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Caldwell, Erskine 1903–
A novelist and short story writer of the Deep South, Caldwell is best known for his novels Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre. Caldwell blends comic pathos and broad humor, often suggesting serious themes in a seemingly naïve manner. The family, race relations, and traditional moral values are confronted by ideological and social conflicts in many of Caldwell's finest works. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
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Mr. Erskine Caldwell's collection of stories "American Earth," is closer to [representing the simple American folk narrative] than any other book I know. To be sure, his field is limited—his first dozen sketches and incidents are entitled "Far South," his second twelve "Farthest East"—and he is so good a writer that the flavor of locality is strong in his work; but there is nothing necessarily local about the genre which he has chosen. It could be used equally well for all other parts of the Union.
While presumably one must not suppose that Mr. Caldwell's stories are autobiographical, it is as if he were telling offhand of things that had happened to him or that he had run into—insignificant in themselves perhaps, but somehow, though one could not say why, memorable. Always he is, or pretends to be, the unsophisticated raconteur. Character, emotion, significance, are secondary, at most implied; plot is nonexistent; he deals in sheer incident, the primal germ plasm of narrative. Of the many contemporary efforts to get back, in revolt against the overelaborate and artificial productions of recent art, to some unexhausted original rootstock, Mr. Caldwell's is one of the most successful.
Mr. Caldwell goes back even farther than the folk for his fresh start; he reverts to boyhood. Much of his best work shows that bright, wide-eyed innocent fascination with everything dirty, nasty, horrible or gruesome which is one of the strangest and most unfailing traits of small boys. Even Mr. Caldwell's treatment of sex seems somehow pre-adolescent. His writing has a fresh, direct immediacy of juvenility which is extremely rare—and since his folk, even his adults, are the sort who stay juvenile all their lives, there is no incongruity. (pp. 130-31)
Since this is his first book—with the exception of "The Bastard," which was privately printed—one expects the unevenness and uncertainty which one finds; the serious peril is not his occasional fumbling, but his too frequent affectation. His naïveté too often is plainly a self-conscious pose. He is not free from preciosity—and of all kinds of stories, preciosity is most fatal to his kind. In part, this quality springs from a too devoted imitation of Sherwood Anderson; in part from a deference, perhaps, to the [occult magazines] which have printed Mr. Caldwell's stories but with which, one suspects and hopes, Mr. Caldwell has little really in common. Especially are these effects evident in the third part of "American Earth," which contains only one long piece consisting of numerous tiny disconnected bits of fact and phantasy—a type of thing which seems, now at least, not to be the writer's forte.
Mr. Caldwell's unmistakable ability, his out-of-the-ordinary and interesting talent, and his very remarkable achievement justify us in having great hopes of him. Let us pray, however, that he may be delivered from the highbrows. (p. 131)
T. K. Whipple, "Two Judgments of 'American Earth': Part I," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1931 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. LXVII, No. 863, June 17, 1931, pp. 130-31.
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Mr. Caldwell is a literary child of the "occult" magazines…. What I dissent from in Mr. Whipple's review [see excerpt above] is that he attacks precisely the portion of "American Earth" in which the author's original qualities are most evident.
I refer, of course, to the "disconnected bits of fact and phantasy" which compose the third section of the book. Here Mr. Caldwell achieves a sort of violent poetry, simple, romantic, arbitrary and effective; it is a mood unique in American prose…. His figures of speech are expressed in terms of hyperbolic action. (p. 131)
I don't mean to imply that the whole third section of the book is on the same high level. There are trite and sentimental passages which move one to personal fury against the author; there is also, as Mr. Whipple says, a good deal of preciousness and affectation. But for [certain] figures of speech …, and for the episodes which surround them, one could forgive any amount of faulty writing. Erskine Caldwell brings a new quality into American fiction: may due credit be given to the little magazines which recognized his talent. (p. 132)
Malcolm Cowley, "Two Judgements of 'American Earth': Part II," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1931 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. LXVII, No. 863, June 17, 1931, pp. 131-32.
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[Tobacco Road was] a potent influence in the transition of popular fiction from the sentimental romance to the sexual shocker. Before Tobacco Road the sort of explicit erotic scenes that appeared in the novel were found in works of limited circulation, sanctioned by claims of artistic integrity; after attempts to suppress Tobacco Road were successfully resisted, such material became a staple product of commercial fiction designed for mass consumption.
