive passages, Caldwell normally presents the reader with a few well-chosen aspects of a scene and then repeats them whenever the setting needs comment. The result is simple but vivid description often made memorable by the degree to which the simplicity reflects the unsophisticated lives of the characters.
In much of Caldwell's short fiction repetition also functions in more complex and unusual ways. In many stories a limited number of repeated phrases and sentences are used to emphasize various types of structure. In "The Automobile That Wouldn't Run" and "Saturday Afternoon," for example, action begins at a certain place, moves to a second location, and then returns to the starting point. In both stories the style reflects this movement. Certain words and phrases are repeated during the first paragraphs of each story. When action moves away, these repetitions cease but are apparent again at the end of the story when the characters are back at the original place. By using repetition in this manner Caldwell gains two results. First, he brings the stories to a decisive conclusion, and second, he creates a strong final emphasis on the basic immovability of the central characters. In "A Swelllooking Girl," a story in which Lem Johnson tries to prove to his country neighbors that his new wife wears fancy "little pink things" under her dress, a different kind of structure is emphasized by a fairly simple pattern of repetition on the part of Tom, the first-person narrator. As the events of "A Swell-looking Girl" are presented, the phrase "a swell-looking girl" is repeated periodically, and with each repetition the phrase becomes more emphatic. The regular recurrence of this line not only stresses the growing excitement of the narrator as he watches Lem raise his wife's skirt higher and higher, it also creates an overall pattern which adds coherence to the story.
While repetition is the most important stylistic device in the stories which have been discussed so far, the amount of repetition in these stories is not particularly heavy, at least not for Caldwell. In some of Caldwell's best stories repetitious style is used far more emphatically and results in three different general effects. First, in such stories as "The Medicine Man," "Where the Girls Were Different," and "August Afternoon" heavy repetition emphasizes erotic excitement. In other stories a consistent barrage of repeated lines creates a feeling of almost insane frenzy. Finally, in some stories heavy repetition causes conversations to take on symbolic implications.
The most important aspect of the repetition in the humorously erotic story "The Medicine Man" is the fact that as Professor Eaton and Effie Henderson become increasingly involved in their mutual seduction, repeated words and phrases become more and more emphatic. As Effie takes her clothes off so that the Professor can make what he calls a thorough medical examination, Professor Eaton continually asks if "perhaps" Effie will remove her blouse, if "perhaps" she'd like to hear more about the miraculous powers of Indian Root Tonic, and, when she hesitates to take everything off, if "perhaps" he should go. To reassure Effie, the Professor explains again and again how important it is for her "to place yourself entirely in my hands," or a slight variation, and nine times in about three pages he assures her that everything will be "absolutely" all right. The Professor's repetitive cajolings and assurances are punctuated by Effie's continual questions: "Do you want me to take—"; "And this, too, Professor Eaton? This, too?"; "Professor Eaton, do you want me to take off all of this—like this?" The tension created in the story by the repetition builds until Effie exclaims, "You make me feel so funny, Professor Eaton. And are you sure—." The Professor assures her, "Absolutely . . . Absolutely," and urges her one last time to "place yourself completely in my hands" before her brother arrives with his townmarshall's pearl-handled revolver. The frustration of the Professor (and the reader) at the brother's arrival is reflected perfectly in the style for the repetition stops as completely as the sexual excitement does.
Still heavier repetition creates the rising excitement in "Where the Girls Were Different," a humorous story about a young boy's adventures when he goes across the county to meet some girls who are supposedly "different" from the girls around home. The general concentration of repeated phrases which is evident all through the story is given direction by Caldwell's use of what might be called verbal counterpoint. The most frequently repeated phrase in the story is "were different," which in some form is used about sixteen times in the five pages of the narrative and creates one rhythmic pattern. A second pattern is developed as Fred drives to Rosemark and gets a date. Only one word is involved at first ("gee") but because it is an emphatic word, Fred's repetition of it is noticeable. "Gee" is used first when Fred explains that he hated to lie to his parents about where he was going, "but—gee—I had to go down to see those girls in Rosemark." As the story continues, and Fred's excitement grows, the author's use of the word becomes increasingly noticeable. Fred explains how the girl he asks for a date says "Sure" and he goes on to comment, "Gee, this was the way to see girls." later, when Betty sits very close to Fred, he exclaims, "Gee, she was different!"
The rhythms created by the two patterns of repetition are made particularly emphatic by the fact that Caldwell uses the patterns in closer and closer proximity. This is clear, for instance, in the third repetition of "gee" mentioned above and it is clear in subsequent instances as well. After Fred has begun to gain confidence with Betty, for example, he decides to try and kiss her:
Gee whiz! I reached down and kissed her and she wouldn't let me stop. The old car rocked from one side of the road to the other as dizzy as a bat. I couldn't see to steer it because Betty wouldn't let me stop kissing her, and I had to wait until we ran into a ditch almost before I knew which way to turn the wheel. Gee whiz! The girls in Rosemark were certainly different, all right.
Caldwell brings the two patterns together one final time when Betty asks Fred why he has stopped kissing her. When Fred kisses her again, she puts her arms around his neck and her legs across his lap, and Fred exclaims, "Gee, whiz! I didn't know girls did like that! Ben said the girls down in Rosemark were different, but I didn't expect anything like this to happen to me. Holy cats!" It is just after this especially emphatic use of "gee" in connection with "were different" that Fred pulls into Betty's driveway and is rudely chased away by her father who has been following in the family car. As is true in "The Medicine Man," in "Where the Girls Were Different" the stylistic heartbeat created by the repetition ceases just when the erotic involvement does. The resulting frustration of the protagonist is thus reflected by a calmer style.
A final instance of Caldwell's use of heavy repetition to create erotic excitement occurs in "August Afternoon," a story in which Caldwell's ability to work effectively with different types of repetition is especially apparent. In "August Afternoon" Vic Glover's young attractive wife Willie is courted and won by a man with an eleven-inch hairy-handled knife while Vic and Hubert, a black friend of Vic's, look on. Most of the types of repetition mentioned so far in this study are used in "August Afternoon." There is a generally heavy concentration of repeated descriptive detail and conversational statement, and a specific line is repeated throughout the story in the manner of "were different" in "Where the Girls Were Different": the five-fold repetition of Hubert's question, "We ain't aiming to have no trouble today, is we?" creates a rhythmic refrain which helps to organize the story. In addition to the previously discussed kinds of repetition, however, "August Afternoon" uses two which have not been mentioned. One involves the fact that as Caldwell's characters grow more tense, their manner of addressing each other changes. For example, when Hubert gets worried about the possibility of violence, he begins to address "Mr. Vic" in an unusually repetitive way:
"Mr. Vic, I'm trying to tell you about Miss Willie. Miss Willie's been sitting there on that high step showing her pretty and he's been looking at her a right long time, Mr. Vic. If you won't object to me saying so, Mr. Vic, I reckon I'd tell Miss Willie to go sit somewhere else, if I was you. Miss Willie ain't got much on today, Mr. Vic. Just only that skimpy outside dress, Mr. Vic. That's what I've been trying to tell you. I walked out there in the yard this while ago to see what he was looking at so much, and when I say Miss Willie ain't got much on today, I mean she's got on just only that skimpy outside dress, Mr. Vic. You can go look yourself and see if I'm lying to you, Mr. Vic."
The seven-fold repetition of "Mr. Vic" creates a pounding rhythm which is emphasized by the five-fold repetition of "Miss Willie" and by Hubert's frequent emphasis on how little Willie is wearing. Several times during "August Afternoon" the tension Hubert feels is revealed in similar passages.
A very different type of repetition is used in the two conversations Willie has with the stranger, one of which begins this way:
"How old are you?" Floyd asked Willie.
Floyd jerked the knife out of the wood and thrust it deeper into the same place.
"How old are you?" she asked him.
"Are you married?"
"Not now," he said. "How long have you been?"
"About three months," Willie said.
"How do you like it?"
"Pretty good so far."
"How about another kiss?"
"You just had one."
"I'd like another one now."
"I ought not to let you kiss me again."
"Men don't like girls who kiss too much."
"I'm not that kind."
"What kind are you?"
"I'd like to kiss you a lot."
The erotic excitement this conversation creates during the story is emphasized by the repetitive format of the characters' brief questions and responses and by the combination of this rhythmically suggestive format with the characters' repetition of specific words. The two conversations between Willie and the stranger are particularly noticeable since the many exchanges between Vic and Hubert are composed of generally much longer statements. Both conversations occur at crucial moments in the story and raise the level of tension substantially. All in all, the various kinds of repetition work together in "August Afternoon" to intensify events and to create excitement. little meaning in a philosophic sense is developed during the story, but for sheer joy in the possibilities of repetition, "August Afternoon" is a tour de force.
A second effect Caldwell develops by using heavy repetition is evident in "country Full of Swedes," Caldwell's famous story about the arrival of a family of exuberant Swedes in a normally quiet valley in rural Maine. "country Full of Swedes" uses repetition differently from previously discussed stories. No complete sentences or long phrases are repeated consistently throughout the story in the way "We ain't aiming to have no trouble today, is we" is repeated in "August Afternoon." In "country Full of Swedes" Caldwell repeats single words and short phrases literally dozens of times to create an overwhelming feeling of frenzy.
The most frequently repeated word in "country Full of Swedes" is "Swedes." Hardly a paragraph goes by without a character referring to the Swedes in one way or another. The intensity of this repetition varies somewhat but is probably heaviest when Stan takes his first careful look at the new arrivals:
There were Swedes everywhere a man could see, and the ones that couldn't be seen could be heard yelling their heads off inside the yellow clapboarded house across the road. There wasn't any mistake about there being Swedes there, either; because I've never yet seen a man who mistakes a Swede or a Finn for an American. Once you see a Finn or a Swede you know, Godhelping, that he is a Swede or a Finn, and not a Portugee or an American.
There was a Swede everywhere a man could look. Some of them were little Swedes, and women Swedes, to be sure; but little Swedes, in the end, and women Swedes too, near about, grow up as big as any of them. When you come right down to it, there's no sense in counting out the little Swedes and the women Swedes.
Out in the road in front of their house were seven-eight autos and trucks loaded down with furniture and household goods. All around, everything was Swedes. The Swedes were yelling and shouting at one another, the little Swedes and the women Swedes just as loud as the big Swedes. . . .
The seventeen repetitions of "Swedes" in these few lines give the passage an especially frantic effect, an effect not only apropos for the frenzied action which is going on, but also quite expressive of the specific event involved at this point in the story—Jim's discovery of how many Swedes there are. The story is as full of "Swedes" as the country seems.
Other phrases are repeated over and over and give other sections of "country Full of Swedes" an equally frenetic feeling. One of these phrases is "Good God"; others include the adjectival combination of "God" with other words, as in "God-awful," "God-helping," and "God-damn." While these phrases are not repeated quite as often as "Swedes" is, they appear again and again, sometimes in combination with "Swedes." Early in the story, for example, Stan hears gunfire:
"Who fired that God-awful shot, Jim?" I yelled at him, leaping down the stairs quicker than a man of my years ought to let himself do.
"Good God!" Jim said, his voice hoarse, and falling all to pieces like a stump of punkwood. "The Swedes! The Swedes are shooting, Stan!"
"What Swedes, Jim—those Swedes who own the farm and building across the road over there?" I said, trying to find the buttonholes in my shirt. "Have they come back here to live on that farm?"
"Good God, yes!" he said, his voice croaking deep down in his throat, like he had swallowed too much water. "The Swedes are all over the place. They're everywhere you can see, there's that many of them."
"What's their name, Jim?" I asked him. "You and Mrs. Frost never told me what their name is."
"Good God, I don't know. I never heard them called anything but Swedes, and that's what it is, I guess."
The heavily repeated phrases mentioned so far, when combined with the less frequent, but still relatively heavy repetition of such phrases as "one-two," "of a forenoon," "yellow-headed," "yelling and shouting," and the repetition of longer phrases and sentences during specific paragraphs, make "country Full of Swedes" a story of humorous but nerve-wracking frenzy. The style of the story perfectly reflects the hysteria of the narrator, who is unable to understand or adjust to his exuberant new neighbors. The only comparable effect this critic is able to think of is created by the cinematic device called "pixilation," that method of shooting single frames of an activity and running them at normal speed so that characters seem to dance around on the screen like puppets.
In "We Are looking at You, Agnes" heavy repetition is used to create a different kind of frenzy. Agnes, the protagonist and narrator of the story, is obsessed with the idea that she is being judged by her family for having become a prostitute. Her obsession is clearly reflected by the mad persistence of a series of paranoid thoughts which are presented and emphasized by the very heavy repetition of such lines as "don't sit there all day long and look at me like that without saying something about it" and "Ask me, Papa; I'll tell you the truth. . . ."
A final effect created by Caldwell's use of heavy repetition is apparent in "Daughter," a story in which the extreme intensity of repeated phrases and sentences results in the creation of symbolic narrative. "Daughter" is about Jim, a black man who has been jailed because he murdered his young daughter when he could no longer stand her being hungry. In presenting "Daughter" Caldwell uses repetition of several types. certain statements by Jim and other characters are repeated consistently through much of the story. The most important of these repeated statements is Jim's "Daughter's been hungry, though—awful hungry," which with slight variations is repeated eight times. Often, the statement is followed by Jim's averring, "I just couldn't stand it no longer" or by a slight variation of this sentence. The sheriff also repeats himself fairly consistently throughout the story. Because he is afraid that Jim will get excited and dangerous, the sheriff says again and again, "Now, just take it easy, Jim boy" or "Now, don't you get careless, Jim boy" or a similar statement. Other phrases and sentences are repeated during specific sections of the story to emphasize certain points. Early in the story, as the townspeople try to determine exactly what happened, their question, "It must have been an accident, wasn't it, Jim?" is repeated three times in about a page. later, when Jim indicates that he had no money to buy food, the townspeople say four times "it don't seem right" that Jim should have killed his child when he might have asked for food, and Jim defends himself by responding several times, "I made enough for all of us to eat," emphasizing the fact that he didn't want to ask for handouts since he had worked and made money he never received. Finally, in addition to the many repetitions in conversation, Caldwell uses frequent repetition in his descriptions of events.
The most important and most noticeable aspect of the repetition in "Daughter" is the fact that the repeated statements and descriptive details occur in a very limited space. The story is five pages long, and most of the repetition occurs in the first three pages. As a result, there are passages during which nearly every line is a repeated line. In addition to creating tension, this extremely heavy repetition causes "Daughter" to seem at times less like a straight narrative than a kind of chant, something akin to the responsive reading during a church service or to the dialogue between character and chorus in some Greek tragedies. Through the process of repetition lines like "Daughter was hungry" and "it don't seem right" take on symbolic power as capsulations of regional realities, and the almost ritualistic repetition of these statements by the crowd, the sheriff, and Jim causes their whole dialogue to have significance as a general statement about racial injustice and exploitation. All in all, the heavy repetition in "Daughter" helps to expand a single confrontation between a black man, a sheriff, and a group of townspeople into universal—or at least national—significance.
Another general aspect of Caldwell's experimentation with repetition is his blending of repeated statements with colloquial diction, rhyme and rhythm to create stories which might be called prose folk ballads. The most successful of these stories are "candy-Man Beechum" and "The Fly in the coffin," both of which are attempts to portray aspects of black life in the South.
Caldwell uses colloquial diction in "candy-Man Beechum" and "The Fly in the coffin" in an unusual way. Most stories about blacks written by both whites and blacks are presented by narrators who use standard white American English. In "candy-Man Beechum" and "The Fly in the coffin," however, Caldwell uses third-person narrators who present events in a convincing rendition of black English. The opening paragraphs of the two stories illustrate Caldwell's method:
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. The way he stepped over those Middle Georgia gullies was a sight to see.
"The Fly in the coffin":
There was poor old Dose Muffin, stretched out on the corn-crib floor, dead as a frostbitten watermelon vine in November, and a pesky housefly was walking all over his nose.
While the colloquial diction in these paragraphs is not obtrusive, the phrases "it was all just one big step," "was a sight to see," "poor old," and the down-home simile, "dead as a frostbitten watermelon vine in November," create a feeling that the reader is not simply observing events involving black people but that he is listening to tales which are products of black folk culture.
Caldwell uses repetition to develop a prose chorus in each story, and he carefully controls its appearance to emphasize aspects of the action. The chorus in "candy-Man Beechum" is the periodic repetition of someone asking "Where you goin', candy-Man," "What's your big hurry, candy-Man," or a variation of these sentences, and of candy-Man's response: "Make way for these flappin feet, boys. . . . Here I come!" or a variation. Each repetition of this chorus brings candy-Man closer to town and to the danger his confidence obviously creates for him in a locale where, as one character puts it, "the white-folks is first-come." By the end of the third repetition of the chorus, the reader has become accustomed to the exuberant rhythm created by the repeated lines. The result is that when the fourth chorus begins with the white policeman's question "What's your hurry, candy-Man?" and is not followed by candy-Man's customary response, the stylistic rhythm is as abruptly interrupted as candy-Man's journey is. For a moment the reader wonders if candy-Man's confidence has been shaken, if the black man will give in and be taken to jail. But candy-Man has the triumphant last word. When the policeman warns that if candy-Man keeps arguing, he'll be forced to "hurry him on" to death, candy-Man replies, "If that's the way it's to be, then make way for candy-Man Beechum because here I come." The triumph of candy-Man's refusal to compromise the vitality of his life is beautifully emphasized stylistically by the completion of the formerly interrupted chorus.
In "The Fly in the coffin," a yarn in which a dead man interrupts the joyous celebration of his funeral to demand a fly-swatter so he can kill a fly which has gotten trapped in his coffin, the chorus is a three-statement conversation between Aunt Marty and Woodrow. Three times Aunt Marty says, "You, Woodrow, you! Go look in that corn-crib and take a look if any old flies worrying Dose" or a slight variation; three times Woodrow hesitates to obey her; and three times Aunt Marty assures Woodrow that he must protect Dose from the flies. The repetition of this conversation creates an expectation in the reader which is frustrated during the last third of the story. After Aunt Marty gets a swatter and Dose lies back down in the coffin, the story ends with a series of rhythmic paragraphs but without a return to the chorus. Caldwell's decision to conclude the story in this manner is perfectly appropriate; the story trails off stylistically just as the party and the dancing continue on into the night.
The ballad-like feeling created in the two stories by Caldwell's combination of colloquial diction and repetition is enhanced by his unusual use of rhyme and rhythm in specific sentences. When candy-Man is unjustly stopped by the "white boss," for example, he says, "I never bothered whitefolks, and they sure oughtn't bother me. But there ain't much use in living if that's the way it's going to be." The rhyme of "me" and "be" is made particularly emphatic by the rhythmic similarity of the two sentences. In some passages rhythm alone is used effectively. Near the middle of the story, for instance, the narrator explains "Eight miles to town, and two more to go, and he'd be rapping on that yellow gal's door." In "The Fly in the coffin" Aunt Marty's explanations of why Woodrow must keep flies away from Dose are always rhythmic and in two instances they rhyme: "Dead or alive, Dose cares about flies" is one of these; "Dose sees flies, he dead or alive" is the other. Rhythm alone is used effectively in such sentences as "Poor old Dose, dead a day and a night, couldn't say a word," and "The jumper was dry, the coffin was thrown together, and the grave was six feet deep."
