Erskine Caldwell Caldwell, Erskine (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

American Earth 1931

We Are the Living 1933

Kneel to the Rising Sun and Other Stories 1935

*The Sacrilege of Alan Kent 1936

Southways 1938

Jackpot 1940

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.

T. K. Whipple and Malcolm Cowley (essay date 1931)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Whit Burnett (essay date 1933)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.


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Harold Strauss (essay date 1933)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Kenneth Burke (essay date 1935)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 scholarsand perhaps the most controversial literary figureof 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,...

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Edwin Rolfe (essay date 1935)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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John Donald Wade (essay date 1936)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Harold Strauss (essay date 1936)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

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William Soskin (essay date 1938)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Otis Ferguson (essay date 1938)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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William Du Bois (essay date 1943)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.


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Henry Seidel Canby (essay date 1944)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Erskine Caldwell (essay date 1951)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Lewis Nichols (essay date 1953)

(Short Story Criticism)

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....

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Carl Bode (essay date 1956)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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David Dempsey (review date 1957)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Carvel Collins (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.


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James Korges (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Scott MacDonald (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Guy Owen (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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loan Comsa (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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William Peden (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Erskine Caldwell with Ronald Wesley Hoag and Elizabeth Pell Broadwell (interview date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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James E. Devlin (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Ronald Wesley Hoag (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Sylvia Jenkins Cook (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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...

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