Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 184
The Bastard (novel) 1929
American Earth (short stories) 1930
Poor Fool (novel) 1930
Tobacco Road (novel) 1932
God's Little Acre (novel) 1933
Kneel to the Rising Sun (short stories) 1933
We Are the Living (short stories) 1933
Journeyman (novel) 1935
Some American People (novel) 1935
The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (novel) 1936
You Have Seen Their Faces [with Margaret Bourke-White] (nonfiction and photographs) 1937
Southways (short stories) 1938
Trouble in July (novel) 1940
Say, Is This the U.S.A. (nonfiction) 1941
All Night Long (novel) 1942
Palmetto Country [editor] (novel) 1942
Georgia Boy (novel) 1943
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
The Complete Stories of Erskine Caldwell (short stories) 1953
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
Around About America (novel) 1964
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
Afternoons in Mid-America (novel) 1976
With All My Might (autobiography) 1987
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6816
SOURCE: “Fifty Years since Tobacco Road: An Interview with Erskine Caldwell,” in Conversations with Erskine Caldwell, edited by Edwin T. Arnold, University Press of Mississippi, 1988, pp. 218-32.
[In the following interview, originally published in 1984, Caldwell discusses his life in the South, his early literary influences, and his opinions about censorship and racism.]
On the evening of July 15, 1982, Erskine Caldwell and his wife, Virginia, paid a visit to Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota for the opening of an exhibit celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Tobacco Road. Austin McLean, curator of the Special Collections and Rare Book Library, organized the exhibit and arranged for the Caldwells to come from their home in Scottsdale, Arizona for the occasion. The program, attended by more than one hundred Friends of Special Collections, included reminiscences by Edward P. Schwartz, a book collector, founder of the Henry Miller Literary Society, and friend of the Caldwells; a presentation by the author of a facsimile of his 1929 broadside, “In Defense of Myself” (Palemon Press), which was added to the Library's collection; and a reading by Professor Göran Stockenström, Chairman of the University's Department of Scandinavian Studies, of the author's early story, “Country Full of Swedes.”
The centerpiece of the evening was an hour-long interview with the seventy-nine year old Mr. Caldwell, which he had agreed to in lieu of giving a formal talk. “I am not a public speaker,” he had modestly written to Austin McLean, “and could probably not get a passing grade as a conversationalist.” In preparing for the inverview we chose questions we hoped would allow Mr. Caldwell both to entertain and enlighten those present—book collectors, students and faculty, members of the general public—and to talk about some aspects of his life and work not discussed in print before. We assumed that many in the audience—familiar with our guest for his enormously popular Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre—would not be aware that he has written fifty other books, one hundred and fifty stories, and that his work is increasingly the subject of scholarship in the United States and Europe.
With the three of us seated at a small table before the group and a tape recorder running, Mr. Caldwell answered our questions extemporaneously and vigorously, commenting on such topics as his early life in the South, learning to write, his method of working, humor, screenwriting, favorite authors, little magazines, advice for young writers, Max Perkins, censorship, and the situation of blacks in the U.S. today. We are grateful to him for his generous responses to our questions and for allowing his answers (unedited by him) to be published. We would also like to thank Austin McLean for organizing the program and for inviting our participation.
[Kelly:] You've written eloquently about your father in Call It Experience and in Deep South and you seem to have absorbed some of your social consciousness from him. Could you tell us a little bit about your mother and what qualities you might have gotten from her?
[Caldwell:] Well, the reason I've never written much about my mother is because she once asked me not to—and so I haven't. But I suppose it would be all right if I said a few things about her here. She was a school teacher and I think it was probably that—her interest in education—that influenced me most. Then, as far as a career went, I didn't want to be a doctor, I didn't want to be a lawyer. I didn't want to be this or that, so the only thing left was to be a writer. That's what I ended up being, more or less, and I attribute that, fortunately, to my mother's influence because she had the idea that it was worthwhile to get an education. So I did the best I could to get an education, I suppose, to please her in a way. And I more or less became a tramp scholar, I went from one college to another, time after time. The reason I did that was I thought I could play football and so I more or less tried to improve my standing as a football player by going from a larger college to another larger college. And I ended up in my football career playing semi-pro football in the Anthracite League in Pennsylvania. So that's my whole background in education.
[Pankake:] What do you remember reading as a child?
I don't remember reading anything actually. The only book I ever remembered having or reading or looking at, I acquired when I was going to a lower grade school. I don't know what grade it was now, 5th or 7th or something, in Tennessee where we were living at that time, and the teacher had a test for her class. The test, I think it was based on Geography, was to point out what we had learned by studying Geography. Anyway, this was a kind of test all her students were eligible for in this lower grade school, and I happened to win the contest. I remember very well what the book was. It was called Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. And that was so far above my ability to understand that I never finished reading the book!
I wonder if you could say something about your early attempts at writing fiction and getting published. You mentioned somewhere, I think, a seven-year accumulation of rejection slips, which should be a great encouragement to anyone out there in the audience trying to write.
I think I had a normal career in those days of being an unpublished writer. I suppose I was no different than, let's say, another 10,000 or 100,000 would-be writers. Everybody has to have a rejection program in life in order to succeed. You can't succeed without being rejected to begin with because it's the only way you can learn. You've got to learn by failure. My career really began when I was working on a newspaper, as a newspaper reporter, and I was attempting to write short stories or write fiction at that time. I did not succeed after several years, so I left that field and went into raising potatoes as another avocation in the state of Maine, and it was there I continued my education, I suppose you'd call it. I was self-taught in that sense. And that was over a period of years—I think a period of 10 years altogether, probably, from the beginning to the end of my failure, and at the end of that time I did have a short story accepted and published in a little magazine. A little magazine, of course, is not a wide-circulation large magazine like Cosmopolitan used to be. But this was a little magazine, probably was mimeographed and only had 3 or 400 copies circulation, but it was printed. Anyway, that was my first publication, and I had this great big box full of rejection slips that I was keeping very assiduously, as inspiration, and so when I finished gloating over the fact that I had been published I took all these rejection slips I'd accumulated over the years and made a very fine bonfire with them.
The first story you had accepted I think was “Midsummer Passion,” and I remember reading somewhere that almost immediately after that you had about five more stories accepted. I wonder if you can identify any particular qualities that you were able to get into those stories that, say, were lacking in the earlier ones.
I think the only answer to that would be the fact that over a period of time you have to achieve some sort of ableness in constructing a story, because a story can be formless, completely formless, and have no sense of form at all, but I think you do learn, if you have any inclination to be able to learn, that sooner or later you're going to have to make this thing, this story, fit into a certain form. It has to have a beginning; it has to have a middle; it has to have an end; you have to have certain characters—the good boys, the bad boys, and so forth—those things constitute a story basically. I think any writer who is attempting to be a writer instinctively finds out that this is something he has to accomplish before he can get, he can achieve, publication. So to me, the whole idea of being a writer is completely in the hands of the writer himself. You can learn by example, you can learn by instruction, but in the end you have to do it yourself.
One other question in that area—you said that in the early stage of your writing you made no attempt to break into the mass circulation periodicals—that you, rather, felt there was more to be learned from the little magazines, and I wondered what you learned from them, if there's anything you could tell us about what you might have gained in going that route and whether that would be a good route for writers today, as well?
The only answer I can see to that is this. A young writer has to have something to give or something to present; he cannot just be an imitator of an older writer. That's fatal; you end up being nothing. And to me, to be able to experiment with writing was the most important feeling I had of these so-called “little magazines,” because there you could experiment. You had nobody hanging over you saying “Do it this way” or “Do it that way.” You had no editorship to try to make you change something to fit someone else's conception. You were left entirely on your own. That was a great feature, in my opinion, of little magazines in that era. And by being able to experiment, I think, a writer, right now, today, a young writer, if he can find the means and the ways to experiment, I think he will achieve something much better than he will by trying to imitate what someone else has already done, because that imitation is fatal for a young writer. I don't know about the older writers, I'm not concerned about the old ones, but the young writers are the ones who should not fail. They should have this opportunity to experiment, and wherever they can find it, they should be encouraged. But of course these days you've great difficulty finding where you can do this in print. Because it has to be in print. If you don't write something and get it in print, it doesn't exist. It's still a manuscript.
Your literary experiments served you very well. One aspect of your works that readers have enjoyed has been the colorful language—the earthy eloquence of southern whites and the vivid speech of the blacks or the talk of the Maine farmers. How did you convey such different speech, such different rhythms and dialects in your work?
I would have to answer that by saying that I was disinterested. I had no interest whatsoever in imitating dialect. You know, if you had read some of the early dialect stories written about Negro life, it was almost unintelligible to look at much less to pronounce or to get any sense out of because it was a phonetic kind of thing. It made no sense at all. To me, the secret (it isn't a secret but the essence of transmitting the ethnic life, we'll say, of the black people) is in the rhythm of their speech, not in their dialect, not in their southern accent, or in the western accent, or any accent. Accent means nothing. But the rhythm of their speech, I think, tells a whole story that you want to have on this character or these people you're writing about. And that rhythm, of course, goes with your place in life, with what you're doing. Are you doing manual work, are you digging ditches, are you driving a truck, or are you a lawyer pleading a case? All these things have different variations in rhythm, I think. At least to me they do. I can see that feeling of a person's occupation, his life work, whatever it is, in his way of speech, and to me, I think I always tried to transmit that rhythm, not the dialect of speaking.
I understand that you are a great reader of dictionaries and that you once went through a Webster's Collegiate and crossed out all the words of more than four syllables. I wonder if you could say something about why you did that and about your practice of reading dictionaries.
To try to be facetious about the thing, I think, probably my main motive in crossing out the words of many syllables and of great length was because I couldn't spell them. I didn't want to be burdened with having to look up a word in the dictionary every time I wanted to use it because I'm not a very good speller. So I think that has something to do with it. But more than that it was my conviction that a simple word is much more effective than a long, compound word. You can compound a word to great length like the Germans do, which I would not adhere to for my point. To me, to use a simple word that derived from the origin—when you use a certain kind of dictionary, the older Webster's Dictionary, not the current ones, not the 3rd edition but way back in the 2nd edition, Webster's Collegiate or whatnot—you'll find the origin of the word, usually right in the beginning of the definition, where the pronunciation is, the accent marks, and so forth. They're always in there, whether it's Old French, Old English, Latin, Greek or whatnot—that gives you a key, an entré into that word that you're trying to use, and if you hit right, just right, you'll get the correct word every time, and it's going to be a very short word and it's not going to have any great compound length at all.
You've tended, I think, to use shorter, simpler words in your fiction, and to allow yourself longer words in your nonfiction. Is that because you think there is really a fundamental difference—that the two forms require different vocabularies?
Yes, I think so. I know that's very true that I do that. I don't know whether I'm trying to impress people with my knowledge or what when I use a long word in nonfiction. I think that's a result of doing journalism because I've done much journalism in my life off and on. I did newspaper and magazine journalism, television, radio. In those kinds of things I think simply that you have to exert a little bit of, oh, boastful knowledge about something, so you impress them by the big long word. That could be true, I don't know. But I don't know any other explanation other than the fact that it comes out of journalism, whereas fiction I think is much different writing.
Let's talk a little bit about the books of yours that people know best. Both in Tobacco Road and in God's Little Acre, important characters make fun of the church and of institutionalized religion. For example, Sister Bessie tells Jeeter that she's instructed Dude to preach his first sermon in the church against men wearing black shirts, and when Jeeter asks why, she says, “Preachers always have to be against things.” Was your father shocked by this picture of religion that you put in these books, and did you have some other feelings about what religion was in the South and in people's lives?
Well, as far as my father was concerned, I don't think he was shocked by anything that I wrote because he knew more about life than I did. He was more of a sociologist than he was anything else, and he was very familiar with the bottom lines of existence, so that I could have learned from him, and I did learn from him, very much. Now the fact that he was a religious man in this sense, being a minister, I don't think had anything to do with the fact because he was also a teacher, a newspaper writer, in addition to being a minister. But his great interest in life was people—whatever people were doing, were saying, were living—that was his great interest. I think that, more or less, influenced me a great deal because I could see the origin of stories and fiction and anything else that is written. It has to come out of people's lives to start with. You can be a reporter as far as journalistic ideas are concerned, but you also have to be a creator, or inventor of stories, of life, because otherwise if you don't do that you're not creating fiction. You'll have non-fiction instead of fiction, and what we're trying to do as fiction writers, is to write something that does not exist, but may exist in the past or in the future. It may exist. But we can't go and put our finger on it and say there it is right there, and there he is, and so forth—that's non-fiction. So what I have always done is, more or less, to use the idea that you have to invent everything and to make it more lifelike than life is itself.
I have to ask you a couple of questions about “Country Full of Swedes.” One is that the narrator refers several times to the “back kingdom,” and says he should never have left there, etc. I wonder if you could give us any clues as to what the “back kingdom” is?
That's just a figure of speech, in a sense. I lived in the middle of Maine, central Maine. North of that would be the forestland and all the occupation evolving around that—lumber mills and so forth. East of that is farming—potato country, where everything is flat and no trees. People who leave those two environments and come down to central Maine or coastal Maine leave something behind. They leave an old homestead or leave an old environment of some kind, and I have heard the expression “back kingdom.” It also always applied to back home. Back home could either be in the North in the woods, or in the East in the potato fields. In this particular story I don't know where he came from or anything of the sort. It doesn't interest me and it doesn't matter, I don't think. But the “back kingdom” idea was that he was a newcomer, down in the more or less civilized part of Maine, so to speak, greater population and so forth, and the “back kingdom” was his reference to his former life.
One other question on the story. I'm always interested in where ideas for stories originate and I'm wondering if you can remember where you got the idea for this particular story.
Well, I got it from a bunch of Swedes. I happened to be living in a rural community, in a township called Mount Vernon, in central Maine, and I was living there on a farm. The farms there were not very large, they were maybe forty acres, eighty acres, and so there were quite a few farms in the whole expanse of this road where I was living. I remember very clearly that down the foot of the hill from where I was living there was a house of Swedish people from Waterville who had been working in a paper mill for many years, came over and bought and renovated and added to and put a new roof on and built a woodshed and things like that and painted it yellow. That more or less originated the idea in my mind that these people were the prototypes of what I wanted to write about. So they were more or less based on actual existence. But I couldn't point out any one person who was in this story, for example. They had to be invented.
Do you see, in retrospect, your works fitting into a tradition of Southern or frontier humor?
Frontier humor? I don't know—what is that?
Oh, maybe a tradition of literature dealing with backwoodsmen, of dealing with violence in American life, of rather exaggerated characters?
Well, I thought what I was doing was being influenced by the environment in which I lived in the South, and maybe I lived in some of these regions that created or originated frontier humor. Of course there was violence, yes. But I lived in so many southern states, all the southern states I lived in at one time or another, and so I accumulated a lot of this feeling, I suppose, but it all happened to congeal into one local feeling. So I could not isolate my remembrances and say “This took place over here and this took place over there”—it's all just one complete picture to me. Now what the humor is I don't know. I think any agricultural region does generate a type of humor that you don't find elsewhere. You have backwoods humor, I suppose, or frontier humor. I suppose that's a legitimate kind of estimate to make of it. As far as violence is concerned, of course, that originated out of the Civil War, the aftermath of the Civil War, when there was retaliation against the black people, for being sprung out of slavery. I think that had a lot to do with it, for every opportunity that, you might say, every ignorant or perverse white person might have, if he could take advantage of a black person, he had the advantage he could take, because he was superior in having a white skin, as opposed to having a black skin. So you have violence accumulated like that, for many years—decades—you had lynching and that was violence. Now that's the only violence that I have ever witnessed. I only witnessed one lynching in my life. But I had read about and I had heard about—newspapers and word-of-mouth—many other instances of violence of that nature. So that did exist. Now my analysis is, as I said, that it was the result of the aftermath of the Civil War. And I'm very glad the Civil War got over with, we got rid of it, and now we don't have the same thing anymore, so maybe we'll never have it again in this country.
Which of your works do you think is most successful?
That I have done?
In which sense?
However you might define success, maybe achieve the ends that you were after when you set out to write that particular piece.
Well, that's sort of hard to say, because, you see, I don't consider any one thing I've done of any great value. I've written 50 books and 150 short stories, we'll say. To me it's a cumulative effect. That's what appeals to me in having accomplished this much, maybe. But to pick out one thing as my favorite or maybe better than anything else, I hesitate to do that because I have five children. So I would not say this is a better child here than this child here is. I like all the children equally well. I might be a little hard on one if he is not as obedient as this one is over here, but, at the same time, a story to me is something that a reader has to accept or reject, and not the writer himself. So I would not say that I like this, or this made more money, or this is of greater acclaim, or that I like better than anything else, no, I wouldn't say that. I'll leave it up to you.
You eventually went out to Hollywood to do some screenwriting. I'm wondering whether there were any films that you worked on that turned out to be memorable, or that you especially liked.
Let's put it this way. I had several failures in life in Hollywood, off and on, because I used to go there in order to survive and to pay the rent back home. The only way I could do it in those days was to go there and work 13 weeks at a time. I had no great success whatsoever as a screenwriter in Hollywood. I never wanted success, all I wanted to do was to put in my time and get out and go home. That was my great ambition. But one thing I did remember having done was to contribute, in a small way, episodes to a series of what used to be called a two-reel film. Two-reel films were sort of like serials, and every week, or every month, there would be a new one. This series that I worked on for quite a few months was called “Crime Does Not Pay.” These were episodes or case histories taken out of police files and then put into moving picture form, and it always ended that the crook was caught, apprehended and punished. That was the whole object, so I thought I was doing a good deed in life by trying to show that crime does not pay. But I was just one of many people who were writing on this serial. The other memorable film work I ever did did not turn out to be made into a picture after all. It was all wasted effort, since during one of my sojourns there for six months or whatever it was, I was assigned with another writer to write an original motion picture story for Clark Gable. Now Clark Gable at that particular time was a leading box office champion of Hollywood. There's nobody had a bigger box office than Clark Gable. Well, the studio thought that they were doing us a great favor, my friend and I, to be able to write a film story for Clark Gable. And we got so carried away with it that what we did was to make Clark Gable a lumberjack up in the Northwest woods. And we got so carried away with this idea that we brought him into town several times on a Saturday night, and that's where we got into trouble, because the Hays office, the censorship in those days, did not want this Saturday night lumberjack on the screen. So our picture was never made.
You've often said that you're a writer and not a reader, and that when you read other writers you generally only read one of their books. But I'm wondering if you could name a few of your favorite books by other authors.
I can only remember people who are dead. I do not recognize anybody who's still alive. To me, the best writers are dead, and I think they always will be. In my early life, when I did try to keep up with everything that was being written, I remember very well being impressed by Theodore Dreiser, being impressed by Sherwood Anderson, by reading Ernest Hemingway, and later reading John Steinbeck. Now those four, to me, were the principal writers that I considered to be superior in fiction writing of that time, of that era. I don't know that they influenced me in any way. I don't think so. I was just interested to see what they were doing, because I happened to know all of them vaguely. In a small way, I did associate with some of them, and on the basis of friendship and curiosity, they came to be my favorite people. As I said, they don't exist any more, and who's existing today I do not know. I'll leave that to you and others.
Perhaps we could talk a bit about how you write. When you're working, do you generally have a set schedule, to which you try to adhere?
Yes, just like you go to work in an office at nine and go home at five. I do the same thing. It was my habit, 9-5, seven days a week. I always started out with five days a week, and it graduated up to six days a week and then to seven days a week. I wish I had eight days a week, because there's not enough time. And then I experimented, in my early life, with different times of the day and night. In other words, in the winter, for example, I used to like to work at night, so from six or eight o'clock at night until five o'clock the next morning, the daylight ending hours, I'd try that. Other times I'd work the daytime. Other occasions I have experimented on the idea of doing physical labor on the odd days of the month and doing writing on the even days of the month. To me that was ideal because I had to do a lot of farming in my early life, cutting wood and raising potatoes, so working one day with your muscles and one day with your mentality was very suitable. I would recommend it. It keeps you fit, for one thing, physically fit.
Could you tell us something about your method of writing, that is, once you get an idea for a story, what happens after that? Do you write it out in longhand first or on the typewriter and what sort of process do you go through in producing drafts of a work?
Well, it's a mysterious thing, I don't know how to describe it, and I wouldn't know how to tell somebody else how to do it. I only do it by hit or miss. I don't know how I'm doing it or why I'm doing it, just the inclination to do it this way, whatever it is I have in mind. Now if I have a theme or a subject or an idea—I might have nothing to go by except just that a truck driver is stopping to get something to eat at a diner, at a highway restaurant—that's all, so then your story might go from there. Or you might have a mental kind of picture that you dream up, or invent an idea that you want to present, but you have to accumulate the right kind of people to go with it because otherwise you'll have a failure, your stories aren't going to come off, so the important thing is not a plot. I don't know what a plot is. I couldn't use one. I wouldn't know what to do with a plot. The main thing is to have this idea and to see what they're going to do. And so you put them here to start with, and whatever, two people, five people, in this situation, let's say they're sitting in an airport—well, then you have to invent something to go with that. So that's where you do your mental sweating right away—if you get the right people, the characters. And then of course they have to be presented logically, they have to be presented faithfully, to write themselves. But you have to invent all these people, they don't exist. You've got to invent them. If they exist you're just doing a photograph—or a series of pictures.
Do you do all of your work on the typewriter and do you get each page perfect before you go on to the next? That's what I've read.
No. You might do 10 or 15 drafts of the same story, of the same chapter, time after time. I'm talking about myself, not about what other people should do, or what makes you do it that way, but I have to do it over and over again. If I make one line wrong, after I read it over on the page, or if I see that one line is false, I want to scratch all that out and do it over again. Throw that in the wastebasket. Get rid of it, as fast as you can.
Do you have any advice to give young writers, or aspiring writers?
No, I don't know what to say. I feel sorry for them. There's nothing worse than being a disappointed writer. Ten, fifteen years of it is all I could take. You see my weatherbeaten face, don't you?
You've been an editor, in the long series American Folkways, and you've been edited. What is the proper job of an editor, and how can an editor help a writer?