The development of the rhythmically musical folk ballad form for "candy-Man Beechum" and "The Fly in the coffin" is particularly apropos. Both stories not only portray aspects of black life in the South as black people might tell of them, but also dramatize positive responses of black people to their situation. "candy-Man Beechum" portrays a man who heroically ignores social limitations and lives a life which, while tragically short, is vigorous and full of good humor. In "The Fly in the coffin" even the reality of death fails to kill either the vitality of Dose, whose hatred of flies is so strong that it enables him to come back to life, or the energy of Dose's neighbors, who are able to wring joy out of tragedy and limited surroundings. The syncopated musical style of the two prose ballads emphasizes this theme of people rising above apparent limitations by reminding the reader of that tradition of the spiritual and jazz which itself represents the triumph of black vitality over societal oppression. The style of these two stories, in other words, is a reflection of the idea the stories present.
While the fundamental quality of Caldwell's prose style is simplicity, a careful investigation of his short fiction shows that he has experimented with various kinds of simplicity. The most important stylistic experiments in the stories discussed, as well as in a substantial number which have not been mentioned, involve repetition. Caldwell controls both the number of repeated words, phrases, and sentences and their distribution to create a wide range of effects, many of which are exciting and unusual. He also experiments with colloquial diction and with rhyme and rhythm and blends these aspects of style with repetition to create vibrantly musical folk ballads, prose pieces which may be unique in English. All in all, Caldwell's ability to work with the possibilities of style is noteworthy even in a period of American literature which includes such brilliant stylists as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3915
SOURCE: "The Sacrilege of Alan Kent and the Apprenticeship of Erskine Caldwell," in The Southern literary Journal, Vol. XII, No. 1, Fall, 1979, pp. 36-46.
[Owen was an American poet, novelist, critic, and educator. In this essay, he closely studies The Sacrilege of Alan Kent within the context of Caldwell's fledgling writing career.]
When Erskine Caldwell's The Sacrilege of Alan Kent was reprinted in 1976, it went virtually unnoticed. No doubt the price of $1,500 per boxed volume put it beyond the reach of most Caldwell readers—though, to be sure, Caldwell is no longer fashionable among critics, as he was in the 1930's. (There is still no biography of him and only one small book on his work.) Yet this short novel, or novella, is the most daringly original of Caldwell's apprentice fiction, and a study of it illuminates his major novels such as Tobacco Road (1932) and God's little Acre (1933).
Before the success of Tobacco Road, Caldwell wrote, in addition to the stories collected in American Earth (1930), four brief novels that reveal his struggle to discover his true voice and subject. The first two are rather conventional and flawed short novels. The Bastard (1929) is the story of an alienated and violent young drifter on the fringes of the underworld, and Poor Fool (1930) is a proletarian novel with a boxer as hero, or anti-hero. He is murdered when he opposes the men who control the fight game, which symbolizes modern capitalism. The Bogus Ones is an unpublished autobiographical novel written in the late 1920's with a Maine setting and centered around a poor young writer who finally repudiates the phony "artists" around him. If these works can be read today (and they are not very interesting), it is for the light they shed on Caldwell's artistic growth and the way they anticipate his later work. (The same can be said of the unpublished poems written in the mid and late 1920's.)
However, such is not the case with the almost unknown The Sacrilege of Alan Kent, which was appearing in sections in experimental little magazines as the first two novels were being published. This strange and haunting book, which is in part a prose poem, is often perplexing and difficult to classify; but it is still readable and often fascinating—by all odds the most interesting and compelling of his early fiction. Although related in theme and attitudes to the fiction (and some of the poems) before Tobacco Road, it is dramatically different from the other three apprentice novels in concept and execution.
Yet, in spite of its intrinsic worth, The Sacrilege is perhaps the least known of Caldwell's early works, though, of course, it has not escaped notice entirely. Kenneth Burke, one of Caldwell's early admirers, was first drawn to the author when he read a section of the book, calling it a "sport" because of its departure from his usual realistic style ["Caldwell: Maker of Grotesques," in The Philosophy of Form, 1967]. Malcolm Cowley has also given its poetic passages high marks, comparing it favorably to Whitman's "Song of Myself ["Georgia Boy: A Retrospect of Erskine Caldwell," Pages 1, 1976]. Other Caldwell defenders like Joseph Warren Beach and William A. Sutton have ignored The Sacrilege while commenting on the lesser apprentice novels. To date, only two American critics have given the work more than passing mention. Jay Martin calls it "a book of images" in developing his thesis that Caldwell was influenced by Imagism ["Erskine Caldwell's Singular Devotions," in A Question of Quality: Popularity and Value in Modern creative Writing, ed. louis Filler, 1976], and James Korges, in his Erskine Caldwell, writes as a collection of Joycean 'epiphanies' than to a novel or collection of three stories. The numbered paragraphs . . . are about what is remembered and about the tricks of memory as the central character recalls moments made sharp by intense feeling, whether of pain or joy. The moments are not idyllic; the tone is often downright grim: life is a sacrilege; we live in pain and hurt." Korges discerns the significance of the book in understanding Caldwell's fiction, but ysis of the work and limits himself in two pages to a few quotes and general observations—though they are groundbreaking and helpful.
The Sacrilege consists of three parts which were published separately under uncharacteristic Caldwell titles: "I. Tracing life with a Finger" (1929), "II. Inspiration for Greatness" (1930), and "III. Hours Before Eternity" (1931). After appearing in American Earth (1931), it was finally issued as a small book in 1936 by Falmouth Book House, with wood engravings by Ralph Frizzell. The narrative—and at times there seems to be none—is made up of separate paragraphs numbered with Roman numerals. Part I consists of thirty-seven paragraphs, Part II of fifty-five, and Part III of forty-nine. The paragraphs are of varying lengths, ranging from one sentence to a few that are scenes a page long. However, most of the paragraphs are brief enough to fit three or four on the 56 pages of the published book.
Perhaps a few examples will best convey Caldwell's aim and method to the reader unacquainted with the work:
In the spring we moved to a city and I was put in grade 6-b. At recess we looked through the iron-paling fence at the girls playing in their yard. The male teachers walked among us, saying gruffly, "Play games. Don't look through the fence at the girls."
On my birthday my father gave me a large new pocket-knife. That afternoon I stole into the depot and slashed open two or three hundred bags of shelled red corn.
I lived for a while in a room with two girls. Neither of them could speak English nor understand it, and I never knew what they were talking about.
Once the sun was so hot a bird came down and walked beside me in my shadow.
When I went away I worked on a farm for a man with short black whiskers. In the fall at butchering time I had to sit on the hogs' backs and stick a long sharp knife into their throats. Sometimes the hogs would squeal and run so fast I could not get on them. The man gave me an axe and told me to knock them in the head. After they were killed and butchered we took the blood and everything else that was left over and poured it into trenches in the cornfield. In the spring when his wife's two babies were born dead, I helped him carry them to the cornfield. We dug some new trenches and put everything into them. After a while we plowed the field and planted white corn there.
One day I was walking through the swamp and I found the skeleton of a man leaning against a tree. When I tapped the skull with a stick, some lizards came out and forked their scarlet tongues at me and ran back inside. When I tapped the ribs, a chipmunk heard the vibrations and began to sing overhead.
A man walked into a restaurant through the front door and ate all he wanted to eat.
When the woman who told fortunes went crazy, we had to carry her into another tent and cut her throat there.
When I was in the country where trees grew in forests and where men cultivated green plants in the earth, I felt that I was a part of the roots that lived. When I went into a city and saw the stores where men sweated over the selling of things and where men became angry with each other over the trading of soiled money, I knew by the shifting of the wind that the bodies of these men were rotting between the walls they had built for themselves.
The central character—unnamed in the text—is in many ways like the author himself, though Kent is not presented as a struggling writer like Fritz Mann in the unpublished The Bogus Ones. Any reader of Caldwell's autobiography, call It Experience, will note the autobiographical elements: Alan's father is a preacher, the family moves about the South a good deal (the places are unnamed except for Memphis), and the protagonist leaves home as a young man and endures some of the author's own painful experiences. For example, he is jailed, witnesses the lynching of a Negro, and works at a variety of odd jobs, as did Caldwell. The author obviously took incidents from his own life—particularly his most haunting memories—and stretched them at times to unbelievable limits, often for surrealistic effects. For instance, his few days in jail become three years—and there are numerous other such examples.
Although the three sections were originally published separately, the book does hang together as a whole—though the order of some of the numbered paragraphs would be difficult to justify. The Sacrilege is made up of jotted down memories, sharply defined images, dream-like sequences (there is a lot of dream imagery in Caldwell's later, more conventional novels), short dramatic sketches complete with dialogue, evocative poetic passages, and occasional rather flat notations like, "I had no playmates" (I, xviii).
What is not present is conventional plot complication, character development (only three or four characters are named, like Florence, whom Alan Loves in Part II), and the careful attention to setting that one notes in Caldwell's best fiction. But in this book the landscape constantly shifts and is occasionally phantasmagoric. Nor does one find here the skillful ear for Southern speech present even in inferior novels like The Bastard and Poor Fool, for dialogue is kept to a minimum.
Obviously this is a difficult book to comprehend. It is in part an apprenticeship novel and jottings for a memoir. Caldwell takes Alan from his birth in Part I to self-knowledge and the loss of his sought-for Love in Part III. It is also a quest narrative in that there is a search for ideal beauty and Love, though this ends in failure. And like Poor Fool, it contains elements of the proletarian novel: Kent is a common laborer who, like Caldwell's helpless blacks and women, is exploited and driven to despair, even to murder in Part III. The author's distrust of landowners and bosses is made clear in each of the three sections, pointing to the attitudes that inform Tobacco Road and God's little Acre, though he does not idealize the common man in the usual manner of proletarian fiction.
Part I, "Tracing life With a Finger," begins with Alan Kent's birth in December, an episode associated with painful images: "Rainwater had soaked the red earth so that the world might bleed to death." Similar images suggest that the protagonist is born in an evil time and will grow up, as do the alienated "heroes" of The Bastard, Poor Fool, and The Bogus Ones, in a harsh and hostile world. In fact, like some of Caldwell's initiation stories that seem to owe something to Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, many of these brief scenes or "moments" are created in order to confront young Alan with a cruel world: in iii the boy is painfully burned by grease from a pan, in ix his dog is burned to death when his house burns, and in xxxv he is thrown in jail. There follow other episodes of violent death, near starvation, and deprivation—familiar ingredients of Caldwell's later stories and novels.
Yet this is not the whole picture, or this section would be too monotonous and grim and young Alan merely a passive sufferer. For contrast there are a few idyllic moments—no doubt recalled from Caldwell's own childhood: a vacation with his parents, happy episodes in school, the experiences of "puppy Love," and an early exploration of the mysteries of sex in a game of doctor and patient. However, Part I concludes, as it begins, with painful images. Alan escapes from jail, is separated from a mulatto girl who helps nurse him to health, then is left alone by a woman who disappears in a memorable surrealistic sequence. It ends with xxxvii repeating the blood image of i: "Ever since then I have been tired. . . . The days are long—long. The sun rises quick like a bat out of hell and roosts forever in the sky biting my eyeballs with its black gums, and the blood of me drips all over the world."
If Part I deals with such familiar motifs of apprenticeship fiction as sexual initiation, school, jobs, confrontation with cruelty, and a hostile environment, Part II, "Inspiration For Greatness," is concerned chiefly with groping toward maturity and the quest for identity—though the fifty-five separate paragraphs present a mixed collection of fragments of memories, folktales, legends, and autobiographical snippets, some of which are repeated later in call It Experience. This section begins with Alan Kent realizing that "I would soon be a man . . . Nobody ever knew what was happening inside of me, but I could feel something there all the time." He has become a wanderer separated from home and parents; he is older and is more an observer now, a spy on the life around him—though nowhere does he mention either books or writing. The life he experiences or observes continues to be ugly and violent: in iv a woman falls to her death, in í a prostitute is murdered, in ix a Negro is shot, in xv a woman is raped, and in xxv a Negro boy is lynched. like Caldwell himself as a young man, Alan becomes a drifter, often going hungry, working on a farm, in a restaurant, doing construction work. Once again, there are encounters with women and the search for a satisfactory relationship. Often the repeated images of suffering and death are juxtaposed to sexual Love, as in xxiii, which deals with buzzards and the coming of death (it is an old folk tale) and xxiv, which depicts in two sentences a couple making Love in the woods. As Part II draws to a close, Caldwell develops something like a cohesive plot. Young Kent thinks more of his parents (who never reappear), returns home (never specified), only to discover that he can't go home again. In 1 Caldwell writes, "When at last I reached the town where I had lived, there were strange people walking along the streets and when I spoke to them, nobody would speak to me." children throw rocks at him and he is driven away by the adults. Hungry and alone (the theme of alienation is now established), he sets out walking to the unnamed town where his parents have moved; but before he arrives, there is another dream sequence. Part II ends with lv:
I saw a naked girl running through the country and she tried to hide from me. Once when she stopped and looked at me I could see that her breast was bursting like a blossom in the warm sunshine and I ran all through the South to catch her.... Then when 1 reached her, all the petals fell from her breast and they were blown away in the wind and I could not see her any more and I never knew where she went, but the seeds that were scattered that day are the flowers that are blooming there now.
Since this section is entitled "Inspiration for Greatness," one can assume that this beautiful, elusive woman is, in some sense, Alan Kent's muse. It follows that the seeds that fell from her blossoming breast are the stories recorded by the finger referred to in the title of Part I. However, Caldwell is content to suggest his themes obliquely here—though at other times he states them too baldly for the modern reader's taste.
Whether the elusive girl represents the muse or not, in the final section, "Hours Before Eternity," Alan Kent does not become a published writer like Fritz Mann of The Bogus Ones. As the title implies, there is now an awareness of time passing, together with intimations of his death, as there were in Parts I and II. Instead of dealing with writing as a career, there are recorded memories and experiences that might be transmuted into art. Here there is pretty much the mixture as before, 49 numbered paragraphs, many reading like deeply felt moments from Caldwell's own life. The the quest for Love. But there is more of a plot than in Parts I and II. Alan still wanders throughout the South, though now he is without parents and longing for a family of his own. He works for a while with a carnival, where he helps murder a crazed woman. He catches sight of a beautiful girl, who reappears throughout this section, and his search for her becomes a unifying motif. Unable to find her again, he works for an evil landowner in sections xii-xix. This white boss exploits his workers, white and black, chains and rapes a Negro girl, kills a Negro who complains of being too sick to work, and pours turpentine on his dogs to amuse himself on Sunday. Section xvii consists only of this haunting sentence: "The [white] man brought another Negro girl to the house but she had greased her body with lard and he could not hold her." In the end, Alan and two Negroes shoot the white landowner and free the black girl, ending this sequence of related episodes. Thereafter he resumes his search "for the girl whose eager face I had first seen in the crowd." The quest takes him to a bawdy house, to an ugly city, back to the country, and across a landscape filled with a variety of powerful images of death, for instance, a belled buzzard in xxvii and a man beating a dog to death in xxxiii. He meets a number of men and women but is unable to establish a lasting relationship with any of them. As in the first two parts, this section ends with surrealistic episodes that are not fragmented or interrupted. As if in a dream, in xliv he encounters his "eager-eyed Love," Florence. At first he curses God for the cruelty of giving her such passion, but in the end he takes joy in the consummation of their Love. When he awakes, she is dead, a withered rose between them: "The death of the girl I had Loved was the autumn's ruthless harvest of my youth. I was now a man by reason of the severance of her body from the field we tilled and the passing of my immaturity."
But this section also ends with a note of affirmation. Alan thinks of his own coming death, but, looking down, he observes, "I saw the shrivelled pod and brittle stalk that once had flourished. When I grasped it tightly in my hands to feel for the last time the vine that had given me roots in the world, its disintegrated seed crumbled in my fingers and blew away in the wind." Perhaps, the implication is that after his death the seeds of his stories will take root and flourish. The book ends with xlix: "And now I knew I would always be alone in the world." As in The Bogus Ones and The Bastard, Caldwell's protagonist sets forth in the end, alienated and alone.
The Sacrilege is obviously a strange, unpredictable and uneven work. Beautiful or powerful poetic images are often juxtaposed to flat, journalistic notations. In spite of the harshness of the world delineated, there are passages which descend into sentimentality or are marred by self-pity, blurring the tone. For some reason, Caldwell never returned to this mode of fiction. Perhaps he felt that he had revealed too much of himself in it, or maybe he simply viewed it as less than an unqualified success. The book had few readers and only a handful of reviews.
But it is important to note that the fledgling novelist learned a great deal from the poetic and experimental techniques employed in The Sacrilege. For instance, this book of fragments and epiphanies is unified by the repetition of images of death, blood, decay and pain, which are opposed to the images of seeds, flowers, and birth. This same fictive device is used later, most notably in the animal images that stitch together Journeyman (1933), which are also contrasted with heavenly images to provide tension in this novel about fundamentalist religion. The exaggeration that pushes beyond realism in all three sections occurs in nearly all of Caldwell's major fiction. The poetic evocations here served him well when he came to write of the flower-like beauty of the mill girls in God's little Acre. Similarly, the mythic depths of II, xix, in which two dead babies are buried in a field where corn is planted, appear again to better advantage in Tobacco Road in the scene in which Jeeter sets out to plant a new crop just after burying his mother in the field. Finally, the repeated use of folk tales suggests the role of similar tales embedded in the later books, especially Georgia Boy (1943) though, for obvious reasons, Caldwell's characteristic folk humor is missing from The Sacrilege.
Although these matters of technique are noteworthy, The Sacrilege is also significant for exploring or establishing many of Caldwell's later thematic concerns. Indeed, much of the book reads as if the young author were making notations and swiftly sketching scenes that he would develop later more fully and successfully. Here he seems to be staking out his territory, which he will return to and mine in more depth and with more assured craftsmanship. Examples are too numerous to exhaust, but a few will suggest the range of his interests in the late 1920's. The sexual initiation of I, xxv, is explored later in initiation stories like "Evelyn and the Rest of Us"; the affair with a mulatto woman in I, xxxii, is not only in part a prose version of an earlier unpublished poem entitled "Southern Nights," but points, as do other sections, to Caldwell's concern with mulattoes in In Search of Bisco (1965), his nonfiction book on racism, and the novel Place called Estherville (1949). The lynching of a young Negro in II, xxv, is the theme of perhaps Caldwell's most memorable novel, Trouble in July (1940), as well as the subject of his most accomplished poem, "The Face Beneath the Sky." Similarly, the motif of hunger in II, xxxii, is basic to Tobacco Road and such stories as "Daughter" and "A Man and a Woman"; and the cruel landowner of a number of episodes in Part III reappears in one of his most memorable stories, "Kneel to the Rising Sun." Finally, the feared albino of III, xxvi, returns to play an important role in God's little Acre. These are only a few motifs or themes that are employed in his better-known fiction of the 1930's and 40's.
Erskine Caldwell's first three apprentice novels are for the most part conventional efforts and are interesting today only as forecasts of the themes and concerns of his later work. Such is not the case with The Sacrilege of Alan Kent, his strangest and, in some ways, most original book. A close study of it helps illuminate much of his important fiction of the 30's, both novels and stories. certainly anyone who reads it will no longer see Caldwell as a simple realist or naturalist, but will be prepared to perceive the symbolic complexities and poetic obliqueness of his major novels.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3632
SOURCE: "Caldwell's Stories: common Reader Response, Analysis and Appreciation at Home and Abroad," in Pembroke Magazine, No. 11, 1979, pp. 51-8.
[Comsa is a Romanian writer, educator, and critic specializing in American literature. In the essay below, Comsa surveys the critical response to Caldwell's stories, declaring: "With few exceptions, judgements passed on Caldwell [have been] onesided, sectarian, subservient to fashion as well as blind to his art, his range and significance. " The critic then calls for a reappraisal of all Caldwell's work, particularly his short stones.]
Erskine Caldwell has over one hundred and fifty short stories to his credit. More than any of the great American prose writers of his generation. That in this field his production outnumbers that of his colleagues is not surprising, for in Caldwell's rating the short story was always uncommonly high, and his faith in its function and virtues was infinitely stronger than theirs.
