Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2825
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. Caldwell puts this law to its severest test by endeavoring to maintain a comic detachment in the face of characters so depraved that mere revulsion, if nothing else, would seem to make detachment impossible. It would be interesting to inquire how one may account for the fact that this detachment is, to a considerable extent, maintained, and one obvious answer would be that the characters themselves are represented as creatures so nearly sub-human that their actions are almost without human meaning and that one does not feel with them because they themselves obviously feel so little. (pp. 122-24)
Even if it be judged by the broad standards of the present moment [Journeyman] is a violent and bawdy piece which makes no apologies, either sentimental or otherwise, for its violence and bawdiness. Anyone who denounced it as lewd and perverted would be taking a position understandable enough if not necessarily justified. But to treat the [theatrical adaptation of the novel] as it was treated, to speak as if it were the mere meanderings of an illiterate, is to exhibit a blindness difficult to comprehend in view of the fact that its imaginative force is the one thing which no one, it would seem, could possibly miss.
Mr. Caldwell … is said to think of himself as a realist with a sociological message to deliver. If that message exists it would be even more difficult to find in Journeyman than it was in Tobacco Road and one might maintain in addition that the chief characters, far from being realistic portraits of real human beings, are absolute monsters. But there is no use discussing what a work of art means or whether or not it is "true to life" unless one is convinced that the work "exists"—that it has the power to attract and hold attention, to create either that belief or that suspension of disbelief without which its "message" cannot be heard and without which the question of its factual truth is of no importance. And to me the one incontrovertible fact is that both Mr. Caldwell's novels and the plays made from them do in this sense "exist" with uncommon solidity, that his race of curiously depraved and yet curiously juicy human grotesques are alive in his plays whether they, or things like them, were ever alive anywhere else or not. And if they seem, when abstractly considered, highly improbable, that only strengthens the tribute one is, in simple fairness, bound to pay to the imagination of a man who can make them credible. Perhaps this imagination is corrupt and perverted. Perhaps—though I don't think this is true—the world would be better off without Mr. Caldwell's vision of its corruption. But that is not the point. The point is that his imagination is creative in the most direct sense of the term. His creatures live, and no attempts at analysis can deprive them of their life. (pp. 125-26)
Joseph Wood Krutch, in his The American Drama Since 1918: An Informal History (copyright © 1939 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York), Random House, 1939.
A learned man of letters has complained that Erskine Caldwell's characters are grotesques. He missed the prophecy. What was grotesque to him has become truth for us. Caldwell is a writer rich in the humor of everyday living, sympathetic, and yet without illusions. Chekhov's sweetened, tough humor has this quality. Caldwell is a simple teller of earthy tales with a style as simple as Hemingway's, with Hemingway's talent of rubbing out the metaphysical while leaving in its resonance….
Erskine Caldwell excels in depicting the underlying horror of the quest for daily bread. "Saturday Afternoon" is a short story that belongs with the best of American fiction. Few have equaled its hands-off style. The characters are on the page as life has made them.
Morris Renek, "Rediscovering Erskine Caldwell," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by The Nation Associates, Inc.), June 21, 1975, p. 758.
In the manner of Jack London, Caldwell has been a writer taken more seriously abroad than in America. Here, too, he was a power in paperback, however, a king when that form of publication was new…. Like Henry Miller, Caldwell had discovered early on a use for eroticism that was unmistakably his own, although, like Hemingway, his effort was always to simplify as much as possible whatever he saw. He wrote about poor people, rural people, who lived for mealtimes, girlfriends, jalopy rides, and his method of simplifying by repetition was not merely an imitation of Hemingway. Caldwell's short stories because of their efficiency, like Hemingway's, hold up better than his novels do when reread now. But Caldwell's way of writing in what amounts to "panels," like a comic strip, and yet of conveying sexual longing and the hard misery and stupefaction of country poverty experienced by people who can't read or write, was original with him. (p. 3)
He was aloof. He lived, for example, in San Francisco through the period when the Beat Generation writers flocked there, a better writer than the other older writers who played to the crowd and at whose feet they sat—and really more germane to the best purposes of the Beats, it seemed to me.
The trouble with Caldwell seems to have been that he was finally lackadaisical. The eye that could distill so narrowly, the decent heart that roamed Tobacco Road, first alone and later with the photographer Margaret Bourke-White ("You Have Seen Their Faces"), rather soon stopped looking for new insights. Hoping that a change of geography might renew him, he went to Maine, but wrote about it as if it were Georgia again. The recent work of Dahlberg, Farrell or Miller—even when they fail—keeps pushing, pushing with intellectual tension, technical experimentation and passionate avowals; but "Afternoons in Mid-America," Erskine Caldwell's tour of the states between the Mississippi and the Rockies, is embarrassingly insipid. Not only clumsy and stylistically anemic, it lacks ambition. I doubt whether it could have been published under a pseudonym. Years ago an interviewer quoted Caldwell as saying that he seldom read, because for a writer to read the work of other writers would be like a doctor swallowing another doctor's prescriptions. In the vogue of anti-intellectualism, other people are saying somewhat the same thing, but, from Hemingway on down, they never believed it. One has the feeling Caldwell did, and consequently vegetated. (pp. 3, 72)
Like John O'Hara in his late stories, [in "Afternoons in Mid-America"] Caldwell is dipping back through 50 or 60 years of memories, but whereas in O'Hara it was a pleasure to sense the range of recollection at the writer's disposal, here there is no bite or discipline, no old-pro's vigor of craftsmanship. Even his way with dialogue, once the equal of O'Hara's, has fallen off to casual indifference….