Now in this particular case, American Folkways, there are about 20-25 volumes I had something to do with. My idea was not something that would be ordinarily editorship. In other words, I had the idea for the thing, for the series. I would try to find the ideal person for a region of the country, someone who had the ability to write, and the knowledge and the inclination to write about this particular field. If it was an agricultural region or manufacturing region or urban region, whatever this particular thing was, this was the person to be selected to write about that. Not only did he have to have the ability to express himself, he also had to have the knowledge, the background to write about it. And so that was my only contribution, because once we got a manuscript, then I would give it to somebody else to do so-called editing. In other words I didn't correct spelling or anything like that.
Maxwell Perkins was one of your early editors. Did he or did any other editors do anything that you think helped you in your work?
No. I had a great affection for Maxwell Perkins. He more or less got me going, so to speak. I was writing short stories in those days, and he was the editor of Scribner's Magazine in those days, and I sent him two or three short stories, and he sent them back, and I kept on sending him some more, and finally I guess he got tired of sending stuff back so much, and he said he was going to take some. So he did take two short stories, and I kept on sending stories and stories, and he finally wrote me back and said, “Do not send me any more short stories. I have finished publishing your short stories. Write a novel.” so I wrote a novel. He ordered me to write a novel—I wrote it. He didn't say what kind of novel to write, he said, “Write a novel, stop writing short stories and sending them to me. I can't stand it anymore.” So I wrote a book called Tobacco Road, and I sent it to him. And he published it. I mean he accepted it and said, “We're going to publish this book just as it is, we're not going to make any changes, not a single word is going to be changed, it's going just like it is,” and it was. In other words, it was never edited. Which is the ideal way, if you can get away with that.
I wonder if we could talk about censorship for a moment. I've been doing a little research and discovered that in 1946 a St. Paul patrolman's review of God's Little Acre caused the book to be banned in St. Paul which led, of course, to subsequent brisk sales in Minneapolis afterward. And I was stunned to find out it is still banned in Massachusetts. Were you consciously attempting to take on the censorship laws at the time when you wrote the book?
No, I was not trying to lure the censors into the idea of banning me or anything. I had no idea about it. I didn't know what censorship amounted to, it didn't bother me. And it still doesn't. The fact was, there was a wave of censorship … somewhere in the 40s, I guess, and it went not only in St. Paul and Boston, but many other cities. Detroit, for example, that was the place where the book was banned consistently for a while. And at the same time there was a play of Tobacco Road being played by road companies across the country and that also ran into a series of censorship cases. It got to be so common I just didn't pay any attention to it. I thought it was just a way of life. I didn't know there was anything unusual about being censored or banned or anything. So I just never paid much attention to it after that, and I still don't. I always have considered myself to be my own censor anyway, and I am capable, and just as qualified to be a censor as anybody else. I think I have been, and still stay with that theory, that I'm a good censor. And I'm not unhappy about taking that attitude; I'm very pleased with it.
You've spoken out at times against sexual license in much of modern fiction, and I'm wondering where, if anywhere, you would draw the line in relation to the depiction of sex in fiction?
You mean at the present time?
Yes, you've said in the past, I think, that you were somewhat dismayed at some of the license that's going on nowadays.
Well, yes, that's sort of what I was saying about being my own censor. I think every writer should have his own code of writing. For example, I think a writer should recognize that there are traffic signals out there, there's red, yellow and green. You don't go up to a yellow traffic signal and barrel through it, do you? If you do, you're nuts, crazy. It's the same thing with being a writer. You have an obligation to stop and wait for whatever it is. So I think a writer should be his own judge about this. I realize the fact that there are a lot of quickchange people in the business who will write anything to make a dollar. That's very obvious. It happens all the time. But to me that is not legitimate authorship. It's a sort of con game—it's like being a burglar, or something. Instead of working for a living, you steal your living, or whatever it is. I would not say this should not be printed, it should not be published, I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't go that far. Then I'd be a censor. But I would deplore that fact that this person did not have enough reticence, did not have enough literary ability to say the same thing in a reasonable way. That would be my criticism of a person who wrote what you might call salacious fiction or writing.
We have quite a few more questions to ask you but we shouldn't keep people here all night long.
It's getting late, isn't it?
Yes, it is, and so we'll have to limit ourselves. In your works you have a very respectful and sympathetic picture of blacks in the South. But it's a picture which reflects very badly on America in general. I'm thinking of stories like “The People Vs. Abe Latham, Colored,” or “The End of Christie Tucker.” Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic today about justice to blacks, and about the integration of blacks into American society?
Very optimistic right now, yes. I wasn't in those days because it seemed to be at a dead end. When those particular stories were written that was a reflection of a reality. In other words, not just pure fiction. In a sense it wasn't something that was made up out of nothing. This was a reflection of a social condition that existed. And I happened to have been living there, and having been part of it, and so I knew what was happening, and I had a resentment toward a social condition that made one human a second-rate citizen and gave preference to a white-skinned citizen over a black-skinned citizen. That was my feeling at that time. It still is. I don't think that's necessary anymore. There's always prejudice against a minority group, no matter what your origin is. For example, you may have a prejudice against Swedes, I don't know. But I do know that life itself, American life, has come to a point where I think we are much more intelligent and have much greater ability to assimiliate ourselves, our lives, than to pick out someone to give him a blacklisted name because he's a Methodist, or a Baptist, or a Catholic, or whatnot. That doesn't exist, I don't think. But if it did exist, I would be one of the first to want to oppose it.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3672
SOURCE: “The Moment of ‘Three Women Eating’: Completing the Story of You Have Seen Their Faces,” in Syracuse University Library Associates Courier, Vol. 29, 1994, pp. 61-74.
[In the following essay, McDonald discusses the significance of the photograph “Three Women Eating” to the collection of photographs in You Have Seen Their Faces.]
In 1936 Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White merged their respective talents to produce one of the great documents of Depression-era America, the photo-text study You Have Seen Their Faces. There have been several accounts of the circumstances under which Caldwell and Bourke-White agreed to collaborate on this project, including their own autobiographical recollections.1 Missing from each of these accounts, however, is any mention of an early goodwill gesture from Bourke-White that must have finally convinced a dubious Caldwell that he had indeed found a partner capable of understanding what he wanted this new book to be, and a photographer capable of imaging its spirit.
By 1936, of course, Bourke-White was highly respected as one of America's foremost industrial and commercial photographers. In 1929 Henry Luce had recruited her as the first staff photographer for Fortune, and during the next few years, at home and abroad, her advertising work and photo essays on iron- and steelworks, meat processing plants, construction sites, the automobile industry, and the like defined and celebrated the age of the machine. She was, as she would recall, “rapturous[ly]” drawn “to the beauty of industrial shapes.”2 Given Bourke-White's stature and the mood of the nation, it was no surprise in 1936 when Luce selected her now-famous photograph of Montana's spectacular New Deal work project, the colossal Fort Peck Dam, for the first cover of his newest publication, simply titled Life.
Two years earlier, however, while covering the Dust Bowl drought of 1934 for Fortune, Bourke-White had begun something of an artistic awakening. From the Dakotas southward to Texas, she remarked upon faces engraved with the very paralysis of despair:
I had never seen people caught helpless like this in total tragedy. They had no defense. They had no plan. They were numbed like their own dumb animals, and many of these animals were choking and dying in drifting soil. I was deeply moved by the suffering I saw and touched particularly by the bewilderment of the farmers. I think this was the beginning of my awareness of people in a human, sympathetic sense as subject for the camera …3
Back in her studio, Bourke-White understandably found it difficult to resume her usual work, especially the inane advertising assignments she found herself compelled to accept in order to pay ever-mounting bills.
One afternoon, while setting up a routine tire advertisement for the Saturday Evening Post, Bourke-White says she experienced the epiphany of her young career. As usual, the assignment was to make her photographs “capture the very soul of the tire, its footprints on the sands of time”—but to do so not by photographing the tire itself, but by photographing the “plump” loveliness of a handmade rubber dummy-tire and the deep, perfect impressions made by a specially carved wooden track-maker. The photographer's assistant made what Bourke-White then and later considered “a courageous and revolutionary proposal”: “Let's photograph a real tire.” Suddenly she was struck by the absurdity of this work. She recognized this incident as “the turning point” of her career, and she longed for a world “where things did not have to look convincing, they just had to be true.”4
Bourke-White committed herself, then, to her redefined purpose—a purpose that merged the political with the professional and the personal. Responsibility became her theme. As she wrote in a 1936 piece for The Nation, “Photographing This World”:
As echoes of the old debate—is photography an art?—die away, a new and infinitely more important question arises. To what extent are photographers becoming aware of the social scene and how significantly are their photographs portraying it? … The major control is the photographer's point of view. How alive is he? Does he know what is happening in the world? How sensitive has he become during the course of his own photographic development to the world-shaking changes in the social scene about him?5
These were hard questions, and ones that she had only recently found a voice to articulate and the conviction to answer for herself.
Perhaps Bourke-White's most effective vehicle for passing into this new phase of her career was the unlikely figure of Erskine Caldwell, the Georgia-born writer who, following roughly the same pattern as Bourke-White, had published his first story in 1929 and now, in 1936, found himself at a crossroads. Early in his career Caldwell had committed himself to a precise goal. With no “philosophical truths to dispense, no evangelistic urge to change the course of human destiny,” he nevertheless wanted “to be a writer of fiction that revealed with all my might the inner spirit of men and women as they responded to the joys of life and reacted to the sorrows of existence.”6 To date, his best successes in working toward this end had been three volumes of superb short fiction and his stark, shocking novels of debauchery and despair in the poverty-stricken, rural South, Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933).
Caldwell had, however, attracted some severe criticism for his portrayals of Southerners, especially for what his critics cited as unfair distortions and exaggerations of life among the region's tenant farmers. On the floor of the United States House of Representatives, Georgia Congressman Braswell Deen denounced Caldwell and his “fiction,” censuring the enormously popular dramatic version of Tobacco Road as a “most infamous, wicked and damnable play.”7 Newspaper editors across the South—examples of a class Caldwell derided as “the professional Southerner”8—lambasted him for creating characters such as Jeeter Lester and Ty Ty Walden, branding him as yet another native son who had sold out his homeland for Yankee dollars and attention during an age when, as Malcolm Cowley has described it, American writers were being swept along in “a daydream of revolutionary brotherhood.”9
While all writers are subject to various critical tempers, the kind of criticism he received was particularly unpalatable for Caldwell, who saw himself, unpretentiously, as a storyteller.10 His detractors were calling lies the stories he always maintained were artistic truths, “inventions” shaped by his creative powers so that they conveyed “the forceful illusion of [life].” There was nothing, Caldwell emphatically declared, sensationalized about his material, and his only interest in “revolution” was maybe an impulse to “shame” us all into acknowledging some of the less-discussed aspects of contemporary Southern “civilization,” or life among the denizens of Tobacco Road.11
Musing on all this, Caldwell took some time deciding what to do in defense of his art—and himself. In 1935 he had contributed to the New York Post a four-part exposé of sharecropper life in Georgia, which had caused such an uproar that the Augusta [Georgia] Chronicle launched its own investigation to weigh against Caldwell's portrait.12 But by April 1936, after a fair consideration of all the “ideas for books … clamoring for attention,” a still determined Caldwell had settled on a more substantial rebuttal. He had formulated a project that he felt must take precedence over any others, a work that would by design “vindicate [his] writings about the South.” He imagined it would be “a factual study of people in the cotton states living in economic stress,” written with the specific “intention to show that my fiction was as realistic as life itself in the contemporary South.” And “[t]he title of the book,” he recalls in With All My Might, “had already been selected. It was to be called You Have Seen Their Faces.”13
Documentary literature of the kind Caldwell envisioned remains among the most accessible and interesting work produced during the 1930s, when the fiction of proletarian writers—like Josephine Johnson, Clara Weatherwax, Edward Dahlberg, or even Jack Conroy—fired emotions en masse, but too briefly to be remembered. Documentaries, on the other hand, retain their power because, in part, of their generic intent: to reveal what James Agee once called “a portion of unimagined existence.”14 And this, Caldwell knew, words alone could not accomplish. If the book were to have the impact he imagined, if it were to be “authentic,” he knew it would have to be his first collaborative work: it “would have to be thoroughly documented with photographs taken on the scene by a perceptive photographer.”15
Thus the opening for Margaret Bourke-White, who was casting about for some serious, book-length project that would begin to satisfy her “great need to understand my fellow Americans better”—a job that would extend her own “aliveness” as it revealed to her native “worlds about which I knew almost nothing.” Bourke-White felt it was “a miracle” that she happened “to hear of an author in search of a photographer … someone with receptivity and an open mind, someone who would be as interested as he was in American people, everyday people.” It was Caldwell, “a writer whose work,” Bourke-White thought, “had extraordinary vitality, an almost savage power”; it was he who “wanted to take the camera to Tobacco Road.”16
Vicki Goldberg explains that the photographer, with her typical bravura, proposed the association: “At a cocktail party in January of '36, she swooped down excitedly on Maxim Lieber, Erskine Caldwell's agent, to say how much she'd like to meet the author and work with him.” Soon, Goldberg summarizes, the two artists “met and agreed to join their talents to a cause,”17 an account which roughly matches Caldwell's own. In his first autobiography, Call It Experience, he says that Lieber arranged a meeting with Bourke-White, whom Caldwell found “a spirited woman with an engaging personality” and who he knew “had published a highly regarded volume of industrial photographs” as well as “a volume of photographs of Russian industrial and agricultural operations.” Caldwell concludes his account, though, with the too-simple recollection that “Margaret agreed to take the pictures for the book.”18 In fact, items in the Erskine Caldwell Collection at Syracuse, as well as Bourke-White's and Caldwell's later accounts, all indicate that Bourke-White did not so much “agree to take the pictures” as she found herself—then perhaps the most famous photographer in the world—pleading her abilities for the chance to work on the project.
Caldwell, it seems, had at least two objections to accepting Bourke-White as his collaborator. In With All My Might he implies that his foremost objection was to her gender: “I was not fully convinced that the work I had in mind would be suitable for a female photographer to perform.” What exactly he meant by “suitable” is unclear, unless the word reflected a genteel (and sexist) presumption that a woman couldn't or shouldn't be interested in participating in a six- to eight-week trek across the Deep South during a sweltering post-drought July. Caldwell was very wrong on this point, however. Although he would later admit that nothing of the experience “daunted [her] spirits,” he had initially underestimated the stamina and resolve of a woman with a résumé like that of Margaret Bourke-White.19
The most interesting reason for Caldwell's objection to Bourke-White, though, had nothing to do with her sex and everything to do with his perception of her as an artist. For he was determined to employ what he called “a perceptive photographer” who could “show that my fiction was as realistic as life itself in the contemporary South.”20 Based on his knowledge of the work that had made her famous, Caldwell seemed predisposed to believe that Bourke-White was neither terribly perceptive nor up to capturing the “life” of anything human. Again, he knew her only as a respected photographer of “industrial machines” and “Russian industrial and agricultural operations.”
Apparently, in their earliest conversations Max Lieber had confided in Bourke-White something of Caldwell's opinion of her work. According to Goldberg, “Margaret … told a reporter that Caldwell ‘didn't want a woman to do his pictures, most of all he didn't want me for he thought I didn't catch the spirit of what he wanted done.’” Bourke-White says she knew, even after the groundwork had been laid for them to collaborate, that Caldwell “did not particularly like my photographs.” But typical of a strong mind set on new challenges, Bourke-White dismissed those concerns: “Well, that didn't bother me. There were a lot of my pictures that I didn't like either.”21
She could not, however, completely disregard Caldwell's opinion of her. While the partnership had been agreed upon, she did not want to begin with even the slightest lack of confidence on Caldwell's part; it was too important, personally and professionally, that the work be meaningful and productive to begin at any such deficit. She decided that the way to change Caldwell's mind was to offer up evidence that she was indeed both capable of the job as he envisioned it and committed to its potential impact; on 20 February 1936, Bourke-White took the first step toward doing just that. She placed an order for a reprint of one of her earlier photographs that she did like, with instructions that it be prepared as “A gift from MBW” for “Mr. Erskine Caldwell” (then on an extended vacation with his family in California) and be held for her to sign it and write a “card.”22
The photograph was a domestic portrait that Bourke-White had taken in 1931 during the second of her three trips to document industrializing Russia, or the effects of the so-called Five-Year Plan, for Fortune. Bourke-White says that during these trips she “felt the story of a nation trying to industrialize overnight,” and that most of the photographs she brought back—although they included powerful portraits of Russian workers, peasants, and even Stalin's great-aunt, as well as landmarks like the Kremlin—finally revealed her subconscious prejudice that “politics was colorless beside the drama of the machine.”23
Now, however, contemplating her work with Caldwell, among these photographs she found one that seemed particularly capable of conveying her new artistic interests—a quiet study entitled “Three Women Eating,” taken in Russian Georgia and published first (as far as I can tell) in her 1934 limited-edition Photographs of the U.S.S.R. In her introduction to that oversize portfolio—significantly, issued the same year of her awakening while chronicling the midwestern drought—Bourke-White writes, “I first went to Soviet Russia because it was the new land of the machine.” Gradually, she says, she came to understand that “it is more than a land of windswept steppes, villages gathered into collective farms, rising factories and growing power dams. Behind the machines stand men and women.”24 Designing a package to secure Caldwell's confidence, Bourke-White must have hoped that this photograph—not one of dams or bridges or even the machinists—would serve as an implicit statement of her ability to take the kind of pictures he wanted. The accompanying note would explicitly affirm her enthusiasm for the project:
Dear Mr. Caldwell:
This is just to tell you that I am happier about the book I am to do with you than anything I have had a chance to work on for the last two years. I have felt keenly for some time that I was turning my camera too often to advertising subjects and too little in the direction of something that might have some social significance.
I am happier about this than I can say! If I had a chance to choose from every living writer in America I would choose you first as the person I would like to do such a book with. And to have you drop out of the clear sky—just when I have decided that I want to take pictures that are closer to life—seems almost too good to be true. …
And again—I am looking forward to it so much!
It was a masterful maneuver. The photograph could not have more perfectly represented the ethos Caldwell knew the images in the new book would have to communicate: serious, humane, and absolutely without melodrama. In addition, the picture's theme—community and sharing as a means of survival—was certainly in line with Caldwell's vision of how the impoverished South, and the nation, would best live through the Depression.26 The writer's response was formal and very brief, a typically qualified thank you:
Dear Margaret Bourke-White:
Merely a note to thank you for the picture you were so good to send to me. It happens to be the first example of your work I have seen that is not a reproduction, and I am more than ever impressed by your style.
Her “style,” after all, would be fine.
“Three Women Eating” foreshadows the photographs in You Have Seen Their Faces as well as much of Bourke-White's later work. She took what Vicki Goldberg calls a “kind of posed candid shot in which she retained her own control but gave her subjects leave to let theirs go.”28 Aside from its reflection of another side of life in the industrializing Soviet Union, “Three Women Eating” is significant historically because it cleared doubts and opened the door to a working relationship with Erskine Caldwell during the year Bourke-White later described as “unlike any year I have ever lived through.”29 In their collaboration—which led, of course, to their ill-fated celebrity marriage—Bourke-White credits Caldwell with “introducing [her] to a whole new way of working”:
He had a very quiet, completely receptive approach. He was interested not only in the words a person spoke, but in the mood in which they were spoken. He would wait patiently until the subject had revealed his personality, rather than impose his own personality on the subject, which many of us have a way of doing.
Ironically, her “introduction” to this new way of working was enabled by a portrait taken during a time when she was possessed by the spirit of the machine. Presented to Caldwell as evidence of her heightened consciousness as a photographer, “Three Women Eating” secured Margaret Bourke-White's transition into the most remarkable phase yet of her career—of a life newly keyed to humanity. As she later put it,
Here with the sharecroppers, I was learning that to understand another human being you must gain some insight into the conditions which made him what he is. … I realized that any photographer who tries to portray human beings in a penetrating way must put more heart and mind into his preparation than will ever show in any photograph.30
For interpretive accounts, see Harvey Klevar, Erskine Caldwell: A Biography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993), 169-91; Vicki Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), 161-71; and William Howard, “Dear Kit, Dear Skinny: The Letters of Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White,” Syracuse University Library Associates Courier 23 (Fall 1988): 23-28. Caldwell wrote two autobiographies: Call It Experience (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1951) and With All My Might (Atlanta: Peachtree, 1987); Bourke-White's autobiography is entitled Portrait of Myself (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963).
Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself, 110.
Ibid., 111, 112.
Quoted in Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White, 156-57.
Caldwell, Call It Experience, 132; With All My Might, 330. Similarly, in his (unsuccessful) 1931 application for a Guggenheim fellowship, when he was planning God's Little Acre, Caldwell claimed realism as his mode: “There has already been too much of ‘romance,’ of ‘magnolia blossoms,’ of ‘Negro dialect’; it is time someone really wrote about ‘life.’ I should like to have the leisure, the funds and the time to try to let ‘the poor whites,’ ‘the white trash,’ and ‘the lint-heads’ present a different picture.” Application, 21 July 1931, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Archives.
“‘Tobacco Road’ Winds Its Way into Congress,” New York Herald Tribune, 7 April 1936, 14.
Erskine Caldwell, “Tobacco Roads in the South,” New Leader, 13 June 1936, 4.
Malcolm Cowley, The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930s (New York: Penguin, 1981), xxii.
Jac Tharpe, “Interview with Erskine Caldwell,” in Conversations with Erskine Caldwell, ed. Edwin T. Arnold (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988), 142.
Caldwell, With All My Might, 96; “Tobacco Roads in the South,” 4.
The primary articles and an excellent sampling of the responses they elicited are reprinted in Scott MacDonald, ed., Critical Essays on Erskine Caldwell (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981), 97-152.
Caldwell, Call It Experience, 163; With All My Might, 145.
Quoted in William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 47.
Caldwell, With All My Might, 145.
Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself, 113.
Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White, 161, 162.
Caldwell, Call It Experience, 163.
Caldwell, With All My Might, 145. In his biography of Caldwell, Klevar reports another possible concern over Bourke-White's gender: rumors that she “was not to be trusted around married men” (p. 172).
Caldwell, With All My Might, 145. Sylvia Jenkins Cook maintains that You Have Seen Their Faces was more than just an effort to “vindicate” his fiction; it represented for Caldwell another “[attempt], in a different medium, to explore those aspects of the South that most moved and enraged him” (Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Poverty [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991], 232).
Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White, 166; Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself, 115.
Order form, 20 February 1936, Erskine Caldwell Collection, Syracuse University Library.
Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself, 90-92.
Margaret Bourke-White, Photographs of the U.S.S.R. (Albany: Argus, 1934), n.p. The photograph is called “Three Women Eating out of One Bowl” on the back of an original print in the Margaret Bourke-White Collection at Syracuse. It is misdated (1932) and called “Borscht” in Sean Callahan's The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White (New York: New York Graphics Society, 1972), 86.
Bourke-White to Caldwell (unsigned copy), 9 March 1936, Erskine Caldwell Collection, Syracuse University Library.
A few years earlier, while working as a contract writer at MGM, Caldwell wrote his wife Helen about a sound technicians' strike: “I'm siding with the strikers, of course; but I also realize that the individual in the present constituted society has to fight for existance [sic]. If he doesn't do it, there's no one just yet to fight for the individual collectively.” Erskine Caldwell to Helen Caldwell, 24 July 1933, Erskine Caldwell Collection, Baker Library, Dartmouth College.
Caldwell to Bourke-White, 25 March 1936, Erskine Caldwell Collection, Syracuse University Library.
Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White, 169.
Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself, 117.
Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself, 125, 134-36.
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SOURCE: “Changing South, Unchanging Writer: Caldwell in Decline—and in Resurgence,” in The People's Writer: Erskine Caldwell and the South, University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp. 118-54.
[In the following essay, Mixon argues that Caldwell's later works were less successful than his early writing because he failed to recognize major social changes in the American South.]
In the course of a relationship that lasted for six years, three as illicit lovers and three as husband and wife, Caldwell and Bourke-White collaborated to produce four books, two of which dealt with people in the United States. Late in 1940, they set out on a cross-country journey that resulted in a book much different from You Have Seen Their Faces. Say, Is This the U.S.A. is a hodge-podge that lacks the unity of the earlier collaboration. Appearing when Americans were passionately engaged in debate over their country's response to war in Europe, the later book is by and large a celebration of America.1
From St. Johnsbury, Vermont, to San Diego, California, writer and photographer attempted to capture the strength and diversity of a great nation. Yet when they reached the South, whose treatment occupies one-fifth of the volume's contents, Caldwell's focus was racial injustice. In Soso, Mississippi, a black school principal complained about inequities in salaries paid to black teachers and to white ones. On the occasions that he mentioned the matter to whites, some suggested that “if half the Negro children dropped out of school, we would need only half as many teachers, and then the ones that were left could get twice as much salary.” In Jacksonville, Florida, a young black coffin-maker lived underground because of his fear of white people. Daylight reminded him that “back up in Georgia they put me on the chain gang for three years because I owed a white man eleven dollars.” In Saluda, South Carolina, two forlorn young black men sat in jail, the charges against them not specified, while “quite a few peeping-toms … and a lot more beer-drinkers driving cars” remained at large. Caldwell knew why: “it is much more trouble to bring in white boys.”2
Following the trip that produced Say, Is This the U.S.A., Caldwell traveled in February 1941 to the mid-South on assignment for McCall's magazine to report on farm conditions. After interviewing an influential planter in southeastern Missouri who was active in trying to improve tenant conditions, an official of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Little Rock, Arkansas, and impoverished tenants in the lower Mississippi Valley, Caldwell concluded that the South contained “more landless people than ever before.” Their situation, he wrote, “is as critical as this nation has ever seen.” Tenants not yet dispossessed suffered from malnutrition—their diets lacking milk, meat, and green vegetables—and lived in shacks that “look like pig pens.” The destitute and the dispossessed, many of whom wanted to remain on the land because “farming is in their blood,” were the victims of agricultural mechanization and of misguided federal policy that valued staple crops over food products. Land of their own, crop diversification, and scientific cultivation would enable those still farming to continue to practice their craft. Although the FSA was doing as much as it could to help the landless, its resources, Caldwell suggested, were inadequate. He realized, too, that the abandonment of staple-crop agriculture was a difficult task; tenants planted on orders from landlords, who grew the cash crops that satisfied creditors. Implicit in his essay was the suggestion that the government find a better way to provide land “and marketing facilities” to those threatened with dispossession. Already, he asserted, the farm problem had become “a national emergency,” not just a regional one. If war came, how could the United States “have an all-out national effort” when millions of its people were malnourished?3
A week after his trip to the lower Mississippi Valley to gather material for the McCall's article, “Flight from the Land,” Caldwell was in Birmingham, Alabama, to participate in a radio program. “Town Meeting of the Air,” a weekly production of the National Broadcasting Company devoted to the study of current events and pledged to the promotion of “unity through understanding,” dealt in its Birmingham segment with the topic, “Are We a United People?” The purpose of that program was to examine southern backwardness as a source of national disunity and to assay the reasons for the South's deficiencies.4
In addition to Caldwell, the participants were John Temple Graves II of the Birmingham Age-Herald and Mark Ethridge of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Speaking first, Ethridge, whom Caldwell had met as an adolescent when the journalist worked for the Macon Telegraph, focused on the colonial nature of the South's economy. He maintained that unfair trade practices—in particular, discriminatory freight rates imposed by northeastern industry and sanctioned by the federal government—did much to insure that the South remained a dependency of the imperial North.5
Caldwell followed Ethridge at the microphone. Ever a poor public speaker, Caldwell, his six-foot frame hunched over a table that was too low, read rapidly from his script, never looking up. Ever concerned with the plight of the southern poor, he placed the blame for the region's problems elsewhere than had Ethridge, “No longer,” he said, could southerners “shift the blame for our shortcomings to the shoulders of the North.” For seventy-five years the South had failed to deal adequately with its problems. Southerners must elect to office leaders who would express “the will of the people.” The passage in 1938 of the Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal wages-and-hours law that had been opposed by many of the region's industrialists engaged in “the exploitation of Southern labor,” showed that the people's wishes could receive political expression. Even so, two great obstacles to regional prosperity remained: one-crop agriculture and racism. Afraid that the agrarian way of life was dying, he called for crop diversification to insure its existence because in the future of “agricultural America … lies our survival as a democratic state or our decline as a people.” Proclaiming himself “a Georgia-born Southerner,” Caldwell, on stage in the heart of Dixie before an audience of more than a thousand people, forthrightly denounced the region's treatment of blacks. “The Negro for too long has been a slave. … America cannot afford to have a portion of its people enslaved socially and economically. In the South today there are Negroes who are being denied adequate education. There are some in agriculture bound to child labor. Some are subjected to substandards of living.” Southerners, he concluded, should cease following the lead of politicians and newspaper editors who promoted sectional acrimony and instead come to grips with the region's internal problems.6
Speaking last, Graves, an accomplished lecturer, was charged with responding to Ethridge and Caldwell. Stating that the South suffered from “comparative poverty, the worst poverty to be found this side of the slums of New York City,” he repudiated the “would-be saviors who think all our Southern roads are named ‘Tobacco.’” Uneasy over Caldwell's focus on the race issue, “the most difficult and delicate … problem with which any people anywhere ever had to deal,” Graves contended that only well-intentioned white southerners should be trusted to handle the matter. The ideas of both men, he averred, impeded the quest for the national unity needed to face Adolf Hitler. To call for domestic reform in the “present international situation” was unwise. Instead, there should be “a moratorium on every crusade, on every political, class, group, regional, or economic ambition in this country.”7
Such a suggestion, Caldwell responded, was “absolutely wrong 100 percent.” In the United States, he continued, “we have something we should work on before we tackle something outside of America.” For whatever reasons, Graves's remarks were “the most roundly applauded”; Caldwell's, the most loudly rejected.8
If Caldwell was unpopular with the students, professors, and relatively affluent urbanites who composed the audience at Birmingham-Southern College, such people likewise ranked low among his interests. For more than ten years, he had been writing about forgotten people in out-of-the-way places. Throughout the 1940s, he would encourage other writers to do so as well.
Building upon his interest in the lives of the folk throughout the United States shown in Some American People, Caldwell, by the late 1930s, had conceived the idea of a series of books that would examine American folkways. The volumes would be broader in scope than were those of the Rivers of America series and would deal more with the people themselves than did the American Guide series of the Federal Writers Project. Caldwell envisioned American Folkways as a major endeavor, perhaps twelve or fourteen books. His publisher, Viking Press, refused to undertake such a sweeping project that might lose money. Along with other issues, that refusal led Caldwell to make the fateful decision to seek another publisher. Duell, Sloan and Pearce, a new house eager to have an author as established as Caldwell on its list, agreed to publish American Folkways.9
So insured, Caldwell, late in 1939, left New York on a cross-country trip to enlist authors for the series. Bourke-White, his wife of nine months, could not accompany him because she was on assignment in war-torn Europe for Life, whose staff she had joined at the magazine's inception late in 1936. “I have been on the move for the past eighteen days,” Caldwell wrote to friends, “and yet I'm only 3/4 across the country. My car shows that I've traveled 4,000 miles … and it'll undoubtedly show 10,000 by the time I get back.” On the trip, which covered fifteen thousand miles, he caught chicken pox, which gave him, he wrote his parents, “a good excuse to rest for a week.”10
By the end of the year, five writers had consented to contribute to American Folkways. Caldwell, however, had not found a writer to cover Tobacco Road country—and he never would. That he should write the volume on the sandhills South does not seem to have entered his thinking. In the spring of 1941, the first two books in the series appeared, both of which dealt with the Southwest.11
Throughout the forties, Caldwell devoted considerable time to American Folkways, which he described as having “no kinship whatsoever to the school of glorified road maps and quaint lore.” Instead, the series intended to examine “the habits of thought and behavior of Americans from the point of view of the very men and women who propagated the national culture.” That culture was the product of the rich diversity of American regions, whose molding influences showed “like a shining badge” on their inhabitants. Under Caldwell's editorship, which lasted for fifteen years, the series covered more than twenty cultural regions that spanned the length and breadth of the country.12
Of the twenty-five volumes published while Caldwell was editor, six dealt with southern regions from Kentucky to Florida. Some of the southern authors were established figures: Hodding Carter, Mississippi journalist; Harnett T. Kane, New Orleans writer; and Herman Clarence Nixon, political scientist, social historian, and whilom Nashville Agrarian. The others were relatively unknown: Jean Thomas, the “traipsin' woman” of the Kentucky mountains; Otto Ernest Rayburn, a close student of Ozark culture; and Stetson Kennedy, a young Floridian.13
Some idea of Caldwell's role as editor can be gained from his extensive correspondence with Kennedy from the summer of 1940 to the summer of 1942. Kennedy, who had served as chairman of a committee on folk arts of the New Deal's Florida Writers Project, had first commanded Caldwell's notice when Caldwell helped to judge a contest in documentary writing. The editor was happy to learn that the author he desired was interested in writing the proposed volume. Caldwell believed that Kennedy understood his wish “to throw the word ‘folklore’ out the window, for our purposes, and to create the usage of the term ‘folkways,’” which meant “the study of contemporary life in terms of its social and economic implications.” With such understanding established, Caldwell asked only that Kennedy supply “a readable, interesting history.” Anything else, he wrote, “is up to you. There is no working plan to impose upon an author. The author creates his own method out of his own material.”14
Caldwell insisted, however, that the volume, as had others in the series, cover a cultural region, not a political division. Kennedy should expand his subject to include not only Florida but also the southern parts of Georgia and Alabama. Caldwell insisted, too, that the title not mislead the book's readers. Kennedy wanted the title to be “Cracker Country.” Caldwell objected: “‘cracker,’” he reminded Kennedy, “is associated universally with the state of Georgia, and there is no way in the world of getting away from that fact.” He much preferred another title, “Palmetto Country,” because he considered it more descriptive and less confusing. He did not realize that readers unmindful of the difference between cultural region and political division would expect the book to be about South Carolina, the “Palmetto State.” After reading some of Kennedy's chapters in draft, Caldwell cautioned him against quoting excessively. The volumes in the series, he reminded the young writer, were supposed to reflect “the individuality of the authors.”15
After six months' work, Kennedy was convinced that the instructions to authors needed to be more specific. Therefore, he drew up a prospectus that was much more detailed than the one the editor had composed at the outset of the series. Admitting that the idea of such guidelines had never occurred to him “in quite so absolute a form,” Caldwell embraced Kennedy's proposal, secured the publisher's endorsement, and supplied the instructions to other writers in the series. The new prospectus gave a greater sense of direction to the authors, and at the same time it reiterated Caldwell's concern that each “give his book a maximum of individuality, a distinctive flavor typical of his region's folkways.”16
As Kennedy pushed ahead with his manuscript, he sought Caldwell's advice regarding subjects to be treated. The editor suggested that the author consider covering Florida's tourists—the rich ones in Palm Beach and the poorer ones in trailer camps throughout the state. “By all means include lynching,” Caldwell wrote. “The institution of the chain-gang should not be overlooked either.” Although Kennedy's book failed to mention the wealthy of Palm Beach and the trailer-camp tourists and included only a few references to lynching—omitting the notorious Claude Neal case of 1934—it contained a chapter on penal conditions. “Waitin on Time” was a strong indictment of chain-gang abuses and of racism in the administration of justice.17
The editor was especially impressed with the chapter entitled “Jook Tour.” Wild and woolly roadhouses, jook joints, Kennedy wrote, were as “Southern as jazz, fried chicken, corn bread, channel cats, chewing tobacco, and lynching.” Popular among poor, working people who led hard lives, the jooks were “rank weeds springing from a corroded culture.” Filled with anecdotal humor, “Jook Tour” nonetheless revealed Kennedy's anger over conditions that produced places where young women could be brained with beer bottles.18
Caldwell liked “Jook Tour” so much that he suggested Kennedy double its length. He also particularly admired another chapter, “Red Lights Glowing.” But he advised Kennedy that his description of prostitution “might be troublesome.” If the chapter, wherein Kennedy cited specific instances of prostitution in his hometown of Jacksonville, was “to beat the censor's heavy pencil,” then the discussion of the subject must have “a more folkway treatment.” Caldwell advised the author to “bring out the human elements in … [prostitution] by showing what position it assumes in everyday life in the region.” Moreover, Caldwell suggested, “try to make [the chapter] … parlor reading for the housewives of Des Moines.”19
Kennedy incorporated Caldwell's suggestions. Without diminishing the force of his indictment, he expanded his description of prostitution to include other parts of palmetto country beyond Jacksonville. He also sought to portray “the human elements.” Prostitutes “are made, not born,” he pointed out, and poverty, more than anything else, was what made them. Whether the chapter was palatable to the housewives of Des Moines, or, what is more to the point, to the housewives of palmetto country, can only be conjectured. Even as published, it must have been strong meat for many readers. Because black brothels charged lower rates than white ones, they enjoyed, Kennedy wrote, “a considerable amount of white trade.” Moreover, he reported the comments of a Jacksonville taxi driver who had taken “white prostitutes (personally known to him) to the homes of well-to-do Negro men.”20
As Kennedy neared completion of his manuscript, Caldwell offered suggestions on the placement of chapters and on the extent to which the history of the region should be covered. Believing that “historical matter … is … ordinarily … rather dull,” Caldwell advised Kennedy to compress that material “as much as possible without losing the important facts necessary to understand ‘Palmetto Country.’” Only one-fifth of the volume's 340 pages comprises historical narrative, and much of that is based on folk sources. Most of the history deals with slavery and with Reconstruction, and it examines those subjects from a perspective sympathetic to blacks.21
Meeting the publisher's deadline, Kennedy completed his manuscript by mid-May 1942. An enthusiastic Caldwell wrote him a few days later. He had done “a fine job. Palmetto Country is a book to be proud of.” It would be “an outstanding addition to American Folkways.” When Palmetto Country came out late in the fall, the author of a syndicated book-review column agreed. Kennedy's volume, John Selby wrote, “is the best of the ‘country’ books so far.” So impressive was the author's command of his material that Selby accorded the book even higher praise. Palmetto Country, he contended, “ranks in usefulness with the Federal Guides, still the most valuable contribution to American life of any recent books.”22
Many of the volumes in American Folkways failed to approach Kennedy's achievement. years later, Caldwell opined that only half of the books should have been published, that there had been too many too fast. The twenty-five that he edited doubled the number that he had initially envisioned. Moreover, even though he had traveled through much of America, what he knew best was the South. He lacked the experience to make informed judgments on works dealing with other regions, although some of those books were well received by reviewers.23
Even so, for much of his fifteen-year tenure, Caldwell was an indefatigable editor with a boundless enthusiasm for the project. His interest was so great that, shortly after embarking on a photojournalistic trip to the Soviet Union with Bourke-White, he wrote to his secretary to remind her to correspond occasionally with the Folkways authors “so that you will be familiar with the situation regarding each individual writer.” He also asked his secretary to send copies of reviews of the first volume, scheduled to appear soon. From Moscow, in mid-June 1941, as he, his wife Margaret, and millions of Russians worriedly awaited an imminent German invasion, he wrote to Kennedy regarding his suggestions for a more thorough prospectus for the series.24
Kennedy appreciated Caldwell's work. Shortly before Doubleday published his Southern Exposure late in 1946, he wrote to his former editor, “Had it not been for your kind invitation to write Palmetto Country, I would probably still be struggling with the little magazines. Your editorial guidance on that job has also stood me in good stead on this one.” Another contributor wrote to the publisher to express his appreciation of the editor's efforts. “Caldwell is a wonderful editor to work for,” said George Milburn. “I haven't had anyone spur me on to my best effort in the way he does since H. L. Mencken was editing the American Mercury.” Perhaps the highest praise came from the American Folklore Society, which, early in 1945, invited Caldwell to become a member.25
The commendations of folklorists and of the series' authors were balanced by the ongoing coolness of the publisher toward the project. Throughout the life of the series, Duell, Sloan and Pearce complained of the costs involved, even though Caldwell was paid very little for his editing responsibilities and the series during the 1940s earned a profit. In 1954, still convinced that some of the volumes had made important contributions to the understanding of American character but tired of wrangling with the publisher, he resigned the editorship.26
By Caldwell's account, his motive for initiating American Folkways was “to promote the regionalism of the country. I've always been a regional writer, and I think the best writing is regional.” In the early 1940s, however, he was not able to devote much time to writing about the South. During his extended trip to the Soviet Union in 1941 with Bourke-White, he placed himself in danger in order to witness fighting between German soldiers and Russian partisans, and he covered, again at great risk, the German aerial bombardment of Moscow for CBS radio. His experiences resulted in four books: one, a collaboration with Bourke-White; two others, accounts of the air raids and the partisan fighting, respectively; the last, a novel dealing with guerrilla warfare.27
Amid all his activities in Russia, which also included filing reports to the North American Newspaper Alliance, Caldwell made time—to the consternation of his wife—to work on a cycle of short stories set in the South that he had begun in 1937. After returning to the United States late in 1941, he continued to work on the story cycle during the next year, finishing the last story on his birthday.28
He completed the book amid domestic turmoil. The passion that he and Bourke-White shared was not enough to save their union. His stony silences, which indicated his disapproval of something that she had done, unnerved her. That they had not had a child saddened him. Dejected when she was away on assignment, he resented her long absences. She resented his resentment. Each was self-centered and each tried to dominate the other. Both were more committed to their work than to their marriage.29
In the spring of 1942, not long after their third anniversary and not long after they lost their unborn child, Bourke-White asked Life to give her another assignment to cover the war. After her departure for Europe in August, Caldwell left their home in Connecticut and journeyed west, eventually arriving in California, where he wrote a script about the war for Hollywood's moviemakers. By early autumn, he had settled in Tucson, Arizona. There, he soon met a pretty, twenty-year-old coed named June Johnson. Five days before Christmas, he secured a divorce from Bourke-White in Mexico. Never a man to be without a woman for very long, he married June the next day.30
The story cycle was published in the spring of 1943. Different from his previous fiction, although not as dissimilar as the publisher and many reviewers proclaimed, the fourteen stories in Georgia Boy chronicle the doings in sandhills Georgia of the Stroup family—father Morris, mother Martha, and son William—and their black yard boy, the orphaned Handsome Brown. The stories are a tour de force in terms of narrative, told from the viewpoint of twelve-year-old William, who reports matter-of-factly the antics of a ne'er-do-well father whom the boy nonetheless respects.31
Morris, who occupies center stage in most of the stories, lies, cheats, steals, runs after women, and abuses the yard boy. As in much of Caldwell's earlier fiction, the humor that is employed to describe Morris's escapades heightens the horror of his actions. What kind of man would bring another woman to his house with his wife present? What kind of man would enjoy loafing while his wife takes in laundry to support the family? What kind of man would take his son's quarter to attend a carnival girly-show? What kind of man would suggest a fishing trip with his son and then cavalierly cancel it to engage in a get-rich-quick scheme that involves theft? What kind of man would steal from an orphan who works for him without pay and would also humiliate the boy publicly?32
Handsome Brown, being black, can do little about the sorry treatment Morris affords. William, being twelve years old, only wants the company of a father who is gone much too often. Martha, being white and grown, wreaks a satisfying revenge on a poor excuse for a human being. In a story that was the third one written in the cycle but that, significantly, was placed last in Georgia Boy, Martha cooks Morris's prize gamecock for supper. After the family has eaten, she tells him that College Boy was the staple of the chicken pie. Her motive, to avenge her mortification over her husband's cock-fighting, does not diminish the audacity of her act. That William is as outraged as Morris by Martha's act highlights a major theme of Georgia Boy: a boy's love for his father. Although Morris provides most of the humor in the stories, the author's sympathies lie with a neglected boy, with a dependent young black man, and, most of all, with a strong, long-suffering woman. Martha, Caldwell wrote to his publisher, “bears the cultural load of her community as well as that of raising her family with the grace of any woman who has been supporting herself and [her] household by washing and ironing for as long as she can remember.”33
Contrary to the publisher's description, which Caldwell considered simplistic, the book is much more than “an invitation to laughter.” The author attempts to undertake a serious examination of the plight of women and blacks. Yet the narrative point of view, although skillfully executed, prevents him from doing what he did best: constructing a story that was both artistically satisfying and socially significant. He was not able fully to employ the focus of narration to exhibit his anger over the treatment of outcasts. He could not make William Stroup a Huckleberry Finn. Moreover, he failed to provide an environmental explanation for the shiftlessness of the central character, Morris Stroup.34
It is difficult to ascertain the socioeconomic status of the Stroups. The reader can only assume that the reason they do not live on the farm they own is that Morris refuses to work it. In the town of Sycamore, where the family lives and where Morris has more opportunity to philander and to engage in scams, Martha is the provider. Whatever else they are, the Stroups are not poor-whites, although the publisher presented them as such and some reviewers, including southerners, perceived them as such, even comparing them to the Lesters of Tobacco Road. As Caldwell knew, poor-whites would not be landowners, as the Stroups are; a poor-white would not be a member of a social club, as Martha is; a poor-white would not receive a political appointment, as Morris does.35
Here and there across the South, reviewers expressed relief over the work of a new Caldwell. An “eminently satisfying story,” Georgia Boy was, according to one wild misreading, “good, clean fun.” Southerners, wrote a Georgian, “can rest easy, as Mr. Caldwell has decided to quit advertising the unfortunate conditions of ‘Tobacco Road.’” The following year, Caldwell would prove that reviewer dead wrong.36