As a social document, Tobacco Road was a highly effective instrument in the various projects of soil conservation and social welfare of the time. The intellectual climate was favorable to a view of the underprivileged South that Caldwell had dramatized so powerfully. His picture of Tobacco Road was one that inclined urban intellectual society to take a tolerant view of its own shortcomings. It was particularly congenial to a society that was undertaking, in the New Deal, large-scale ventures in state control, for the people he wrote about were plainly in no condition to help themselves. And on literary grounds Jeeter Lester is a monumental figure. He is a joke, a comic-strip character, but also a genuine imaginative creation, like something out of folklore and legend—a comic King Lear in his elemental dignity and his tattered regal composure as he struggles with flat tires, or steals turnips and philosophizes quietly on the relations of God and man—a slapstick burlesque, and yet a really great preacher, with a marvelous flow of natural and spontaneous eloquence, and simultaneously an enduring image of American rural poverty. Had the characters of Tobacco Road been drawn sympathetically, the tragedy they embody would have been at best an echo in prose of the elegy in a country graveyard; as comic characters, they make that poverty unforgettable.
There is a consistent element in all of Caldwell's novels, a concept of the people on the land as a persisting human reality, constantly compared with transient, grotesque or violent aspects of contemporary civilization. (pp. 252-53)
Caldwell's early novels were written in an ardent and crusading spirit, and their message was the human cost of the depletion of the soil, and the dehumanization of people for whom an industrialized society had no place. He wrote with passionate conviction of people who were doomed to live on Tobacco Road…. [There is] a flat oppressive atmosphere of opaque heartlessness pervading the books, the result of the dehumanization of people who no longer had any real relation to the life around them. (pp. 253-54)
Caldwell's later novels adapted the pattern to different Southern settings…. (p. 254)
As Caldwell's novels settled into a pattern, the theme of depletion became increasingly important in them. It served to account for the rigid and inflexible psychology or the malignant purposes of people who lacked the immediate economic drive of the dwellers on Tobacco Road, but who nevertheless behaved in the same fashion at a different social level….
The complete hopelessness of his characters, however, had unexpected consequences. Their dehumanization left them morally disembodied. They floated away from the world of normal reactions as if they had conquered some moral gravitational force. They were starving, certainly, and their hunger was described with bleak power, but they starved in an intermittent fashion, able to act with vigor and determination whenever the action required it. The erotic incidents were more detailed than was customary in the popular fiction of the thirties but they were relatively light-headed, or light-hearted, and touched with the same air of inconsequence. (p. 255)
However unreal or grotesque the sequences in Caldwell's novels, the one absolute is the tragedy caused by the depletion of the soil, or the deadening and hopeless routine that is followed because it was once necessary to follow it. In his fiction the psychological consequences of soil erosion and kindred evils are the central matter, and this is a side of the subject that the agricultural bulletins did not deal with. In Caldwell's world when the soil ceases to produce, something unreal and irrational saps all experience of its meaning. His farmers are spiritually dispossessed when they cling physically to land that can no longer support them, cut off from their rightful place by something they do not understand. The consequences are not only economic. The intelligence that was geared to a productive cycle does not continue to operate effectively when the cycle is broken. The reason for their customs and codes has vanished, and as a result all their doings become misplaced and untimed, unguided by necessity, or guided by the ghosts of former necessities. They seem to act out experience, rather than to experience anything, and go through the motions of something that once had significance…. (p. 256)
In Caldwell's early books there was an element of mystery about the farmers who clung to the land that could no longer support them. Why didn't they leave? There was nothing whatsoever in the sullen backwaters and crossroads that Caldwell pictured to keep anyone there. There was no love of the region or the people, no comfort, hope of gain, or fear of encountering elsewhere something worse than what they endured where they were. They were starving, and it was essential to Caldwell's view of them that they would continue to starve as long as they remained there. In Tobacco Road, it is true, Jeeter Lester has a buried affection for the country, the odor of freshly plowed ground and the smell of broomsedge smoke, mixed up with his memories of its past productivity and his determination to make it produce again. In Caldwell's later novels the situations sometimes made it necessary that at least the possibility of flight should be considered. The characters weigh the idea, sometimes even discuss it, and occasionally try, though never with hope or the vision of a different and happier existence. For the most part it seems impossible to them even to get anywhere else, a project beyond their powers, though they are not clear as to why, nor does Caldwell give a clear explanation of their sense of imprisonment….