"I don't think there is anything to compare with the short story," Caldwell declared in an interview granted to carvel Collins and published by The Atlantic Monthly back in [July] 1958. "I think it's the best form of writing there is . . . I think you can tell as much in a story as you can in a novel, but it's more difficult to do. It's hard to accomplish a good story because you have to concentrate it so much. So I like the discipline of it."
The acceptance of this discipline is obvious in the whole body of his creation; not only in his short stories, but in all his novels, in his non-fiction writings as well as in the picture-texts.
One of Caldwell's translators, the Russian literary critic Ivan Kashkin, who in 1956 authored the introduction to a comprehensive anthology of his writings, asked himself whether Caldwell's novels were actually novels and his answer was this: "They certainly are neither short stories nor novels, but simply a special type of longer stories."
This view is largely borne out by the episodic quality of Caldwell's novels which seems to suggest that they were formed in the author's mind as story situations and later welded into novels.
The first to discern the quality of Caldwell's short stories were the editors of transition, a Paris based "international magazine for creative experiment." By printing "Midsummer Passion" early in 1929, which soon after was included in The New American caravan for the same year, they launched Caldwell on the road to notoriety. At home other little magazines, like The Quarter, Pagany, and Hound and Horn, followed suit. Then, two of Caldwell's short stories—"The Mating of Marjorie" and "A Very late Spring"—were accepted for publication in an important literary journal, Scribner's Magazine, where they appeared in the June issue of 1930.
'There's something about them that appeals strongly to me," Maxwell Perkins, of Scribner's and Sons, told Caldwell. "There's a good feeling about them. It's something I like to find in fiction. So many writers master form and technique, but get so little feeling into their work" [cited by Caldwell in call It Experience, 1966].
American Earth, the first volume of short stories by Erskine Caldwell, was issued by Scribner's sometime in April 1931.
Neither his vast subsequent output in the field of the novel and non-fiction writing, nor his work for the screen deflected Caldwell from the short story.
His productions were not slow to gain expert appreciation. One of his earliest short stories, "Dorothy," got into O'Brien's Best Short Stories of 1931. Another, "country Full of Swedes," later to be included in We Are the living (1933), won the Yale Review's award for fiction in 1933. Sundry other stories were picked for the 1932, 1934 and 1935 issues of O'Brien's yearly collections of best short stories, and for the O. Henry Memorial Award Stories of 1934.
Prominent among those who noticed Caldwell's first volumes of short stories was the poet Horace Gregory. "Like all writers of the first rank," Gregory wrote, "he has an instinct for converting a casual episode into a symbol that carries a profound meaning."
In a perceptive analysis, Kenneth Burke, the author of A Grammar of Motives, focussed attention on some specific features of Caldwell's art. "By an astounding trick of oversimplification," Burke pointed out [in The New Republic LXXXII, No. 1062, April 10, 1935], "Caldwell puts people into complex situations while making them act with the scant, crude tropisms of an insect—and the result is cunning, where lawrence, by a varient of the same pattern, is as unwieldy as an elephant in his use of vulgar words for romantic Love making." At the same time, sensing the great complexity of Caldwell's narrative prose, he ascribed its growing popularity to many factors besides realism. "In his tomfoolery," said Burke, "he comes closer to the Dadaists; when his grotesqueness is serious, he is a Superrealist. We might compromise by calling him over all a Symbolist (if by Symbolist we mean a writer whose work serves most readily as a case history for the psychologist and whose plots are more intelligible when interpreted as dreams)."
Side by side with such comments there was vocal unfavourable criticism based on the false idea that Caldwell's reputation lowed himself in describing sexual experience.
Caldwell's writings—already published in Great Britain—soon crossed the language barrier and landed on the continent in 1936. God's little Acre in French, and American Earth in Russian, were his first books to appear in other languages.
Maurice-Edgar Coindreau, the translator in French of God's little Acre and later of We Are the living, made these remarks in an essay published in a leading Paris literary monthly: "The terseness, the swift pace and the bitter taste of Caldwell's narratives bring to mind Maupassant, while their humor evokes the verve of Rabelais tempered by Dean Swift's cynicism and by Twain's earthy spirit."
A second edition of American Earth in Russian was printed in 1937, and other translations in book form as well as in periodicals followed. In the same year came a Czech version of God's little Acre, and a French version of We Are the living. Translations of Tobacco Road and of selections from Kneel to the Rising Sun appeared in the Soviet Union in 1938.
To the Italian audience Caldwell was introduced by Elio Vittorini, who wrote an appreciative presentation in 1938 and included a short story ("August Afternoon") and an excerpt from Journeyman in the very well balanced anthology of American narrative he edited in the war years.
The staging by Albert camus of Tobacco Road as early as 1938; cesare Pavese's bid, in a letter dated July 4, 1940, to translate God's little Acre in Italian ("I would be happy to face Caldwell whom I like and who fascinates me"); and Andre Gide's remark, in one of his Interviews Imaginaires, in the Paris le Figaro in 1942, "I laugh, I admit, when I read Journeyman or God's little Acre but I laugh on the wrong side of my mouth," are illustrative of Caldwell's impact on perceptive European writers during this period.
For certain reasons, very likely unrelated to the preferences and standards of continental writers or audiences, at this point American publishers began to stake more heavily on Caldwell's writings. In addition to new novels and new collections of stories and to reprints of previous hardcover editions of his books, seven anthologies of short stories were launched. Moreover a twenty five cent reprint of God's little Acre sold over five million copies within four years (1946-1950).
This avalanche of Caldwell books spurred the critics to look more closely at Caldwell. A spate of new assessments and interpretations, generally appreciative, signed by such distinguished literary authorities as Malcolm Cowley, Joseph Warren Beach, W.M. Frohock, Alfred Kazin, and Henry Seidel Canby, came forth in books and periodicals.
In his well known work American Fiction 1920-1940 (1941), Joseph Warren Beach placed Caldwell on top of the list of eight fiction writers he considered the most notable of the period.
Concentrating on Caldwell's short stories for à selection he introduced [Stories by Erskine Caldwell, 1944], Henry Seidel Canby made these remarks:
Caldwell's chief stock of emotion is pity .. . In all his narratives the rage of the writer is tempered by his pity for the victims . . . His art is definitely an art of understatement—understatement I mean of the deep issues of the story through overstatement and repetition often of the humours, the absurdities and the eccentricities of his characters . . .
Following WW II and, more particularly, during the years of the cold War, Caldwell elicited hostile and even defamatory comment from many academic critics while receiving silent treatment from others, and was confronted with competition from new generation writers and dead great authors. In the fifties, when full length estimates were devoted to most of his contemporaries, and significant essays on their writing were collected, Caldwell was neglected.
Despite this cold shouldering, his fiction fared no worse. It continued to enjoy the growing favor of readers at home and abroad.
"For every American who has read a novel by Elizabeth Roberts or Eudora Welty," Willard Thorp angrily noted [in his American Writing in the Twentieth century, 1960], "there are ten thousand who read Erskine Caldwell."
In fact, Caldwell had become the most successful fiction writer in American publishing history. In the U.S. the new generation enjoyed his books even better than the previous one.
By 1965, Where the Girls Were Different (1948) reached an inland circulation of over five hundred thousand, and Georgia Boy (1943) was approaching the two million mark. Tobacco Road (1932) was up at four million copies in 1960, and God's little Acre (1933), which had passed the five million threshold in 1950, sold another nine million copies by 1965, attaining a circulation of fourteen million copies.
Overseas translations kept appearing year in and year out. According to the Index Translationum, a yearly UNESCO publication, in 1961 there were sixteen new translations in ten countries (against only ten in seven countries in 1951), and the latest issue of this publication, which covers the year 1973, reports seventeen translations in twelve countries.
By the end of 1973 Caldwell's books had been translated into fifty languages, their aggregate circulation around the world reaching a staggering eighty million copies.
Abroad, in many countries, more than one volume of short stories were translated. In Romania, for instance, between 1945 and the present day, in addition to an unknown number of short stories printed in periodicals, there were ten Caldwell translations in book form, totalling approximately two hundred thousand copies, among these five short story selections with a circulation of a hundred and forty thousand.
The staying power of Caldwell's writings and the dimensions of the response they elicited failed to impress unfriendly critics at home. Referring to the way in which Caldwell was dealt with during this period, Robert Cantwell ventured to believe that "a reason for the first impact of his books, and for the subsequent decline in his critical standing, is more directly related to something within the intellectual world itself [The Georgia Review XI, No. 3, Fall, 1957].
Anybody who, at this juncture, would have thought to invite Caldwell to visit Europe, could have offered as an enticement these lines from Franklin's letter to Washington, dated March 5, 1780: "You would, on this side of the Sea, enjoy the Great Reputation you have acquired pure and free from those little Shades that the Jealousy and Envy of a Man's Countrymen and Contemporaries are ever endeavoring to cast over living Merit... For 1,000 Leagues have nearly the same Effect with 1,000 Years. The feeble Voice of those grovelling Passions cannot extend so far either in Time or Distance."
With few exceptions, judgements passed on Caldwell were onesided, sectarian, subservient to fashion as well as blind to his art, his range and significance.
Spiller and Thorp reproached him with "endlessly repeating his early successes in earthy comedy" [Willard Thorp and Robert E. Spiller, "End of an Era," in Literary History of the United States, edited by Spiller et al., 1948]. Henry Steele Commager [in The American Mind, 1958] lumped him together with Faulkner, Farrell, Hemingway and others and indicted the lot in these terms: "It was the reactions of the body rather than the workings of the mind that interested this school most, it confined itself as far as possible to characters with the mentality .. . of subhuman louts. . . ." Frederick J. Hoffman [in The Modern Novel in America, 1951] suggested that "Caldwell, like Steinbeck, has been victimized by a serious intellectual failure." Donald Heiney revived some old accusations: "He presents pornography for its own sake, he is fond of shocking his audiences into attention and he creates human beings devoid of any sense of decency" [Recent American Literature, 1958]. Leon Howard [in Literature and the American Tradition] insinuated that "the Marxian line disciplined him out of all contact with his material and with his readers." John Bradbury gave his verdict a more learned dressing: "Caldwell's flat style, his insensitivity to subtleties of fictional presentation allows him no means to redeem the crude vulgarities he delights to record" [Renaissance in the South, 1963].
In contrast with the mass of impressionistic chatter about Caldwell, there were, at this stage, a few mavericks who explored specific aspects of Caldwell's art or chose to deal with individual works rather than make unwarranted general pronouncements.
Max Lerner [in America as a Civilization, 1957] drew attention to the fact that in Caldwell's writings "the folk material is like a network of underground streams bursting through the landscaped surface," while William Van O'Connor [in The Grotesque: An American Genre, and other Essays, 1962] projected the grotesque strain in Caldwell's fiction in a broader cultural context.
"Our literature," Van O'Connor observed, "is filled with the grotesque more so probably than any western literature. It is a new genre merging tragedy and comedy and seeking seemingly in perverse ways the sublime . . . Perhaps the South has produced more than its share of the grotesque. The writers are easily listed; Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote and Tennesse Williams."
Referring then to Caldwell, in particular, Van O'Connor pointed out that "mixed with Caldwell's condemnation of certain of his villains is a detached delight in the complications of the villainy itself," and underscored the fact that in his writings grotesque is allied to "the comedy and pathos of the misfit."
On the other side of the Atlantic, Paul West, a British literary critic, engaging in a comparatively closer examination of Caldwell's works, [in The Modern Novel, 1963], saw Pa Stroup of Georgia Boy as an embodiment of the kind of detachment Caldwell asks of his readers "so that wit can work through wormwood and humor through error," and finds that "the difference between the Caldwell writing about the folkways of Maine (in 'The Corduroy Pants') and Caldwell writing about the folkways of Georgia (in 'Candy-Man Beechum') is pain." "The pain of realization according to conscience," West maintains, "forces Caldwell into caricature. He fights back at the incredible and the discreditable by creating enormities of his own . . ." On the strength of these observations he draws this conclusion: "It is simpleminded to look at Caldwell for comedy or documentary or mere grotesquerie. He is in each sense of the word fearfully involved in his material and much of it is raw. To read him attentively is to begin to piece together for ourselves a whole mythology of the Old South, the New South, old gentility based on oppression based on obsolete wrath . . ."
Signs of a change in the attitude towards Caldwell's work have emerged during the last decade.
On the academic level, the ice was broken by James Korges' Erskine Caldwell, published in 1969 in the University of Minnesota's well balanced and discriminating pamphlets on American writers, a series which counts among its advisers Karl Shapiro, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. This compact forty-eight page essay does a remarkable job of surveying Caldwell's vast output and of vindicating his neglected achievement. Although rather unperceptive as regards Caldwell's short story production ("One could make a collection of twenty five stories," he says, "which would reveal his talent and which would be a minor classic of American literature."), Korges' final conclusion is this: "His (i. e. Caldwell's) is a solid achievement that supports the assertion that he is one of the important writers of our time."
Next came Black Like It Is—Was by William A. Sutton of Ball State University (1974), a scholarly work discussing Caldwell's treatment of racial themes. It has the merit of being an exhaustive and sympathetic study of the subject which brings to light valuable unedited material, and that of revealing Caldwell's constant efforts at achieving the difficult "feat of criticizing society without necessarily making people aware of what he was trying to do."
Other comprehensive essays about Caldwell were recently authored by Scott MacDonald of Syracuse University, and by Jay Martin of the University of California.
The publishing world, on the other hand, has of late begun to show interest for almost forgotten fiction and non-fiction writings by Caldwell.
The Bastard, of which only a limited number of copies were run in 1929, came out in a new edition in 1974. You Have Seen Their Faces, a picture-text produced in collaboration with Margaret Bourke-White, out of print since 1937, was reissued in 1975, and North of the Danube, another picture-text of the two first published in 1939, appeared early this year.
These recent developments seem to indicate that the defiant author, who always had the courage to go his way regardless of momentary trends, is at last coming into all his rights.
Readers have long ago rendered an unequivocal verdict on his work, and it is "by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices," that "all claim to poetical honours" must be decided [Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the Poets].
What remains to be done by honest and enlightened critics everywhere is to combat and dispel the misinterpretations of the obtuse or malicious, and to start or pursue all the sideline work that is outside the province and beyond the qualifications of the common reader, such as focussing attention on Caldwell's particular slant on the world as well as on his characteristic reading of human values, and revealing the mainsprings of his art.
Naturally, his titles to fame, like those of any other writer, must be determined on the strength of his finest achievements, irrespective of genre or proportions. For several reasons, in the selection of these, Caldwell's own opinions—who constantly strived to be his severest critic—will have to be taken into account just as much as readers' preferences and professional estimates.
Most important among these is the author's repeatedly expressed predilection for the short story in general and his favor for specific productions in particular. In 1940, for instance, he had this to say about "Candy-Man Beechum": "rather than produce a three hundred page novel I prefer writing a story like this one" [Jackpot: The Short Stories of Erskine Caldwell, 1940]. Later on, when introducing the 1952 edition of one of his collections of stories [Kneel to the Rising Sun], he made this statement: "I would not trade this particular book for any novel I have written." And he went on to say: "As a writer, I have always felt that there were many incidents and episodes in life that could be told more effectively and compellingly in the compact space of a short story than could be related in a chapter or portion of a longer and often artificially extended work of fiction." (The full significance of this statement can be grasped only when keeping in mind that, at the time, the list of his published novels comprised no less than fifteen titles, including Tobacco Road, God's Little Acre, Trouble in July and Georgia Boy.)
Besides, in all his novels like in those of most masters of the genre, from Cervantes to present day writers, the short story keeps irrepressibly insinuating itself as a smaller unit of structure. A graphic example is Georgia Boy, episodes of which were written and published piecemeal over a period of years.
But a fresh look at all his output, in print as well as in manuscript form, is also imperative. Caldwell has a much larger range than generally assumed. He has written quite a number of masterpieces outside the much discussed realm of race relations or of the comic and the grotesque, and these invite and deserve investigation: penetrating depictions of adolescent awakening, as "The Strawberry Season" and "Indian Summer", vivid silhouettes, which bring to mind the paintings of Grant Wood, of New England people in action, as in "Over the Green Mountains", grim glimpses of life on the fringe of modern industrial cities, as in "Dorothy" or "Slow Death", and prosepoems of unique beauty and emotional force like "The First Autumn."
Close analysis of individual short stories and novels, and of groups of stories and novels interrelated through approach, central themes, characters or technique, is likely to yield some illuminating results. Caldwell's art was defined by Henry Seidel Canby as an art of understatement. Claude Edmonde Magny pointed out [in L'Age du roman americain, 1968] that it aimed to attain the directness and spontaneity of the motion pictures. Careful examination will prove that these are but partial truths, Caldwell's art being a flexible combination of these and many other elements, particularly familiarity with folklore and folkways.
Other worthwhile sideline work could be achieved by gathering and sifting statistical data and palpable evidence on readers response, by preparing analytical surveys of translations, both in book form and in periodicals, by collecting critical essays, as well as by investigating Caldwell's impact on creative writing at home and abroad.
Though condemned to be fragmentary, approximate and subject to the fluctuations of taste and ideals, diligent research and honest practical criticism of this type will serve not only the purpose of demonstrating the quality of Caldwell's work and increase the understanding and appreciation of the same, but also that of realizing and assessing this author's major contribution to modern American and world literature.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1574
SOURCE: "Caldwell Country Revisited: Some Rambling Comments," in Pembroke Magazine, No. 11, 1979, pp. 99-102.
[Peden is an American poet, novelist, and educator. In the following essay, he extols Caldwell's short stories as "important sociological documents, bleak testimony to the devastating effects of poverty upon human behavior."]
During a remarkable decade and a half from the late Twenties to the early Forties, Erskine Caldwell published approximately a hundred short stories in a variety of magazines ranging from little or avant-garde publications like Anvil, Clay, Contempo, Lion & Crown, Pagany, and Story to the Atlantic, Esquire, the New Yorker, Redbook, Scribners, and the Saturday Evening Post. The stories were popular and controversial, and some of them were highly praised; several were included in the annual Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Memorial Awards, and as knowledgeable an editor-critic as Edward J. O'Brien called Kneel to the Rising Sun and Other Stories superior to Katherine Anne Porter's Flowering Judas, and rated Southways ahead of Hemingway's The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories, Faulkner's The Unvanquished, and Steinbeck's The Long Valley.
But after that, the big sleep; Caldwell began to lose interest in short stories around the middle Forties. "After I had written about 150 short stories (both published and wastebasketed)," he commented in 1975, "I felt I had done enough and wanted to spend my efforts on novels and non-fiction." And for the most part, the critics began to lose interest in Caldwell. By the Fifties his stories were neglected or ignored, and seldom anthologized in the school and college textbooks that over the years have helped keep alive many an established reputation. To all intents and purposes, Caldwell's short fiction was forgotten.
As a longtime admirer of Caldwell, this bothered me. . . . And so, during the tailend of the bitter winter of 1978 and later during some summer days in the Swiss Alps, I read or reread about a hundred of his stories, particularly the seventy-five that Caldwell had included, at the peak of his career, as what he considered his best and most representative work in Jackpot, published in 1943. "Rediscovering" these stories has been one of the real pleasures in my life as a reader and occasional commentator on Twentieth Century short fiction.
My immediate response was traditional. Like everyone else who has written about Caldwell, I was moved by the raw power of his stories of social protest, particularly those concerned with Black-White relations in the American Coastal South during the Great Depression: stories like "Kneel to the Rising Sun," probably the best-known and the most-frequently anthologized of his Black-White stories; "The End of Christy Tucker"; "The People vs. Abe Lathan, Colored"; "Saturday Afternoon" (recently referred to in an article in the Nation as "belonging with the best American fiction"); "Savannah River Payday"; "Runaway", "Candy-Man Beechum"; and "Blue Boy."
