Erskine Caldwell 1903-1987
(Born Erskine Preston Caldwell) American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, journalist, autobiographer, and scriptwriter.
One of the most popular and at the same time controversial American authors of the early to mid-twentieth century, Caldwell is best known for his works of fiction that graphically depict the plight of impoverished Southerners. He was a fervent opponent of social exploitation, and his writings frequently portray grotesque rustics who have been reduced to an animalistic state of ignorance, bigotry, and violence by the economic and political realities of the world in which they live.
The son of an itinerant preacher, Caldwell was born in 1903. His first two novels, The Bastard (1929), the story of a man whose deprived childhood figures in his later criminality, and Poor Fool (1930), which examines corruption in boxing, garnered little critical or popular attention. However, his next two novels, Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933), achieved widespread notoriety upon being named in a highly publicized obscenity trial. Business, agricultural, and political groups in the South charged Caldwell with exaggerating the degraded living conditions in their region; in several instances the author was accused of being a propagandist for communism. Nevertheless, Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre eventually became the cornerstone of Caldwell's literary reputation and won international acclaim for their powerful depictions of social and economic conditions that dehumanize the poor and undermine such American values as hard work and individualism. Caldwell died in 1987.
Tobacco Road centers on the Lesters, a family of Georgia sharecroppers who are so debased by poverty that they disregard the needs of others to fulfill their own immediate physical wants and sexual desires. As a result of their blind pursuit of personal gratification, the Lesters are ultimately destroyed as a family. God's Little Acre chronicles the declining fortunes of the Waldons, another sharecropping family. At the bidding of their obstinate patriarch Ty Ty, the Waldons obsessively dig for gold they believe is on their property, thereby rendering the land useless for growing crops. As in Tobacco Road, the characters in God's Little Acre come to ruin due to their ignorance, greed, and unrestrained sexuality. These two novels were the beginning of a ten-novel series that Caldwell later termed his “cyclorama of Southern life.” Although none of these novels is linked by common characters or events into a consistent historical framework, Caldwell's “cyclorama” provides a comprehensive portrait of the milieu of the American South of his times. Such novels as Journeyman (1935), the story of a self-proclaimed preacher whose passionate revival meetings release the repressed sexuality of his congregation, and Trouble in July (1940), which focuses on a complacent sheriff's involvement in a lynching, earned praise for their incisive treatment of social ills. Later works in the cyclorama include Tragic Ground (1944), A House in the Uplands (1946), The Sure Hand of God (1947), This Very Earth (1948), Place Called Estherville (1949), and Episode in Palmetto (1950). While most of Caldwell's novels failed to attain the renown of Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, several are recognized for their effective rendering of his characteristic themes and concerns, including The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (1936), Georgia Boy (1943), and The Weather Shelter (1969).
In addition to his novels, Caldwell also published several collections of short stories and nonfiction works that similarly dealt with the deprived conditions throughout the Southern United States. Prominent among these titles are the story collections We Are the Living (1933), Kneel to the Rising Sun (1933), and Southways (1938); You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a collaborative effort with his second wife, the renowned photographer Margaret Bourke-White; and the autobiographical works Call It Experience (1951), an informal recollection of the author's writing career, Deep South (1968), a memoir of his father, and In Search of Bisco (1965), about Caldwell's attempt to find the black playmate whose childhood friendship influenced his racial attitudes.
While a number of critics condemned Caldwell's often lurid narratives of Southern life, especially for his fusion of humor with social commentary, others agreed with Sylvia Jenkins Cook that Caldwell skillfully “increases the burden of comic horror the reader has to bear until the episodes finally become intolerable and a recognition of their tragic implications is inevitable.” Several of Caldwell's works, particularly Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, have been recurrently banned and censored due to explicit sexual content, yet have earned extensive praise for their vivid evocation of Southern dialects and folkways. Despite the fact that critics generally consider his later works to be repetitive of his earlier fiction, Caldwell is cited with such authors as John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway as a significant contributor to the development of social themes in twentieth-century American literature.