The farmers doomed to starve on Tobacco Road, the Negroes in their cabins, and the children whose wills are crushed by domineering parents are involved in a mystery that seems increasingly sinister, characters in a horror story that is over before Caldwell begins his tale. (p. 257)
Usually … physical escape for Caldwell's characters is impossible because they make whatever environment they enter like the one they left, or because somebody manages to get the money that was supposed to be used for their fare. But occasionally, also, the grotesque and melodramatic incidents that follow their attempts to get out of Tobacco Road fit into a vaguely-outlined pattern of half-pursuit or punishment. Humor, and their utter bewilderment, obscures a sense of something malignant and relentless at work when they are away from home, and it is only in retrospect, or in view of Caldwell's novels as a whole, that the high proportion of violence in them … becomes related to their fear of the great world beyond their own barren acres. (p. 258)
The threefold destiny of Caldwell's characters hinges on their certain doom if they remain where they are, the numbed sense of helplessness that prevents their getting away, and a third element, a real or imaginary semi-organized force, perhaps merely the community of individuals with common predatory experience, perhaps a genuine underworld or underground organization, which harries them implacably through the third rails and live wires of an industrialized society if they do attempt flight. (p. 259)
In his introduction to Tobacco Road, Caldwell noted that first tobacco, and then cotton, had flourished in the Georgia farmlands; both had come and gone; "but the people, and their faith, remained." That concept of the people on the land contributed a saving simplicity to his work…. Even when his stories are hackneyed melodramas, imitations of his own successes, or labored shockers, the sense of the permanence of working the soil brings them back to earth; they are never only shockers and thrillers, and their dishonesties are the obvious fabrications of a transparently honest man. Caldwell is often critically appraised as a literary subject of the sort of doom he pictures in his novels, as a writer whose very great natural ability has been exhausted by the constant reworking of the same material. But I venture to believe that a reason both for the first impact of his books, and for the subsequent decline in his critical standing, is more directly related to something within the intellectual world itself.
We are in a creative environment not so different from the world that he pictured in Tobacco Road. Comparable scraggly and stunted blossoms are all around us. (p. 262)
No doubt every age produces its share of works that appear in their own time as the literary equivalent of stunted cotton plants on Tobacco Road. It is merely that the present state of letters is not so flourishing as to permit among literary men too superior a view of Jeeter Lester's failure to make his land produce. (pp. 263-64)
Robert Cantwell, "Caldwell's Characters: Why Don't They Leave?" in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1957, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XI, No. 3, Fall, 1957, pp. 252-64.
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Thirty years divide Tobacco Road from Annette: Mr Caldwell's obsession with stunted sexuality remains. The sharecropping paupers of Georgia might seem a far cry from middle-class life in the suburban South, but the differences between Tobacco Road and Flower Street, Zephyrifield, are superficial. The clash continues between baffled male brutality and traumatized female innocence….
[Annette's] glibly appropriate fate reflects on Mr Caldwell's glum view that all girls are innately concupiscent and get their just deserts.
Sylvia Millar, "Deflower Street," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3793, November 15, 1974, p. 1277.
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Like many travel books, Erskine Caldwell's "Afternoons In Mid-America" is fragmentary. Since neither plots nor characters generally hold travel books together, the point of unity is usually the author's observing eye. But Caldwell's eyes never stay on one thing long enough to connect it with anything else. "Afternoons In Mid-America" rushes off in all directions at once, leaving the reader dizzy and, depending on temperament, annoyed or amused.
"Afternoons In Mid-America" skips from the banks of the Mississippi, up to the Dakota Badlands, back to the town of Ogallala, Nebraska, then down into cowboy country and what used to be the dustbowl. With periodic leaps of the imagination to just about anywhere from the mountains of Tibet to the streets of Budapest, Caldwell devotes each chapter to a different mid-American town….