Tragic Ground, a novel often compared to Tobacco Road, reaffirmed Caldwell's everlasting concern for the southern poor. A far cry, however, from Tobacco Road in locale and in execution, Tragic Ground signaled a serious decline in his art. Morris Stroup is no Jeeter Lester, and neither is Spence Douthit, the protagonist of Tragic Ground. A year's unemployment, the result of the shutdown of a war plant in an unnamed Gulf Coast city, fails to explain Spence's shiftlessness. Although he is not mean, only twice do his actions evoke the reader's sympathy. When he hears the story of his teenage daughter's friend, who has become a prostitute since her widowed mother abandoned her, he “brushed the back of his hand over his eyes.” Later, after he learns that his thirteen-year-old daughter, who has also turned to prostitution, has been sent to reform school for five years, he “brushed away tears that had begun to blind him.” His sympathy for an abandoned girl and his belated concern for his daughter's welfare are hardly sufficient to balance his otherwise reprehensible behavior.37
Spence peppers his talk, especially in conversations with women, with expressions that would have made Jeeter blush—“dogbite my pecker” and “I was feeling like a rabbit with his balls caught in a sewing machine”—and relishes the prospect of living on welfare. Jeeter, facing greater obstacles, always hoped to plant a crop. If Caldwell intended to show that merely moving from the country to the city could make a Spence of a Jeeter, he failed. Historical forces go far toward explaining Jeeter's plight; there is no such explanation of Spence's condition. Although shiftless in the country, Spence, upon moving to the city, falls too far too fast to be credible. If Caldwell did not believe that the Jeeter Lesters of the South were beyond redemption, he suggests that the Spence Douthits are incorrigible. At the novel's conclusion, after social workers have arranged to take the family back to its home in the country, Spence confides to his wife, Maud, that he intends to return to the urban slum of Poor Boy. “You just can't keep digging a man up by the roots and setting him down in different parts of the country and expect him to be satisfied for the rest of his life.” Three years of experiencing the city's attractions—dives, gambling dens, and whorehouses—have had an irreversible impact on a weak man like Spence.38
The characterization of Spence demonstrates Caldwell's belief in individual accountability. After listening to Spence deny any responsibility for his condition, Jim Howard Vance, a wounded soldier and the author's spokesman, who is sympathetic to the plight of his prospective father-in-law, tells him flatly: “You can get out” of Poor Boy. Spence believes, however, that fate has determined his condition and that to struggle is pointless. He is resigned “to living out the remainder of his years … on bounty or luck.”39
Floyd Sharp, Spence's neighbor who had also worked at the defunct war plant, is not so resigned. Unlike Spence, who does not mind being supported by his hardworking twenty-year-old daughter, Floyd attempts to be self-reliant. Desperately trying to provide for his wife and their eight young daughters and to maintain his dignity, the forty-five-year-old Floyd operates a small store in Poor Boy because he cannot find a job elsewhere. Earning barely enough to keep his family from starving and far from enough to enable them to return to the country, he nonetheless resists the temptation to sell marijuana, although other men in the shantytown do. Agonizingly, he watches his oldest daughter, who is only twelve, turn to the streets. When he discovers her having sex with a pimp—who, begging for his life, claims that she, hoping to earn fifty cents, was the instigator—he kills him. “I ain't sorry,” he tells Spence. “I'd do it all over again if I had to. … I've done my duty.” Later, after he decides not to burn Poor Boy to the ground because, with all of its vice and squalor, it provides the only shelter its poverty-ridden inhabitants have, Floyd plans to confess his crime to the authorities. He reasons that confessing will enable him to expose the desperation that Poor Boy breeds. Moreover, to confess will furnish a way to provide for his children. The authorities, he tells Spence, will “send me away for a while, but they'll put my girls in a home and take care of them.” When Jim Howard, the most perceptive of the characters, learns that Floyd has confessed, he predicts that the court will probably “send him to the chair.”40
Although Caldwell agreed with Spence's conclusion that the murder Floyd committed was a “futile rebellion against his poverty,” he rejected Spence's contention that poverty was inevitable. His position was the same as Jim Howard's. As the novel ends, an exasperated social worker says to some Poor Boy residents, “You'd wither the soul of a saint!” Jim Howard passionately responds: “I don't think that's being fair. … It's not our fault that everything got into a mess down here. Back home people like us are just as good as people anywhere else in the world. If you want to do the right thing, you ought to put all the blame on Poor Boy, because it's Poor Boy that causes all the trouble. The finest folks in the world would get mean and bad if they had to live in a place like this.” If Caldwell found it difficult to believe that Poor Boy should bear all the blame for Spence's behavior, he contended forcefully that environment dictates Floyd's actions. Some of the poor might be irretrievably lost, he argues, but others could be saved.41
For a number of reasons, Tragic Ground is a disappointing novel. The situation upon which the story depends is implausible. In 1943, when factories across the South were running around the clock, seven days a week, and when workers were toiling double shifts, the plant near Poor Boy shuts down. Had Caldwell made the novel a story about black southerners, he could have expressed more credibly his concern for people who had been left out of the wartime boom. For countless thousands of white southerners the war brought rolls of folding money that they could not have envisioned earlier.42
Tragic Ground suffers also because of its setting. The agrarian Caldwell was out of his element in the city. Yet he had no choice but to move his fiction to town if he was to continue to infuse it with social commentary as demographic change swept over the South. The flush times of the Second World War lured to the factories many of the poor white southerners who had not already been forced off the land by hard times or by New Deal policies.43
Although the novel's title indicates Caldwell's seriousness of purpose, Tragic Ground lacks the power of Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre. In the earlier novels, his use of humor and his treatment of sex heightened the impact of his social message. In Tragic Ground, where there is little humor and much sex, they diminish that message. Unlike Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, Tragic Ground fails to lodge in the reader's memory.
Among southern reviewers, opinion was divided over the matter of Caldwell's intent in the novel. To the Charlotte News, he was not “bitterly angry that such deplorable conditions exist” but instead had told “his lurid tale with all the energy and enthusiasm of a small child attacking a dish of ice cream.” The Louisville Courier-Journal, however, after praising Caldwell for avoiding “the naive sentimentality of many social writers,” concluded: “If the novelist can contribute in part to the great task of social betterment, one must rank among the most sincere and powerful advocates of true democracy the name of Erskine Caldwell.” Although the bulk of his work confirmed that contention, the case of Tragic Ground is problematic. Jonathan Daniels perceived the ambiguity. “It is doubtful,” he wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature, “whether Tragic Ground will stir thoughtful readers as much as it pleases those who love a loud and bawdy tale.”44
Criticism such as Daniels's perplexed Caldwell. “Sure,” he wrote to a friend, the book “is dirty in the sense that people are dirty—but to me there is no such thing. People are what they are, and if you write about what they are, you are a fraud if you try to make them appear different. … They grunt and they groan in an effort to win an existence, and it is not always pleasant to watch or to hear about. … [The novel] is not dirt for dirt's sake any more than it is art for art's sake. I am merely trying, in this work and in others, to reveal life.” Yet the life revealed in Tragic Ground is incredible and clumsily portrayed, as Caldwell himself suspected. “I don't know,” he confided to the same friend, “if the novel is any good or not. … I know it could be a lot better.” He was right; it could have been a lot better.45
Having returned to the novel with Tragic Ground, Caldwell would devote almost all of his writing to that form for the remainder of the 1940s. In the novels of the late forties, he was attempting to complete what he described as “a cyclorama of Southern life.” Although he acknowledged that he had “had no such plan in mind in the beginning,” by the end of the 1930s he professed to have discovered an organic pattern in his novels. Near the end of the 1940s, he wrote to a sympathetic critic that “eight or ten volumes” would be required to depict “the most important phases of community life … of a particular region in the South.” By that time, he had completed eight of the novels. Within the next two years, he would finish the cycle by writing two more.46
From Tobacco Road to Tragic Ground, the first five novels of the cyclorama had appeared over the course of twelve years. The other five were published in a span of only five years. The decline of art so noticeable in Tragic Ground is equally apparent in most of the novels of the late 1940s. If writing about urban life was not Caldwell's forte, neither was portraying the upper class, as he attempted to do in A House in the Uplands, the first of the postwar novels. Featuring the dissolute, sadistic Grady Dunbar, a representative of fallen gentry, A House in the Uplands is more a domestic tragedy than social commentary. The master of a run-down plantation whose two hundred acres are a mere shred of its original two thousand, Grady beats his wife, refuses to make love to her, cheats with black women, drinks excessively, gambles obsessively, believes that working is beneath one of his station, and keeps his tenants, white and black, in a state of peonage. Like his forebears, he dies violently, killed in a shoot-out with the owner of a dive to whom he owed twenty-five hundred dollars in gambling debts.47
Unlike the portrayal of Spence Douthit, the depiction of Grady Dunbar takes pains to account for the sources of his behavior. Unaccustomed to having “to count the cost of anything,” Grady's ancestors lived profligately. He expects to do so as well, even though the sterile remnant of the Dunbar plantation cannot sustain his extravagance. His arrogance and willfulness, the products of generations of such behavior, are reinforced by an indulgent mother who tells her daughter-in-law that “Grady is entitled to certain privileges.” Unknown to his mother, those privileges include the run of the quarters, where Grady, like his father and grandfather before, finds sexual gratification. It was Grady's father who introduced him to what the Dunbar men believe are the superior allurements of black women.48
Caldwell's attempt to invest Grady's actions with an environmental explanation fails. The obstacles Grady faces are slight when compared to those confronting a character like Jeeter Lester, and the reader cannot view him sympathetically. Although Caldwell had returned to a rural setting, he peopled it with characters that could not adequately engage his imagination.
Just as the urban setting of Tragic Ground and the aristocratic protagonist of A House in the Uplands added new dimensions to Caldwell's southern fiction, so did The Sure Hand of God. In that 1947 novel, for the first time in an extended work, the author fashioned a woman protagonist. The recently widowed Molly Bowser—thirty-four, fat, and losing her looks—cannot find a man to provide for her and her sixteen-year-old illegitimate daughter Lily. Therefore, she tries to insure that Lily marries well. She fails, and as the story ends, having been evicted from a middle-class neighborhood, she takes up residence in the red-light district of the Georgia town in which she lives.49
Hardly Caldwell at his best, The Sure Hand of God is nonetheless a strong novel because of the deft characterization of the protagonist. Molly—significantly, she is not given a surname until she marries at age thirty-two—knows full well that she must be agreeable to men if she is to have any chance of fashioning a decent life for herself and Lily. Her past has been hideous. She was the daughter of a tenant farmer; an orphan at twelve; the sexual object of the men in the family of the landlord who took her in and forced her to work sixteen-hour days; a mother at eighteen, unsure which of the three men in the landlord's household fathered her child; a kept woman at twenty-five. Because of her manifold misfortunes, Molly never loses sight of her goal: to prevent a similar fate befalling Lily. Yet Molly's experiences have made her a wine-bibbing, dope-shooting hedonist whose reputation, made even more unsavory by sanctimonious churchgoers, renders unattainable her desire to fashion a better life for her daughter. The comic dimension of her character makes her, like her country cousin Jeeter Lester, more fully human, and the black humor of the story makes bearable its tragedy.50
Not since Tobacco Road had Caldwell provided a stronger environmental explanation of a character's behavior. As though to emphasize the early authorial exposition of Molly's actions, later he uses a character to explain them. The worldly-wise banker, Frank Stevens, who succeeds in dissuading his nephew Claude from marrying Lily, acknowledges that Molly “could become a respectable woman in different surroundings.” But, he asks Claude, “who's going to take the trouble” to rehabilitate her? “The time to have done that was twenty years ago.” Just as the narrative voice and a character's observations underscore Caldwell's intent, so, too, does the irony of the novel's title. It is not “the sure hand of God” that bruises Molly but the hostility of callous human beings.51
Like God's Little Acre, the novel that followed The Sure Hand of God focused upon the disintegration of a family. Unlike God's Little Acre, however, This Very Earth has an urban setting. Moving from country to town has a disastrous effect on the Crockett family. The eighty-five-year-old grandfather, born and bred on the land, tries to supply the steadying influence that his recently deceased daughter-in-law provided. His efforts to keep the family together are to no avail. He dies trying to defend a granddaughter who is the victim of a deadly assault by her husband. Another granddaughter becomes the kept woman of a congressman. Yet another leaves town to avoid the attentions of a married man. His eleven-year-old grandson, introduced to booze and black girls by his father, is sent to live with an older brother, a reputable lawyer who was raised in the country. At story's end, grandpa's son Chism, who has left the family-owned farm because he does not want to sweat “like a cussed farmer,” is alone except for his hunting dogs. The very earth that the Crocketts abandoned might have sustained them as a family.52
Notwithstanding the implications of its title, This Very Earth is narrowly domestic rather than broadly social in focus. Therein lies its fundamental weakness. Despite Caldwell's concern for the plight of women, he was not able to portray Chism's grown daughters as believable characters. Molly Bowser's search for a husband is born of economic necessity. Vickie Crockett's infatuation with a sleazy politician and her sister Dorisse's thralldom to a brutish husband are insufficiently motivated, and their emotional dependency rings false. The novel suffers also from Caldwell's inability to render credibly the dialogue of romantic love, from a structure that is overly episodic, and from humor that, although appropriately rare, is flat and forced.
The pervasive poverty of the 1930s that had called forth much of Caldwell's strongest writing had abated, among white southerners at least, after the Second World War. Yet racism, the other great social evil that had evoked his best work, continued to exhibit much vitality. Because Place Called Estherville, the next novel in the cyclorama, denounces racism with great ardor, it ranks among the most socially significant of all of Caldwell's novels.
Unlike most of his previous novels, whose action occurs within a few days, Place Called Estherville covers nine months in the lives of its protagonists. Late adolescent siblings who have moved to town from the country to care for their aged, invalid aunt, Ganus and Kathyanne Bazemore are light-skinned, handsome blacks who prove to be irresistible to Estherville's whites. Ganus's innocence and good looks get him killed by the husband of a teenage slattern. Kathyanne's beauty gets her pregnant by the husband of her white employer.53
The strength of the novel rests largely upon the characterization of Kathyanne. With stoic dignity she endures the advances of a respectable banker, the envy and ridicule of an employer, abduction by teenage boys bent on rape, violence at the hands of a policeman whose overtures she rejects, and an unwanted pregnancy. Despite the twin burdens of being black and female, she refuses to allow her spirit to be broken. Having suffered much, she looks forward, as the story ends, to a measure of happiness as the wife of a young black man who will help her raise her daughter.54 In the characterization of Kathyanne, Caldwell added another new dimension to his fiction, a fully drawn black woman. Moreover, in a novel peopled by an assortment of moral dwarfs, she possesses integrity of gigantic dimensions.
So does Horatio Plowden, a minor yet significant character. Likely patterned after a physician Caldwell had known in Wrens thirty years earlier, Dr. Plowden, introduced in the final chapter, voices the author's views on the matter of race. On his way to attend Kathyanne in childbirth, the doctor meets the town's night policeman, who asks, “Who're you going to see at this time of night, Doc? Some nigger who ought be dead anyway?” Eloquently and prophetically, Plowden responds: “We're all human beings. … You're going to have to learn to treat all people alike, white and colored, or else there won't be any place for you one of these days. I know that you and a lot more like you think you can keep this a white man's town, but you're wrong. The world has changed a great deal in the last generation, and it's going to change a lot more in the next generation. I may not live to see the whole change come, but I hope you do.”55
Within an hour the doctor lies dead, the victim of a worn-out heart exhausted by forty years of overwork. Yet he dies with the joy of having earned the gratitude of a young black woman who never before had been given reason to trust a white person. Although the conclusion of the novel approaches sentimentality, it nonetheless reflects the compassion of two decent men, character and author.56
The high achievement of Place Called Estherville would not soon be repeated. The year after its publication, the final novel of the cyclorama appeared. Episode in Palmetto is the weakest of those novels because Caldwell failed more obviously than before at something that he could not do effectively: write a purely domestic story. Chronicling the escapades of a pretty young schoolteacher who beds not only a married man but also a sixteen-year-old boy, the novel is the stuff of soap opera, the kind of drugstore trash that critics had begun to accuse Caldwell of writing.57
With only a few exceptions, reviewers across the South panned the novels of the late 1940s, frequently scoring Caldwell for continuing to cultivate themes whose vitality he had already depleted. If his earlier work had served a worthy purpose, the later novels were, said one critic, “a vitiated crusade against the Southern backwoods social structure.” Many charged that he seemed to be unaware of, or unwilling to record, the changes that were sweeping the South. The detractors seemed unwilling to acknowledge Caldwell's reluctance to be a chronicler of progress when many southerners had not yet enjoyed its blessings. The repetition so denounced by critics resulted in great measure from his insistence on imagining the lives of people who were being left out of the postwar boom.58
Conspicuous among such southerners were poor women such as Molly Bowser and Kathyanne Bazemore. It is surely no accident that the most reviled of the late-1940s novels was Place Called Estherville, which features a poor black woman. The story was “dreamed-up racial tripe” that “bears for the single- or simple-minded a sermon on Southern exploitation of the black.” Caldwell seemed not to realize that among white southerners “the Negro question is not to be trifled with.” Despite renewed criticism that Caldwell was repeating himself, what frightened reviewers was the author's prophecy of changes to come in a dimension of southern life that they hoped would remain immutable.59
Initially concerned with the plight of marginal people in hard times, Caldwell continued to create such characters as economic conditions improved. If the art of most of the postwar novels is vitiated—the result of their domestic nature and of the author's waning powers—and if the pattern the author posited for the cyclorama is difficult to discern, the compassion for the unfortunate, for those who remained on the margins of society after 1945, was nevertheless as strong as ever.
Aware that the completion of the cyclorama marked a watershed in his career, Caldwell proceeded to write his autobiography, which was published in 1951. His purpose in Call It Experience, he wrote in the book's preface, was “to set forth some of the experiences of an author which may be of interest to curious readers and would-be writers who seek visions of the wonderland in which all authors are believed to exist. … What is to be found here is less a personal history than it is an informal recollection of authorship.” True to his intent, he omitted much of his personal history, failing even to mention his ex-wife Helen and their children and his wife June and their son. Moreover, he distorted to his advantage some of the personal history that he did include. His recollection of authorship was informal with a vengeance. Call It Experience sags under a heavy load of trivia: the names of hotels where he stayed while working; the food that he ate when he visited Czechoslovakia to gather material for a book; the inconsequential, albeit humorous, anecdotes of his career as a writer. Never does he acknowledge any other author whose work might have affected him, and never does he engage in a serious discussion of the matter of literature. No doubt curious readers and would-be writers found Call It Experience entertaining. Had they known, however, how little it revealed of the self-defining experience of its author, they probably would have been deeply disappointed.60
After completing his autobiography, Caldwell returned to writing fiction primarily. Between 1954 and 1973, he published eleven novels and thirty-two new stories. Very few of the stories, all of which appeared in the 1950s, including those published in a collection entitled Gulf Coast Stories, are distinctively southern. Although some that are southern showcase the rollicking humor that was a Caldwell trademark, hardly any convey the broad social concern of his great stories of the 1930s. One, however, provides further evidence of his enduring agrarianism. Devoid of his patented humor and sex and hardly a short story at all but rather a meditation, biblical in tone, on what constitutes the good life, “The Story of Mahlon,” in just fifteen hundred words, touchingly depicts a farmer's passion for the land. The bachelor Mahlon, his name an elision of “male alone,” resists, as Jeeter Lester does, the urgings of others to move to town and get a factory job. Uninterested also in the “pretty girls” that neighbors say he would meet in the city, Mahlon nonetheless realizes that the soil upon which he often lies prone, like a man making love, is not enough to fulfill his agrarian idyll. Lying “silently through the night with his face pressed upon the ground,” he comes to know at story's end that he needs a wife.61
Although few of the short stories possess regional characteristics, virtually all of the novels, more than half of which appeared in the 1960s, are distinctively southern. And nearly all of the southern novels demonstrate further the decline of Caldwell's art after the early 1940s. Plots clumsily constructed, characters whose actions are insufficiently motivated, humor grafted onto inappropriate situations—all, to greater or lesser degree, mar the late novels. Even the sex, by turns sleazy or quaint, grows tiresome.62
Yet for all of the weakened art, the social concern continues unabated. Collectively, the novels focus on the effects of sexism and racism. Although Caldwell was usually unable in the late works to turn noble intentions into strong fiction, occasionally he fused argument and art to create a work of considerable power. Despite many flaws—misplaced humor, poor plotting, and occasionally leaden writing—Claudelle Inglish is a strong indictment of a masculine culture that forces a young woman, on the advice of her mother, to use sex to get what she wants. Roughly ten years later, The Weather Shelter, like Claudelle Inglish a work strengthened by its rural setting, offered a powerful condemnation of racism, white and black, as it also presented a poignant story of a white father's love for his mulatto son. What shines through many of the late novels, whether they are strong or weak, is Caldwell's sympathy for the social outcast, whether a retired prostitute turned boardinghouse keeper, the mulatto mistress of a morally obtuse good old boy, a black teacher whose defiance of his white tormentor brings serious injury, an adolescent mulatto pursued by a lynch mob, or a white sharecropper who loses everything dear to him.63
The characterization of the sharecropper is, in fact, the finest in any of the post-cyclorama novels. Clyde Inglish, Claudelle's father, suffers the desertion of a wife who is tired of being poor, strives unsuccessfully to stop his daughter's wanton behavior, and cannot prevent her murder by a jealous suitor. His diligence, integrity, and sensitivity avail him nothing, and he is bereft of wife, daughter, and the land he loves to farm. In the agrarian Clyde, the agrarian Caldwell created the kind of character that distinguished his great work of the 1930s. Clyde Inglish is as surely the victim of forces beyond his control as are Jeeter Lester, Jesse English, Clem Henry, and other Depression-era characters.64
Whatever were the strengths and weaknesses of Caldwell's postwar fiction, millions of readers in the late 1940s and in the 1950s were far more interested in his writing of the 1930s and early 1940s, although for reasons that often had little to do with its literary quality. Caldwell did everything in his power to fan that interest. The appearance of cheap paperbacks—many of them selling for only twenty-five cents—that swept commercial publishing after the Second World War fattened Caldwell's pocketbook. From the end of 1945 to the middle of 1951, his paperback publishers—first, Penguin Books, and, after 1947, New American Library (NAL)—issued eleven reprints of his works. Led by God's Little Acre, the paperbacks sold more than 25 million copies. Without writing a word, Caldwell became richer by nearly one hundred thousand dollars.65
Always interested in making money, and understanding the dynamics of paperback publishing, Caldwell avidly cooperated with NAL's efforts to promote his works. Believing that a “storyteller's purpose is to reach as large a market as possible,” he tried mightily to expand that market. He lunched with the distributor's wholesalers. He posed—with his dog, Crackerjack—as a whiskey company's “man of distinction.” He tolerated the lurid covers of his paperback editions. Declaring that he would “rather move in a crowd than read,” he appeared at drugstore newsstands to autograph copies of his books for admiring throngs that were described as “Sinatra-like” in size and behavior.66
Such shenanigans, which outraged the literary establishment, further undermined his waning reputation among critics and other writers. One incident provides telling evidence of this development. In the summer of 1948, on his way to speak to a group of aspiring writers convening at the University of Kansas, Caldwell stopped in Kansas City, Missouri, at the request of his distributor. There, as the star of the grand opening of the twenty-fifth super drugstore in the Katz chain, he spent three hours autographing copies of his books, posing for photographs with employees and customers, and chatting with anyone who wanted to make his acquaintance. When the other authors participating in the conference—among whom were the southerners Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, and Katherine Anne Porter—learned of the incident, they shunned him. In their view, he was a writer who brazenly courted popular favor. Although Caldwell sat politely through sessions led by other participants, when it was his turn to lecture, “the entire staff,” according to a journalist present, withdrew “for a private dinner in the ivory tower.”67
Thirty years after the episode in Lawrence, Kansas, Caldwell's paperback publisher apologized to him in print. “If, even indirectly,” Victor Weybright of NAL wrote, “my promotion of Erskine Caldwell in the paperbound mass market has contributed to the omission of supreme critical acclaim, it is my only regret as a publisher.”68 The damage, however, was irreparable.