In such stories Caldwell has created a world of nightmare, more surreal perhaps than real, despite the fact that the individual pieces are firmly rooted in recognizable time and place. Apparently written out of a sense of burning indignation reminiscent of the Swift of "A Modest Proposal" or the Faulkner of "That Evening Sun," they evoke horror, disgust, shame, indignation, nausea, pity, remorse; and I was reminded of a comment about Faulkner by his mother (it's in Blotner's fine biography) to the effect that "Bill looks at things and is sick at what he sees."
If the ability to evoke the emotions of horror, disgust, and revulsion were the hallmarks of greatness, then most of the Black-White stories would be indisputably great. But even a good story like "Kneel to the Rising Sun" seems to me to suffer from having in it a bit too much of everything, and a lesser piece like "Savannah River Payday" tends to degenerate into a kind of obscene vaudeville. I think Caldwell is more successful—perhaps I should merely say that I prefer him—in his briefer, more tightly-controlled stories, when he whispers rather than when he shouts, as he does in "The Runaway," or when, in what I would call an indisputably great story like "Candy-Man Beechum," he floats like a butterfly before stinging like a bee.
And then there is "Blue Boy."
It is difficult for me even to retype the title without experiencing again the sense of horror and pity that this remarkable story creates. It is, I do believe, a miniature masterpiece, moving as it does very rapidly from a lowkey realistic opening (Caldwell's openings, incidentally, are for the most part superb; anyone interested in the craft of fiction can learn a great deal from them) in which a brutal White Redneck torments a feebleminded young Black and then proceeding swiftly to a hideous Kafkaesque climax somewhere out yonder in a world which we hope doesn't, didn't, couldn't ever exist, but one which in the marrow of our bones and in the movement of our blood we know did, does exist and, alas, always will exist.
In a good many similarly powerful stories of social protest, —"Slow Death," "A Knife to Cut Cornbread With," "Daughter," "Wild Flowers," "Masses of Men," and "Martha Jean" are typical—Caldwell's world is one in which Whites are victimized by Whites. It's a painful world where human beings are humbled, beaten, debauched, debased, and eventually destroyed; where entire families live in dry-goods boxes or sleep in ditches; where a sharecropper kills his young daughter rather than see her starve before his eyes; where "old men and women, starved and yellow," die and are dumped into the Savannah River; where a jobless middle-aged man, run over by a careless driver in "a big sedan," is left in the street to die with the driver damning him as a "bum" who "faked" the action in order to get some insurance money; and where a young widow sells her ten-year-old daughter for twenty-five cents.
If some of these stories, for all their terrible power, seem somewhat less successful than the fictions of racial injustice—over-manipulated, perhaps—they will endure, I think, as important sociological documents, bleak testimony to the devastating effects of poverty upon human behavior, wasting both body and spirit. And throughout these sad testimonials of man's inhumanity to man there exists the common chord of Caldwell's sincerity and compassion:
"The lives of fictional characters are sometimes almost as painful as the lives of living persons," he says of "A Knife to Cut Cornbread With"; and of "Masses of Men": "It is unfortunate that this story had to be written, but I could not escape from it."
I believe him completely.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are Caldwell's humorous stories and it is with these that I think he is really at his best. Pieces like "Country Full of Swedes" are too well known to require comment here, and have already found their place in the long tradition of American humor from Longstreet to Mark Twain. My own personal favorites are some of the shorter pieces: deft, beautifully controlled, ranging from farce to vaudeville to tom-foolery to burlesque to old-fashioned frontier humor, robust, noisy, unbuttoned, always alive with the unobtrusive presence of a writer who has mastered his craft, revelling in his mastery, and sharing his delight with the reader.
Here are some of my own favorites:
"Meddlesome Jack." When "the meanest-looking jackass" in Georgia suddenly starts braying, Hod Sheppard's wife deserts him, Black Amos's wife and daughters are "drove crazy," the local banker's wife cosies him to bed for the first time in months, a young Black girl pops up naked and. . . .
"August Afternoon." Vic Gover's fifteen-year-old wife sits up there on the steps "showing her pretty" to a young man and to the hired hand Hubert, and certain developments occur. This story, like "Meddlesome Jack," is further interesting in terms of a White Boss-Black Hired Hand relationship far different from that in the savage Black-White stories previously commented on.
And my favorite of favorites, "Midsummer Passion," about what happens when middle-aged Ben Hack, out haying, finds a pair of pink underpants in a parked car. . . .
And "The Automobile That Wouldn't Run," "Hamricks Polar Bear," "It happened like this," "The Shooting," and a good many more.
The variety of Caldwell's short fiction, ranging as it does from the darkest tragedy to high comedy, is remarkable. At his best, he is a sophisticated and disciplined craftsman. His stories move quickly; his instinct for the specific detail, gesture, or action can be superb. At a time when the short story was becoming a formularized piece of literary carpentry for the mass circulation magazines, his brisk, nervous fictions helped revitalize the genre; at the same time his concern with the plight of the American Negro anticipated the subsequent Black literary movement from Langston Hughes and Chester Himes to James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Ed Bullins, and others. (It could be argued, too, that some of his shorter pieces similarly anticipate, if not so clearly or so dramatically, the work of the so-called Innovationists of the Sixties).
Though working for the most part out of an essentially realistic tradition, Caldwell is also a spinner of magic webs whose occasional journeys into the realm of the oneiric completely transcend Naturalism—hallucinogenic trips to realms of myth, nightmare, and the surreal. With stories that float from customary reality into a very different landscape, he has at times created a world far closer kin to that of Bosch and Brueghel than to that of any of the genre painters.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1299
SOURCE: An interview in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 83-101.
[In the following excerpt, which is taken from an interview with Caldwell at his home in Arizona in June, 1980, the author discusses various aspects of his writing process.]
Many commentators have linked you to the tradition of Southwest Humor, as exemplified by Longstreet, Harris, Hooper, and others. Have you been an admirer of this group?
I hardly knew they existed. I can't recall his name, but there is one particular Georgia writer of maybe a hundred years ago who wrote little squibs of stories—one page, two pages, three pages long. I've seen them but I didn't read them; I don't even know what they're about. Now, several people have given me books of stories written in a vernacular or in dialect. They seem to think I should read these stories because that would inspire me to write similar ones. But why anyone would believe that I want to imitate a writer, any writer, is something I don't understand. I can't see it at all. So I just turn those books away—get rid of them. I only write like myself.
Your celebrated short story "Candy-Man Beechum" differs stylistically from almost all of your other fiction. It has, in fact, been called a prose folk ballad. Was this a particularly difficult form to work with?
Difficult? No, no trouble at all. I did it as an experiment, and I've found that experiments always have a certain ease to them—which is not to say that they're slight. In "Candy-Man Beechum" my experiment was to see if I could convey the sense of dialect, the feeling of dialect, by the rhythm of a sentence instead of by the sounds of speech. I wanted to prove to myself that rhythm is superior to dialect as a means of capturing Southern speech in fiction. You see, I have always had a dislike for dialect in stories. I think it's a very reprehensible kind of talk for a writer to use in his work.
Do you mean the graphic, phonetical representation of dialect on the page?
Yes. The reader should not have to decipher that sort of thing; it's too great an obligation to impose upon him. I've always felt that dialect should be outlawed for that reason.
Another of your works with a distinctive style is The Sacrilege of Alan Kent, which has been described as a prose-poem. I wonder if this piece might have been a transition between your writing of poetry and your writing of fiction?
It might have been, yes. Anyway, it was in that same era. What happened was that I was in the state of Maine then, trying to write fiction—or trying to learn how to write it. I would have written anything I thought might help me reach that goal because fiction was what I really wanted to do all along. The Sacrilege of Alan Kent was just one more experiment in that direction.
Did you give any thought to sticking with this particular form as something that you had pioneered?
No, I didn't view it in that light at all. I published the first part of Alan Kent in a little magazine in Boston called Pagany, and the editor there kept urging me to send him more and more of this same material. That was the only thing that encouraged me to write the next two parts. Pagany paid no money, though; and I was sure none of the bigger magazines would want this sort of thing. So in the end I had to do something different in order to make a little money.
You 've obviously devoted your life to writing, but would you continue to write if you made no money at it?
[Laughing] That depends. Not now, I guess. Now I'd have to do something else to support myself. But in the days before I sold anything, I published probably fifty short stories in little magazines that paid no money at all. To me that was training, though; that was preliminary. I was willing to do anything to learn how to write because my expectation, or at least my aim, was that sooner or later a commercial magazine would pay me money for my stories—maybe The Saturday Evening Post or something. So I kept on sending out a short story every day, day after day, to these well-known magazines. It took a long time, but finally I got results.
Was there ever a time when you came close to giving up writing ?
No, no. I would have been a failure if I had tried to go into any other profession, I'm sure, because I would not have been happy with anything else. You find many people in various occupations who really are frustrated writers. They don't want to be doctors or lawyers; they want to be writers. Well, I wanted to be a writer, and I think now I was smart to jump right into it—not to try to go into some other field that would be considered acceptable. I guess you could say that I've been stuck with being a writer all my life.
You have written that Tobacco Road began as a short story and eventually worked its way into a novel. How did this transformation take place?
When I was living with my parents in Wrens, Georgia, there were perhaps fifteen or twenty tobacco roads throughout that whole region. I used to take trips with my father around the countryside, and we would see the kind of life the people there were living. Even then I was very interested in the fiction that could be written about this part of the country. Later, I started scribbling and ended up with a few characters in a setting. Then I think I probably had something that might have been a short story in itself; but it was inconclusive, and I was not satisfied with it. I could not tell everything I wanted to tell in a short story, so I decided to ditch that idea. I began writing at length about the subject later on when I lived in South Carolina. After that I wrote some more of the book in New York, then went to Maine and finished it. So in a total period of about a year, I suppose, I wrote the book in those three different locations. But I always stayed right with the region that I had started out with, which was a place in Richmond County, Georgia, near my parents' home in Wrens.
At what point do you usually know whether you're working on a novel or a short story?
Right from the beginning, as a rule. The novel and the short story are quite different. I don't think the Tobacco Road sort of thing ever happened to me again.
You've said that you do not write with a plot in mind. In more general terms, do you have any kind of a formula at all for writing a book or story?
Well, I would say that you build a story step by step up to a certain point. When you reach that point, you cannot go any further. It's important then to let the reader down right away, to jump off a cliff with him—to do something to end that story on a high note.
Is the process of writing a disagreeable effort for you or something you look forward to?
It all depends. If it's going well, I want to get right back at it again. But if I'm having trouble—which does happen sometimes—why, then I wake up with a headache. [Laughing] Yes, it can be a real troublesome thing if it's not going well.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7648
SOURCE: "The Role of the Short Stories," in Erskine Caldwell, Twayne Publishers, 1984, pp. 114-32.
[In the following excerpt from his book-length study of Caldwell, Devlin assesses the language, imagery, themes, and other facets of the author's short fiction.]
From the late twenties until about 1959, when he virtually abandoned the short story to concentrate on the novel, Caldwell published about 150 short stories. These run broadly parallel to the novels in theme and style, declining in quality as they do, and finally disappearing at the end of the same decade in which the death knell sounded for his popular reputation. But the importance of this body of stories cannot be exaggerated, for . . . they were the great trying ground for the novels. Here in the short stories, Caldwell developed the themes of his novels and molded his prose style. But because his novels remain episodic and anecdotal throughout his career, the stories may well have had a debilitating effect on his longer fiction. Too often, for example, he contrives an epiphany in a novel where none is structurally justified. The sudden end to an incident, so effective in the brief story, sometimes gives evidence in a longer work only of a failure to achieve a satisfactory closure. For almost fifty years, Caldwell's fiction was dominated by a short story habit.
On the positive side, however, the genre represented his first efforts to be published and always remained his great love and proudest achievement. In his mind, the quickly told story and fiction remain synonymous. Almost everything he says about writing in Call It Experience and many of his critical pronouncements are more easily understood when this fact is realized. His competitive sense, an inward prompting that bordered on a sense of threat and proceeded from a deep insecurity, drove him to the novel long before he was ready. Maxwell Perkins's advice, large royalties, and the enormous popularity of Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre conspired to hold him to that route. But like his contemporaries Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, writers with whom he was once perceived to be in competition, Caldwell came of age nourished by a conviction that the short story was the true measure of the creative writer's worth.
The figure of 150 stories is only approximate and does not indicate how many others were written and discarded or filed away and forgotten. Caldwell often held stories for many years before including them in collections, and he frequently introduced them in new or disguised forms. Thus, to choose some arbitrary examples, "The Story of Mahlon," published in When You Think of Me (1959), Caldwell's last collection, appears to have been written very early, judging by its melancholy impressionistic style. This was a style he rejected after the Sacrilege of Alan Kent (1929-31), although he returned to it periodically, as certain passages in novels like Gretta (1955) testify. On the other hand, "A Visit to Mingus County" from the same collection appears to date from the robust years when he still saw the rural South as a land of great comic potential, and when he regularly wrote short stories about the glories or troubles inflicted by one's kinfolk, stories like "The Windfall" (1942) or "Uncle Ned's Short Stay" (1943). Moreover, "Uncle Ned's Short Stay" was later incorporated as a chapter in the novel Georgia Boy, just as, in a somewhat contrary fashion, he extracted prose sections like "Bread in Uzok" and "Wine of Surany" from the prewar North of the Danube, written with Margaret Bourke-White, and called them "stories" for inclusion in When You Think of Me.
The short stories, then, offer us a kind of microcosm of Caldwell's artistic achievement and of his success. The early ones tend to appear in little magazines or national publications such as Scribner's, the New Yorker, Collier's, transition, Story, and the Yale Review, whereas the later ones find doubtful refuge in pulps like Dude, Cavalier, Swank, and Manhunt or in obscure European periodicals. This does not mean that every early story is genuinely meritorious, however. On the contrary, the stories serve as more sensitive barometers of his ability than the novels. Less memorable pieces abound from the start. In fact, the weaknesses that plague Caldwell after God's Little Acre surface in many of the earliest stories. The bathos absent from Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, the awkward dialogue and pompousness not apparent in these novels, occur periodically in many early stories. In these years, Caldwell's consuming interest in female psychology found expression delicately in Tobacco Road, exuberantly in God's Little Acre, and sometimes clumsily as in "Dorothy" (1931) or "Carnival" (1936).
Women in the Stories
His writing—despite the often contrary impression—is of a single piece. He maintains a consistent interest in situations and states of mind, even when he abandons one social class for another or adjusts to new problems facing a later generation. So it is with his lifelong concern with the role of women, especially his barely repressed fear of their domination. Sometimes he is able to suggest, sensitively but with humor, his mistrust of women as in Georgia Boy—a novel that began as the short story "My Old Man." Here he borrows from Hemingway not only the title but the attitude that Hemingway and Anderson so often expressed—that the company of men is a finer thing than that of women. Caldwell's approach in that novel is humorous and understated. It manifests itself mostly through a careful point of view, that of a young boy, subject to maternal authority but clearly more sympathetic to the men around him.
As early as 1929, however, he had terrifyingly objectified his concept of smothering womanhood in a menacing female figure tagged blatantly Mrs. Boxx. An illegal abortionist and hater of youth, this repulsive woman has somehow had her husband castrated (an ineffectual necrophiliac!) and seeks to inflict the same punishment on Blondy Niles, the young boxer-protagonist of this disturbed novel. More than four decades after Poor Fool, Mrs. Boxx's attitude finds expression again in The Earnshaw Neighborhood (1971), less offensively to be sure, but articulated in terms recognizably borrowed from the eerie expressionistic novel written in his twenties.
The mannish Medora Earnshaw, like Mrs. Boxx a woman exhibiting strong sexual desires for young men, renders her mild second husband, Beejay Leffaway, impotent through the intense psychic pressures she exerts on him. As in the early novel, the older woman encourages a nubile daughter to lure virile young men to their house. Her husband displays signs of voyeurism like his predecessor in Poor Fool (and dozens of other novels and stories), and at one point achieves considerable sexual titillation, not with a corpse, but by spanking a mannequin. For all its weaknesses, The Earnshaw Neighborhood cannot simply be dismissed as a work of his dotage, however, because it is packed with so many of the ingredients Caldwell manipulated over and over again in his prime. For example, in this novel that is half-soap opera, half-farce, Caldwell provides a pandemonic scene reminiscent of the kind he had delighted in since "Country Full of Swedes" won him a Yale Review Award for Fiction in the mid-thirties. A tourist bus stops in front of Medora Earnshaw's house, and while she holds the gawking shutterbugs at bay with a garden hose, children, bicycles, dogs, and police cars appear in noisy confusion. The chaos of everyone talking and no one listening or understanding is a variation on the deathly silence of Tobacco Road, Caldwell's metaphor for the lack of communication that typifies the human condition.
Humor and the Lack of It
Because his humorous stories are often his best and because he found that a mixture of comedy and pathos characterized his most successful efforts, Caldwell was reluctant to abandon humor altogether. On the other hand, by the closing days of World War II, he was growing weary of the funny man's burden, just as Mark Twain once had. Now he turned in the direction of the literal sort of realism he had rejected many years before to produce short stories about sexual tensions and marriage. Such are the largely humorless and ephemeral stories that fill collections like Gulf Coast Stories (1956) and Certain Women (1957). Caldwell's decision to de-emphasize humor, if it were a conscious one, seems then to have arisen in the later forties. But even then he is not consistent. A House in the Uplands (1946) may be solemn, but The Sure Hand of God (1947) has riotous and bawdy moments, and so it goes well into the fifties and sixties. The collection Gulf Coast Stories (1956) inspired several novels in the fifties, though contrary to the usual fashion, a novel of this period may have engendered a short story. Episode in Palmetto (1950) shows great similarity to "In Memory of Judith Cortright" (1953), and Gretta (1950) appears to be an expanded version of "Her Name Was Amelie" (1955). Both of these novels, like Gulf Coast Stories, are purged of the old Caldwell humor. Jenny by Nature (1961), in contrast to these earlier books, is often humorous, though it too appears to have been inspired by a story from the Gulf Coast collection, the bittersweet tale, "The Shooting of Judge Price," that first appeared in 1956 in Playboy.
Perhaps, however, the title piece of his last story collection "When You Think of Me" (1959), a melodramatic tale of a returned veteran's attempt to honor a promise to a dead comrade, may be said to set the pace for his novels of the fifties and sixties. The result is seldom happy. The de-emphasis of humor, the avoidance of backcountry Georgia, and the attempt to write seriously about mature subjects (while occasionally reverting to the literary folktale) did not work, though it indicates that Caldwell was experimenting in the fifties just as he had in the thirties. But experimentation notwithstanding, Margaret Bourke-White's charge made in Portrait of Myself (1967) has merit, that Caldwell was writing the same things over again and not as well. She saw him "barricading himself from new experience," and her judgment shows considerable perception.
Caldwell's best early stories had dazzled sophisticated readers for—among other virtues—his casually unimpeachable documentation. In describing a Maine or Georgia setting, he communicated a sense of utter familiarity with his subject. He seemed to have limitless knowledge about such recondite topics as hiring an Indian, breeding leghorns, selling a Kennebec farm, or capturing a runaway jackass. His easy allusions to a host of unfamiliar activities bespeak a confidence that makes Hemingway's similar technique appear at times academic by comparison. He exudes effortless authority of the kind that Crane searched the streets of New York trying to acquire or that sent Dreiser to upstate New York court transcripts.