Caldwell fights his own centrifugal force by focusing on similarities among the inhabitants west of the Mississippi; the people interviewed repeatedly express love of the land and a sense of roots deeply embedded in a particular locale…. These people enjoy their quiet, predictable routines, appreciate the simple way of life and do not yearn for great wealth or power.
Such attitudes appear in many of Caldwell's 40-odd books, especially in those classics of his fiction, "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre." In his new book Caldwell generalizes about these attitudes and often seems to be talking more about his idea of these people than about the individuals themselves.
Ultimately, when generalizations—about the simple life, or the evils of East Coast capitalism versus Midwest populism, or whatever—take over to this extent, they stunt the development of a true unity of ideas, themes, impressions.
Generalization … was the great strength of Caldwell's early novels. His work epitomizes the slice-of-life school of fiction, so popular in the middle decades of this century. By portraying social settings, poverty, or the effects of ignorance, Caldwell conveyed powerful "messages." But such novels become static and self-conscious if they tell the reader what to think instead of demonstrating or convincing by means of the story. Caldwell's late novel about racism, "Summertime Island" slipped a little into that didactic pitfall as does "Afternoons In Mid-America."
Despite flaws, an honesty and a clear morality thread through "Afternoons In Mid-America," Caldwell's heart still goes out to the underdog and he doesn't lose track of the differences between rich and poor. An old-style internationalism emerges in his frequent remarks about the similarities between people from all parts of the globe…. So in a time when the distance between popular and academic writing continues to widen to the damage of both groups, a book neither snobbish nor sensationalistic has a point of view which is rare indeed.
Eve Ottenberg, "Caldwell Skips About Midwest," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1977 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), January 21, 1977, p. 19.
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In many of his stories Caldwell's style is so spare and so completely unadorned that the reader learns just how few of the traditional literary devices a writer can use and still create stories which are meaningful and effective. While the hallmark of Caldwell's prose style is simplicity, however, a careful investigation of the stories in such collections as American Earth, We are the Living, Kneel to the Rising Sun, Southways, Jackpot, The Complete Stories, and Georgia Boy shows that Caldwell has worked successfully with a variety of technical devices. Particularly impressive is his extensive experimentation with repetition. (p. 213)
Some of the repetition in his stories is a reflection of the Steinesque idea that people continually repeat themselves in conversation, that, in fact, repetition is one of the most fundamental qualities of speech. Nearly every character in Caldwell's fiction habitually repeats seemingly offhand phrases and sentences which often serve as indices to aspects of the character's personality. Further, instead of purposely avoiding repetitive detail in descriptive passages, Caldwell normally presents the reader with a few well-chosen aspects of a scene and then repeats them whenever the setting needs comment. The result is simple but vivid description often made memorable by the degree to which the simplicity reflects the unsophisticated lives of the characters.
In much of Caldwell's short fiction repetition also functions in more complex and unusual ways. In many stories a limited number of repeated phrases and sentences are used to emphasize various types of structure. In "The Automobile That Wouldn't Run" and "Saturday Afternoon," for example, action begins at a certain place, moves to a second location, and then returns to the starting point. In both stories the style reflects this movement…. By using repetition in this manner Caldwell gains two results. First, he brings the stories to a decisive conclusion, and second, he creates a strong final emphasis on the basic immovability of the central characters. (pp. 213-14)
In some of Caldwell's best stories repetitious style is used far more emphatically and results in three different general effects. First, in such stories as "The Medicine Man," "Where the Girls Were Different," and "August Afternoon" heavy repetition emphasizes erotic excitement. In other stories a consistent barrage of repeated lines creates a feeling of almost insane frenzy. Finally, in some stories heavy repetition causes conversations to take on symbolic implications. (p. 214)
Another general aspect of Caldwell's experimentation with repetition is his blending of repeated statements with colloquial diction, rhyme and rhythm to create stories which might be called prose folk ballads. The most successful of these stories are "Candy-Man Beechum" and "The Fly in the Coffin," both of which are attempts to portray aspects of black life in the South.
Caldwell uses colloquial diction in "Candy-Man Beechum" and "The Fly in the Coffin" in an unusual way. Most stories about blacks written by both whites and blacks are presented by narrators who use standard white American English. In "Candy-Man Beechum" and "The Fly in the Coffin," however, Caldwell uses third-person narrators who present events in a convincing rendition of black English. (pp. 220-21)
[This creates] a feeling that the reader is not simply observing events involving black people but that he is listening to tales which are products of black folk culture.