As some southern writers were spurning Caldwell, many southern readers, who became familiar with his works only when they appeared in paperback, went further and damned him. With the publication of his paperbacks came an avalanche of mail. Many of the detractors who wrote to him objected to his writing trash. An outraged Louisiana minister who had purchased God's Little Acre because the title suggested “something that would be of a religious nature” charged Caldwell with trying “to ruin our young people for the sake of a few dollars.” “Man, if you know anything about praying,” the preacher continued, “you better get started to asking God to forgive you for all the harm that you have already done.” The wife of a Tennessee sharecropper, the kind of person that Caldwell had been trying to help, believed that he was beyond forgiveness, that he “should be able to sit for a picture of the Devil.” His books—she had burned the four that she owned—were not only unbelievable but were also “dirty, just plain dirty” and were “opening minds—in many cases young minds—to sin and hell.” Twenty-two high-school students in Richmond, Virginia, members of a youth crusade to clean up literature in the city, agreed that Caldwell was ruining the morals of the young. “Would you like to think that people are going to hell every day because of your works?” asked one. Another charged that his books were producing “a generation of sexual maniacs.” Yet another wondered why Caldwell wanted to “bring out the wild passionate emotions of the Southern people.” All of the adolescent correspondents believed that literature could influence thought and action. One conferred great praise when she opined, “With your power it is evident that you can change the world.” All implored Caldwell to use his talent for good and to write only wholesome, decent books.69
At the crest of Caldwell's popularity from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, the many southerners who condemned him as a writer of trash usually based their judgment on the superior books first published in the 1930s, not on the inferior ones that he wrote subsequently. It was not, for example, the trashy Episode in Palmetto that provoked their wrath but the artistic Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre.70
If many readers were offended by what they considered obscene in Caldwell's works, others objected particularly to his treatment of race. From New Orleans came a letter calling him a “Negro loving Bas[tard].” A Georgian accused him of “traducing” his native state by supporting integration and amalgamation. His treatment of interracial sex was scathingly denounced by both a Carolina white woman and a Georgian who identified himself as “a full blooded Negro.” The white woman denied that “any decent or even bad white girls mix with Negro men.” The black man, after branding Caldwell “a dirty, lying son-of-a-bitch,” pronounced his depiction of miscegenation “a profound lie.” All of the correspondents, including the black Georgian, shared the sentiment of one who asked, “Where is your So[uthern] patriotism?” Speaking in 1948 to a civic club in a small south-Georgia city that fourteen years later would be the scene of large civil-rights demonstrations, an industrialist bluntly answered that query. “As a traitor,” he said, “Benedict Arnold was a piker compared to our Erskine Caldwell.” That Georgia worthy claimed to perceive the ultimate goal of “rabble rousers” like Caldwell: to plant “the seeds of racial hatreds to grow into the oaks of Communism.”71
The vilification continued into the 1950s. A Florida editor agreed with the sentiments of the Georgia industrialist. Decrying Caldwell's “planned calumniation of the South,” the journalist branded him a tool of race-mixing Communists. Twice in the 1950s, the state of Georgia threatened to censor certain of the miscreant's works. When a political leader in Augusta learned of plans to film God's Little Acre nearby, he exploded: “That man has done more to hurt this area and the South than any man alive.” Other Augustans agreed. The movie, which was, like the film Tobacco Road, a travesty of the novel that inspired it, was made in Stockton, California.72
The calumny directed at Caldwell by southerners, however, was equaled by praise. For every letter that he received that condemned his work, there was another that extolled it. Some of the fan mail came from people desiring autographs, seeking assistance with publishing their work, or wanting Caldwell to tell the stories of their lives, many of which made his fiction seem tame. Much of the correspondence, however, came from southerners who had no ulterior purpose, who merely wanted Caldwell to know that they admired his work. And some of the correspondence antedated the appearance of his work in paperback. The publication of You Have Seen Their Faces inspired a Tennesseean to thank him “for faces which I shall never forget to see,” prompted the son of a tenant farmer to describe the work as “without a doubt the most true to life and interesting book I've ever read,” and caused a native Georgian teaching in Texas to wish Caldwell “continued goodwill” because “we need liberal Georgians, God knows.” Trouble in July brought praise from a white Georgian who said that she had long objected to the “abuse of the hapless Negro.”73
As was the case with mail from detractors, letters from supporters greatly increased in number as Caldwell's books appeared in paperback after 1945. From housewives to college professors, correspondents applauded the narrative power, the realism, and the social concern of his writings. Young men—mostly college students and soldiers—were especially interested in his work. For some of those readers, the attraction came from the alluring covers of the paperbound editions and the sexual content of the fiction—Griselda Walden's “rising beauties” were particularly admired. But for many, including some who were initially drawn by the sex, the appeal of Caldwell's work was much broader. A soldier from Tennessee, who was “deeply impressed by the style” of certain short stories, estimated that Caldwell had “moved realism & Southern literature ahead a century at least,” which was an “accomplishment [that] will echo for a long time down south.” A student at the archly conservative University of the South, who had chosen Caldwell's work as the subject of a term paper because he wanted “to drag … [Caldwell] … over the coals” for maligning his hometown of Augusta, had undergone a change of heart after rereading Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre. Those novels, the student claimed, were “good books” that were not “overly realistic, but on the contrary … are not realistic enough.” He averred that a tour of the settings of the novels would convince critics that the speech of Caldwell's characters “is whiter than the proverbial snow compared to the real McCoy.” His fellow Georgian's short stories, the student continued, were “splendid little clippings from the great newspaper of human nature.” The young man's instructor did not share his enthusiasm for Caldwell's work. When informed of the student's topic, the professor—whose “face assumed the expression of one who has just made a meal of dill pickles dunked in the juice of green persimmons”—warned him not to expect a good grade. Another student—this one at the University of Louisville—whose father had served as an itinerant Presbyterian minister in North Carolina among Caldwellian people that the student had “learned to like and understand” labeled Caldwell “my favorite author.”74
What was probably the first official recognition of Caldwell's work by a new generation of college students came from an unlikely place, a Baptist school in Mississippi. In 1947, the student magazine at Mississippi College ran a feature in its November number entitled “The Erskine Caldwell Crusade.” According to the editor, the article was prompted by “a long interest” among some students in Caldwell's works, especially You Have Seen Their Faces. The authors of the piece, both of whom were literary editors for the magazine, argued, as one of them recalled later, that “far from being a mere titillator and commercial-minded writer who was after the sleaze market, Caldwell was like a sociologist, writing serious studies of life as it truly was in much of the South.” Having discovered Caldwell's fiction on drugstore racks, that student, who remembered seeing unemployed Mississippians standing in bread lines years before, resented “the standard Southern Baptist view that anything Caldwell wrote was Nasty and certainly not Literature.” He believed that the sex in the fiction, while describing “a moving force” in people's lives, allowed Caldwell “to reach an audience who might be able to see the [other] facts of life he portrayed.” The magazine's editor, who claimed to speak for the student body, saluted Caldwell. “We look forward,” he concluded, “to the day when America truly means brotherhood and when the people turn in quiet dignity to pay tribute to those of vision to whom so much is due.”75
Like these college students, other Caldwell readers who were sensitive to the South's failings would have found absurd the claim by a weekly newsmagazine in 1957 that he was a “cracker-barrel pornographer.” Time, however, influenced the opinions of millions of people; the Mississippi College Arrowhead influenced the views of virtually no one.76
Time's savage indictment signaled the nadir of Caldwell's career. Moreover, the first five years of the 1950s had been among the worst of his life. Troubles, professional and personal, plagued him. Maxim Lieber, the literary agent who for nearly twenty years had represented him vigorously, if not always wisely, fled the country, a victim of hysterical anticommunism. Caldwell's own association with Communist fronts in the 1930s made him a target of the same hysteria. Difficulties with publishers and the waning popularity of his paperbacks among American readers added to his woes.77
Yet professional problems paled beside personal troubles. Symptoms that suggested cancer sent Caldwell to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for extensive examinations. After seventeen days in the hospital, he was relieved to learn that his colon was not cancerous.78
There was no relief, however, from the domestic turmoil that worried Caldwell most. His relationship with his third wife, June, who was nearly twenty years younger than he, had become strained fairly early in their marriage. He resented her many social activities because they interrupted his work. He subjected her to the same angry silences that he had inflicted on Bourke-White. For her part, June abhorred her husband's addiction to his work. She began to see herself as only an ornament, a famous writer's wife who had no identity of her own. To Caldwell's dismay, she began to visit a psychoanalyst. After many sessions over many years, the analyst, who charged fees of four hundred dollars a month, advised her not to sleep with her husband. Caldwell loathed June's addiction to her doctor. Early in 1953, June having requested separation, he left their Tucson home and moved to Phoenix. Separated from his wife, he refused to seek divorce because of his love for Jay, their eight-year-old son. Late in November 1954, June filed suit to end the marriage. After much haggling and many delays, the suit was settled twelve months later.
A little over a year after the divorce, on New Year's Day 1957, Caldwell wed for the last time. That wife, Virginia Moffett Fletcher, a woman he had seen from time to time during his troubles with June, would remain his helpmate until he died. Their happy union of thirty years equaled the span of his three previous marriages.79
By 1960, Caldwell had abandoned his forte, the writing of short stories. Although he would publish six novels in the course of the 1960s, the nonfiction of those years is his best work of the decade. As always, his most accomplished nonfiction was travel writing, and, as in the 1930s, his best nonfiction dealt with what he knew best—the South.80
In the travel accounts of the 1960s, Caldwell employed the method he had developed thirty years before, which combined the techniques of reporter and fiction writer. In gathering information he would make sketchy notes that usually included places, names, and other significant data. Soon thereafter, he would, as he described the process, “reconstitute—not recreate but reconstitute—the atmosphere, the tenor” of a scene or an incident. The sexagenarian Caldwell worked vigorously on the travel books. He and Virginia would rise each morning at six, spend the day in search of material, and check into a motel around four in the afternoon, when he would begin to write. During one project, he pecked at his typewriter with only one hand because his ailing one was hoisted to the ceiling to relieve pain.81
The ideas for the nonfictional works were those of his new publisher, his fourth since Scribner's thirty years before. Farrar, Straus and Cudahy wanted three books: a travel account of American life, a study of race relations in the South, and an examination of the cultural impact of evangelical Protestantism on the contemporary South. Roger Straus, more sensitive to Caldwell's talents than any editor since Perkins of Scribner's, knew his strengths: his interest in the folk, his lifelong opposition to racism, and his fascination with religious expression. Caldwell would fulfill his publisher's expectations in the first two volumes but not in the last, where his devotion to his father's memory got in the way.82
A cross-country trip of 1963 resulted the next year in a book very much like Some American People, which had been published nearly thirty years earlier. In Around About America, Caldwell related his observations of many things: New England character, suburban sprawl, a pool-room in Colorado, Basques in Nevada, and Indians in Oregon, to name a few. His comments on the South, which occupy one-fourth of the book, doubtless had an effect on professional southerners not unlike that of his devastating critiques of rural poverty and racism thirty years before. In the coal fields of southern West Virginia, he reported “hard-core unemployment, widespread and chronic.” Amid majestic terrain that provided breathtaking scenery but that lacked “standing room for a cow or chickens,” miners and their families lived in “shacks and hovels.” Stopgap measures such as the distribution of food stamps and the creation of makework projects hardly provided adequate solutions to a problem of such magnitude. What was needed was a “national service corps,” modeled on the recently established Peace Corps, through which displaced miners could receive training for other kinds of work and become “self-supporting and self-respecting.” Without sweeping federal action, the “waste of human resources” in this part of Appalachia would continue to present “a tragic and depressing condition in what is called dynamic, prosperous, and plentiful America.”83
Just as the persistence of poverty continued to haunt Caldwell, so did the perpetuation of racism. “The segregationist,” he told a newspaper interviewer early in 1961, “is morally, sociologically and democratically wrong.” Incidents in Alabama and Georgia described in Around About America showed him the frenzy that beset white southerners over what should have been inconsequential matters. A white employee of a rental car agency at the Birmingham airport flew into a rage when a black coworker, attempting to perform his assigned task, tried to record the mileage on a car leaving the lot. “Get your goddam nigger face out of here,” the white driver shouted. “No black nigger's going to get that close to me.” Enraged by “goddam stinking niggers these days [who] act like they think they're just as good as a white man,” that worker hoped to get the black man fired. A black New Englander driving with his family to Florida also felt the sting of white prejudice. Stopping at a restaurant in south Georgia whose owner had posted signs boasting its fine food and southern hospitality for many miles along the highway, the black man was hardly surprised when the proprietor refused to seat him. Yet the owner also refused to sell him not only box lunches but even a bottle of milk for his family, which included three children, waiting in the car. “Go on down the road until you come to one of those Yankee-kind chain stores,” the proprietor yelled. “Nobody else around here is going to sell nothing to niggers.”84
Despite such episodes and despite the ubiquity of Confederate flags—emblems that, Caldwell believed, should be displayed in museums and not atop government buildings because they insulted black southerners and symbolized rebellion against the country—in the heady atmosphere of the civil rights movement, Caldwell was sanguine about the future of race relations. His optimism derived largely from the growing awareness among blacks that they were “entitled to full citizenship.” Because of their efforts, he predicted that “equal rights and racial freedom” would be achieved within fifteen years. Moreover, he believed that “after many generations” racial assimilation “will create brotherhood.”85
The optimism was short-lived. Subsequent to a trip taken a year after the cross-country journey described in Around About America, Caldwell engaged in little discussion of brotherhood. The organizing principle of In Search of Bisco was his attempt to locate a black man who had been his playmate in early childhood. Yet in most of the book the search for Bisco is secondary to a description of Bisco Country, the region from South Carolina to Louisiana. What Caldwell found in his first extensive nonfictional examination of the South since 1937 was hardly edifying. Just as he had delivered a two-fisted assault on poverty in You Have Seen Their Faces, he dealt a hard-hitting attack on racism in In Search of Bisco.86
There are a few bright moments in the book, such as the account of a retired white farmer in Georgia who, having worked closely with blacks all his life, believes that support for civil rights is a moral imperative, and the portrait of a fiercely independent white man in the hills of north Alabama who angrily resents race-baiting politicians that tell him how to vote. By and large, however, the whites that Caldwell encountered were die-hard segregationists who contended that most blacks were happy with the South's racial arrangement and that unrest was created by the federal government, outside agitators, and a few local troublemakers. Occasionally, the arguments of the die-hards were merely ludicrous. An Alabama realtor and civic leader contended that black equality would be a long time coming because only with the passing of many generations would the brains of black people grow large enough to qualify them for equal treatment. More often, the arguments of the die-hards were vicious and obscene. In Mississippi, a member of the White Citizens' Council, an organization that Caldwell described as an uptown version of the Ku Klux Klan, betrayed the underlying fear of change in race relations harbored by many whites.
You go ahead and give the niggers just one little foothold and there'd be no end to what they'd want next. …
Given a chance, they'd make whores out of all white women. … You let a crowd of niggers stand around on the street corner and watch a white woman walk by and you don't have to guess a second time what they've got in mind. You'd be right the first time when you said what they were thinking about was getting their hands on her titties and their balls between her legs.87
An Arkansas rice planter agreed. Any gains made by the civil rights movement encouraged “the niggers” to seek more. “You give them an inch … and they'll stop at nothing. They'll claim it's discrimination unless they can get white women next.” Happily, machines had replaced black men in the rice fields of the Grand Prairie, which allowed “a white woman without her titty-bags on … to go where she pleases day or night … and not get stripped naked and thrown down and nigger-raped.”88
The fears of white racists were hardly justified. Among the eight blacks—seven men and a woman—featured in the book, none displayed an interest in interracial sex. The old ones wanted economic security. The young ones wanted economic opportunity, the chance to get a good education and to find a decent job. None evinced the racist sentiments expressed by most of the whites that Caldwell encountered, although some had compelling reasons to do so. An old Arkansas sharecropper, whose situation was reminiscent of that of Caldwell's character Abe Lathan twenty-five years before, had been forced off the land he had worked all his life. A young Mississippi sharecropper, whose landlord refused to allow him to bury his father on his land, had no choice but to inter him by the side of a road and mark his grave with a rusted bread sign.89
The degradation of black southerners, Caldwell contended, was largely the result of the efforts of affluent whites, whose wealth usually derived from the labor of blacks. Instead of leading their fellow southerners down the right path, well-to-do whites too often failed to act ethically, took the wrong course, and encouraged poorer whites to follow them.90
In Search of Bisco brought a reawakening of interest in Caldwell's work among southerners. Newspapers from Norfolk to Austin ran reviews of the book. Some were defensive and hostile. The Austin American-Statesman lamented that in Caldwell's rendering “there is no news but bad news and no South but a bad South.” The Pensacola News Journal found “nothing new in this one-sided slap at dear old Dixie.” Branding Caldwell a “fire-breathing liberal,” the Charleston News and Courier asked “why is it the Negroes are all sinned against and the whites all sinning?”91
In contrast to the antagonistic responses of some commentators, other reviewers across the South applauded Caldwell's portrayal of race relations in the region. In Search of Bisco was “thoughtful and thought-provoking,” “enlightening,” “eloquent and painful,” “stark [and] eloquent,” “strong … [and] moving,” “serious [and] earnest,” “biting commentary … well worth reading and studying.” Two Atlantans offered the most fervent praise. In the Daily World, Atlanta's black newspaper, Ray McIver, Caldwell's new black friend, called In Search of Bisco “a helluva good book, … possibly Mr. Caldwell's finest book.” In the Journal, Frank Daniel, Caldwell's old white friend, reminded readers that Caldwell had been exposing racial injustice for more than thirty years. “Few writers,” Daniel wrote, “have the authority and the power to speak now as he can here.”92
In a letter to Caldwell written shortly before publication of the review, Daniel said: “You are writing better today than ever. Bisco says more and says it with more power than anything I've read on the subject. Its implications and reverberations are limitless.”93 Daniel's admiration of his friend and his hope for the success of the civil rights movement caused him to overrate In Search of Bisco. The book lacks the power of Caldwell's great work of the 1930s. Even so, as Daniel rightly suggested, Bisco provides strong testimony of Caldwell's untiring quest to promote social justice.
