Erskine Caldwell Caldwell, Erskine (Vol. 8)

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Caldwell, Erskine (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Caldwell, Erskine 1903–

A novelist and short story writer of the Deep South, Caldwell is best known for his novels Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre. Caldwell blends comic pathos and broad humor, often suggesting serious themes in a seemingly naïve manner. The family, race relations, and traditional moral values are confronted by ideological and social conflicts in many of Caldwell's finest works. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Mr. Caldwell has allowed himself to be claimed by the group which insists that social criticism is the be-all and end-all of the drama. He has himself been associated with various efforts to draw public attention to conditions among the economically depressed class in the South, and his novels deal ostensibly with life as it is lived by members of this same class. It would, however, be difficult to find any works whose tone or effect is less that of the simple sociological preachment than these novels and the plays which have been made from them. Instead of earnestness one discovers a brilliant but grotesque imagination and a strange humor which ranges from the Rabelaisian to the macabre. (p. 121)

[Of] Mr. Caldwell one may say that the rank flavor of his work is as nearly unique as anything in contemporary literature. One may, to be sure, assign him his special place in a rather vague tradition. He is, let us grant, as "hard-boiled" as Hemingway and as brutal as Faulkner. Like the latter he loves to contemplate the crimes and perversions of degenerate rustics; like both, his peculiar effects are made possible only by the assumption of an exaggerated detachment from all the ordinary prejudices of either morality or taste and a consequent tendency to present the most violent and repulsive scenes with the elaborate casualness of a careful pseudo-naïveté. Yet Mr. Caldwell is not, for all that, really like either Hemingway or Faulkner. Hemingway has something of the dogged, repetitious gravity of one of his own drunks; the second sometimes suggests the imbecile earnestness of his favorite half-wits; but when Caldwell is being most characteristically himself the mood which dominates his writing is the mood of a grotesque and horrible humor. The element of which he is most aware and that which he seems most determined to make us perceive is the element of an almost pure macabre. His starveling remnant of the Georgia poor-white trash is not only beyond all morality and all sense of dignity or shame, it is almost beyond all hope and fear as well. As ramshackle and as decayed as the moldy cabins in which it lives, it is scarcely more than a parody on humanity, and when some hidden spark of anger flashes briefly forth, or when lust—the most nearly inextinguishable of human impulses—motivates a casual and public seduction or rape, one is bound to regard these crimes almost as one regards the deeds of that traditional embodiment of moral imbecility, Mr. Punch. Perhaps it is difficult to believe that a play which centers about the determination of an old man to return a twelve-year-old child to her husband, which involves the almost continuous presence of a rutting female monstrosity with a hare lip, and which ends with the death of an old woman beneath the wheels of an automobile, can be funny. Yet funny it was, to me at least, and funny—though perhaps ambiguously so—it was also, I believe, intended to be.

That the material would fall most easily into a tragic or quasi-tragic pattern is obvious enough. Mr. Caldwell does violence to all our expectations when he treats it as comedy, but he succeeds because he manages to prevent us from feeling at any moment any real kinship with the nominally human creatures of the play. All comedy of whatever sort has as a necessary condition the fact that the spectator maintains his sense of separateness from the personages involved, that he is not inside and feeling with them but outside and judging by standards different from theirs…. Mr....

(The entire section is 2,825 words.)