Caldwell uses repetition to develop a prose chorus in each story, and he carefully controls its appearance to emphasize aspects of the action. (p. 221)
In "The Fly in the Coffin," a yarn in which a dead man interrupts the joyous celebration of his funeral to demand a fly-swatter so he can kill a fly which has gotten trapped in his coffin, the chorus is a three-statement conversation between Aunt Marty and Woodrow. Three times Aunt Marty says, "You, Woodrow, you! Go look in that corncrib and take a look if any old flies worrying Dose" or a slight variation; three times Woodrow hesitates to obey her; and three times Aunt Marty assures Woodrow that he must protect Dose from the flies….
The ballad-like feeling created in the two stories by Caldwell's combination of colloquial diction and repetition is enhanced by his unusual use of rhyme and rhythm in specific sentences. When Candy-Man is unjustly stopped by the "white boss," for example, he says, "I never bothered whitefolks, and they sure oughtn't bother me. But there ain't much use in living if that's the way it's going to be." The rhyme of "me" and "be" is made particularly emphatic by the rhythmic similarity of the two sentences. (p. 222)
Caldwell controls both the number of repeated words, phrases, and sentences and their distribution to create a wide range of effects, many of which are exciting and unusual. He also experiments with colloquial diction and with rhyme and rhythm and blends these aspects of style with repetition to create vibrantly musical folk ballads, prose pieces which may be unique in English. (p. 223)
Scott MacDonald, "Repetition as Technique in the Short Stories of Erskine Caldwell," in Studies in American Fiction (copyright © 1977 Northeastern University), Vol. 5, No. 2, Autumn, 1977, pp. 213-25.
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[Caldwell's theme] is one of degeneracy—the reduction of the human being to the lowest possible levels of his experience. In appearance, at least, his rural characters bear no resemblance to the Jeffersonian yeoman whatsoever. Grotesques responding only to a basic physical urge, they represent an abstraction not merely from the human to the animal but from the complete animal to a single instinct…. Caldwell insists upon keeping his readers at a distance—on presenting his [characters] entirely in terms of externals and, in the process, dehumanizing [them]. (p. 112)
Nearly all of his country folk (the title seems a much more appropriate one than "farmer") operate between the poles of greed and sexual desire, and such comedy as his novels possess is generally the result of the violence that either or both of these instincts tend to provoke. In fact, the comic note is at its wildest in his fiction when the two instincts actually clash, throwing the victim of the subsequent cross fire into confusion. (pp. 112-13)
Caldwell owes a profound debt to the Southwestern humorists, and to George Washington Harris in particular—a debt that is betrayed among other things by their common dependence on a broad and grotesque type of comedy. The specific borrowings from Harris are at their most obvious in Georgia Boy,… in which the boy of the title recounts the antics of his "old man," and in the process draws us the portrait of a delightful and impoverished scapegrace not unlike Sut Lovingood [Harris's major character] himself. But these are less interesting, I believe, than the kind of understanding of Harris and his methods that can be inferred from Caldwell's more important fiction—by which I mean from Tobacco Road, God's Little Acre, and perhaps Tragic Ground as well. In such cases it is not merely the surface structure of Southwestern humor that is recovered but the relationship obtaining between that structure and the ulterior purposes of the writer. Comic these books may be, but the comedy is all the sharper, the wit all the more pungent and the characters that much more striking, because (just as in Sut Lovingood) everything is unambiguously attached to an underlying and genuinely serious series of intentions.
Exactly how these intentions manifest themselves is (again as in Sut Lovingood) as much a matter of context as anything else, the total situation in which the humorous moments are played out. The comedy is still a comedy of waste, of human potential denied and frustrated, and that fact is communicated to the reader in part by Caldwell's barren landscapes—whether it be the decayed rural landscape where his farmers are described living in reluctant exile or the urban scene, to which they may retreat occasionally in pursuit of an illusory alternative…. Caldwell sees the hopelessness of the rural landscape penetrating the town, to make it unavailable as a resource for impoverished farmers. A common dust … settles over city and adjacent countryside alike, so creating a pervasive sense of fruitlessness. And this is the stage on which the Lesters, the Waldens in God's Little Acre and all their kind must act out their comedies of frustration; or, to be more accurate, this is the environment that prescribes their frustrated lives.