Hard upon the publication of his treatment of race in the 1960s South, Caldwell undertook his publisher's third assignment, which entailed an examination of another subject that had long held his interest. Deep South: Memory and Observation assays the twentieth-century evolution of evangelical Protestantism in the region identified in the book's title. The author's method of juxtaposing memory and observation, of interlarding reminiscences of his father's ministry early in the century with assessments of religion in the 1960s, was rejected by the publisher, who insisted that he rewrite the manuscript to provide an expanded account of the 1960s only. His refusal to do so required that he seek another publisher.94
Had Caldwell heeded the advice of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Deep South would have been a tighter—and weaker—book. The “memory” portions feature some of the most poignant writing that he ever produced, and they supply fitting touchstones for the “observation” segments. Comparing his memory of his father's experience with his own observation of southern religion in the 1960s, Caldwell concluded that within white Protestantism the social gospel had made little progress.95
In less affluent churches, which were often located in small towns and rural areas, religion continued to be, as it had been in his father's time, narcotic, escapist, and sometimes salacious. Churches whose worship services resembled “night clubs and other places of theatrical entertainment” could hardly be expected to be seedbeds of social reform. Too often they were hothouses of reaction. The minister of one such church was an active supporter of the Ku Klux Klan. A member of a similar church, a storekeeper who described himself as “a good Christian” for “nearly forty-five years,” gave vent to repulsion sparked by a Jewish competitor who allowed black customers to try on clothes and who even helped them find shoes that fit. Such practices were outrageous to that good Christian. “I'll go bankrupt and get put out of business before you see me squatting down in front of a black nigger, lacing and unlacing shoes for him like he was a white man.”96
Notwithstanding all of the fanaticism, religious and secular, displayed by members of fundamentalist churches in the countryside, Caldwell delivered his harshest judgment upon the affluent members of fashionable churches in the big cities of the South. Headed by slick preachers and slick officers, such congregations contained “the beautiful people of religion,” the upwardly mobile who embraced the church for the wrong reasons: getting ahead, meeting women, and going to their destination in eternity—be it heaven or hell—“de luxe” rather than “second class.” The “First Baptist” disease—a condition wherein boosterism triumphed over social conscience—was all too contagious.97
To Caldwell, both sides, the complacently conservative and the fanatically fundamentalist, were badly flawed primarily because both opposed the cause of civil rights. The spokesmen of contemporary white Protestantism featured in Deep South stand in sorry contrast to his father, who had always advocated fair treatment of blacks and who had consistently denounced both the conspicuous display of wealthy urban churches and the wild emotionalism of poor rural ones.
If too many white churches were “devoted exclusively to the incestuous practice of religion for religion's sake,” hope lay in the fundamentalist yet socially conscious black churches that were the vanguard of the civil rights movement. In his truncated account of black Protestantism, added at the suggestion of his new publisher, Caldwell displayed only a sketchy knowledge of its historical development. Yet he understood well the importance of clergymen in the black community. Many black ministers reaching their prime in the 1950s and 1960s were educated men, “calm and capable in judgment,” who had the ability “to persuade the older generation to put aside its fear of the white man and at the same time restrain the younger generation from engaging in impetuous retaliatory acts.” To the greatest of these men, he had written earlier: “Of all contemporary Americans, you are the most deserving of … [the Nobel Peace Prize.] I am proud to be one of your fellow citizens.” Although he did not so stipulate in Deep South, it is apparent that Caldwell believed that black men such as Martin Luther King Jr.—enlightened, reasonable, committed to social Christianity—upheld the principles that his father had championed to a far greater degree than did most white ministers.98
Because religion was not as timely a topic as race in the 1960s, Deep South received much less attention from southern reviewers than had In Search of Bisco. Among the southerners who noticed Deep South, one described it as “lackluster … dull and repetitious.” Another claimed that Caldwell intended “to downgrade the Christian faith and to group all Protestants as frenzied, foot-stomping zealots.” Much more perceptive was the review by Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of the Greensboro Daily News. Although Yoder ignored Caldwell's savage indictment of the social irresponsibility of fashionable urban churches, he praised his treatment of “backwoods religion,” whose practitioners “are poor people who find refuge from the world's woes and threats in a vicious old God, white and Anglo-Saxon, who vouchsafes His hate of Negroes, Jews, and Catholics.” Further echoing Caldwell, Yoder noted that as white fundamentalism opposed change—“the sawdust aisle is the focus of Ku Klux orthodoxy,” he wrote—“black fundamentalism is far more interested … in questions of social justice.” Caldwell's insights, Yoder concluded, “are shrewd and ring of truth.”99
Just as Caldwell had not divulged the danger that he occasionally faced in his trips across the South in the 1930s, so he refused to disclose his apprehension about the journeys of the 1960s. Fearing for his safety, his nonagenarian mother advised him not to undertake the investigations. Her son and his wife usually took the precaution of flying to a city near their destination and then renting an automobile for further travel. It was important, Erskine told Virginia, not to drive a car bearing license tags from outside the South. Once, when they drove their own car, a restaurant owner in Louisiana told them: “If you people from other places would stay out of the South, we wouldn't have any trouble.” On another occasion, when not in her husband's presence, Caldwell's wife, whose speech indicated that she was an outsider, was intimidated by lawmen in a Deep South town.100
For all of his unease over his and Virginia's safety, Caldwell was gratified by the attention that his 1960s nonfiction, especially In Search of Bisco, received from southern reviewers, some of whom were sympathetic to his goals. Moreover, he knew that some of the South's educators had begun to notice and to applaud his work of the 1930s. The writer who had stood his ground for thirty years found that an articulate minority of southerners was ready to honor him. At long last, the changing South was trying to catch up to the unchanging writer.
Late in the 1950s and with increasing frequency throughout the following decade, colleges and universities, now aware in a socially conscious climate of Caldwell's lifelong interest in beneficent social change, led the way in bestowing accolades. Unknowingly following the lead of black Fisk University, which had invited Caldwell to attend special events in the 1940s, white institutions from Virginia to Texas solicited his presence, sometimes over the objections of alumni and other people. Despite his aversion to making speeches, he came, and he was always received graciously, sometimes enthusiastically. At the University of Georgia in 1958, he was lionized. At Erskine College the following year, a literary society that had existed for more than a century inducted him as its second honorary member—after Robert E. Lee. At the University of Virginia the next year, the prestigious Raven Society made him a member. That alma mater would honor him on a number of occasions later as well.101
Moved by the recognition accorded by academicians—and by journalists such as the influential Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution—Caldwell, while still harshly critical of the South's shortcomings, often expressed pride in his Georgia roots. “I … will always be a Georgian,” he told an Associated Press writer. “Nobody can take that away from me and I'm glad.” “I like to think,” he wrote to Georgia's governor, “that I am as much a Georgian as Baer Rabbit.” “Wherever I am,” he disclosed to a Miami editor, “I'm a Cracker and glad of it. I wouldn't want to have to live another life and be something else.”102
In 1968, after ten years of growing approbation from some of his fellow southerners, the nomadic Caldwell, having lived in Maine, Connecticut, Arizona, and California, settled in the South—albeit on its periphery—for the first time in more than forty years. His new home on the Gulf Coast of central Florida, he said without irony, “is close enough to the old home of Georgia.”103
The recognition by southerners would continue for the rest of Caldwell's life, prompting the New York Times to observe in 1978 that he had been “rehabilitated as a regional literary lion.” Colleges and universities continued to invite him to lecture and sought to obtain manuscripts and first editions. The University of Virginia honored him with a dinner on his seventy-fifth birthday. The University of Georgia and the Georgia Endowment for the Humanities produced films about his life and works. A southern publisher reissued some of the significant works of the 1930s. A fellow Georgian, President Jimmy Carter, whose candidacy Caldwell had warmly endorsed, wrote him a complimentary personal letter and also invited him to a White House reception. Towns in which he had lived as a boy sought his presence at centennial celebrations. Almost always, Caldwell accepted invitations and fulfilled requests. And he continued to write, producing two lackluster novels and an interesting travel book in the first half of the 1970s.104
The social concern also continued unabated. His penultimate novel scores southern racism, and the portions of the travel account devoted to the South highlight the limits of material progress and the constricting nature of evangelical Protestantism. Soon after the publication of the travel book, Afternoons in Mid-America, Caldwell envisioned a photojournalistic portrayal of the Deep South, perhaps along the lines of You Have Seen Their Faces. He asked his old friend Frank Daniel to recommend a photographer “who is earnest and social-minded and ambitious and fairly young who would want to take pictures of people for fame & glory and not much money.” The project fell through, but the fact that Caldwell, pushing seventy-five, wanted to conduct it provides yet further evidence of his undying concern for the South's downtrodden.105
Nine years after his return to the South, ill health forced Caldwell to move back to the West, to the dry climate of Arizona. Living quietly with Virginia in Scottsdale, he worked on his final book. In 1983, after almost four years' labor, he completed the manuscript, an autobiography entitled “With All My Might.” Then, for the next two years, he and Virginia traveled occasionally—to France, to Italy, to Switzerland, to Bulgaria, and to various places in the United States. They took many of the trips to receive awards that had been bestowed on him. Despite the honors, he found that major American publishers were reluctant to issue his autobiography. Finally, in October 1986, a French house published the book.106
By that time, Caldwell was seriously ill. Back in August, doctors had discovered that he suffered again from lung cancer. This strain was much more virulent than the kind that years before had forced surgeons to remove half of each of his lungs. For eight months, he fought the devastating disease. An oxygen tank with a fifty-foot line attached to it allowed him to breath and to move about his house. He endured the ravages of chemotherapy for six months, until his body no longer could tolerate the treatments. He steadfastly refused medicine that would have eased his pain and would have helped him sleep. Throughout the ordeal, he never lost his sense of humor. Playfully, he suggested that his ashes be buried on a dead-end street. The night before he died, as his condition deteriorated rapidly, he asked a visiting neighbor, who was a physician, how much he charged for house calls. The end came on April 11, 1987.107
A month before Caldwell's death, an American publisher, at long last, issued With All My Might. It is supremely fitting that his farewell was published by a press in his native Georgia, a place that had supplied such rich material about the poor people whose lives he had strived to improve.108
The trip began in October and ended in December; Caldwell, Call It Experience, 192. The two other collaborations were North of the Danube (New York: Viking, 1939) and Russia at War (London: Hutchinson, 1942).
Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, Say, Is This the U.S.A., 138, 146, 154-56.
Thad Snow to EC, 12 Feb. 1941; George Wolf to EC, 14 Feb. 1941, ECC-DC; Erskine Caldwell, “Flight from the Land,” 20-22, 92.
Ethridge, Caldwell, and Graves, “Are We a United People?” 3-30, esp. 4-5, ECC-DC.
Caldwell, Call It Experience, 22-23; Ethridge, Caldwell, and Graves, “Are We a United People?,” 5-11, ECC-DC.
Birmingham News, 21 Feb. 1941, EC Scrapbooks, reel 2; Ethridge, Caldwell, and Graves, “Are We a United People?” 11-15, ECC-DC.
Ethridge, Caldwell, and Graves, “Are We a United People?” 16-19, ECC-DC.
Ibid., 21; Birmingham News, 21 Feb. 1941, EC Scrapbooks, reel 2.
Charles A. Pearce to Lucy Bailey, 17 Mar. 1947, ECC-DC; EC to Hamilton Basso, 19 Aug. 1940, Caldwell Correspondence, Yale University; Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 219; Miller, “Tracing Tobacco Road,” 445-48.
Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White, 176, 224-25; EC to Kenneth and Genevieve [Taggard], 22 Nov. 1939, Genevieve Taggard Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations; Ashland (Ky.) Independent, 19 Apr. 1940, EC Scrapbooks, reel 2; EC to Mr. and Mrs. I. S. Caldwell, 16 Dec. 1939, ECC-UGA.
Caldwell, Call It Experience, 185; Earl L. Bell to EC, 15 Nov. and 6 Dec. 1939; EC to Earl Bell, 17 Dec. 1939, Caldwell Papers, Syracuse University.
[Erskine Caldwell], Prospectus for American Folkways: A Series, undated, ECC-DC. See also St. Paul Dispatch, 23 May 1941, EC Scrapbooks, reel 3.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review, 20 Aug. 1950, EC Scrapbooks, reel 4; Ashland (Ky.) Independent, 19 Apr. 1940; Hot Springs (Ark.) New Era, 23 Oct. 1940, EC Scrapbooks, reel 2; Jacksonville Times-Union, 13 July 1941, EC Scrapbooks, reel 3.
Jacksonville Times-Union, 13 July 1941; Miami Herald, 25 Apr. 1943, EC Scrapbooks, reel 3; EC to Stetson Kennedy, 25 Aug. 1940, ECC-UGA.
EC to Stetson Kennedy, 5 Sept. 1940 and 7 and 8 Jan. 1941, ECC-UGA.
Stetson Kennedy to EC, 3 Mar. 1941, ECC-DC; EC to Stetson Kennedy, 12 June , ECC-UGA. [Stetson Kennedy], “Prospectus” [for American Folkways], 5 June 1941. I am grateful to Mr. Kennedy for supplying a copy of this document.
EC to Stetson Kennedy, 28 Nov. 1941, ECC-UGA; Martin, Howard Kester, 72-73; Stetson Kennedy, Palmetto Country, 201-11.
EC to Stetson Kennedy, 18 Dec. 1941, ECC-UGA; Kennedy, Palmetto Country, 183-91, esp. 184, 191.
EC to Stetson Kennedy, 18 Dec. 1941 and 25 Jan. and 22 May 1942, ECC-UGA.
Kennedy, Palmetto Country, 193-200, esp. 193-96.
EC to Stetson Kennedy, 5 Mar. 1942, ECC-UGA; Kennedy, Palmetto Country, 43-107.
EC to Stetson Kennedy, 22 May 1942, ECC-UGA; John Selby, “Books and Things,” Mankato (Minn.) Free Press, 21 Dec. 1942, EC Scrapbooks, reel 3.
Arnold, “Interview with Erskine Caldwell,” in Arnold, Conversations, 286; EC to Hamilton Basso, 19 Aug. 1940, Caldwell Correspondence, Yale University.
EC to Rhoda Lynn, 28 Mar. 1941, ECC-DC; EC to Stetson Kennedy, 12 June , ECC-UGA.
Stetson Kennedy to EC, 13 Oct. 1946; Charles Duell to EC, 16 Mar. 1942, quoting George Milburn; MacEdward Leach to EC, 19 Mar. 1945, ECC-DC.
Klevar, “Erskine Caldwell,” draft of Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 312, 375, 382, 413, 435.
Bonetti, “A Good Listener Speaks,” in Arnold, Conversations, 244-51, esp. 250; Caldwell and Bourke-White, Russia at War; Erskine Caldwell, Moscow Under Fire: A Wartime Diary, 1941 (London: Hutchinson, 1942); Erskine Caldwell, All-Out on the Road to Smolensk (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1942); Erskine Caldwell, All Night Long: A Novel of Guerrilla Warfare in Russia (New York: Book League of America, 1942).
Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White, 239; Caldwell, Call It Experience, 204, 217.
Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White, 199, 219, 222-23, 252-53.
Ibid., 252-53; Miller, “Tracing Tobacco Road,” 511; Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 247-53.
Caldwell, Call It Experience, 217; Erskine Caldwell, Georgia Boy.
Caldwell, Georgia Boy, 193-205, 57-66, 69-83, 117-33.
Ibid., 227-39; EC to Charles A. Pearce, 8 Dec. , ECC-DC.
EC to Charles A. Pearce, 8 Dec. , ECC-DC; Caldwell, Georgia Boy, jacket blurb for 1950 reprint.
Caldwell, Georgia Boy, jacket blurb for 1950 reprint; Houston Post, 25 Apr. 1943; Dallas News, 2 May 1943; Montgomery Advertiser, 23 May 1943; Chattanooga Times, 13 June 1943, EC Scrapbooks, reel 3.
Houston Post, 25 Apr. 1943; Montgomery Advertiser, 23 May 1943, EC Scrapbooks, reel 3; Columbus (Ga.) Enquirer-Sun, 9 May 1943, Erskine Caldwell Collection, University of Virginia.
Erskine Caldwell, Tragic Ground, 74, 127.
Ibid., 7, 15, 26, 42, 56, 58, 79, 114, 124, 128.
Ibid., 66, 95.
Ibid., 94, 95, 121, 126.
Ibid., 96, 128.
For the impact of the Second World War on the South's economy, see Tindall, Emergence of the New South, 694-701.
Charlotte News, 20 Oct. 1944; Louisville Courier-Journal, 12 Nov. 1944; Saturday Review of Literature, 14 Oct. 1944, EC Scrapbooks, reel 4. See also Montgomery Advertiser, 5 Nov. 1944; Winston-Salem Sentinel, 12 Nov. 1944; and Raleigh News and Observer, 10 Dec. 1944, EC Scrapbooks, reel 4.
EC to Alfred Morang, 5 and 23 Oct. 1944, Morang Papers.
Caldwell, Call It Experience, 222; EC to James Gray, 11 Sept. 1948, Papers of James Gray and Family, Minnesota Historical Society.
Erskine Caldwell, A House in the Uplands.
Ibid., 27, 11-12.
Erskine Caldwell, The Sure Hand of God.
Erskine Caldwell, This Very Earth, 63.
Erskine Caldwell, Place Called Estherville.
Erskine Caldwell, Episode in Palmetto.
Philip Lightfoot Scruggs, “A Southern Miscellany: Crusaders and Artists,” Virginia Quarterly Review 21 (Summer 1946): 449 (quotation); Savannah Morning News, 14 Apr. 1946; Memphis Commercial Appeal, 28 Apr. 1946; Charleston News and Courier, 5 May 1946; Dallas News, 5 May 1946 and 25 Sept. 1949; Athens (Ga.) Banner Herald, 27 Oct. 1947; Charlotte Observer, 16 Nov. 1947; Louisville Courier-Journal, 23 Nov. 1947; Lynchburg (Va.) Advance, 26 Aug. 1948; Atlanta Constitution, 29 Aug. 1948 and 4 Sept. 1949; Greensboro Daily News, 29 Aug. 1948; Atlanta Journal, 11 Sept. 1949; Birmingham News, 17 Sept. 1949; Augusta Herald, 29 Sept. 1949; Winston-Salem Journal, 24 Oct. 1949, EC Scrapbooks, reel 4. For favorable reviews, see Atlanta Journal, 12 Oct. 1947 and 18 Aug. 1948; Houston Post, 19 Oct. 1947; Anderson (S.C.) Daily Mail, 27 Oct. 1947; Phylon (First Quarter 1949), EC Scrapbooks, reel 4.
Atlanta Journal, 11 Sept. 1949; Dallas News, 25 Sept. 1949; Augusta Herald, 29 Sept. 1949, EC Scrapbooks, reel 4.
Caldwell, Call It Experience, 5.
Erskine Caldwell, Gulf Coast Stories; Erskine Caldwell, “The Story of Mahlon,” Erskine Caldwell, When You Think of Me, 30-38, esp. 33, 38. Devlin, Erskine Caldwell, 115, conjectures that the “melancholy impressionistic style” of “The Story of Mahlon” is evidence that Caldwell wrote the story “very early” in his career. Whenever the story might have been written, what is certain is that Caldwell allowed it to be published late in his career.
Erskine Caldwell, Jenny by Nature; Erskine Caldwell, Close to Home; Erskine Caldwell, The Last Night of Summer; Erskine Caldwell, Miss Mamma Aimee; Erskine Caldwell, Summertime Island; Erskine Caldwell, The Earnshaw Neighborhood; Erskine Caldwell, Annette.
Erskine Caldwell, Claudelle Inglish; Erskine Caldwell, The Weather Shelter; Caldwell, Jenny by Nature; Caldwell, Close to Home; Caldwell, Summertime Island.
Caldwell, Claudelle Inglish.
Miller, “Tracing Tobacco Road,” 545, 549-50; Bonn, Heavy Traffic and High Culture, 10. Collectively, Caldwell's publishers received more than $6 million from the sale of his books during this period. His share from the sale of each twenty-five-cent book was usually one and a half cents.
Shaplen, “The Quarter Books,” 4, quoting Caldwell. Donald Demarest to Jerry Burke, 5 Nov. 1948; Donald Demarest to EC, 19 Aug. and 30 Dec. 1949; “Self-Interview by Erskine Caldwell,” [summer 1950], ECC-DC.
Caldwell, Call It Experience, 225-27; Caldwell, With All My Might, 211-13. “Famous Author at Katz,” unidentified, undated clipping; Kansas City Star, 24 June 1948; Kansas Writers' Conference: University of Kansas, 21 June to 2 July 1948 (brochure); Margaret Young, “Enterprise Book Corner,” Beaumont (Tex.) Enterprise, 4 July 1948; Margaret Young, “Writers Conference Gets Acescent Report,” Dallas Morning News, 18 July 1948, EC Scrapbooks, reel 4.
Weybright, “Georgia Boy,” 120.
A. D. Kirby to EC, 6 Dec. 1947; Mrs. Russell Taylor to EC, ; Anna Smith to EC, [postmarked 25 May 1951]; “A Sophomore” to EC, [postmarked 25 May 1951]; Estelle Holleran to EC, 25 May 1951; Barbara Linan to EC, 24 May 1951, ECC-DC.
In addition to the correspondence cited in note 69, see Mabel D. Tillman to Editor, The Journal, Atlanta Journal, 25 June 1948; Eugene Anderson, “Around the Circle,” Macon Telegraph, 30 July 1949, EC Scrapbooks, reel 4; anonymous writer to New American Library, 13 Apr. 1949; Theresa Winchester to EC, 25 May 1951; William Wilson to EC, [1951?], ECC-DC.
Larry W. King to EC, 28 Feb. 1954; B. W. Middlebrook to EC, 18 June 1959; Mary J. Jones to EC, 8 Feb. 1952; “An American” to EC, 9 Mar. 1952, ECC-DC; Albany (Ga.) Herald, 16 June 1948, EC Scrapbooks, reel 4.
Jacksonville Times-Union, 31 Oct. 1959, EC Scrapbooks, reel 5; Theodore Waller to Charles Duell, 8, 15, and 22 June 1953, ECC-DC; Atlanta Journal, 21 Sept. 1957, EC Scrapbooks, reel 5; Victor Weybright to EC, 3 Oct. 1957, ECC-DC; Augusta Chronicle, 27 July 1957, quoting G. Pierce King, EC Scrapbooks, reel 5; Howard, “Caldwell on Stage and Screen,” 67-70; Caldwell, With All My Might, 255-56.
James Stokely to EC, 23 Feb. 1938; Charles A. Bly Jr. to EC and Margaret Bourke-White, 11 Apr. 1938; Tom P. Moye to EC, 23 Oct. 1938; Lorena Lester to EC, 15 Oct. 1940, ECC-DC.
Walter B. Powell to EC, 6 Feb. 1952; Bert H. Hatch to EC, 1 Nov. 1950; Gloucester Caliman Coxe to EC, 27 Nov. [1950?], ECC-DC. See also William W. Seward Jr. to EC, 25 Sept. 1948; Donald Demarest to Jerry Burke, 5 Nov. 1948; Cena B. Howard to EC, 15 Feb. 1950; Raymond G. Perkinson to EC, 29 Nov. 1952; Mrs. Fred Powell to EC, 14 Mar. 1958, ECC-DC; Albert E. Idell to Editor, Saturday Review of Literature, 29 June 1946, EC Scrapbooks, reel 4.