Still, this offspring of his frailty is not without some pretty passages….
Bourke-White evoked the wordless silences with which Caldwell communed with a dirt farmer in 1936, listening, leaning on the fence, not imposing himself, as the man haltingly explained how things were. And, now 74, he kept me burning the midnight oil the other night with "Tobacco Road" all over again. (p. 72)
Edward Hoagland, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 14, 1976.
Caldwell's literary reputation did not follow the usual pattern of gradual rise, gradual decline and fall, and subsequent critical "rediscovery." According to his own account, no editor would consider publishing his work for seven years, but when his luck turned in the early 1930s he could scarcely miss. The reviewers, and there were many of them, found the stories in his first two books, published in 1930 and 1931, brutal and distasteful but "stunningly imaginative," and when Tobacco Road appeared in 1932, the critics were confused, as if they had never seen a book such as this before, as if conventional criticism could not apply to it. Three widely discussed books in two years is an auspicious beginning for a young writer, and the fact is that Caldwell was the first well-recognized Southern novelist of this century to remain in and write about his region. The influence of his South on the rest of the country and indeed the world was enormous, much more significant initially than the South of Faulkner, Wolfe or Warren. (p. 729)
[Erskine Caldwell's characters] are neither honorable nor dishonorable, moral nor immoral, and [their] lives give us neither cause for hope nor justification for suffering. Caldwell's novels make no attempt to create metaphors which explain the shadow on the wall, much less the source of the light, and what finally emerges against the backdrop of depression and Reconstruction literature is that Caldwell is not a Southern novelist at all but is, instead, a Southern journalist, in the same sense Sherwood Anderson was a journalist. We've been trying to read Caldwell in the same way we read other Southern novelists—as myth makers—instead of accepting and admiring him for his keen eye and ability to make certain kinds of facts come alive.
That is not to say that Caldwell cannot tell stories as well as anyone else in Georgia or Mississippi, nor that his books are less accomplished, but that he has no interest in sustaining honor as The Code; Caldwell's books are not and have never pretended to explain the pillars of Southern society: religion, history, place, and responsibility. They are like a camera whose lens will produce only a sharp and unmistakeningly realistic photograph, and it is our own failing as readers that we wish to take his portraits as representations of something larger, of all Southerners. The pictures seem, in fact, almost more real than their subjects, but it is only through such super-realism that Caldwell makes any statement at all. There is little difference between his novels and the four books of photographs with commentary which he and his wife produced together, and perhaps all of his novels should have carried the same title as his much praised book of photographs, You Have Seen Their Faces.
When Americans began reading Southern literature in the 1930s they sensed only that somewhere on the other side of the cultural wall was a land whose violence might help them put their own upheaval to rest. Not until Caldwell came along as a portrait painter were there clear models of the Southerner, or one type of Southerner, and Caldwell's books became primers, if not prerequisites, for all the other Southern novels read in subsequent years. If ever an audience was primed for a writer, it was the sensitive American reader of the dust bowl 1930s, and Caldwell limned his portraits so stunningly that he could not be ignored; for at least a decade Caldwell's characters become synonymous with the Southerner, and readers outside the region believed he alone could instruct them in the Southerner's obscure psyche. Caldwell's books provided a clear, precise beginning, and it might be speculated that Caldwell hastened our ability to comprehend Faulkner and the others by presenting us with the setting out of which the Snopes's emotional complexities could arise. Sadly, it has been to Caldwell's detriment that he does his journalism so effectively, and so realistically that we believed he was making the sort of myths and metaphors Hemingway had with his journalistic fiction. But such was not the case, and we emerge from Caldwell's novels with no sense that violence has meaning or structure.
Having performed the vital service of unlocking fundamental mysteries of the South, Caldwell's photographs became not only unnecessary but annoying. Yes, yes, we said to Caldwell, you've shown us the ugliness and we know too well how it looks. Show us something else. Make the ugliness into something worthwhile which will alleviate our fears. But Caldwell refused, and he outgrew his usefulness, making a nuisance of himself by continuing to show us the obvious, and refusing to create myths which would help set things right again.
Caldwell's characters are incapable of redemption, not because they are evil but because they are not given that option by their creator. We reject them for it and for their emptiness, and in our rejection we affirm our belief in honor. Caldwell does not imbue his personae with enough perception to be either honorable or dishonorable; they do not know enough to know that they want to change. Unlike the depraved characters in other Southern novels, his possess no emotional consciousness and so, as men of conscience, we do not wish to identify with or care about them for very long. And so it is likely that Caldwell will be the least favored of Southern writers until the code of honor and spirit of redemption which the South gave to the nation falls into disfavor. (pp. 730-31)
Walton Beacham, "Against the Grain," in The Nation (copyright 1977 by The Nation Associates, Inc.), June 11, 1977, pp. 729-31.
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