That it is a comedy of frustration we are concerned with here, a series of appropriate responses to a thwarting environment, is witnessed by the habitual activity of Caldwell's characters. For the gestures that make them comic have nothing at all to do with intrinsic evil, however violent and grotesque they may appear to be. On the contrary, Jeeter Lester and Ty Ty Walden (in God's Little Acre) are exactly like Sut Lovingood in that they are presented as the victims of evil, whose strange behavior demonstrates the response of the innocent to circumstances he cannot control. The whole trouble with Caldwell's characters, as with Harris's is that they have no relevant connection with the emergent social structure, and so are at best anomalies in that structure and at worst encumbrances to it. And Caldwell, unlike Harris, makes sure that the reader is aware of this by explaining, very early on in most of his novels, how people like the Lester family and the Waldens have become the way they are. Both the Lesters and the Waldens were, we learn, once well-to-do landowners. But they fell upon hard times—partly as a result of natural fluctuations in the cotton and tobacco markets, and partly thanks to the machinations of the financiers, the bankers, and the Wall Street brokers…. In effect, big business has assumed direct control of farming, rather than working through the power of its credit, and in doing so has created a new, large-scale agricultural system in which the Jeeter Lesters and Ty Ty Waldens of this world have no place. Jeeter, Ty Ty, and their kind have been turned into anachronisms, an irrelevant nuisance to the present owners of the land; and the most they can hope for, really, is that they will be left alone on the farms they occupy, to eke a meager existence out of them.
This, more or less, is the starting point for nearly all of Caldwell's fiction, and certainly the basis of his finest novels. The farmer, he argues, has been "robbed of his livelihood by the downfall of the old systems of agriculture," and this in turn has led to the physical deterioration we now see and to his moral collapse. Treated like an animal he has become an animal; excluded from the human community in an economic sense he has degenerated into a kind of moral leper as well, whose humanity is more a matter of biology than of character. The argument is an utterly deterministic one, of course. But, then, so also is the argument implicit in most stories of the old Southwest. More to the point, the determinism is not, I think, objectionable because it can be seen as part of a total strategy of caricature. Life is simplified and character is distorted in Caldwell's fiction, it may be true, but this is done in a conscious and valuable way—so as to isolate certain specific aspects of the author's given experience and, in isolating them, to explain them.
Given this self-conscious determinism of approach, and the tendencies toward caricature and generalization that accompany it, it becomes less surprising, I think, that Caldwell should impose the status of a demonstration on every aspect of his characters' behavior; the reader is, after all, being summoned to witness what is likely to happen when a certain type of social and historical situation exists. There is a profoundly illustrative quality, for instance, not just about particular scenes in Tobacco Road but about its major source of comedy. This is Jeeter Lester's belief that one year, next year perhaps, he will be able to plant a tobacco crop. Under the influence of this belief, he is forever burning the ground in preparation for the planting until eventually, at the end of the novel, he sets fire to his own house, killing himself and his wife in the process. The belief is an idiosyncratic one, certainly, leading to situations that range from the ludicrous to the macabre, but not so idiosyncratic that it cannot act as a gauge of Jeeter's innocence, and the desperate nature of a situation that imposes such desperate remedies on its victims. Similarly, Ty Ty Walden's habitual activity of digging up his land in search of gold, absurd though it may appear to be, is founded on the supremely illogical and revealing logic of the helpless naïf. He cannot live on what he gets out of the land, Ty Ty reasons, so why not try to live on what he finds in it? There is perhaps a hint of blasphemy in his behavior too …—the idea that rooting about in the land for gold, oil, or whatever represents a despoliation, an act of rape that is the very opposite of the enrichment offered to the soil by the agricultural activity. But whether this is part of Caldwell's intention or not, there can be little doubt, I think, that he does intend Ty Ty's behavior, like Jeeter's, to achieve the apparently paradoxical feat of being representative by virtue of its idiosyncrasy. Its illustrative quality, that is—as an indication of rural decline and the despair to which this decline leads—is made to depend for its impact on the comic absurdity of the illustration.