James F. Mitchell to EC, 29 Nov. 1947, ECC-DC; John O. West to Wayne Mixon, 27 Jan. and 9 Feb. 1991, letters in my possession.
“Hillbilly Peyton Place,” Time 70 (30 Sept. 1957): 102, EC Scrapbooks, reel 5.
James Oliver Brown to EC, 30 Apr. 1952, ECC-DC; Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 298-99; Snyder, “Spying on Southerners,” 275-77. See also Firing Line 4 (15 May 1955): -51. Firing Line was the organ of the American Legion's National Americanism Commission.
James Oliver Brown to EC, 5 May 1952; EC to June Caldwell, [June 1952], ECC-DC; Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 307.
Klevar, “Erskine Caldwell,” draft of Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 350-52, 362, 369-70, 383, 402, 414, 424, 426, 428, 439, 451.
After 1959, Caldwell published no new short stories except for The Deer at Our House (New York: Collier, 1966), an illustrated children's story issued in book form. MacDonald, “Evaluative Check-List,” in MacDonald, Critical Essays, 357-59.
Harvey L. Klevar, interview with Erskine Caldwell, 30 Nov. 1978, quoted in Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 151-52; Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 375-76.
Ibid., 364, 374.
Erskine Caldwell, Around About America, 41, 44-45.
Caldwell quoted in Los Angeles Mirror, 17 Jan. 1961, EC Scrapbooks, reel 5; Caldwell, Around About America, 63-64, 221.
Caldwell, Around About America, 54-59.
In With All My Might, written when he was nearly eighty, Caldwell asserted that he knew Bisco in White Oak, Georgia. When his family left White Oak, Caldwell was only three years old. Doubtlessly Caldwell knew Bisco, but the acquaintance probably was made while the Caldwells were living in Prosperity, South Carolina. By the time the family left Prosperity, Erskine was nearly nine. Caldwell, With All My Might, 4-6.
Caldwell, In Search of Bisco, 49-58, 71-82, 86-87, 109, 112.
Ibid., 123-28, 156-64.
Austin American-Statesman, 11 Apr. 1965; Pensacola News Journal, 9 May 1965; Charleston News and Courier, 18 Apr. 1965, ECC-DC. See also Charlotte Observer, 4 Apr. 1965; New Orleans Picayune, [?] May 1965; Louisville Courier-Journal, [?] July 1965, ECC-DC.
Nashville Banner, 30 Apr. 1965; Dallas News, 4 Apr. 1965; Norfolk Pilot, 11 Apr. 1965; High Point (N.C.) Enterprise, 4 Apr. 1965; Rocky Mount (N.C.) Telegram, 18 Apr. 1965; Winston-Salem Journal-Sentinel, 18 Apr. 1965; Atlanta Daily World, 20 May 1965; Atlanta Journal, 11 Apr. 1965, ECC-DC. See also Birmingham News, 4 Apr. 1965; Nashville Tennesseean, 18 Apr. 1965; Houston Chronicle, 30 May 1965; Chattanooga Times, undated clipping, ECC-DC.
Frank Daniel to Virginia and Erskine Caldwell, 22 Mar. 1965, ECC-DC.
Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 381-82.
Caldwell, Deep South. Deep South is divided into two parts. The first section, which comprises 187 of the volume's 257 pages, was first published in England in 1966 as a book entitled In the Shadow of the Steeple. The second section, “At the Other End of Town,” was original to Deep South.
Ibid., 53, 147, 149.
Ibid., 250, 247; Klevar, “Erskine Caldwell,” draft of Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 521; EC to Martin Luther King Jr., 11 Nov. 1964, quoted in Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 377.
San Antonio Express, 10 Mar. 1968; Atlanta Constitution and Journal, 25 Feb. 1968, ECC-DC; Edwin M. Yoder Jr., “Are Pianos Holier than Pipe Organs?” Chicago Tribune Book World, 19 Mar. 1968, ECC-UGA.
Interview with Virginia Caldwell Hibbs, 2 July 1992.
A. A. Taylor to Mr. and Mrs. Erskine Caldwell, 13 Jan. 1947; Invitation from Fisk University [to Mr. and Mrs. Erskine Caldwell] to attend openings of collections at Fisk's Carl Van Vechten Gallery of Fine Arts on 4 November 1949; Virginia Caldwell to James Oliver Brown, 5 Aug. 1958; Phillip J. Walker to EC, 7 Dec. 1959 and 21 Apr. 1960, ECC-DC; interview with Ralph Stephens; John D. Smith, “Recollections of the Events Surrounding Erskine Caldwell's Visit to Erskine College in December 1959,” 3 Nov. 1970. As president of Erskine College's Euphemian Literary Society, Smith, a native of Atoka, Tennessee, and a member of Salem Church many years after Ira Caldwell had served as pastor, was the target of protests from Erskine College alumni and other people who opposed Caldwell's visit. I am grateful to Mr. Smith for supplying a copy of his “Recollections.” See also John Cook Wyllie to EC, 8 Sept. 1962; W. G. Malcolm to Edgar F. Shannon Jr., undated, enclosed with Janet L. Sketchley to EC, 21 Apr. 1965, ECC-DC.
Ralph McGill, “Tobacco Road Is Now Paved,” Atlanta Constitution, 19 Nov. 1966; Ralph McGill, “The Culture of Poverty,” Atlanta Constitution, 7 Dec. 1966; EC to Ralph McGill, 9 and 22 Dec. 1966, Ralph McGill Papers, Special Collections, R. W. Woodruff Library, Emory University; EC to Chris Eckl, 24 July 1965; EC to Governor [Lester] Maddox, 24 Oct. 1967; EC to John Pennekamp, 28 Mar. 1969, ECC-DC. For further evidence of recognition of Caldwell by southern academicians, see Gerald M. Garmon to EC, 8 Jan. and 13 May 1964; Samuel R. Spencer Jr. to EC, 14 Sept. 1964 and 19 Mar. and 8 and 16 Apr. 1965; Charles N. Carnes to Mr. and Mrs. Erskine Caldwell, 25 Feb. 1966, ECC-DC; Emory University Campus Report 17 (1 Feb. 1965): 1, Daniel Papers.
EC to John Pennekamp, 28 Mar. 1969, ECC-DC.
New York Times, 18 Dec. 1978; Virginia Caldwell to Mills Lane IV, 4 Nov. 1976; Virginia Caldwell to Cornelia and Waller Barrett, 4 Dec. 1976 and 3 Dec. 1978, Erskine Caldwell Collection, University of Virginia; Mills Lane IV to EC, 25 Mar. and 3 June 1975, ECC-DC; Thomas with Eidsvik, producers, In Search of Caldwell's Georgia; Moser, producer, Erskine Caldwell; interview with Mary M. Maner, 25 May 1990.
Caldwell, Earnshaw Neighborhood; Erskine Caldwell, Afternoons in Mid-America, 13-69; EC to Frank Daniel, 10 Feb. and 27 Mar. 1977, ECC-UGA.
Arnold, “Interview with Virginia Caldwell,” in Arnold, Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered, 104, 106; Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 409-10.
Klevar, Erskine Caldwell, 414; Arnold, “Interview with Virginia Caldwell,” in Arnold, Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered, 106-8.
With All My Might was issued by Peachtree Publishers of Atlanta in March 1987. Telephone conversation with Kathleen Herndon of Peachtree Publishers, 12 Feb. 1993.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7588
SOURCE: “Laughing Over Lost Causes: Erskine Caldwell's Quarrel with Southern Humor,” in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 1, winter, 1996, pp. 51-68.
[In the following essay, Silver contends that Caldwell's departure in Tobacco Road from traditional nineteenth-century Southern humor opened the way for the social criticism of later Southern writers.]
Since its publication in 1932, Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road has been both lionized and disparaged, described by some critics as the seminal work of an author in the “front rank of American writers”1 and by others ridiculed as “drug-store stand trash.”2 While in the first decade of its existence Tobacco Road was adopted (however uncomfortably) by leftists eager to awaken the South to their cause and canonized in universities throughout the nation, the last five decades have reversed such critical headway, and the academy has largely come to regard the novel as a perverse derivative of the frontier humor dating back a century to Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes. Louis Rubin, representative of those critics most discomfited by Caldwell's fiction, writes:
Caldwell had a genuine talent for a certain sort of low-life humor, and it comes … out of a longstanding regional literary tradition. … If we grant Caldwell an underlying seriousness of literary purpose (I find it difficult to do so), then it was betrayed by a vision of caste and class that has been characteristic of southern literature almost from its beginnings.3
While it is easy enough to chart the lineage from Longstreet's grotesque Georgia crackers to Caldwell's Lesters, Rubin may have somewhat over-simplified the nature of this relationship and, in so doing, glossed over a telling transformation in the development of Southern humor. Not only is it essential that we grant Caldwell the underlying seriousness of literary purpose that Rubin denies him, but it also becomes readily apparent, upon closer examination, that the form and method of his Southern humor differ in large part from, and at times subvert, that of Longstreet and other nineteenth-century humorists. For if it can be said that Caldwell's enormous popular success made possible countless lascivious dime novels, movies like Gator Bait, and television sitcoms such as The Beverly Hillbillies, it also can be said that his fiction of comic entrapment opened up Southern humor for the incisive cultural critiques of Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Allison and Bobbie Ann Mason. With Tobacco Road, Caldwell becomes the first popular writer in the twentieth century to attempt to wrest a steadfastly reactionary genre into the progressive thirties. The question remains whether he was successful, and to what extent.
If critics like Rubin or John Seelye, who write that Caldwell's fiction is “not unlike that of early Southwestern humor writers,”4 are to be addressed, we must first turn to the defining characteristics of the nineteenth-century Southern humor that Caldwell purportedly inherits. Southern or “frontier” humor began as a performative genre usually related by a first-person narrator, typically a representative of a social class above and alien to the subjects that he analyzes, and written largely for the edification of that class. The narrator's Addisonian frame separates author as well as audience from the characters and situations portrayed much as a travel narrative separates voyager from exotic natives.
The violence in Southwestern humor repeats itself (as in cartoons), and characters ritually enact hunts, fights and swindles, which often result in grievous injuries. Yet these characters rarely suffer long in their ills, invariably display a miraculous insensitivity to physical mutilation, and are soon able to enact the comic ritual once again. The readers suspend their sympathy and are never penalized or incriminated for their laughter with the death or significant injury of either of the combatants. The Southern humorist's characters, then, are comic only in so much as they are not perceived as enduring pain, or in other words, as being human in the same sense as the reader.
Additionally, the Southern humorist provides no epiphany or consummating realization on the part of either character or audience which could lead to social change. It is essential to such humor that there be no threat or general discontent among these marginal grotesques, and, of course, there should be little or no connection between the causes of their poverty and the humorist's reading audience. These humorists reinforced, rather than called into question, the means of both social and economic power, and reified rather than challenged the prevailing class structure. Their texts created a canvas upon which the upper class's mingled fear of and vicarious pleasure in the lower class could be safely projected. Longstreet and his fellow humorists, as Michael Pearson puts it, amble through a “moral wasteland and manage to keep [their] boots clean.”5
At first glance it seems easy to classify Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road in the same genre as tales by Longstreet, Hooper, or Harris. Though Caldwell has eliminated the first-person narrator, the descriptions of the characters encourage the reader to take the narrator's comfortable role as cultured observer of comically violent and obscenely sexual rustic primitives. Caldwell portrays his characters as animals nearly devoid of any intellect and concerned only with primary sensual desires; his poor whites are likened to “pigs” (p. 24), “stud-horses” (p. 28), “rabbits” (p. 31), and “tumble-bugs” (p. 31). If, as Bergson writes, “the attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds of a mere machine,”6 then Caldwell's remarkably inelastic, de-animated and stubbornly absent-minded characters are, from the first, emptied of their humanity for the purpose of entertaining his reading audience.
Caldwell's poor whites are, like comic lower-class characters before them, associated with endlessly repeated actions or sayings and never realized goals. Indeed, it seems as if each character's verbal and visual tags provide the barest of fingerprints with which the audience may differentiate between their similarly debased personalities: Dude chunks his ball against the house for the first half of the novel and honks his horn for the latter half; Bessie declares “praise the Lord” and covers her nose; Mother Lester watches from behind a chinaberry tree and burrows for food (at once nearly starving to death and dying of pellagra, but miraculously doing neither); Ada talks about a fashionable dress to wear in her coffin after she dies of pellagra (though the reader finds it difficult to believe that she, like the grandmother, will ever die); and Jeeter repeatedly declares “By God and Jesus,” and promises to quit stealing, get Ellie May's hairlip sewn, sell wood in Augusta, and plant crops (though the narrator tells us that these “well developed plans”7 will never be accomplished).
Similarly, the episodic violence, as in Longstreet's “Fight,” repeats itself throughout the text. Jeeter hits Bessie repeatedly over the head with a stick; Ada is nearly run over by a car; Bessie smashes her head against a windshield; and Dude gets bashed on the head with a shovel. Yet, in keeping with the tradition of Southern humor, the characters never pause to suffer injuries, and instead get up to re-enact the slapstick once more. The reader has no reason to believe that any of this activity will result in any definitive end and expects that the story will not exceed the conservative boundaries of the traditional Southern humor that the narrative so clearly embodies. “Things have been going along in that easy way for almost a lifetime now” (p. 60), and the reader has no reason to suspect an escalation of seriousness on the part of the author or any change in characters who, somehow, “would not die” (p. 71). The familiar limitations and tacit constraints of Southern humor—its sub-human and unchanging grotesques, ritual violence, and reactionary agenda—remain unbroken.
Yet, towards the end of Tobacco Road, Caldwell begins to burst the conventions of Southern humor. Outsiders who can possibly aid the Lesters ignore them and the characters that form the audience within the novel are portrayed as increasingly cruel and insensitive to their suffering. Caldwell depicts middle-class city-goers manipulating poor whites; selfish, well-off family members abuse their own father and ignore his poverty; and the colorful slapstick escalates into graphic and permanently damaging violence. The text, in short, begins to imply that the Lesters' problems are caused in part by the rich and insensitive—a callous, unaffected audience—who perpetrate a cruel and unfair social system.
In no other chapters does Caldwell's narrative so turn upon itself, and by extension upon traditional comic Southern discourse, than in chapters seventeen and eighteen. The former chapter begins with the Lesters once again involved in a ludicrously graphic comic fight over Bessie's refusal to allow Jeeter a ride in her new car: Bessie scratches at Jeeter's face with her fingernails, Jeeter hits her over the head repeatedly with a stick, Ada takes the stick from Jeeter and pokes Bessie in the ribs with it (echoing her earlier violence in the “Turnip” scene) and “all three of them were striking and scratching one another” (p. 163). Caldwell's description here represents the logical conclusion of a necessarily classist discourse: all three characters have metamorphosed into one vague blur of comic brutality.
Yet, Caldwell chooses to close the chapter of Tobacco Road which most buys into the reactionary ideology of Southern humor by introducing sudden pathos into what had been an insensate, Bergsonian comic landscape. During the fight, Ellie May and Mother Lester take their customary positions behind the chinaberry trees and watch as Dude and Bessie prepare to drive off in their car. Mother Lester has seldom moved from the comfort of her hiding spot during the course of the novel and there is little reason for the reader to believe that she will move away from what has been, after all, her metonymic extension in the chinaberry tree. When she does move to get a better view of the action, there is no reason for the reader to believe that she will be hit by the car as it backs up and out of the Lester driveway (up until this point there have been two incidents in which the car has simply nearly hit a Lester), and, when the car does run over her, the reader has no reason to believe that she will actually die; after all, every other major character in the book has endured some physical harm without suffering permanent injuries. Within the scope of traditional Southern humor, such a death would be unimaginable: it would be as if Longstreet suddenly had Bob Durham murder Billy Stallions (or the equivalent of a cartoon character taking the obligatory dive off a cliff, this time incurring fatal wounds from the fall). Throughout the novel, Caldwell has indicated that the Lesters' humorous struggle for survival will endlessly perpetuate itself, only to conclude a climactically exuberant and ribald scene with the most destitute and enduring of characters getting run over by a car.
Worse still, the reader is tempted to laugh at all of this. Caldwell reveals the fatal incident only through a dispassionately clinical aside, noting simply that the automobile has “struck her, knocking her down and backing over her” (p. 164). The narrative then returns briefly to comedy, as Ada squeals obscenities and unsuccessfully attempts to throw an enormous rock at the speeding car, thus encouraging the hope that there will be a speedy recovery of both grandmother and narrative from the tragically realistic implications of the accident.
Chapter eighteen, however, quickly stifles such hope, signalling the end of traditional Southern humor in the text, and so the beginning of Caldwell's quarrel with Southern humor. Here Caldwell grimly and realistically portrays the grandmother's slow death, her “face mashed on the hard white sand” and her “head cracked open” (p. 165), and for the first time in the narrative, Caldwell allows the reader to experience a character's pain:
Mother Lester tried to turn over so she could get up and go into the house. She could not move either her arms or her legs without unbearable pain, and her head felt as if it had been cracked open. The automobile had struck her with such force that she did not know what had hit her. Both of the left wheels had rolled over her, one of them across her back and the other on her head. She had not known what had happened. More than anything else she wanted to get up and lie down on her bed. She struggled with a final effort to raise her head and shoulders from the hard sand, and she managed to turn over. After that she lay motionless.
If the fight over the car strongly echoes the earlier turnip melee which begins the book, here the grandmother's feeble attempt to drag herself across the sand of the Lester yard tragically recalls Ellie May's grotesquely sexual slide in a way that makes clear the radical divergence of the text from its own comic laws. As opposed to the guiltless pleasure produced by the first scene's comic violence, the reader is a witness now guilty with the memory of pleasurable comic violence. By killing the character most associated with the objective and passive gaze—the Lester most clearly aligned with the audience's own voyeuristic sensibility—Caldwell effectively pulls the inherent security of genre limitations from under the reader's steady feet. If Longstreet's audience could walk through his comic landscape without muddying their boots, Caldwell's narrative attempts to push its readers down into the muck with the Lesters.
In the final chapters of Tobacco Road, Caldwell empties Southern humor altogether from his novel, and instead launches into a critique of Southern evangelical fatalism. In Caldwell's vision, the Evangelical emphasis on God's individual grace fostered social paralysis. “No longer does one strive to prove himself a member of the elect,” he writes in Deep South; “rather, he sits passively while an omnipotent God has His way. The evangelical tradition of Southern religion does little to mitigate this fatalistic belief in man's inability to forge his own destiny.”8 Faith in God at the expense of progressive social gains is, according to Caldwell, a “narcotic to dull the pain of living” (p. 25). “Evangelism,” he explains, “has always promised more for the future than any government can provide for the present” (p. 25). Instead of an active protest against their oppression, the characters in Tobacco Road are content to wait for God: “He'll put a stop to it some of these days and make the rich give back all they've took from us poor folks. God is going to treat us right. He ain't going to let it keep on like it is now” (p. 10). Throughout the novel, Jeeter is paralyzed by the anxiety of fittingness—an anxiety of discourse—the fear to try and change the predetermined text of God. “God is a wise old somebody,” he thinks; “He put me here, and He ain't never told me to get off and go up there [to the mills]” (p. 23).
While Caldwell undermines the logic of Southern humor in chapter eighteen, in the final chapter he mimics and then undoes apocalyptic evangelical discourse. Kenneth Bailey writes that the extreme poverty beginning in the 1920's and culminating in the Great Depression was interpreted by many fundamentalists “as apocalyptic visitation brought on by worldliness.”9 Many found the Depression to be a fulfillment of prophecy, a curse on the present generation for their sinfulness which would be a prelude to an “explosion that [would] leave the world filled with fragments of human minds and bodies” (p. 112). Tobacco Road too offers an apocalypse of sorts. Caldwell describes the brush-fire at the end of the novel in vivid biblical apocalyptic imagery:
[the] fire melted into a vivid red with the fall of darkness … circled around the fields like cornered snakes, and burned both sides of the house … the fiery, red flaming roof was a whirling mass of showering embers in a short time … [which] blazed like coals in a forge [and in the] centre, where [Jeeter] had stood that afternoon when he struck the match, there was a deep hole in the earth [where] the ground would remain black until it rained again.
Yet, the symbolically Christian nature of this apocalypse is undercut by the fact that the fire is followed by no judgment and no regeneration; rather, we are told that “there was nothing that could be saved” (p. 179). Instead of the reaper who would gather up the souls of the faithful to heaven, there are only men poking for burnt bodies, and Dude coming “out of the ashes” bearing a black-jack staff to sift through the “twisted tin kitchen dishes and china doorknobs … charred and crusted iron casters of wooden beds … and nails and screws” (p. 181) for something of value. Significantly, when Bessie—here playing the role of false prophet—announces that the Lord's will is done, her words undercut any religious reading of the fire, and the narrator notes that “nobody paid any attention to [her]” (p. 179). No holy city or new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, God does not banish death and mourning, and, most importantly, God does not make all things new. Instead of a tree of life, Caldwell leaves the readers with a tree of death—the blackjack—a tree which has symbolized the frustrations of the Lesters throughout the text.
Bessie's refusal to offer a prayer for the dead represents the final gesture and the final failure of Southern religion in Tobacco Road. Caldwell gives his audience an apocalypse which has not rewarded the poor and punished the rich or signalled the “beginning and the end” of a corrupt order, but has instead reaffirmed that order. It is an apocalypse that has led to nothing. As opposed to the Southern humorist's traditionally happy ending where the trickster escapes unharmed and triumphant, the speech that concludes Tobacco Road, spoken by an atypically articulate Lov, blames Jeeter and Ada's failure and death squarely on the upper class:
It looks like the Lord don't care about crops being raised no more like He used to, or He would be more helpful to the poor. He could make the rich people lend out their money, and stop holding it up. I can't figure out how they got hold of all the money in the county anyhow, looks like it ought to be spread out among everybody.