In the forties, fifties, and sixties, by contrast, this sense is gone. Caldwell, now a resident of Connecticut, Arizona, California, or Florida, begins gradually writing about the middle class, a more complicated breed than Georgia backcountry sharecroppers or Vermont farmers, and one that he failed to capture in words. He describes novelists—Love and Money (1954)—now more familiar to him than tenant farmers, but a race as distant to him as college professors, and post-Depression blacks who equally escape him. The problems of writing outside experience, however, were not new to him. They had occurred in The Bastard, Poor Fool, and a number of stories like "Dorothy" (1930) and "Martha Jean" (1935), attempts at female psychology and a tough city life that he knew only at several removes. But now they threatened to engulf him, for he made the mistake of providing the language and sentiments appropriate in rural characters to those of loftier status and of mixing grotesques with conventionally realistic figures in his novels. Finally, of course, he dropped the short stories, without doubt partly because publication opportunities had declined, but also because he knew the truth of Washington Irving's acknowledgment: "in shorter writings, every page must have its merit." Thus, the short stories not only run a parallel course with the novels, but in a real sense they draw them along from the late twenties to the early fifties.
Style and Influences
Today Caldwell's critical reputation rests on two novels still selling more than forty years after publication. But neither Tobacco Road nor God's Little Acre would have been possible without the previous discipline of the short stories. It is not just the Georgia background, the proletarian concern, or the original characters that make them so memorable, it is their style. From the short stories, Caldwell brought to the novels epiphany, the speedy climactic episode, the deceptively languorous anecdote, and the American sentences whose very prosaic bluntness served to frame with appropriate modesty the marvels that lay within the stories themselves.
Because Caldwell tried his hand at so many different kinds of stories, it is difficult to classify them satisfactorily. There are many of adolescent sexual awakening, of Depression enormities, and of what might vaguely be called "lost love." But the best are usually humorous tales with rural settings or accounts of the cruelty and injustice regularly visited upon the black. Some of the latter like "Saturday Afternoon" (1930) depend upon a cruel Southern gallows humor and bitter irony that the literal failed to see in Tobacco Road; others like "Kneel to the Rising Sun" (1935) are more conventionally told. "Kneel to the Rising Sun" contains a strong proletarian strain, but it eschews the leftist melodrama of many of Caldwell's Depression pieces by avoiding a city background and by skillfully melding social elements with the plight of the rural black. His stories of sexual awakening and of the buried life of the village show a heavy influence of Sherwood Anderson, for Caldwell was certainly one of the "children of Sherwood Anderson" as Faulkner aptly noted. But the Hemingway influence was perhaps equally strong, though that influence is almost exclusively stylistic, whereas Anderson's is an influence of both style and theme. In "Joe Craddock's Old Woman" (1929), the story of a workscarred drab who is transformed in death to a bride's beauty, Caldwell writes:
Death was her compensation. As it came it was compensation for the ugliness of her face and body, and of her life. She had been miserable while she lived—eleven children, fourteen cows, and a flock of chickens. —And eight stinking hogs. Not once had Julia left the farm in over ten years. Work, work, work, from four in the morning till nine at night; never a vacation, a trip to town nor time to bathe all over. Joe worked all the time, too. Yet his labor returned nothing but an aching back, heartbreak, and poverty. The harder he worked the poorer he became. If he made twenty bales of cotton in the fall the price would drop to where he could barely pay for the fertilizer—usually not even that. Or if the price went up to thirty cents a pound he would, by the curse of too much rain or not enough rain, have no cotton to sell. There with Joe and Julia lift wasn't worth living very long.
The theme of the wasted rural life is quintessentially Andersonian, though admittedly from Garland to Sinclair Lewis and Faulkner it is a staple of American literature. Also in the manner of Anderson are the apparently casual but pertinently unpleasant details ("eleven children"), culminating in an impatient "eight stinking hogs." Typical, too, is the narrative voice that grows faintly distant and pretentiously philosophic at one moment but at the next becomes overeager to assure us of the depth of its sympathy for its humble subjects. It tacitly assures us that it speaks the language of the people described ("work, work, work" and "the price would drop to where he could barely pay"), that it understands their "heartbreak" and modest aspiration while articulating them through the use of words like "compensation" and "labor."
Altogether different and far less derivative is "The Automobile That Wouldn't Run," published the next year. Here Caldwell is more his own man, telling how Mal Anderson, a stolid Swede lumberjack, tricked the boss woodsman. Sent to catch two runaway "Canucks" fleeing the logging camp by canoe, Mal overtakes them easily on the river and then continues to run away himself. Caldwell does not leave the story here, however. Already he had learned that he could often achieve a good effect by taking some stories back to where they had started by letting them down from climactic excitement to a calmer moment. Thus, in the final pages of "The Automobile That Wouldn't Run," Mal Anderson is returned to his original situation, sitting in the back seat of his permanently disabled car, wordlessly plunking a banjo, serenading the proprietress of the Penobscot Hotel. Great moments and wild shenanigans are all very well, Caldwell seems to say. They add spice to life and fiction, but real life, real meaning, is to be found in sitting and waiting.
This story is uniquely his own in mood, tone, and theme, but the prose style betrays the influence that Fitzgerald had sarcastically noted, insisting that it had first passed through the alembic of Morely Callaghan: "Signe ran the Penobscot Hotel. It was a woodsman's hotel. The men used it when they came to town to spend the money they made up in the woods. Signe ran the hotel without help. She did not need any." The flat declarative sentence that Hemingway was making famous appears here in unadorned subject-verb order five times in succession. Even the effect of variety introduced by the subordinate clauses of the third sentence is vitiated by the monotonous primer style of the passage's short concluding two sentences.
Fitzgerald's derision may have some substance here. Caldwell was indeed imitating Hemingway at this point, and the echoes keep occurring in this story. A bit later, for example, we are told: "Scott went down the road without looking back once. Scott was a brave boss woodsman."
Nonetheless, during these same years, about 1929 to 1933, Caldwell successfully hammered out the inimitable style and technique that characterize his best and most representative stories. In place of Anderson's solemnity, Caldwell invented a noisy, grotesque way of treating similar subject matter just as meaningfully as his mentor, but more ebulliently. Both writers sought to express the powerful force of sex in motivating men and women in rural settings and to show how the force so often inhibits, rather than enriches life. But Caldwell's stories are not delicate sketches, at once realistic and psychological like Anderson's. Caldwell paints with a palette knife, smearing flamboyant daubs of humor and gross characterization with vivid colors across his small canvas. His work looks primitive beside Anderson's, but it is vivid and pulsating too. In "Meddlesome Jack" (1933), a young wife, frightened and sexually aroused by the braying of a jackass, seizes her husband across the kitchen table and must be literally shaken off: "Daisy fell down on the kitchen floor, holding on to his legs with all her might." The cliché, "all her might," works well here, reducing the dramatic gesture to low comedy. At the end of the tale, the girl heads down the road to run off with a sailor, but her deserted husband has learned that the yearnings unleashed by the "jack's" blatant sexuality can be directed many ways. Or as an old black retainer knowingly advises: "Looks like that jack has a powerful way of fretting the women folks, and you'd better get him to turn one in your direction."
Of course, by no stretch of the imagination can Caldwell be called a stylist, even at the peak of his power in the thirties. Like Dreiser, whom one despairing critic called "the Hindenburg of the novel," he often succeeds despite infelicities of prose. "Language," as Robert Hazel has said of him [in "Notes on Erskine Caldwell," in Southern Renascence, ed. L. D. Rubin and R. D. Jacobs, 1966], "is no particular friend of his and he has to go it alone, the hard way of a writer who has not found within him the capacity to love language."
Caldwell taught himself to write a taut conversational style that in the end betrayed him, for he came finally to believe that whatever can be said can be written, or worse, that whatever comes to mind can be written. He had always been willing to stray, when he believed it necessary, from the purity of the Hemingway-like sentence he sought early in his career. But the result often became prosaic and flat. Inevitably the length of his sentences increased, though they continued to maintain a syntactical simplicity. In no way do Caldwell's longer sentences emulate the grammatical intricacies of a Henry James or the aggressive self-confidence of a Faulkner. Instead, they become merely overweight and ungainly. The year of Tobacco Road, 1932, Caldwell started "Over the Green Mountains" with a sprightly declarative sentence, imitating the New England down-east dialect: "Was reading a piece in the Boston paper last night about the smartest people in the whole country coming from the State of Maine." In his last novel, Annette (1973), with the discipline of regular short story publication many years behind him, he writes, "During the recent months of Annette's marriage to Dean Thurmond, while living with him in the large and imposing graystone house on a high terrace in the rolling green hills of Zephyrfield, a quiet residential suburb of costly homes and estates several miles from Dean's law offices in the busy industrial city of Melbourne, there were numerous times when Annette was on the verge of leaving home."
Language and Dialogue
The difference is remarkable. Not only is the second sentence pompous and ungainly, it also displays a failure to differentiate between what is important and what is not. His ear for language was never sharp. But at one time he knew it, and he avoided exposing his weakness by taking few chances. He kept his sentences uncomplicated, his diction simple, and avoided contractions. The result is a colloquial dignity, at its finest, representative of authentic American English. Avoiding the rhetorical and the poetical—both of which meant claptrap to the young southerner who had spent a boyhood listening to pulpit oratory—he wrote instead a factual prose, innocent of all but the most pedestrian figures of speech, a prose designed to advance the narration of the story and highlight the dialogue. Often it has a faintly awkward rural tone, as if the speaker were an articulate farmer:
To George Williams went the distinction of being the first to suggest making Sam Billings the new town treasurer. The moment he made the nomination at the annual town meeting there was an enthusiastic chorus of approval that resulted in the first unanimous election in the history of Androscoggin. During the last of the meeting everybody was asking himself why no one had ever thought of Sam Billings before.
Even in this light and effective introductory paragraph from "The Rumor" (1921), we discern such Dreiserisms as "the distinction of being the first" or "an enthusiastic chorus." But these phrases do not determine the tone of the passage. Rather they seem only to suggest that the speaker has risen above them to arrive at the homey observation "everyone was asking himself why no one ever thought of Sam Billings before."
The conversational style of his narration should not lead us to assume, however, that his dialogue is magically closer to the speech of men than other writers. Robert Hazel and other critics err when they suppose that such is the case. In fact, his dialogue is highly stylized. Moreover, it is neither dialectical nor always even idiomatic. One need only compare a passage of black speech from Ellen Glasgow or Faulkner to see how carefully Caldwell avoids strict adherence to the diction and speech patterns of the black. "Nine Dollars Worth of Mumble" (1937) is perhaps his only story about blacks from the point of view of a black narrator: "You couldn't see no stars, you couldn't see no moon, you couldn't see nothing much but a measly handful of sparks on the chimney spout. It was a mighty poor beginning for a courting on a ten o'clock night. Hollering didn't do a bit of good, and stomping up and down did less."
Nor does forthcoming dialogue become noticeably more "realistic" than the language of the narration. Youster Brown demands an effective charm from a "conjur" woman, Sally Lucky, saying: "I'm getting dog-tired of handing you over all my money and not getting no action for it. . . . Look here, now, woman, is you able to do things or ain't you?" This dialogue is in no respect an authentic reproduction of a recognizable black dialect. Rather, it is the same vaguely rural speech Caldwell assigns all his backcountry people. The "is you" and "woman" are enough to suggest black American English, however, in the context of the narration—though the phrase "no action" strikes the ear as patently false. The result might be compared to Hemingway's efforts to convince us we are reading French, Italian, or Spanish. When Youster uneasily asks if Sally's charm might get him "trouble with the law," she replies, loftily: "All my charms and curses are private dealings. . . . As long as you do like I tell you, and keep your mouth shut, you won't have no trouble with the law, I see to that."
While there is certainly an attempt here to sketch black speakers, the effort depends largely upon suggestion rather than faithful reproduction of diction and speech patterns. In the same fashion, by suggestion rather than careful depiction, Caldwell records the speech of his whites as well. Sister Bessie, the illiterate hill woman of Tobacco Road, does not speak "realistically" when she says to Jeeter: "It would require a younger man for me to be satisfied. . . . Dude there is just suitable for preaching and living with me." In brief, neither Caldwell's dialogue nor his dialects are as "true-to-life" as many have thought, but both offer what is more important than attempted fidelity: the appearance of reality. The total impression is such that Caldwell need not fear occasional lapses in tone since his characters usually express appropriate sentiments, and the illusion of life remains undisturbed.
Measured against his more accomplished contemporaries, Caldwell's imagery at first appears simplistic, but in fact it is as artful as his prose style. Just as he does not experiment daringly with language, being neither studiously literary as Faulkner and Hemingway sometimes are nor defiant of literary conventions, neither does he resort to the sort of complicated web of imagery they used. Whether it is mythic, Freudian (Freudian-Marxist), or biblical, it is invariably elementary. Much of it, in fact, might be called "American biblical" or "fundamental Protestant." To understand it, one needs only a basic knowledge of Christian and, to a lesser extent, Judaic mythology. Will Thompson [in God's Little Acre] . . . was tacitly compared to Christ and his last hours parallel in rough outline those of Christ's last week, as they are reconstructed in the synoptic gospels. Thus the intensity of Caldwell's Christian imagery bears little resemblance to that of his Jewish acquaintance Nathanael West, whose novel of the same year as God's Little Acre, the remarkable Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), displays a much more comprehensive grasp of Christian thought. Caldwell generally accomplished his goals with a tacit allusion to a few well-known events from the life of Christ.
In the very title of his story "Kneel to the Rising Sun," for example, he resorts to a pun popular in English Christian literature for almost a millennium, the discovery of correspondence between the "sun" and the "son of God." This lynching story (1935) has as its central event an episode suggesting the Crucifixion. It tells the story of two tenant farmers, Lonnie and Clem, the one white, the other black, and their persecution at the hands of their cruel and greedy employer, Arch Gunnard. A well-to-do cotton farmer, Gunnard is as vicious a figure as Caldwell ever drew. His hobby of collecting dogs' tails, cropped with a razor-sharp clasp knife as he sits in the sun before a filling station surrounded by fawning cronies, appalled a whole generation of American readers. The cowing of Lonnie who has come to plead for "rations" is achieved when Arch contemplates his tenant's dog's tail: "I ain't ever seen a hound in all my life that needed a tail that long to hunt rabbits with. It's way too long for just a common, ordinary everyday ketch hound." And then with mock solicitude he asks: " . . . all right with you, ain't it, Lonnie? .. . I don't seem to hear no objections." This horrid episode depends partially for its effect on the Freudian-Marxist imagery that Caldwell frequently uses since the cropping of the dog's tail is clearly equated with the castration of its owner who is deprived of his manhood by the economic exploitation of Gunnard. Nevertheless, it is Christian imagery that dominates the story in which most of Caldwell's strands—including animal imagery—are present.
Clem is a black Christ who walks country roads teaching his disciple Lonnie a religion of social justice. But Lonnie, a composite of Judas and Peter, denies his black master just before dawn and betrays him to armed men, the leader of whom is Arch Gunnard whose name hints at his "gunman's" function in the story. From motives of cowardice and false racial values, Lonnie reveals Clem's hiding place to Arch and his followers, who find the black pressed against a tree high above his persecutors. Lonnie, who hangs back "could see everybody with guns raised, and far into the sky above the sharply outlined face of Clem Henry gleamed in the rising sun. His body was hugging the slender top of the pine." When the bloody body succumbs to volleys of gunfire, the sky turns from gray to red, and the sun appears in a scene of death and transfiguration that might recall Melville's Billy Budd, as Lonnie sinks to his knees in horror-stricken recognition of the enormity of the act that has just transpired.
Caldwell's animal imagery plays a large role in the early stories of rural Georgia and northern New England, but it is more easily over-looked than the mythic and theological currents that run through the stories because it seems so naturally a part of country life. Though he can recruit such exotic fauna as a polar bear ("Hamrick's Polar Bear," 1937), most stories offer only chickens, dogs, rabbits, hogs, mules, or horses. The value assigned them varies with any given story, though rabbits are consistently meant to suggest helpless frightened human beings, the prey of every cruel and predatory force the world can boast. In "Molly Cottontail" (1931), a boy's refusal to shoot a rabbit becomes an indictment of the brutality implicit in the code of the southern gentleman and a defense of humanism.
Both "Savannah River Payday" (1931) and "Kneel to the Rising Sun" compare men to animals. In the first story, they are like mules "killed during the past two weeks by heat and overwork at the sawmill," while in the second, exploiters are seen as rapacious "fattening hogs" devouring a half-starved old tenant farmer. In "Savannah River Payday," buzzards, a traditional symbol of the cowardly predator, hover over dead mules waiting for a chance to claw at the rotting flesh. Some moments later we find two white men bringing into town the body of a black killed in an accident at a sawmill. The body is lashed to a running board like a dead deer. In one story after another, Caldwell writes as a naturalist: men and women are beasts and rural Georgia is a dog's world, a mondo cane, where women are "flowing bitches" and men are jackass stallions when they are not whipped curs.
The landscape .. . is both realistic and symbolic in this fiction. Often Caldwell's stories are set in a hellish wasteland where baking heat and dancing fires suggest that his characters are already damned. "Savannah River Payday," a story the squeamish would do well to avoid, is typical in this respect: "The July sun blazed over the earth and shriveled the grass and weeds until they were as dry as crisp autumn leaves. A cloud of dense black smoke blew over from the other side of the river when somebody threw an armful of fat pine on the fire under the moonshine still." The protagonists are torturers who anticipate the horrors of the concentration camp as they knock out the gold teeth of the black they are apparently transporting to an undertaker: "Red pushed the Negro's lips away from the teeth while Jake hammered away at the gold. The sun had made the teeth so hot they burned his fingers when he picked them off the bridge."
As might be expected, Freudian images predominate in stories of sexual awakening and initiation. Two of the best of those are the very early "Midsummer Passion" (1929), Caldwell's first published story, and "A Swell-looking Girl" (1931). Both are humorous and regard the sex drive as an irrational mystery to delight the heart of men rather than the darkly frightening force it sometimes is in both the stories and novels. "A Swell-looking Girl" is the tale of an empty-headed young rustic who foolishly exhibits his pretty new wife to his scapegrace cronies. Lem's pride of conquest and possession leads him to overreach as he lifts his wife's dress to show his friends her delicate good taste in lingerie. In a teasing sequence Caldwell tells us how Lem lifts Ozzie's hem ".. . a little higher and a little higher. . . . The boys crowded closer to Ozzie." The final revelation, of course, is that "Ozzie had nothing on at all under her dress. She was a swell-looking girl, all right."
The recognition of a woman solely in terms of her subservience or her private parts is lighthearted here and in "Midsummer Passion," but such is not always the case, and the place of sexuality in a woman's life is never finally resolved in Caldwell's fiction. The language of these stories and the situations described are replete with sexual innuendos apparent to a perceptive reader. Like Willie in "August Afternoon," the short story source of Journeyman, Ozzie sat on the edge of the porch "with her legs crossed high." Expressions like "pink thing" or "pink little things" used in the context of such a narration become ambiguous allusions not to the girl's underwear, as the naive narrator believes, but to the intimate flesh, just as the adjective pinkish or the more specific term a female thing serve a similar function in "Midsummer Passion."
Caldwell's Narrative Point of View and Vaunted "Objectivity"
Caldwell's experimentation with point of view and the long road to strict objectivity were laborious. In his early stories, he often displays a tendency toward sentimentality, and he found it necessary to compensate for it with an exaggerated toughness: "'Now, tell it.' Gene ground the order between his teeth, pushing the automatic under the man's belt. 'Let's hear everything you know about her—and tell it straight! Get me? Come on, out with it! I want to know everything you know about her.'" The first person narration, he may have believed, seemed likely to generate a sympathy for the narrator that might cloud his objectivity. For this reason, perhaps, many of the earliest stories are told from the third person: The Bastard (1929) (from which the excerpt), Poor Fool (1930), "Midsummer Passion" (1929), and "The Mating of Marjorie" (1930) are examples. The third person helped to Maintain the aesthetic distance he sought. But such a narrative point of view alone could not ensure objectivity: "He was coming—he was coming—God bless him! He was coming to marry her—coming all the way from Minnesota!" Though this story, "The Mating of Marjorie," is not told by the protagonist herself, the excitement and wonder expressed are clearly Marjorie's own.