The humor is not left in isolation, though, to carry the entire freight of meaning of the book unaided. As in Sut Lovingood, the dominant strain of comedy is punctuated by an occasional lyric note that reminds us of what might have been in more favorable circumstances—of how people like Jeeter Lester and Ty Ty Walden could have developed given the proper opportunity. The few times that Jeeter is allowed to express his "inherited love of the land" offer us some beautiful instances of this…. [Such lyric passages help] us to recognize and to accept the latent dignity of the speaker…. [They also] contribute a new dimension of feeling to the narrative, a sense of pathos that depends upon seeing that, within the limits established by the comedy, the desires expressed here are destined to remain unconsummated. (pp. 118-122)
It is only a step beyond this strategy of contrast between the comic episode and the lyric moment to that of placing active commentary in the mouths of the characters—commentary, that is, that does not simply imply a criticism of the given situation but insists upon it. Needless to say, Caldwell frequently takes this step. His characters suddenly pause, as Jeeter does when he is stealing the bag of turnips, and turn upon their own grotesque attitudes in order to explain them…. [Caldwell] makes his characters articulate their own sufferings, so that we are never left in any doubt as to where to place the blame. (p. 122)
Caldwell has complicated the function of reporter by adding to it that of the caricaturist, a creator of the grotesque. On top of that, he has forced on the reader an attitude of radical detachment…. [Characters] as well as the audience seem to be made aware of the illustrative quality of the action. As a resource this attitude of detachment is, of course, just as much of an inheritance from Southwestern humor as the strategy of caricature is. But Caldwell develops it much further than any previous humorist ever did…. [The] distance placed between reader and character in Caldwell's best fiction is, I think, significantly related—both in its purposes and its effects—to Brecht's core idea of Vermfremdung, or audience alienation. The idea, stated simply, is this: that in an "epic" play the audience, instead of being invited to involve themselves in the action, should be forced to adopt an attitude of clinical detachment toward it. Consequently, what happens on stage will be witnessed as an explicable social phenomenon with its own definite causes and room for subsequent maneuver. The sense of an experience participated in is forfeited, according to this theory, but what (ideally) is gained in its stead is a new certainty—the knowledge that comes from having located the dramatic action firmly in its historical time and social place. The events the writer describes become part of an explicable series—their origins understood, the problems they pose carefully defined, and solutions to these problems offered, ready and waiting, for the audience to act upon. This is very much the notion of playwright—or novelist or poet—as scientific historian, and committed scientific historian at that. (p. 123)
The sense of problem solving—the feeling that we are being asked to look at the action in very much the same spirit as a scientist looks at an experiment—is in fact as pronounced in books like Tobacco Road as it could be in any "epic" play—more pronounced, even, since Caldwell likes to add his own comments to those he puts in the mouths of his characters. Asides from the author occasionally supplement asides from his creations, so as to make the didactic intention of the story perfectly clear. This, admittedly, has some use simply because it helps to settle any doubts that may be left in the reader's mind—both about what Caldwell is trying to do, and what he is trying to say. But, on the whole, I think it is a mistake. At such moments, it is very difficult for him not to sound like a schoolmaster talking to an exceptionally dull pupil…. [The] specific proposals he makes are pretty various—ranging as they do from pleas for more government aid to the occasional invocation of the principle of self-help, and taking in agricultural schools, crop rotation, and land recovery along the way. The variety of his proposals, however, should not prevent us from seeing that everything he says stems ultimately from one core belief, a single premise. This is how Caldwell states that premise in one of his books.
Until the agricultural worker commands his own farm, either as an individual or as a member of a state-allotted farm group, the Southern tenant farmer will continue to be bound hand and foot in economic slavery.
Caldwell, as I think this brief passage indicates, is finally a traditional writer. His characters are traditional; his humor is traditional (although, certainly, it is broader and wilder than the Southwestern humorists' ever was); above all, the social and political program implicit in his work is traditional. For what that program boils down to is a belief in the pieties of the small farm. The dream of a chosen people tilling their own fields in perfect freedom: that is the dream Caldwell expresses here—and that also is the dream which dictates nearly all of his problem solving. No matter how little we may realize it while we are enjoying some of the surface details of his comedy, Caldwell—in every one of his finest stories—is trying to draw us back steadily into the world of Jeffersonian myth.