With this false apocalypse, Caldwell transfers the power of errand and of Christian ethics from a removed God to the reader him- or herself, effectively sending his readers on a mission to correct what work has been left undone at the end of the novel. Divine, predetermined texts are discarded and the power of discourse—the power to renew society and the power, as Caldwell puts it, to “forge [one's] own destiny” (Deep South, p. 25)—is left to the readers. Caldwell, in effect, subverts both comedic and evangelical discourses in order to shock the reader out of a stiflingly fatalistic thought system and into an active Christian social mission of the sort that his father, a radical Presbyterian minister and outspoken proponent of social gospel in the South, had sought to make a reality. From an extraordinarily traditional narrative of Southern humor, Caldwell has launched into what seems a progressive critique of Great Depression Southern Christianity and Great Depression capitalism.
Caldwell saw that, in his own words, “poverty was known, but nobody wanted to look at it. They knew people were hungry, ragged, but they didn't think it was a good idea to show it in public.”10 There can be little doubt of Caldwell's seriousness of literary purpose here just as there can be little doubt that the narrative represents a departure from the tacit laws of Southern humor: Tobacco Road aimed to reveal nothing less than a new perspective of the economic, religious and social problems of the South. The question remains whether Caldwell's aims were true.
While it seems apparent that Tobacco Road intends to awaken and shock the reader into an awareness, we must ask of what exactly is the audience made to be aware? If Caldwell wants to electrify the audience's sensibilities by catering to and then subverting their own narrative expectations, the ostensible purpose of such an incendiary agenda is to rattle the audience into a new way of thinking about the poor tenant farmer's condition. Does the text suggest such a radical vision, and if so, where can the readers assign blame for the Lesters' poverty? Does Caldwell discover a new characterization of the poor, or are his subversions limited to narrative alone?
In You Have Seen Their Faces, Caldwell explains that the “only persons interested in [sharecropping's] continuation are the landlords who accumulate wealth by extracting tribute not from the products of the earth but from the labor of men, women, and children who till the earth.”11 Though in such non-fictional writing Caldwell takes great pains to lay blame for the tenant's poverty on the avarice and inhumanity of the absentee landlords, these land-owners are conspicuously absent from Tobacco Road's fictional landscape, as is any overt assignment of the blame to them. Indeed, perhaps the most complex and compassionate (though tantalizingly brief) portrayal in the novel is that of Captain John, the old landlord who finally must refuse credit to his unproductive and insolvent sharecroppers, but no longer requires them to pay “a penny of rent” (p. 125) since the productivity of the land has fallen so drastically. Captain John both hopes for the Lesters' success and, at the same time, believes that they will never be successful. It is precisely this pessimistic ambivalence with which the narrator aligns his own sensibilities throughout Tobacco Road.
The wealthy within the novel are hardly condemned as a class. Though the Lesters occasionally recall creditors and bankers who have taken advantage of them, the most brutal and abusive upper-class character who interacts with the Lesters turns out to be a member of the Lester family. When Jeeter sends Bessie and Dude to plead for money from Tom Lester, the only successful Lester child, they return with news that Tom rejects his parents and their poverty: “Tom says for you and Ada to go to the county poor-farm and stay. … Tom said to tell you to go to hell, too” (p. 157). Rather than call attention to a callous and uncaring upper class, the passage focuses on a callous and uncaring poor family. While looking out at the ashes of the Lester cabin at the close of the novel, one neighboring farmer echoes this sentiment and lays the blame for the Lesters' poverty on their failure of filiality: “It looks to me like his children ought to have stayed at home and helped him run a farm” (p. 179). The implied message is clear: the poor are, perhaps, the most to blame for their own poverty and the cruelty that they endure.
Thus, while the generic discourse of the novel clearly skips the tracks of traditional humor and turns itself headlong upon its audience, Caldwell's characterization seems to locate the fundamental cultural sickness not outside of the Lesters' world but within it. Not only does Caldwell omit the relationship which stands at the heart of sharecropping (the landlord's devastating exploitation of the tenant farmer), but in its stead, Tobacco Road gives us a near-microscopic account of the poor white tenants' flaws, at times clearly taking a peculiar glee in parading both their acquired and, apparently, their inherent, grotesque disfunctionality. Caldwell's essays with Margaret Bourke-White's photographs provide a close artistic parallel to this technique of representation in Tobacco Road and nicely illustrate the overweening desire to shock or titillate at the expense of registering the genuine complexity of sharecropping life.
In You Have Seen Their Faces, Bourke-White explains the rather painstaking task of capturing the sharecropper on film:
I would set up the camera in a corner of the room, sit some distance away from it with a remote control in my hand, and watch our people while Mr. Caldwell talked with them. It might be an hour before their faces or gestures gave us what we were trying to express, but the instant it occurred the scene was imprisoned on a sheet of film before they knew what happened.
Bourke-White's pronoun slippage reveals much about the author-subject dynamic at work in Caldwell's fiction: the poor whites, “our people,” as Bourke-White calls them, are neither respected nor autonomous figures, and the authors laboriously work to “imprison” emotions that are not necessarily authentic but mimic the artists' notion of the authentic expression of the poor; they are “what we are trying to say” rather than what they are trying to say. Accordingly, Caldwell, rather than quote the sharecropper in the captions, simply imagines how the sharecropper in each particular photograph would sound. This is a highly unusual technique for an ostensibly non-fiction essay and one which stands at least two removes from its subjects: Caldwell attempts to render poor people's speech more authentic by interpreting a photograph which is itself a self-conscious middle-class rendering of poverty. Thus, with Caldwell's mutation of sharecropping language into ruthlessly monotonous and brief expressions of simple and sensual sharecropping life, the objectification of the sharecropper and the corresponding production of poverty is complete. The commercial production of authenticity is here wedded with a corresponding, but mutually exclusive, effort to maintain the illusion of ineradicable otherness, and it is precisely this conflation of authenticity as radical difference which marks and circumscribes Caldwell's social protest fiction. What sort of gestures, we might ask, could Bourke-White and Caldwell have been looking for that would take an hour to find? In You Have Seen Their Faces, they largely choose gestures of bafflement, confusion: open, toothless mouths, furrowed brows, eyes glaring low and steady as if at an unknown and threatening stranger. The elaborate staging inflates the reading audience's notion of the sharecropper's fundamental difference and helplessness, all “before [the sharecroppers] knew what happened.” Indeed, it seems as if this very unawareness—the seemingly complete lack of self-consciousness, the loosely emotive over the rational—was what most interested Bourke-White and Caldwell. Bourke-White's apparatus seems designed to rob sharecroppers of the time to assemble themselves into the sort of sentimental and dignified grace that portrait cameras so graciously allow us, the power of the pictures coming rather from a form of relentless alienation effect, whereby human faces attain an almost animal aspect both through their obliviousness and the excessive detail of the portraits.
The technique of both You Have Seen Their Faces and Tobacco Road grows out of a rigorous modernist response to the prevailing sentimental “soft focus” portrayals of poverty. If sentimental fiction, as Philip Fisher writes, “depends upon an inward and empathic emotional bond” between reader and fictional subject,12 Caldwell's mission is to destroy this bond, to his way of thinking, in the interest of the sharecroppers themselves. “The American mind,” Caldwell explains,
is by this time so accustomed to weeping over lost causes that in this instance there is likelihood of the sharecropper becoming just another figure in a sentimentalizing nation. The everyday sharecropper is anything but a heroic figure at present; if he continues being the nation's under-dog that is what he will become … he is a sharecropper lacking most of the virtues the human race at some time or another pats itself on the back for possessing. A defeated, frustrated, resentful person in the latter years of his life is not likely to have a strong character.
(You Have Seen Their Faces, p. 28)
Yet, Caldwell's anger at the sentimentalist's tendency to reenforce rather than challenge the ethical stance of the audience produces a text as vigorous in denying morality in its suffering subjects as the sentimental text is vigorous in creating supra-human morality. The results of such a stridently anti-sentimental stance are evidenced in Bourke-White's photos and Caldwell's prose: the process as a whole seems less an exercise in evoking pathos than a sort of phrenological study which has, at its heart, the desperate desire to reduce the sharecropper to her or his least common human denominator. The less the photographs look like the reader's family, or any person the reader has ever encountered, the more shocking the passage, the more urgent the mission, the more books sold.
Such anti-sentimental characterizations litter the fictional landscape of Tobacco Road. Philip Fisher explains that, in the sentimental novel, “the central unit in which experience is recorded is not the individual, the class, or the society, but the family” (p. 101), and it is this exaggerated notion of domesticated filial piety that Caldwell seeks to question and complicate in Tobacco Road. Once again, however, his response to sentimental exaggeration does not render the family more complex, admitting moral ambiguity where sentiment would have none; instead he uniformly disparages the family, rendering it even less complex and allowing for even less diversity than in the sentimental model. Thus, Tobacco Road begins with the profanation of the patriarchal family in the fullest sense as Jeeter, a father, attempts to prostitute his twelve-year-old daughter for a sack of turnips. The sentimental patriarch, whose over-arching purpose within the family traditionally serves to protect the sacred purity of his wife and children, here turns upon his daughter—both his child and Lov's wife—and reduces her virginity to its market value in turnips.
First and foremost, then, Caldwell suspends any notion of familial ethics in the world of sharecropping: the Lesters are a family only in the barest sense of the word. They are a family invariably and almost unspeakably selfish, lacking any remnants of sympathy or tenderness for each other or their community. Though the heteroglot discourse of the novel gradually manages to weave social protest narratives between episodes of ribald humor, Caldwell's characterization of the amoral poor Southern family remains ruthlessly monoglot throughout. Whereas, for instance, in sentimental novels like The Grapes of Wrath, the old matriarch stands at the center of the family as a figure of respect and authority, in Tobacco Road the grandmother is “considered nothing more than a door-jamb or a length of weather-boarding” (p. 183). The family bars her from the kitchen while they eat, feeding her only the crumbs that remain after a meal. The narrator tells us that “Jeeter was angry with her because she persisted in living, and he would not let her have any food when he could keep her from eating it” (p. 71); if she complained of her treatment, “Jeeter or Ada would have knocked her down” (p. 183). If anything, Ada and Jeeter's cruelty increases as the novel progresses, finally culminating in Jeeter's complete indifference to the grandmother's grisly death in chapter eighteen.
If Caldwell means this to be taken as a metaphor for the American community, which has been cruelest to the most needy, he fails to provide the textual basis for such an interpretation; we never see anyone being cruel to the Lesters except for the Lesters themselves. If he means this to be a critique of capitalism's brutal effect on a family, he fails to demonstrate that a family such as the Lesters is capable of love, caring, and morality in the first place. Caldwell has not shown us, as a thorough Marxist would, the process through which capitalism has broken a family; rather he has shown us, like a good humorist, a family which would never have been good, and whose very badness provides the basis for the narrative humor. The Lesters are, as Sut Lovingood's family before them, “nat'ral born durn'd fools.”
This fundamental brutality discredits Jeeter Lester's pleas for social compassion and so also discredits Caldwell's own more radical critique of Southern humor and Depression-era capitalism. “It sometimes looks like a rich man will never help the poor,” Jeeter observes, “whereas the poor people will give away everything they has to help somebody who ain't got nothing. That's how it looks to me” (p. 76). Here Jeeter Lester's pleas for social compassion become a study in hypocrisy, spoken by a poor character whom Caldwell has remorselessly exposed as by far the most selfish in the novel. The Lester family, then, becomes a metaphor for the ethical failure of the poor rural family itself: in contemporary language, they lack and have always lacked “family values.” Their immorality becomes a marker of fundamental and unbroachable difference, betraying an ontological savagery which justifies atavistic thinking about poverty and reactionary policies for impoverished people.
Though Caldwell's non-fiction espouses an egalitarian philosophy in which nobody is a “member of an inferior race specifically bred to demonstrate such characteristics as indolence and thriftlessness, cruelty and bestiality” (You Have Seen Their Faces, p. 20), in Tobacco Road he at least hints at so much. Indeed, Caldwell tells us that Pearl, the only remotely intelligent Lester, was born of a different father, thereby explaining her native, though inchoate, intelligence. “The truth was, Pearl had far more sense than any of the Lesters,” Caldwell writes, “and that, like her hair and eyes, had been inherited from her father. The man who was her father had passed through the country one day, and had never been seen since” (p. 31). Such a passage can only signal two primary characteristics of the poor white: their primitive intelligence and correspondingly licentious and uncontrollable sexuality (which becomes an almost exclusive motif in Caldwell's later fiction, bordering on a sort of obsessive mania), and their correspondingly primitive intelligence. Like Ellie May's hairlip and Bessie's stunted nose, the Lesters are morally deformed from birth; they are characters whose inherent inferiority defies social explanation and so, by extension, social protest on their behalf. There is, sadly enough, no life or higher purpose to revive in these people.
Next to the family, the ability of the poor to work industriously and the value assigned to such work provide an important theme for sentimental fiction and an important departure point for Caldwell's fiction and Southern humor in general. The matter of work is crucial in Tobacco Road, and it marks one of the primary distinguishing characteristics of Southern humor: since the Southern rural landscape in these comic narratives provides a space in which middle- and upper-class fantasies of lower-class life are played out, work—which reminds us of the humorless anxieties of everyday life—must necessarily be absent. Characters like Sut Lovingood, Huckleberry Finn and Jeeter Lester spurn work, responsibility, and fidelity, and thrive on play, sexuality and relaxation: all alien to the everyday work space. Additionally, in Caldwell's case, work would undo the missionary logic of Tobacco Road. If poor rural Southerners worked arduously, there would be no need for our intervention on their behalf since the problem would not be within their community but within the surrounding community, not with them but with us. As such, Caldwell's characterization of the Lesters becomes middle-class production of poverty. With the distinguishing characteristics of lower-class work out of the equation, the Lesters essentially become representatives of a leisure class of consumers who simply lack consumer goods and the will to acquire them.
Although when interviewed in texts like These Are Our Lives,13 sharecroppers are quick to detail a grueling life of incessant work and remember vividly a day when they were making ends meet, the Lesters inexplicably neither work nor can recall a more successful time with any degree of credulity. On this point, even the Lesters manage to agree: the primary reason for their poverty is due to Jeeter Lester's insufferably stubborn indolence. “If you wasn't so durn lazy,” Lov tells Jeeter, “you'd do something instead of cuss about it all the time” (p. 15). Later Ada, among others, echoes this sentiment: “You're just lazy, that's what's wrong with you” (p. 58). As brutality functions for Longstreet's Southerners so laziness functions for Caldwell's: it is the one quintessential characteristic distilled from all of his poor whites, which, in turn, distorts every other of their imagined characteristics (save, perhaps, for their paradoxically riotously energetic and uninhibited sexuality). Caldwell seems both frustrated and endlessly amused by this quality and he is willing to press the exaggeration almost beyond caricature. “He's that lazy he won't even get off the ground sometimes when he stumbles,” Dude explains; “I've seen him stay there near about an hour before he got up. He's the laziest son of a bitch I ever seen” (p. 38). There is a viciousness in such a characterization that is new to Southern humor: while humorists often describe lazy or slothful poor whites, rarely do these characters lack any sign of ingenuity or resourcefulness whatsoever. Huckleberry Finn and Sut Lovingood, while clearly despising work, can at least vent their anti-establishment energies in their own industrious and ingenious arts. Jeeter has no such art and no such energy. “Jeeter made a false start somewhere nearly every day,” the narrator tells us:
Usually he would have to stop and walk out over the old cotton fields and look at the tall brown broom-sedge, and that made him think about something else. When he did walk out into the sedge, the chances were that he would lie down and take a nap.
Jeeter's sheer barrenness of spirit represents a nadir in the characterization of the poor sharecropper which is outdone only by John Faulkner, whose poor whites are a clear derivative of Caldwell's own.
Thus, when Jeeter finally gets around to voicing his social protest narratives, his character has been so disparaged, his narrative voice so drained of credulity, that the tragic details of the Lesters' downfall lose their progressive import. For a brief moment, Caldwell blames Captain John for abandoning his sharecropping families:
Rather than attempt to show his tenants how to conform to the newer and more economical methods of modern agriculture, which he thought would have been an impossible task from the start, he sold the stock and implements and moved away. An intelligent employment of his land, stocks, and implements would have enabled Jeeter, and scores of others who had become dependent upon Captain John, to raise crops for food, and crops to be sold at a profit.
Yet Caldwell's narrative implies that his landlord was right in his suspicions that schooling Lesters in proper land management would indeed prove an “impossible task.” Throughout the novel Caldwell provides precious little evidence that the Lesters are capable of such improvement, not to mention hard work. We cannot imagine a non-thieving, productive Jeeter any more than we can imagine a sociable Randy Sniffles, an honest Simon Suggs, or a Sut Lovingood without a yen for mischief: these qualities define and circumscribe the poor white Southerner, and their repetition and reenforcement provide the basis for the humorist's technique.
For Caldwell, however, this is the fundamental dynamic of sharecropping: it produces suffering people who, because of their plight, become listless, mean-spirited, and finally inhuman. In You Have Seen Their Faces he explains that the sharecropper's “normal instincts became perverted. He became wasteful and careless. He became bestial. … He became cruel and inhuman in everyday life as his resentment and bitterness increased … he could live only by witnessing the suffering of others” (p. 20). Of course, such statements betray a remarkably unimaginative and reductionist conception of poverty (and one that allows for much less individual resilience than the farmers themselves show when telling their own stories), but more importantly, it illustrates a pressing problem in Tobacco Road: while we are given endless and graphic examples of the Lesters' own cruelty, we are never made to see how the world has been cruel to them. The reader never sees the process of tenancy robbing the Lesters of their humanity because, for all of Caldwell's earnest pleas for their betterment, his imagination cannot fathom a Lester family that is not lazy, licentious, and savage.
Perhaps the nature of didactic writing, and especially didactic humor, begs for such remorseless infantalization. The didactic novel has nearly always been a programmatic endeavor to save a people against a very clear and palpable threat, be it from within or without, and this threat must be exaggerated with near missionary zeal in order to make the message and program all the more urgent. Thus, to write tendentiously, the author has to choose one of two narrative strategies: either over-invest characters with supra-human morality—producing sentimental types like Dickens's Little Dorritt or Stowe's Eva—and concomitantly divest the surrounding community of proper morals (sometimes including the audience itself within such a damning project), or create a privation of ethical standards in the fictional characters which must then be filled by a moral reading audience. In the world of didactic fiction, characters are either angelically suffering or devilishly cruel children—either Evas or Topsies—and it is no surprise that in humorous social fiction, by and large, the Topsies prevail. The rural community, for Caldwell, is made up of puerile, amoral people clearly incapable of rescuing themselves from their own despair, and so the moral guidance in such a fictional world—the Evas who must convert and save the devilish Topsies—must come from the reading audience itself. Where sentimental fiction allows the reader an overly facile empathic identification with its subjects, tendentious humor-writing obstructs any such identification; where sentimental fiction declares, “they are better than us, they should not suffer,” tendentious humor declares, “they are lesser than us, we must make them more like us (so they might not suffer).” While both provide incomplete examinations of poverty, the former is progressive, encouraging identification where there was previously none, while the latter is eminently conservative, reifying the reader's position as superior to that of the the types portrayed and suspending that reader's empathic sensibilities for the suffering of “others.”
Somebody, then, must come and teach the poor Lesters, and their flaws must be comically inflated: they must be portrayed as helpless, if barbaric; as children in order to exaggerate the need for immediate help. As if their poverty were not urgent enough to warrant aid, Caldwell uses their moral depravity and bestial sexuality in order to state the case clearly enough, loudly enough, to electrify the Victorian sensibilities of his audience. The problem is that, by the time Caldwell gets to his formal subversion and ensuing social message, the characters have been so ruthlessly reduced that they appear to be beyond any kind of help at all. Tobacco Road is a missionary tract which so disparages the natives that we would sooner stay at home than attempt the impossible task of saving them.
Radical though it is then, Tobacco Road moves within the familiar sphere of the propertied audience and curious exotic subjects that Longstreet's sketches had moved within nearly a hundred years before. Caldwell's novel amounts to a sort of trickle-down cure: supporting a socialist economic program through an appeal to the middle and upper classes, who could perhaps have some effect on legislation concerning the share-cropping system. The losers in this equation are the sharecroppers themselves, who become a fictional commodity in an exchange which challenges and enables the audience at their expense. Like the blackjack which comes to embody all of the Lesters, they are a species apart, ineluctably inferior: “It was a stunted variety of oak,” Caldwell writes, “that used its sap in toughening the fibres instead of growing new layers and expanding the old, as other trees did” (p. 133). The scorched earth under the blackjack patch, where Ada and Jeeter are finally buried, provides a fitting tombstone for the Lester family and a final indictment of Caldwell's atavistic approach to Southern rural poverty. By the close of the book, his formal subversion of Southern humor and his potentially incisive critique of Depression-era capitalism have been hopelessly compromised, muddled in an array of conflicting stereotypes and fantasies of rural Southern life. Though Caldwell had attempted to challenge sentimental portraiture which allowed its audience to become “accustomed to weeping over lost causes,” what he provided in its stead was part of a genre as old as sentiment itself: one which allowed readers to become accustomed to laughing over lost causes.
“Tobacco Road,” New York Herald Tribune, June 7, 1935, p. 15.
Benjamin Farley, “Erskine Caldwell: Preacher's Son and Southern Prophet,” Journal of Presbyterian History, 56 (Fall 1978), 214.
Louis D. Rubin, Jr., “Trouble on the Land: Southern Literature and the Great Depression,” in Literature at the Barricades: The American Writer in the 1930's, ed. Ralph F. Bogardus and Fred Hobson (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1982), p. 108.
John Seelye. “Georgia Boys: The Redclay Satyrs of Erskine Caldwell and Harry Crews,” Virginia Quarterly Review, 56 (1986), 619.
“Rude Beginnings of the Comic Tradition in Georgia Literature,” Journal of American Culture, 3 (Fall 1988), 52.
Henri Bergson, “Laughter,” in Comedy, ed. Wylie Sypher (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956), p. 79.
Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), p. 60.
Erskine Caldwell, Deep South: Memory and Observation (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1968), p. 276.
Kenneth K. Bailey, Southern White Protestantism in the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 112.
Kay Bonetti, “A Good Listener Speaks,” in Conversations with Erskine Caldwell; ed. Edwin T. Arnold (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988), p. 249.
You Have Seen Their Faces (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1968), p. 19.
Philip Fisher, Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 92.
Federal Writers' Project (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1950).
Additional coverage of Caldwell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R, 121; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 33; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 8, 14, 50, 60; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 86; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 19.
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