Discussion Topics

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Identify the criticisms frequently made of Erskine Caldwell’s work in the 1930’s. Are any of them based on common obsessions of the time and might well be judged unfair from today’s perspective?

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What character traits of Jeeter Lester in Tobacco Road help make him an acceptable protagonist despite his many serious faults?

What themes in Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre most clearly mark them as Depression-era novels?

What distinctively southern attitudes and values permeate Caldwell’s fiction?

Caldwell is reputed to possess a “comic vision.” Is a comic vision more than merely seeing “the funny side of life”? Does it require happy endings? What do you think is the essence of a comic vision?

Other Literary Forms

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The corpus of Erskine Caldwell’s work includes more than fifty-five volumes published in forty-three languages, with more than eighty million copies sold. Caldwell wrote approximately thirty novels, three books of social criticism and travel sketches, two autobiographies, two books for children, four “photo-text” coffee-table books, screenplays for Hollywood, and various pieces as a newspaper correspondent. His novel Tobacco Road (1932) was adapted to the stage by Jack Kirkland and ran for 3,182 performances.

Achievements

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Erskine Caldwell is finally regaining his place as one of the United States’ important writers. In a remarkable literary career that covered more than six decades, Caldwell gained fame in the early 1930’s for his novels Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre (1933). He became one of the country’s most controversial, banned, and censored authors, as well as one of the most financially successful. For some years it even became fashionable to denigrate his work, and he lapsed into relative obscurity for a time, but the 1980’s witnessed a revival. Caldwell, who always preferred a quiet life, lived long enough to see the change in public opinion. He remains first and foremost a southern writer who belongs to the naturalistic tradition. He was instrumental in promoting a realistic portrayal of life in the United States, particularly the South. His style of writing has always been simple and direct. Caldwell often has been associated with Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner as one of the South’s celebrated authors. In fact, Faulkner once praised the writer for his fiction. Caldwell’s wide range of literary output is remarkable and encompasses short stories, novels and novellas, text-picture documentaries, and children’s books. Throughout his life Caldwell received a number of awards ranging from the Yale Review award for fiction in 1933 to the Republic of Poland’s Order of Cultural Merit in 1981. Two years later he was given the Republic of France’s Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and the following year was elevated to the select body of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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Erskine Caldwell’s first published work was “The Georgia Cracker,” a 1926 article. Other pieces were printed in “little” magazines, and then in Scribner’s Magazine. For several decades, he regularly wrote articles for magazines and newspapers. He produced several nonfiction books, some in collaboration with photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White (at one time his wife): You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), North of the Danube (1939), All-Out on the Road to Smolensk (1942), and Russia at War (1942). His collections of short stories include American Earth (1931), We Are the Living: Brief Stories (1933), Kneel to the Rising Sun, and Other Stories (1935), Southways: Stories (1938), and Jackpot: Collected Short Stories (1950).

Achievements

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Erskine Caldwell’s books have been published in some thirty-four countries, with more than three hundred editions released in such languages as Croatian, Chinese, Slovene, Turkmenian, Arabic, Danish, Hebrew, Icelandic, Russian, and Turkish. Caldwell has been called the best-selling writer in the United States. In 1933, he received the Yale Review award for fiction for his short story “Country Full of Swedes.” Between 1940 and 1955, he was editor of twenty-five volumes of the regional book series American Folkways for the publishing house of Duell, Sloan and Pearce. His novel Tobacco Road was adapted for the stage in 1934 by Jack Kirkland and ran seven and a half years on Broadway, a record run. John Ford directed a motion-picture adaptation that was released in 1941. A film version of Claudelle Inglish was released in 1961. God’s Little Acre, possibly Caldwell’s best-known novel, sold more than eight million copies in paperback in the United States alone; a film version was released in 1958.

Bibliography

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Arnold, Edwin T., ed. Conversations with Erskine Caldwell. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. Collection of more than thirty articles about and interviews with Caldwell covers a wide range of subjects. Provides good insight into both Caldwell the writer and Caldwell the man. Includes an informative introduction and a chronology.

Arnold, Edwin T. Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Caldwell, Erskine. With All My Might: An Autobiography. Atlanta: Peachtree, 1987. Caldwell’s second autobiography is his final work and was published a month before his death. A chatty and informative style suffuses the book and affords an interesting glimpse of Caldwell’s remarkable career.

Cook, Sylvia Jenkins. Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Poverty: The Flesh and the Spirit. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991. Contains chapters on Caldwell’s apprenticeship years as a writer, his short stories, his novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and his later novels dealing with sex, race, and degeneracy. A concluding chapter discusses Caldwell and his critics. Includes bibliography and index.

Devlin, James E. Erskine Caldwell. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Provides a good but limited introduction to Caldwell’s literary career. Contains an interesting overview on the writer’s career, five chapters covering individual works, and a final assessment. Supplemented by a chronology, notes and references, and a select bibliography.

Klevar, Harvey L. Erskine Caldwell: A Biography. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. Biography draws on both extensive archival research and interviews with Caldwell. Explores the regional context of Caldwell’s life and writing, emphasizing the reasons for the popular and critical success of the author’s early fiction and the decline of his later work.

Korges, James. Erskine Caldwell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. Brief volume examines Caldwell’s early work. Korges asserts that Caldwell had a great comic vision and that he should be recognized as one of the most important American writers. Augmented by a select bibliography.

McDonald, Robert L., ed. The Critical Response to Erskine Caldwell. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Collection includes reviews of Caldwell’s major works, scholarly discussions of his themes and techniques, and academic analyses of the image of the South presented in his fiction.

McDonald, Robert L., ed. Reading Erskine Caldwell: New Essays. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. Collection of twelve essays examines Caldwell as a novelist, a humorist, and a modernist. Some of the essays focus on Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre, and Trouble in July.

MacDonald, Scott, ed. Critical Essays on Erskine Caldwell. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Excellent collection of critical essays on Caldwell, arranged chronologically, constitutes a good introduction to the author’s work. Includes eight essays by Caldwell himself.

Miller, Dan B. Erskine Caldwell: The Journey from Tobacco Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Biography focuses on Caldwell’s first forty years, detailing his growing up in the culture of the American South and placing his writing in the context of the events of his life.

Pembroke Magazine 11 (1979). This special issue, devoted to Caldwell on the occasion of his seventy-sixth year, contains a large number of articles, many of them characterized by a note of nostalgia. Old friends, scholars, and foreign admirers acknowledge the septuagenarian’s realism, politics, and permanent contribution to American fiction.

Silver, Andrew. “Laughing over Lost Causes: Erskine Caldwell’s Quarrel with Southern Humor.” Mississippi Quarterly 50 (Winter, 1996/1997): 51-68. Discusses some of the characteristics of nineteenth century American frontier humor inherited by Caldwell, such as the narrator as cultured observer of frontier rustics. Argues that Caldwell subverts southern humor and critiques Depression-era capitalism.

Stevens, C. J. Storyteller: A Life of Erskine Caldwell. Phillips, Maine: John Wade, 2000. Comprehensive biography traces the details of Caldwell’s life and discusses his “complicated personality.” Describes how he wrote his novels and other works and also summarizes their contents.

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