Once we realize this—that the ideal of the good farmer hovers as an admonitory image at the back of Caldwell's best novels and tales—then, I think, the principal reason for the almost apocalyptic violence of his work becomes clear. All the events that occur in books like Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre are wild and grotesque, ultimately, because they represent for their creator such a radical departure from the Jeffersonian norm. Jeeter Lester and Ty Ty Walden are not the noble farmers of regional legend and the fact that they are not, the fact that they stand for a dream or an ideal betrayed, is, I believe, meant to be the real measure of their absurdity. No blame attaches to Jeeter or Ty Ty for their plight, far from it, but that only makes it the more difficult to bear—the more difficult for them to bear, that is, for their author to bear and, most important of all, for us to bear as well. For it would be putting matters in their right perspective, I think, to say that Caldwell insists on the difference between Jefferson's tillers of the earth and his own Georgia crackers, and then imposes full responsibility for this difference upon a corrupt social machine, precisely so as to arouse our anger and encourage our demands for change. (pp. 124-25)
[In] some of the stories that he wrote after Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, these beginnings are carried through to a detailed portrait of that alternative. Caldwell then shows us the reorganization of farm management and the restructuring of rural society actually taking place, and being succeeded in turn by a revival of spirit among his characters. Obviously, the intended effect of these stories is one of uplift; the author wants us to experience a sense of release because the oppressive circumstances, and with them the claustrophobic atmosphere, of the earlier narratives have been dissolved. Their actual effect is a lot less exhilarating than that, however, and the reasons for this take us right back to the virtues of that earlier work: we can define why Caldwell succeeded in Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre by understanding why he is failing now. For what Caldwell does as a preliminary to drawing his portrait of a better life is to take his rural folk out of the grotesque, comic world of the Lesters and the Waldens—which is a necessary step, certainly, but one that deprives him of his previous excuses for the simplifications and determinism of his argument. The one-sided portrait can no longer be defended as part of a satirical strategy. And having done this he does not really know what to do with his people, because he does not have any other satisfactory approach available to him—one which would make them meaningful and at the same time vivid and believable too. His characters have lost the power of a Jeeter Lester—the power, that is, deriving from the deliberately isolating and exaggerating tendencies of the comic method—without acquiring any of the more complicated interest, or more sophisticated contact with their time and place, that the participants in a more strictly "realistic" fiction should possess…. [They] have no imaginative life of their own…. They are merely mouthpieces for utopian attitudes…. The values, previously implied, have been allowed to occupy center stage; and—unfortunately for Caldwell—they have not benefited in the process either from an involvement in credible experience, or from contact with the sort of vivifying literary medium that the comic tradition of the old Southwest represents. (pp. 126-27)
As in all the best Southern literature,… idea and event are made to interact so as to produce a thoroughly traditional reading of the environment—a reading, that is to say, that depends on the earlier history of that environment without being circumscribed by it. But in later novels like A House in the Uplands this interaction more or less ceases. The idea remains unenlivened by any contact with experience; or, on those occasions when Caldwell does return to journalism—a comic account of things as they are—that journalism does not seem to have an ulterior motive any more. It no longer radiates the kind of significance that would come from its being placed within the framework of a controlling idea. Idea or event, dream or journalistic report: the two things exist separately, even if they both occur within the covers of one book. And what we are left with, consequently, is either heroic posturing … or a descent into episodes of comic violence and degeneracy that have no purpose beyond themselves, that are, in a word, sensationalistic. We are not being asked to register the gap between fact and potential any longer; only to indulge in daydreaming about what might happen in the best of all possible worlds, or to enjoy the cheaper thrills offered by a random and meaningless enumeration of some of the more sordid facts of life. The strategy of detachment is, in sum, replaced by one of vicarious excitement. This is a sad end for somebody like Caldwell, who started off so well…. [This is] what happens when the functions of reporter and mythologizer are separated for a writer—and history is then translated by him into a refuge for some dormant principle or, alternatively, into a series of disconnected happenings. (pp. 127-28)
Richard Gray, "The Good Farmer: Some Variations on a Historical Theme," in his The Literature of Memory: Modern Writers of the American South (copyright © 1977 by Richard Gray), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977, pp. 106-49.∗
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