Erskine Caldwell Caldwell, Erskine (Vol. 14)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Caldwell, Erskine 1903–

A novelist and short story writer of the Deep South, Caldwell is best known for his novels Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre. Caldwell blends comic pathos and broad humor, often suggesting serious themes in a seemingly naïve manner. The family, race relations, and traditional moral values are confronted by ideological and social conflicts in many of Caldwell's finest works. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

T. K. Whipple

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Malcolm Cowley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7,024 words.)