Erskine Caldwell Caldwell, Erskine (Vol. 14) - Essay


(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...

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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 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.

Robert Cantwell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Sylvia Millar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Eve Ottenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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