However, in the midst of these same years, Caldwell seems to have realized that a first person narration need not be susceptible to sentimentality, that the "toughness" of the narrator could be made even more apparent from a first person point of view than from a third. The narrator-speaker might simply react to the horrors about him in a restrained fashion, as here in "Martha Jean" (1935): "Once I thought I heard Martha Jean scream, but when I stopped and listened in the stinging sleet, I could not hear it again. After that I did not know whether it was she or whether it was only the wind that cried against the sharp corners of the buildings." In like fashion the first person speaker might be a naïif, whose observations, though detailed, rarely lead to mature conclusions or whose final judgment must be formulated by the reader because the speaker is insufficiently articulate. After Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson had enshrined the naive narrator, passing him along to Hemingway, who had himself taken much the same course as Caldwell in developing a point of view. The bafflement of Nick Adams and the "toughness" of Jake Barnes produce the similar effects of absolving the author of the necessity to commit himself. Caldwell further discovered that a certain naiveté enhanced his humorous stories of rural grotesques and that he could Maintain a uniform tone, regardless of whether the narration was first or third person.
Thus in "Country Full of Swedes" (1930), Stan tells us without inhibition: "This is the damndest country for unexpected raising of all kinds of unlooked-for hell a man is apt to run across in a lifetime of traveling. If a man's born and raised in the Back Kingdom, he ought to stay there where he belongs; that's what I'd done if I'd had the sense to stay out of this down-country near the Bay, where you don't ever know, God-helping, what's going to happen next, where, or when." At roughly the same time in another story, "The Automobile That Wouldn't Run" (1930), an auctorial voice every bit as exuberant and unself-conscious tells us: "Everybody in the woods had heard about Mai Anderson. He was the best banjo player between Rangely and Caribou, for one thing. And he was one of the best woodsmen ever to lay a tree down in the woods."
But no artifact can ever hide the hand of its artist long, and Caldwell's work is no exception. In the more serious novels he was always obliged to take sides. He simply could not keep himself out of the story entirely by taking advantage either of humor or toughness to achieve distance. It was one thing to look with objectivity at the panty-obsessed rustic of a short story and another to consider the desperate dilemma of a starving tenant farmer in an extended narration. The depth of Caldwell's sympathy for a despairing Jeeter Lester is readily apparent:
The urge he felt to stir the ground and to plant cotton in it, and after that to sit in the shade during the hot months watching the plants sprout and grow, was even greater than the pains of hunger in his stomach. He could sit calmly and bear the feeling of hunger, but to be compelled to live and look each day at the unplowed fields was an agony he believed he could not stand many more days.
His head dropped forward on his knees, and sleep soon overcame him and brought a peaceful rest to his tired heart and body.
Many of Caldwell's "Depression" stories are in fact baldly propagandistic, and he was often criticized by purists for interrupting the narrative of Tobacco Road in chapter 7 to attack sharecropping in a set speech and to urge collectivism. The single tenable rationale for such behavior is that Caldwell's objectivity is no greater than other careful writers, but that his taut prose and his failure to intrude when recording the violent acts so much a part of southern writing have won him that reputation.
A consideration for a moment of Georgia Boy might reveal a contrast, however, to the partisan display of sympathies discernible in Tobacco Road, God's Little Acre, and other books and stories. This "novel" was published after Caldwell had established a reputation for merciless objectivity and, moreover, provides a naive first person narrator. The biggest difference between William Stroup (the Georgia boy of about twelve who tells the story) and Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield—apart from his less inquiring mind—is William's role of observer rather than participator. In Georgia Boy things happen to Pa Stroup and Handsome Brown, the teenaged black "yard boy," not to William. In fact, William's part is to tell us what happened and let us decide.
The stories of Georgia Boy, for the most part, are extraordinarily slight. That is not to say that familiar topics such as the sex drive and racial injustice are altogether ignored. They are not; but they are touched on in such a manner as to escape the serious attention they command in more substantial works. Caldwell seems here to be attempting a jeu d'esprit to demonstrate his versatility. He wants to show that he need not always perform in the expected fashion. It is the same urge that drove him to broadcasting or, much later on, to juvenile literature.
Georgia Boy began as a story entitled "My Old Man," and like Hemingway's story of the same title, it shows considerable debt to Sherwood Anderson. In all the stories of this "novel," we find a youthful confusion about adult sex drives and dishonesty, though, again, far less seriously or pointedly treated than in the other two writers. Most specifically, Georgia Boy is indebted to the endemic idea of those near-contemporaries that the company of men is more edifying and cleaner than that of women, that women corrupt and destroy the candid interaction of Maies. All women are either viragoes of the wash pot or social circle or, worse yet, beautiful lazy schemers who lure men away from their sons. William mildly resents the fact that his father comes home drunk with a young woman; but once his mother has driven the youthful arriviste into the night to do battle and Pa has locked the door on them both, William tells us confidentially, "It sure felt good being there in the dark with him."
Sex for itself does not interest William at all. He never overtly comments on a woman's desirability. Rather, he regards women as objects of curiosity or, more often, troublemakers ready to provide difficulties for his alltoo-fallible father: "I had forgotten all about Ma because I was so busy listening to Mrs. Weatherbee and watching my old man [The "grass widow" is giggling furiously as Morris Stroup tickles her toes with a chicken feather], but just then I looked across the yard and saw Ma coming. She made straight for the porch where they were." (William had come to warn his father but had forgotten his mission). The great weakness of this point of view is that it becomes an academic exercise. There is no reason for it. It exists only for effect, and that effect sometimes collapses since many of the stories are so unlikely, so "unrealistic." Minimum caricature rather than maximum must characterize the child's point of view, as most readers of the "ending" of Huckleberry Finn will sadly acknowledge. Huck, Holden, and George Willard have an eye for detail and are literal, but they are sensitive as well. William Stroup is more like a camera who accords equal importance to everything in range. In other words, the book's objectivity, in its unfavorable sense, becomes overwhelming. Caldwell, we must conclude, worked better in the novels with a limited omniscient third person.
Even his growing concern for racial justice grows dulled by the point of view assumed in the stories that make up Georgia Boy. Young William Stroup seems to find irrationality something of a virtue. At least he records tolerantly his father's wildest schemes to make money baling paper or collecting scrap iron. But he watches with similar equanimity the outrages performed against his friend Handsome Brown. For this reason Handsome Brown never attains a dignity remotely similar to that of Twain's Nigger Jim. The abused black teenager, kept in virtual servitude by the parents of his "friend," may often insist on a more rational mode of behavior than that practiced by the "white folks," but he never takes on the dimensions of a spiritual adviser as Jim does, nor does he, despite his color, show a kinship to Caldwell's "natural man." His unprotesting presence serves to show, of course, that racism even in its most benign and comic form is a detestable custom. However, William's wordless acceptance of the treatment Handsome Brown receives works against Caldwell's intention.
One of many instances of this failure might be seen in the short story-chapter "The Time Handsome Brown Ran Away." Here Handsome finds employment as a human target at a carnival after he has abandoned the Stroups because Pa Stroup has stolen his only possession, a banjo, and sold it for a dollar. Pa finds him at his carnival booth and, to encourage him to return home, pays for the use of six baseballs.
Pa turned loose with a fast one that caught Handsome square in the forehead before he could dodge out of the way. Handsome was so surprised he didn't know what had happened. He sat down on the ground and rubbed his head until the man in the red silk shirt ran back to find out if anything serious had happened to him. Presently Handsome got up, staggering just a little, and stuck his head through the round hole once more.
The tone of unprotesting acceptance conveyed here by William Stroup suggests not so much that Caldwell is manfully holding his anger in check, but that the vacant narrator might in time be capable of the same conduct as his father. Perhaps in this case Caldwell's unfriendly critics are finally right. The "objectivity" of Georgia Boy is too pronounced to be truly effective.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6007
SOURCE: "Canonize Caldwell's Georgia Boy: A Case for Resurrection," in Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered, edited by Edwin T. Arnold, University Press of Mississippi, 1990, pp. 72-85.
[In the essay below, Hoag examines the ways in which the pieces in Georgia Boy comprise a unified story-cycle.]
Morris Stroup is no saint, but he deserves to be saved. Also worthy of salvation are his wife, Martha; his son, William; his yardboy, Handsome Brown; his jailbird brother, Ned; and an assortment of preachers, grass widows, gypsy queens, town marshals, necktie salesladies, ridgepole goats, shirt-tail woodpeckers, enticed calves and entrapped dogs, a triumphant fighting cock and a heartbreaking chicken pot pie. If it were up to me, I would elect them all, the whole damned circus and menagerie. Lamentable indeed is the moribund state of so much life, the more so in an age of canon revision. Unsustained by the adrenaline of his early public sensation, the literary vitality of Erskine Caldwell now depends on just two works, Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933), the only major titles among his almost sixty books available in the paperback format necessary for classroom study and the limited immortality that it confers. To that short list I would add, at a minimum, the story cycle Georgia Boy (1943), currently out of print. The case for this recommendation may be expressed syllogistically. First, in order best to judge a writer's achievement, we must include a judgment of his work at its finest. Second, both Caldwell and a quorum of commentators have cited his stories as his best work and the Georgia Boy collection as the apex of his achievement in the form. Therefore, for our own enrichment and in fairness to Caldwell, we need to resurrect Georgia Boy for the extended reconsideration it deserves.
Although some critics have dismissed Georgia Boy as flawed and trivial, the book's structural integrity and thematic depth should rank it with another major American story cycle, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Far from being a loosely articulated constellation of simple stories, Georgia Boy is unified by contrapuntal characterization and a related animai motif, by dialogue refrains, by a complexly comic tone calling for varied reader responses, and by the twofold theme of coming of age in the South and the South's coming of age—a theme developed through a deceptively naive narrative perspective that requires our careful examination of the title itself. After briefly describing the book and its critical reception to date, I will offer my analytical defense—intended to be suggestive rather than exhaustive—of this largely overlooked and disregarded work.
Georgia Boy is the fictional account of fourteen episodes in the quirky life of the Stroup family of rural, turn-of-the-century Georgia. The principal figure in the book is Morris, a quixotic free spirit with a penchant for vagabonding, philandering and hopelessly impractical scheming. Engagingly incorrigible, he is to an extent suppressible by Martha, the locus of stability in Georgia Boy, whose mission is to keep home and household together by pulling Morris back whenever he goes too far. While good, Martha is not too good to be likable. For example, when Morris lures home Pretty Sooky, an irresistible calf belonging to a neighbor, Martha's righteous censure soon turns to complicity. This aberration humanizes her character, in two senses of the word. That both elder Stroups are sympathetically portrayed strengthens the book by complicating its world view.
The medium of sympathy in Georgia Boy is the narrator, William Stroup. He is a late préadolescent who appreciates his mother's sense and decency although he is drawn to the romantic model of his father. Observant and impressionable, he provides a superficially simple narrative viewpoint that is an artistic success for reasons to be discussed. The remaining member of the Stroup entourage is the family's black retainer, Handsome Brown. About the same age as his friend William, Handsome is akin to Martha in his emerging senibleness and propriety; indeed, when she is not present to admonish Morris personally, Handsome often functions as her surrogate cautionary voice. Treated by Morris variously as a second son, slave, companion and scapegoat, Handsome is leery of his employer's thoughtless abuse even as he obviously enjoys the intermittent status of fishing buddy and quasi member of the family. Handsome's unstable position complicates and lends interest to the essentially similar story lines, wherein Morris ingeniously lands in trouble either to get out of it or meet his comeuppance.
Despite the dearth of criticism on Caldwell in general and his stories in particular, Georgia Boy has accrued some noteworthy favorable attention, not the least of which is Caldwell's own often-expressed opinion. Throughout his long career, Erskine Caldwell repeatedly cited Georgia Boy as his greatest achievement in the short-story form; and on those occasions when he was pressed to choose a single favorite from his many books, he named Georgia Boy most often. In 1961 he termed it "the most complete book I have ever written," adding that "it has everything, sociology, economics." He concluded, "I believe it will hold up longer than any other book I have written. .. . It goes into people more" [interview with Guccione, in Conversations with Erskine Caldwell, edited by Edwin T. Arnold, 1988]. In the first extended study of Caldwell, James Korges [in Erskine Caldwell, 1969] called the "neglected" Georgia Boy "one of the finest novels of boyhood in American literature," lauding its blend of pathos and humor along with a "flawless handling of the point of view." And in his final essay on Caldwell, Malcolm Cowley praised Georgia Boy as the author's last significant book. "I feel angry with recent critics," he declared, for "neglecting" this and other important Caldwell works ["Erskine Caldwell's Magic," Pembroke Magazine 11, 1979]. Henry Seidel Canby also was impressed, declaring that "it would be hard to find much more amusing reading" than the "perfectly delightful stories in Georgia Boy" [Introduction to The Pocket Book of Erskine Caldwell Stories, 1947].
Not all responses have been favorable, however, and at least two commentators have found Georgia Boy seriously flawed. In an essay published just three years after the book itself, W. M. Frohock termed the collection funny but "facile." "There is no point in claiming that it is a great or even a significant book," he said. Rather, Georgia Boy is simply "something like what Mark Twain might have done had he come from Georgia and found himself in a playful mood" ["Erskine Caldwell: Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia," Southwest Review 31, Autumn, 1946]. More recently (1984) and more damagingly (because it is the only comprehensive, book-length study of Caldwell), James E. Devlin's Erskine Caldwell dismisses Georgia Boy as too inconsequential to be really good. Says Devlin: "The stories .. . for the most part, are extraordinarily slight. That is not to say that familiar topics such as the sex drive and racial injustice are altogether ignored. They are not; but they are touched on in such a manner as to escape the serious attention they command in more substantial works." Devlin places the blame for the alleged slightness on the narrator, William. Unlike Huck Finn, who responds sensitively to the suffering and confusion he encounters, William, says Devlin, "is more like a camera who [sic] accords equal importance to everything in range." Censuring this perceived indifference, Devlin contends that "the book's objectivity, in its unfavorable sense, becomes overwhelming." Curiously, Devlin here records as a fault what Malcolm Cowley, in a predecessor to his already-cited essay, applauded as a virtue. In Caldwell's writing, said Cowley, too often "the intrusion of moral feeling spoils the comedy, making you hesitate to laugh." He added, however, that although this problem is present in all the novels, the stories generally escaped the moralist's heavy hand. "The poet alone, with his wild humor, is responsible for . . . 'The Night My Old Man Came Home'" ["The Two Erskine Caldwells," The New Republic 111, November 6, 1944]. This example of an unspoiled story is a representative selection from Georgia Boy. I will demonstrate that there is more of what Caldwell termed sociology and economics in the book than either Cowley or Devlin allows, although, as the former rightly affirmed, the essential humor does escape uncompromised, if not unqualified.
One excellent reason for bringing back Georgia Boy is its intriguing form. Structurally, the book is a bona fide story cycle akin to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, among the few writers and titles that Caldwell admitted to admiring. Indeed, Malcolm Cowley went so far as to suggest that "most of his [Caldwell's] early stories could not have been written without the encouragement offered by Winesburg, Ohio, which served as a beacon light to many new talents of that age" ["Georgia Boy: A Retrospect of Erskine Caldwell," in Pages, edited Matthew J. Bruccoli, 1976]. Even the evolution of the two books ran a parallel course. Like Winesburg, Ohio, Georgia Boy had its beginnings in independently conceived and separately published stories, stories nonetheless linked by shared settings, characters and a recurrent narrator. For both writers the emerging notion of a story cycle—that is, a work functioning not just as a collection of discrete stories but as a novel-like, articulated whole—impelled them to write additional episodes to round out their books and pull them together.
In Caldwell's case, eight of the fourteen stories in Georgia Boy were published there for the first time. This simultaneous appearance of more than half of the book's contents is a corrective to the misconception, partially fostered by Caldwell himself, that Georgia Boy is not an integrated whole. His various statements that the stories were written independently over a number of years and that, as he told an interviewer in 1983, "I had no idea I would write enough to make a book" [interview with Kay Bonetti, Saturday Review 9, No. 9, July-August, 1983] are true only of the earlier, separately published stories and most probably not for all of them, especially those several published in the year or two immediately preceding the book itself. His most accurate explanation of the development of Georgia Boy is apparently one of his last, a 1986 statement that "I had started writing these episodes .. . and I just continued because I had the whole book in mind and wanted to do a whole, book-length series" [interview with Edwin T. Arnold, in Conversations with Erskine Caldwell]. Clearly, Caldwell recognized and approved of the hybrid shape of his book. He said in 1958, "It could be that it is the ideal form as far as I am concerned: it can be divided into parts and yet the whole put together is a novel" [interview with Carvel Collins, in the Atlantic Monthly 202, July, 1958]. Georgia Boy is emphatically in the great tradition of English language story cycles, the distinguished lineage of which is traceable all the way back to the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. The Stroup family stories must therefore be considered in a context that dictates the greater worth of the whole compared to the sum of the separate parts.
Like the almost certain model of Winesburg, Ohio, two of Caldwell's own earlier works suggest our consideration of Georgia Boy as a meaningfully and deliberately unified book. Although all three sections of his long prose-poem The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (1936) appeared initially as independent publications, their development was a continuous evolution, their final merger a natural combination. The Sacrilege of Alan Kent manifestly functions as a whole. Even more to the point, Caldwell's story collection Jackpot, published in 1940, combined into a single story three pieces, published separately elsewhere, that would later appear as chapters in Georgia Boy. "My Old Man" includes "The Night My Old Man Came Home," "Handsome Brown and the Aggravating Goats" and "My Old Man Hasn't Been the Same Since." In his brief Jackpot preface to "My Old Man," Caldwell said: "I read the first part of this story and immediately wrote the second. Afterwards I went back and read the first part for the second time, and straightway wrote the third part." These successful combinative experiments in his own publishing history show that Caldwell was well prepared to execute a longer story cycle, especially one based on the Stroups.
The essential unity of Georgia Boy is best demonstrated by the book itself. One of the principal structuring devices here is Caldwell's deft employment of contrapuntal characterization. Morris and Martha are portrayed as polar opposites with more or less alternating moments of control over one another. Meanwhile, Handsome Brown—sometimes by inclination and sometimes by victimization—moves from one magnetic field to the other. Taking in all of this activity and making his report to the reader is the ever-watchful narrator, William. In a 1980 interview Caldwell alluded to this volatile characterization: "Martha was more dominant than Morris, certainly, but he was more animated than she was. In fact, I don't think there would have been any story at all without his animation. Just her role alone was not strong enough. When you write a story, you have to have a contrast between light and dark, high and low" [interview with Ronald Wesley Hoag and Elizabeth Dell Broadwell, in the Mississippi Quarterly 36, Fall, 1983]. The seesawing of the Morris-Martha struggle moves the book along, making the conclusions of separate stories doubly significant because they also mark shifts in the relative ascendancy of the major characters. Against this lively context of dynamic equilibrium, the final stasis of the last chapter becomes especially noteworthy. When Martha kills the feisty rooster College Boy in "My Old Man Hasn't Been the Same Since," she symbolically cuts off her wayward husband's "cock." The story's last-word location in the book and the suggestion of final resolution in its title seemingly tilt the balance once and for all in favor of Martha and domestic virtue, leaving the reader to place that new reign of tranquility on the continuum of gain and loss.
As anyone who has read Tobacco Road knows, Erskine Caldwell was adept at exploiting similarities between people and animals for a variety of literary purposes. Snoutnosed Sister Bessie and fanny-dragging Ellie May make that book, in certain parts, something like a comic, naturalistic beast fable. In Georgia Boy, too, animal imagery functions as a major motif, employed here as an adjunct to structure, characterization and theme. Although the animals and humans in Georgia Boy are separate entities, the former help to catalyze and define the latter: characters are revealed by the animals they react against, respond to or imitate.
Martha particularly objects to roof-climbing goats, while Morris cannot abide impertinent woodpeckers. Handsome Brown reluctantly has his hands full with both species. The controversies surrounding these two episodes establish for the reader the pecking order in the Stroup household. Yet all is not turmoil here, for the darling calf Pretty Sooky proves too tempting for wife and husband alike. Martha's soft spot for this bovine "stray" and her willingness to look the other way in a potential moral crisis help the reader understand both her attraction to and tolerance for the philandering Morris. Structurally, "My Old Man and Pretty Sooky" sets up two other episodes involving Morris's penchant for collecting strays—"My Old Man's Political Appointment," with its similarly baited stray dogs, and "The Night My Old Man Came Home," with its pretty young stray of another kind. In the latter story, a whimsically inebriated Morris brings home a diminutive girlfriend who, he somehow thinks, will be accepted by Martha in the manner of Pretty Sooky. When Martha instead ends up in a hair-pulling brawl with the girl, Morris bemusedly picks apart the family furniture for drunken recreation. This humorously drawn domestic disturbance sets up, in turn, the bittersweet irony of the last animal story in Georgia Boy, the book's final chapter in which the bantam College Boy, spiritual double to Morris, loses his life to the fed-up Martha. Thus, the patterned and, to a degree, incremental use of the animal motif both moves the story cycle along and provides its closure.
An aspect of style in Georgia Boy that has received mention, but not attention, is the rhetorical use of repetition.
Specifically, dialogue refrains serve to link episodes and establish character. When Martha is about to reprimand Morris, she customarily first orders William to "go in the house right this instant and shut the doors and pull down all the window shades." These directives and their occasions help to identify all three Stroups: she is the scolding parent to her childish husband and the sheltering parent to her child son. Her latter function also elucidates William's disinclination to judge the events he observes. Clearly, he has been habituated not to concern himself with the affairs of adults. For a child of contentious parents, there is no doubt a measure of comfort in such disengagement.
The reader comes to anticipate, in addition, characteristic utterances by both Morris and Handsome Brown. Typical of Morris are his incantations at the commencement of his schemes, for example: "We'll have more money than we'll know what to do with. . . . It's a shame I didn't know about this way of making money before, because it's the easiest way I ever heard of." Typical also are his repeated stiflings of Handsome: "Shut up, Handsome. . . . Mind your own business." Handsome, however, is delineated by his vain attempts to avoid entanglement in Morris's imbroglios and by his equally futile efforts to explain his involvement to Martha. "Sometimes I get a little mixed up when I try to tell the truth in both directions at the same time," he tells her in one such dilemma. His comment accurately portrays his pawnlike position. Yet perhaps even more powerless than Handsome is the narrator of Georgia Boy himself. William's first words to his parents in the opening episode of the book establish his disenfranchised status as a little boy: "Can't I, Ma? Can't I go see what it was?" "I'll help, Pa. . . . Let me help, Pa." In these as in similar instances, his beseechings are to no avail.
Tone, too, is a unifying element in Georgia Boy as well as vehicle for advancing theme. Although the tone of all the stories might broadly be labeled as comic, the comedy ranges from farce ("My Old Man's Political Appointment") to fabliau ("My Old Man and the Gypsy Queen") to social satire ("The Time Handsome Brown Ran Away") to tall tale ("Handsome Brown and the Aggravating Goats") to domestic comedy of both a genial and melancholy sort ("My Old Man and Pretty Sooky" and "My Old Man Hasn't Been the Same Since," respectively). As often as not, a story calls for more than one reader response by employing different kinds of humor for different purposes. For example, the three episodes in which Handsome Brown is indirectly or directly abused by Morris ("Handsome Brown and the Aggravating Goats," "Handsome Brown and the Shirt-tail Woodpeckers" and "The Time Handsome Brown Ran Away") may be laughed at, if taken with a grain of salt as tall-tale exaggerations. They should, however, also be read—especially the last one—as social satires in which the real butt of the joke is not Handsome but rather the caste system that fosters such misuse. Because James Devlin neglects the important role of satire in these stories, he mistakes black humor at the expense of blacks.
Similarly complex in their seriocomic tone are the stories in which Morris strives to rise in the world by an assortment of cockeyed get-rich-quick schemes. The episodes involving the baling of paper, the collecting of scrap iron and the rounding up of baited dogs are supposed to be antically funny, of course. There is poignancy here as well, however, for these stories present a man's continuously frustrated, and therefore pathetic, efforts to grow wealthy in a land of stunted opportunity. Witness, also, the condition of Handsome Brown as a post-emancipation economic slave. That the American Dream has not found realization in this Georgia hinterland community can make both man and boy do some funny things. To the reader falls the responsibility of deciding when laughter is appropriate.
An important structural link in Georgia Boy is the book's overarching theme, the coming of age of southerners and the South. One aspect of this comprehensive theme is what Leo Marx referred to as the "machine in the garden." The earlier example of Sister Bessie's automobile in Tobacco Road demonstrates that Caldwell was clearly aware of the impact of the machine age on the countryside and on country folk. Several stories in Georgia Boy involve this collision. The device that gives "My Old Man's Baling Machine" its title swallows up even Martha's collection of old "love and courtship letters" as Morris fervently pursues his latest version of better living through technology. Similarly, in "The Time Ma Spent the Day at Aunt Bessie's," his harvesting of scrap iron for industry scavenges all but the shoes off the village horses' hooves. And in "Uncle Ned's Short Stay," the Coast Line freight train carries convict Ned and trouble to Martha's doorstep. Although Georgia Boy is essentially a rural nostalgia piece, the pastoral it presents is not simple and sentimental, but irretrievably compromised.
As to what the character of the new South will be when maturity finally arrives, Caldwell here offers two contending possibilities in the models of Morris and Martha, with a strong suggestion that the future will side with the latter. Neither a lazy William Byrd "lubberlander" nor an Al Capp Dogpatch derelict, Morris Stroup is, instead, a spiritual son of Simon Suggs, the Johnson Jones Hooper character [in "Simon Plays the 'Snatch' Game"] who proclaims, "It is good to be shifty in a new country." Shifty, not shiftless, describes Morris. With a little better luck he could pass for a Snopes, that clan of once-poor whites whose more illustrious members recognized that the turn from agrarianism to mercantilism could be turned to their advantage. Morris's back may flare up whenever Martha wants some household labor performed, but he is tireless in the service of his own designs. His willingness to bale up even his love letters to his wife, cheerfully exchanging these emblems of the family bond for a modest financial gain, indicates one of the forces pulling at the thread of southern life. That this homely fabric will hold, however, is implied by Martha's final domination over Morris at the end of the book. "My Old Man Hasn't Been the Same Since" is Erskine Caldwell's rendition of Stephen Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" and Mary Wilkins Freeman's "The Revolt of Mother." What those stories said about the Far West and New England, Caldwell's said for the Old South—that is, when the dust of change settles, civilization and domesticity will prevail over the gambles of boyish men who refuse to grow up. In a country no longer new, shiftiness has lost its sanction.
Another manifestation of coming of age in Georgia Boy is what critics have termed, with reference to Mark Twain and Sherwood Anderson, the "revolt from the village." Whether by influence or confluence, Caldwell's book exhibits in muted form this same revolt from provinciality. There is, however, a significant difference. The actual flight of Huck Finn and George Willard is only latently present in Georgia Boy, nascent in the not yet fully fledged William Stroup. When the social and economic injustices that William records lead, with his own maturing, to ethical rejection, presumably then will revulsion find expression in revolt. Certainly, such revolt lies at the heart of many other Caldwell works, both fiction and nonfiction.
Bridging all fourteen stories in his role of narrator, William Stroup is both observer of and player in the drama of coming of age. In a 1982 interview [with D. G. Kehl, in the South Atlantic Quarterly 83, Autumn, 1984], Caldwell indicated that William is a boy of "ten or twelve years old." This age is crucial to our understanding of the narrator and his narration. As a preadolescent, William has not yet reached the stage of second-guessing the adult world. Instead, he is at an age when bonding to and imitating both his parents largely prohibit rebellion. Otherwise objective in his narration, he does, however, become emotionally engaged in two of the last three stories, wherein he is forced to respond to severely divisive family crises. In the first instance, that response is passive and private. In the second, though, his assertive judgment upon a parental act marks his incipient emergence from boyhood, the significant note on which Georgia Boy ends.
In the twelfth episode, "The Night My Old Man Came Home," even as Martha battles the girlfriend and besotted Morris wrecks the furniture, William nonetheless gives thanks for his footloose father's presence: "I snuggled down under the covers, hugging my knees as tight as I could, and hoping he would stay in the home all the time, instead of going off again. .. . It sure felt good being there in the dark with him." The hug itself is a poignantly displaced gesture of need and affection. The book's final story, "My Old Man Hasn't Been the Same Since," concludes with two more gestures by William, this time openly expressed. When Martha informs Morris that he has just eaten College Boy, William is the first to speak out against her action: '"That was College Boy, Ma,' I said, 'you shouldn't—'." Immediately after delivering this censure, he goes off into the night to seek his father, who has fled in horror from the fatal, fateful dinner: "I got up and went through the house behind him. . . . The cigar stub he had left on the porch railing when we went inside to supper was still burning, and it smelled just like my old man. I hurried down the steps and ran down the street trying to catch up with him before it was too late to find him in the dark." In a reversal of roles from the earlier episode, William's presence will presumably now comfort Morris in the elder Stroup's hour of darkness. Together, the endings of these strategically placed and related stories reject the proposition that the narrator of Georgia Boy is too much the camera to convince as a human being. A camera neither feels nor grows.
Admittedly, there are no statements by William to match Huck Finn's ruefully enlightened pronouncement that "human beings can be awful cruel to one another." Nor should there be any. The charm of Georgia Boy is that despite its candidly portrayed inhumanities, it is primarily an idyll of innocence. In a 1958 interview [with Collins], Caldwell strongly suggested that he viewed Georgia Boy as a nostalgia piece: "I still have a feeling for a book I wrote. .. . It was a book called Georgia Boy, a series of sketches about a boy in Georgia growing up in company with his mother, his father, and a Negro playmate of the same age—growing up at that particular time in America when life was a little more leisurely and there was not so much compelling action put upon people."
The author's own feeling, expressed here, for this allegedly mellow yesteryear does much to explain the point of view in his book. While a grown man like Erskine Caldwell or even a sensitive teenager like Huck Finn might be expected to condemn social and economic wrongs, a younger boy may be permitted to describe them without rendering a verdict. To depict the Georgia of his fondly remembered boyhood as a kind of localized age of innocence, Caldwell required a narrator who was at an innocent age. The nostalgic ambiance of Georgia Boy Mainly derives from the second word in its title, not the first. In 1980 Caldwell described as follows his erstwhile ambivalence toward the South: "As I was growing up, I did resent the South. I resented its economy and sociology. I resented the lack of opportunity in general, and especially the fact that the black people there were not accorded the same opportunity as the white people. .. . On the other hand, I would also say that, just like anyone who has a homeplace, I have always had a deep regard for this region. .. . I have always liked the South and liked its people, even though I had these qualifications because of some of the conditions there" [interview with Broadwell and Hoag, in the Georgia Review 36, Spring, 1982]. In other works Caldwell scourged his homeplace for its deprivations and its racism. In Georgia Boy he found a way, by using a narrator who had not yet had to grow up, to express his love without compromising his principles or distorting the historical record.
The facts in Georgia Boy speak for themselves, directly to the reader, without any needed proddings by William Stroup. Although there is no judgment pronounced about such reprehensible occurrences as the persecution of Handsome Brown, there is judgment amply implied. James Devlin cites "The Time Handsome Brown Ran Away" as a story calling for moral response with none forthcoming. In this episode, Handsome leaves the Stroups to join a carnival, where his dubious employment consists of offering his head as a target for baseball-throwing customers. Morris resents the absconding of his retainer and knocks Handsome silly with spitballs before leading him back to the fold. Clearly, this carnivalized brutality is no laughing matter. Neither does Caldwell present it that way: "The spit-ball hit him on the left side of the head with a sound like a board striking a bale of cotton. Handsome sank down to the ground with a low moan. 'Look here, mister,' the man in the silk shirt said, . . . 'I think you'd better quit chunking at this darkey. He'll be killed if this keeps up much longer'." Although the story has its comic moments, the pointed description and dialogue here are sufficient proof that this scene is not meant to be one of them. Morris's spitballs are manifestly dangerous and demeaning.
Nor should we find funny the scornful racism of Uncle Ned Stroup, who takes exception to Handsome's request that he not be the one to tell Martha of her ne'erdo-well brotherin-law's arrival: "What you talking about, nigger! .. . Don't you never talk back like that as long as you live! One more peep out of you like that again, and I'll bash your head in with this rock! You hear me, nigger!" Handsome's difficulties with goats and woodpeckers may be laughed off as pratfall vaudeville, defused by their exaggeration and improbability. Ned's threat of racist murder, however, is unmistakably malicious. Just as Caldwell's prose differentiates between outrageousness and outrage, so too must the reader. In the division of labor established by this book, other characters act and are acted upon, the narrator observes and reports with a naivete appropriate to his age, and the readers must decide when to laugh and when to shake their heads. Georgia Boy is a work involving children, not necessarily for them.
William Stroup is a Georgia boy, but the comprehensively apt title of this story cycle refers to more than him alone. There are three Georgia boys here, not one; and the separate responses required by each mark the range of reader responsibility to Caldwell's book. To be sure, William is still a little boy. In order to appreciate his view of Georgia we must understand the limitations of his youthful vantage point. Although the Georgia he depicts is Eden after, rather than before, the Fall, he himself is an Adam without meaningful knowledge of good and evil. As a result of his inchoate perception, the Georgia this boy gives us is at once idyllic without being ideal. Indeed, his own innocence is its principal saving grace.
Being both a youth and a black, Handsome Brown is doubly cast as a boy. When playing with his white friend William, Handsome, too, is an icon of childhood, that brief span before economics and sociology break up the games. But in the following stereotyped calumny by Uncle Ned, we are given another image of what it meant to be black and Maie, regardless of age, in early twentieth-century Georgia: "'I'll bet he ain't never done enough work, all told, to earn a day's board and keep,' Uncle Ned said, 'Ain't that right, boy?'" Both the statement and the question address Handsome. When in the company of William Stroup and Handsome Brown, the reader is simultaneously present in two different Georgias and must respond appropriately to each.
So, too, does the extended boyhood of Morris Stroup call for a divided response. On the one hand, we like Morris just because he is such an unregenerate, though by no means unchastened, good old boy. We are drawn to him as to all the good-natured screwups who manage to prolong boyhood into middle age and in so doing do not lack for company. To this day in the South they are at once social pariahs and a prideful club, depending on the eye of the beholder. But while Morris behaves as if "boys will be boys" were his exemption from adult mores, Martha finally does not. All the years of his cockfighting, his philandering and his remorseless gallivanting have unraveled her to the point where she must either pull things together or let them come completely apart. The axe that claims the head of College Boy cuts off the boyhood of Morris as well, and to at least the half-hearted approval of the reader. A fitting end to the entire book, her decisive action also moves her son to the edge, if not the age, of judgment and the South, symbolically, to the brink of change.
In an important sense, there is still another boy present in Georgia Boy, never described or even mentioned but nonetheless haunting these Georgia scenes—haunting them, haunted by them. When Erskine Caldwell told an interviewer [Arnold] in 1986 that the stories here are "not in any way autobiographical," he almost certainly meant only that the specific incidents are fabrications and that his own stable parents had not stood as models for the elder Stroups. In 1983, however, Caldwell left no doubt that his personal experience of boyhood had been the inspiration for this book. After citing Georgia Boy as a favorite work, he described it as follows: "This was a whole series of short stories I wrote as the result of looking back at my early life and a playmate who happened to be a black boy. . . . That was a sort of landmark [for me] as far as writing was concerned, because I wrote it purely for the fact that I wanted to go back and think about my early life" [interview with Kehl]. Thus, even if Georgia Boy is not personal history, it is a kind of spiritual autobiography—the more significant of the two because that is the material of mythology, which we value above the historical record.
Not since before the revival of academic interest in Erskine Caldwell's writings over the last decade has Georgia Boy been available in a paperback edition. For classroom study, the book, in effect, does not exist. This essay has several functions. It is a petition to publishers to act pro bono publico by reissuing Georgia Boy in an accessible, competitively priced format. It is a recommendation to teachers to adopt this book for appropriate courses: "Southern Fiction"; "American Humor"; "The American Bildungsroman" short-story, novel and historical surveys are among its logical contexts. Further, it is an invitation to students and all other readers to approach Georgia Boy with great expectations. Certainly, there are other works by Caldwell that deserve to be brought back. The novels Journeyman (1935), Trouble in July (1940) and Tragic Ground (1944) all have champions; and many voices have praised his early stories. The combinative advantages of the story-cycle form, however, set Georgia Boy apart from, and arguably above, these other works. It is distinguished, moreover, by a complex structural and stylistic weave and by the many variations on its major theme played by an instrumental narrator whose personal simplicity is the book's greatest sophistication. For these reasons and others, if I had to choose just a single Caldwell work for regeneration, I would unhesitatingly select the too long neglected Georgia Boy. In all likelihood, so would he.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3571
SOURCE: "The Short Stories," in Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Poverty: The Flesh and the Spirit, Louisiana State University Press, 1991, pp. 39-100.
[In the excerpt below, Cook surveys the themes of Gulf Coast Stories and Certain Women, detecting a narrowing of the range of issues and concerns from Caldwell's earlier collections of stories.]
With Georgia Boy, most critics would probably prefer to believe Caldwell's career as a short story writer had come to an end. There was, in fact, a long hiatus in his writing of stories after 1943, although a new collection of previously published work by him was issued almost annually for the next ten years. However, it was not until 1953 that any significant number of new stories began to appear; these were issued in 1956 as Gulf Coast Stories. The title of the collection reflects one of Caldwell's Main literary interests in the interval—regionalism, illustrated in his cyclorama of novels showing life in various parts of the South, and in his active editorship of the American Folkways series, which extended regionalism beyond the South and throughout the United States. The title also suggests, though not so specifically as Georgia Boy, that the stories will have some common denominator; but, in fact, beyond their similar location in smail lumber-mill towns and delta farmlands close to the Gulf, there is little effort to suggest a distinctive sense of place or community. Each story is set in a different smail town—Crescent, Lancaster, Mingusville, Stillwater, Indianola, Agricola—so that there is no opportunity to develop interaction among a common set of characters. There are no blacks whatsoever in these communities, so that one of Caldwell's better subjects is eliminated; and there is a considerably diminished interest in poverty, injustice, and social inequity. In many ways, the collection is like another version of We Are the Living twenty years later, with every one of its twenty-one stories concerned with sexual and romantic relationships between men and women in a variety of comic and tragic situations.
The twenty years show a definite development of Caldwell's interest in and sympathy for women, but a radical reduction otherwise in his narrative range. Only three of the twenty-one are first-person narratives, Caldwell's forte, and none of these is in the ingenuous youthful voice he had perfected by the time he wrote Georgia Boy. This is not to suggest that Caldwell has relinquished his naïve and simple narrative method in many of these stories, but rather that he has some difficulty stepping out of this particular mold, even when there is no appropriate character in the story to whom to give the naïve tone. The inordinate bluntness of the narrative now seems less ironic than gauche and less appropriate to the more urban and middle-class characters of these later stories than to the rural poor whites who are by now almost completely abandoned by him. There are again, as in Southways, an unfortunate number of tragic tales that prove both banal and melodramatic. There are three suicide stories of young people disillusioned by love: "Her Name Was Amelie," "In Memory of Judith Courtright," and "Girl with Figurines"; an account of a painful crisis in an affair, in "Kathy"; and in "The Last Anniversary" a maudlin tale of a middle-aged woman deserted in her youth by her lover. The situations in the comic stories retain more inventiveness in their details, and Caldwell still has a genial eye for the absurdity of courtship rituals, sexual eccentricities, and the general waywardness of human nature. However, there is little evidence of either the imagist method or the social density of allusion that marked the stories of the 1930s. Even the repetitive and choral effects that suggested the association of the tales with ballads and folklore are gone. There are no tall tales, no animal jokes, nothing that provokes pleasure by its simple denial of credulity or shocks by its insistence on the appalling.
Of the fifteen stories in this collection that were published in periodicals prior to their appearance in book form, five were published in Manhunt, two each in Playboy, Esquire, and Cavalier, and the remainder in Dude, Swank, Gent, and Magasinet. Of a comparable number of previous periodical publications of stories in We Are the Living, four were in Pagany, three in Story, two each in Clay and Contact, and the others in Contempo, the New English Weekly, and the Yale Review. Malcolm Cowley had argued vigorously for the positive influence of the little magazines on Caldwell's early work [in "Two Judgments of 'American Earth'," The New Republic, June 17, 1931], and it is certainly tempting to connect some of the flatness and indifference of these later stories to the large commercial organs in which they appeared. It is difficult to imagine Caldwell scrutinizing the contributions to Dude and Gent with the critical fervor he had devoted to Pagany. Apparently, it was the policy of these magazines to imitate the success of Playboy more economically by scouting out "sexy stories by well-known authors in obscure magazines" and then attempting to buy up the reprint rights as cheaply as possible; Manhunt had a reputation as a "men's adventure, crime and sex exploit magazine," and Cavalier as a "cross between a pulp and a sophisticated men's magazine." Caldwell offered these magazines a big name and a reputation for controversial sexual audacity, the two qualities they most desired. Many of these stories are in fact much less risqué than his earlier fiction, but by the mid-1950s, his name alone apparently served as sufficient guarantee of titillation.
The sexual themes of Gulf Coast Stories are quite in accord with Caldwell's enduring concern with the dominance of the instincts in human behavior and the perverse ways in which they manifest themselves, so it is unfair to assume that he was pandering to the "sex exploit" element in these journals. However, the absence of so many of the qualities of Caldwell's earlier work suggests that he did indeed both need and benefit from some stimulus that had existed during the 1930s. In terms of the ethical and ideological concerns of his work, this stimulus was clearly the crisis of the Great Depression and the left-wing intellectual milieu it generated; in terms of stylistic originality and variety, a good deal of credit must go to the little magazines that first published his work. They were able to provoke Caldwell to the kind of critical reading of his own work and that of his contemporaries that he was afterward too ready to dismiss as merely an expedient prelude on his own part to his future success. He was the one who had decided in 1930 that he would make no attempt at that time to get into "the mass-circulation periodicals, as I believed that there was more to be gained in the end by first being thoroughly schooled by the literary magazines" [Call It Experience: The Years of Learning How to Write, 1951]. His later movement to the mass magazines unfortunately signaled that this "schooling" was complete, and thus he abandoned one of the most vital elements of his literary career.
The most consistent concern in Gulf Coast Stories that carries over from Georgia Boy and many of his interim novels is Caldwell's continuing depiction of women as overworked, dependent, and self-sacrificing, whereas his men are often childish, exploitative, and selfish. However, the solution proposed for this female dilemma in many of the stories is not a liberation of the woman from her dependency or an improvement in the behavior of the man, but instead either the woman's fortunate discovery of the right man who will protect her from the vagaries of the world or the achievement on her part of a love so transcendent that it accommodates all her partner's failings. Outside marriage, women's hopes for fulfilled or even sufficient lives are very limited indeed. Caldwell's only successful career women are brothel madams, although his younger women are often permitted brief stints as secretaries, stenographers, and grade school teachers while waiting for a marriage proposal. Although this is an admittedly narrow range of options, it serves to emphasize both the lack of opportunity for women outside marriage and the reasons for their acceptance of mistreatment within it. However, Caldwell's women are not entirely without advantages in confrontations of the sexes: whereas his men have both economic and physical power over women, women are often able to combat this power through their sexual wiles and a considerable degree of ingenuity in their scheming and bargaining. Men are lured into marriage by pecan pies, driven out as umpires of softball games by girls in tight silk shorts, teased unmercifully by fifteen-year-olds, robbed by seemingly wholesome young college girls, shot by jealous women, dunned out of their money, thwarted from their favorite pursuits, and even pushed to suicide by women's duplicity. Most of the Gulf Coast Stories are thus elaborations, with limited sexual metaphors, of Caldwell's interest in the struggle among individuals for dominance over each other and the comic and tragic modes of its achievement.
Almost every story in this collection offers evidence of the power one sex wields over the other and the whimsical ways it may be manifested. Lucy Garner in "Hat on the Bedpost" makes the best pecan pie in Abbeville but looks like "somebody with two pillows stuffed under her skirt."
Floy Rankin, her potential partner, can do all household repairs but is tattered, stooped, and smells of fish. Their coming together is a comic measuring up of dowries and disadvantages. Lujean in "Girl with Figurines" tells of a husband who "used to get a handful of big red beans and tell me to take off my clothes and stand against the wall, and then he'd sit down in a chair and throw beans at my behind, and have himself a laughing fit every time one of them made me jump. .. . That wasn't why I divorced him, though. He spent too much time away from home." These comic stories continue to insist, unlike the tragedies, on the unexpected in human conduct, even in a world that seems predetermined in favor of men against women. However, the surprises finally begin to recur within such a narrow frame of reference, and so repeatedly and predictably, that the unexpected itself hovers on the edge of the mundane.
One year after the publication of Gulf Coast Stories, Caldwell brought out what proved to be his last collection of new stories, Certain Women (1957), none of which had been previously published. This collection consists of seven stories, all titled with women's names, all individually much longer than Caldwell's previous stories, and all linked by a common setting in the dreary mountain and mill town of Claremore and by a seasonal progression that takes the tales from the grimy drifts of late snow in March to a hard freeze the following January. This town is much more effectively evoked and used to suggest the quality of life in the community than was the Gulf coast environment of the preceding collection, but the sense of a lost vitality and wildness, of a flatness and diminution in Caldwell's stories continues. These stories are once again thematically and ideologically cohesive in their sympathetic concern for the quality of women's lives, but they lack both inventiveness and any novelty of perspective. In one story, a character says, "Men are always making trouble for a young girl, and there seems to be no way to stop it," a comment that might stand as epigraph to the entire collection, together with its foil, "The only thing in life she wanted . . . was to have him put his arms around her and protect her from the harshness of the world." Almost every story is a variation on this theme: an attractive young woman is victimized by a brutal father or lover and forced to make her own way in the world; she is abused by all the men she encounters until finally she is rescued from her vicissitudes by a decent man who is willing to marry or protect her. Anneve and Hilda in their stories both have fathers who beat them and insist that they acquiesce in traditional sexual bartering with men: "I've got no more use for a female who won't please a man than I have for a man who won't go out and earn an honest living," says Anneve's father. Hilda's father warns her even more bluntly, "You needn't think I'm going to work for you all my life while you sit around here doing your goddam thinking instead of getting out and rubbing up against somebody till he'll want to marry you." Clementine has witnessed her father's murder of her mother before running away from home at fifteen and being taken into a Claremore brothel; Louellen and Nanette, both fatherless, suffer the exploitations of con men, landlords, and employers; and Vicki, almost choked to death by her lover, remembers how as a child she was threatened by a boy with an ax and was instructed by her father that "there would be many times like that when she grew up to be a big girl, and that as a woman she would have to learn how to persuade a man not to chop off her head." Though the book is titled Certain Women, there is little in it to imply that it does not refer to the fate of all women—they must learn to please men. If they are unlucky in their partners, they may at least avoid the uglier consequences of men's worst impulses; if they are lucky, they will be rewarded with the support of their best. Only one female character in the book resists this pattern, the lesbian Nancy Hunter in "Anneve." She, however, merely practices a more cynical and retributive version of it by trading men as little sex for as much money as possible: "Bleed them and leave them. That's my motto."
The most affectionate and sympathetic relationships in Certain Women are those between the heroines of the tales and their mothers, or occasionally older women and sisters who play a maternal role. Indeed, these loves are often so intense that they create an impossibly high model for any later heterosexual love to emulate. For Anneve, "every moment she could be in the blessedness of her mother's arms was the most precious escape she could find in life," and Nanette "felt safe and secure in the world when she felt Mrs. Dawson's motherly arms around her." However, the mothers in these stories are also the Main agents, both by their example and advice, of the point of view that "being wanted .. . by a man is the most important thing in life for a woman," and that long-suffering and virtuous compliance will be rewarded by true love. Caldwell describes unrelentingly the constant pressures on the young women to separate compliance from virtue, pressures from both lovers and their own impulses, but also the dire consequences if they do so: Nanette is permanently disfigured when her face is slashed by the jealous wife of her employer, and Hilda's secretarial agency is destroyed by vicious gossip from a similar source. The women have one hope—that of meeting good men—but the world of the stories is populated by bad ones, or men like the Reverend Luther Bisbee in "Clementine" or Harvey Ingham in "Selma," who ignore or resist the heroine's lures.
As in Gulf Coast Stories, the women have no professional interests beyond an interim employment before marriage; Hilda has established a successful secretarial business, and Selma has taught school, both while looking for the right man, and Louellen's mother is a nurse, an employment necessitated by her husband's death. Besides prostitution in a variety of forms, these are the only professions practiced by women, in contrast to a complete range of jobs for men that encompass all economic and educational levels. Even allowing for its setting in a smail factory town, the opportunities for women in this book are clearly even further restricted in order to enhance Caldwell's thesis of the women's dependency and vulnerability. Most of them are working-class women, and the harshness of physical existence for both men and women is integral to many of the tales. Though Caldwell never goes inside the world of the furniture factories, it pervades the stories, toughening the men but also wearing them down. Anneve's father "was still in his early fifties, but after more than thirty years of labor in the wood-turning mills of Claremore he appeared to be many years older"/Louellen's father was killed in a furniture plant accident; and Hilda's father, a millwright in a cedar chest factory, has accumulated so little in his lifetime there that he resents sharing any of it with his daughter. Wives and daughters bear the consequences of the men's anger and frustration. Interestingly, none of the heroines has a brother, for that might complicate the simple pattern of Maie power and female submission in the family; for the most part, even sisters are kept discreetly beyond aid and appeal. Thus every detail of their lives, from their passive and loving mothers, cruel or absent fathers, low horizons in every direction, worldly pressures and lack of personal support, conspires to throw these heroines back upon accidents of fortune and the mercies of men. From the beginning of his career, Caldwell had acknowledged the primacy of sexuality in his vision of human nature, but it was a sexuality that was broad in various senses of the word—earthy, vulgar, Rabelaisian, and comic as well as intense, violent, and powerful. Its manifestations were as wide as the range of human conduct, from the young man who stared with both horror and longing at the body of his lover, dying of poison, to the blustering southern landlord whose poor white tenant girl was more than a match for his lust; from the hideous exploitation of Blue Boy to the Maine farmer who paid a clumsy tribute to his neighbor's wife by wrestling her into a pair of silk underpants. In Certain Women, this scope is finally narrowed to a single theme and an unvarying mode. Told almost without humor, and without even the efforts at whimsy of Gulf Coast Stories, the book is the most limited of all Caldwell's short story collections in both form and content, although it is also the most clearly ideological in its vision of the sexual struggle between men and women.
This is clearly no longer the Erskine Caldwell of the "cult of incongruity," "balked religiosity," or "mystifying incoherence," no longer "the two Erskine Caldwells," "the hardboiled idealist," the artist of paradoxes, for whom critics once had strained their coinage of labels to suggest the intriguing misalliance of ideas and forms that seemed to typify his work. When, in 1935, Kenneth Burke had noted Caldwell's capacity for muddling his reader's judgments and had pondered the possibility of his ever stabilizing those judgments, he had added the enigmatic comment, "His very abilities tend to work against him" ["Caldwell: The Maker of Grotesques," The New Republic, April 10, 1935]. The implication that Caldwell's talent was conducive to ideological confusion, and that such confusion was not a desirable intellectual goal, proved ominous for Caldwell and his reception by other critics. The observe of this argument was that the pursuit of a coherent ideology would mean the sacrifice of what was unique and most pleasing in Caldwell's style. Otis Ferguson seemed to complement Burke's theory a few years later, in 1938, when he commented on Caldwell's predicament in the committed ideological decade of the 1930s: "Ideas were afoot and Caldwell knew a writer just couldn't sit around and be delighted" ["Caldwell's Stories," The New Republic, July 6, 1938].
Both critics felt that an increased attention to ideas would direct Caldwell's fiction away from its early polymorphous delight to less pleasing and more restricted purposes of edification. They proved accurate in their predictions of a narrowing of stylistic range and a certain didacticism of focus in his later work, but distinctly less so in their assumptions that Caldwell's ideas were inevitably going to have to be purchased at the cost of aesthetic pleasure. In fact, the range of ideas in Caldwell's tales in the 1930s is far richer and more complex than the occasionally prurient sympathy with the plight of women (and sometimes blacks) that is the Main ideological focus of his later stories. In the intellectual context of the Great Depression, and the artistic milieu of the little magazines, Caldwell revealed a range of social sympathies—for the poor and lonely, for women, children, and blacks, for those people most vulnerable and controlled by their circumstances—that existed in the most lively tension with his penchant for recording what was most gross, absurd, and incorrigible in those same people. Though such ideas were dissonant and unstable, they were much more volatile and engaging than the simpler and segmented pity, outrage, and ridicule of the works after Georgia Boy. The four story collections of the 1930s—American Earth, We Are the Living, Kneel to the Rising Sun, and Southways—elicited the complete range of Caldwell's stylistic devices, from naïve narrators and carefully contrived repetitions to stark imagism and bawdy folk-comedy. It was only later, when the ideas began to dwindle, that the craft simultaneously declined, losing the variety, zest, and sometimes chaotic inconsistency that was the mark of Caldwell's best achievement.
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MacDonald, Scott. "An Evaluative Check-list of Erskine Caldwell's Short Fiction." Studies in Short Fiction 15, No. 1 (Winter 1978): 81-97.
Exhaustive, year-by-year listing of Caldwell's shorter works, including full bibliographic citations concerning their initial publication.
Arnold, Edwin T. Conversations with Erskine Caldwell. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988, 312 p.
Collection of over thirty previously published interviews, covering a fifty-year period.
Klevar, Harvey L. Erskine Caldwell: A Biography. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1993, 483 p.
Thoroughly researched and documented consideration of the author.
Miller, Dan B. The Journey from Tobacco Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, 459 p.
Recent, sympathetic biography of Caldwell.
Arnold, Edwin T. Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990, 115 p.
Anthology of essays by such Caldwell scholars as Harvey L. Klevar, Sylvia J. Cook, and Ronald Wesley Hoag.
Benedict, Stewart H. "Gallic Light on Erskine Caldwell." South Atlantic Quarterly LX, No. 4 (Autumn 1961): 390-97.
Summarizes French opinions of Caldwell's writing. Of the author's short fiction, Benedict states: "Such short story collections as American Earth, We Are the Living, Southways, and Kneel to the Rising Sun justify including Caldwell among the best short story writers in the United States. Some of his stories are, in fact, perfect."
Brady, Upton Birnie. Introduction to Midsummer Passion & Other Tales of Maine Cussedness by Erskine Caldwell, pp. vii-xiv. Camden, Maine: Yankee Books, 1990.
Discussion of Caldwell's short stories that are set in Maine and their relation to his better-known Southern fiction.
Caldwell, Erskine. "The Art, Craft, and Personality of Writing." The Texas Quarterly VII, No. 1 (Spring 1964): 37-43.
Comments on "the universally human desire to be a storyteller and express one's self in print."
Cantwell, Robert. Introduction to The Humorous Side of Erskine Caldwell: An Anthology, edited by Robert Cantwell, pp. ix-xxxiii. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1951.
Assesses Caldwell's use of religious, humorous, and biographical material in his fiction.
Cargill, Oscar. "The Primitivists." In his Intellectual America: Ideas on the March, pp. 311-98. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941.
Includes a consideration of several of Caldwell's volumes of short stories and traces the influence of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Sherwood Anderson on Caldwell's work.
Cook, Sylvia. "Erskine Caldwell and the Literary Left Wing." Pembroke Magazine, No. 11 (1979): 132-39.
Examines the political orientation of Caldwell's early work, including many of his short stories.
Dempsey, David. "Caldwell's Two Worlds." The New York Times Book Review, February 17, 1952, p. 4.
Favorable review of The Courting of Susie Brown, finding many of the pieces in this collection "delightfully . . . absurd."
Gray, James. "A Local Habitation: Erskine Caldwell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, John Steinbeck." In his On Second Thought, pp. 116-40. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1946.
Includes an assessment of Kneel to the Rising Sun, asserting that the title story is "one of the most painful and impressive I have ever read."
Hicks, Granville. "One Side of Caldwell." The New York Times Book Review, June 10, 1951, pp. 8, 30.
Negative review of The Humorous Side of Erskine Caldwell. Hicks insists that many of the pieces in the volume "lack not only humor but any pretense of humor."
Kelly, Richard J. "Enduring Flavor of Vintage Caldwell." Southwest Review 68, No. 4 (Autumn 1983): 407-09.
Positive evaluation of Stories of Life North & South, arguing that "the stories gathered here . . . might well prove this venerable author's most durable and rewarding legacy."
Klevar, Harvey L. "Caldwell's Women." The Southern Quarterly XXVII, No. 3 (Spring 1989): 15-35.
Biographical and critical study of Caldwell's relationships with women and his depiction of females in his fiction.
Lindberg, Stanley W. The Legacy of Erskine Caldwell. Atlanta: Georgia Humanities Council, 1989, 46 p.
Guidebook to the author. Lindberg includes coverage of Caldwell's life and works, selections from his writings, discussion questions, and sources for further reading.
MacDonald, Scott. Critical Essays on Erskine Caldwell. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981, 400 p.
Comprehensive collection of reviews and analyses of all of Caldwell's work, from the earliest judgments to more recent studies.
Renek, Morris. "Rediscovering Erskine Caldwell." The Nation 220, No. 24 (June 21, 1975): 758.
Considers "Saturday Afternoon" "a short story that belongs with the best of American fiction."
Seaver, Edwin. Review of Jackpot. Direction 3, No. 7 (October 1940): 18.
Extols the stories in the collection, claiming that Caldwell's stories are "rooted in the American soil. They couldn't happen anywhere but America, and nobody else in America but Erskine Caldwell could write them."
Sutton, William A. Black Like It Is/Was: Erskine Caldwell's Treatment of Racial Themes. Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1974, 164 p.
Analysis of Caldwell's depiction of African Americans in his works. Sutton argues: "There is no doubt that Caldwell wished to call the enormity of white racism and black misery to the attention of society, believing that when readers knew the truth their protest would join his own."
Additional coverage of Caldwell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 121, Vols. 1-4, revised edition; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 33; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 8, 14, 50, 60; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 86; Major 20th-century Writers.
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