(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Tobacco Road, Caldwell’s fourth novel (counting The Bogus Ones, discovered in 1978), remains the book for which he is best remembered. Narrated in an episodic fashion, it quickly reveals more of theme and meaning than would a more organically developed effort. In Tobacco Road, Jeeter Lester and his wife, Ada, live in a decaying cabin with his silent mother and two of their fifteen children, the hare-lipped Ellie May and her younger brother Dude. Like the tobacco road on which they live, once a means of delivering hogsheads of tobacco to the Savannah River, and like the fields around them, they are obsolete and worn out.

When Lov Bensey arrives to seek Jeeter’s help in getting his child-wife, one of Jeter’s daughters, to speak to him and sleep with him, Jeeter regards the visit as an opportunity to steal turnips he suspects are in the sack Lov carries. Times in Georgia are so hard that “Captain” John has moved to Augusta, cutting off the credit that his tenant farmers like Jeeter need to eat and to acquire seed cotton and fertilizer for the tired soil. In no more than three brief chapters of Tobacco Road, Caldwell reveals the silent, loveless existence of his exploited country people and exposes the obsolete sharecropping system that controls their empty lives.

Lov is soon robbed of his turnips and seduced by Ellie May in a scene that is mostly suggested in the novel but was graphic enough to have...

(The entire section is 520 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Tobacco Road is Erskine Caldwell’s tragicomic exposé of poverty and ignorance among a family of Georgia sharecroppers during the Depression. It establishes the paradox of Southern poor whites: They are lazy, amoral, shameless, and debased, but at the same time they are innocent, free, and uncontaminated by social hypocrisies. Jeeter Lester, the central character, derives an existential nobility from his unquestioning faith in God’s anticipated (but never realized) beneficence. As spring approaches, he lays plans to plow the fields, if by some miracle he can acquire a mule, seed cotton, and fertilizer. He has made that same plan—and failed to effect it—every year for the past eight, since the landowner left him to fend for himself against eroding soil and falling cotton prices. Lacking either credit or prospects, Jeeter cannot imagine himself apart from the land, so his only action is inaction. He dreams and sleeps, plots and starves, while life goes on unchanged.

The Lester family expects little and receives less. Jeeter’s wife, Ada, wishes only for a fashionable dress to wear in her coffin, a fantasy never realized. She and her husband die in a fire. Their teenage son, Dude, finds short-term joy when a middle-aged neighbor and self-ordained preacher, Bessie, declares herself married to the boy and spends every penny she has on a new car. Dude drives the car and honks the horn incessantly for two days, succeeding only in demolishing...

(The entire section is 408 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Lov Bensey, husband of Pearl, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Jeeter Lester, feels low in his mind when he stops by the Lester house on his way home with a bag of turnips. Pearl, he complains, refuses to have anything to do with him; she will neither sleep with him nor talk to him.

The Lesters live in a one-room shack that is falling apart. They have nothing to eat but pork rind soup. Jeeter is trying to patch an inner tube so that the Lester car, a nondescript wreck that was refused even by the junk dealer, can be used to carry firewood to Augusta. Jeeter’s harelipped daughter, Ellie May, charms Lov away from his bag of turnips. While she and Lov are flirting in the yard in front of the shack, the other Lesters pounce upon the bag of turnips. Jeeter grabs it and runs into the scrub woods, followed by his worthless son Dude. Jeeter eats his fill of turnips. He gives Dude several and even saves a handful for the rest of the family. They return from the woods to find Lov gone. Sister Bessie, a woman preacher, comes for a visit. Bessie, middle-aged, and Dude, sixteen, are attracted to each other. Bessie, upon leaving, promises to return to elope with Dude.

The Lesters are starving. Jeeter has long been unable to get credit at the local stores in order to buy seed, fertilizer, and food. His land is exhausted, and there is no chance of reclaiming it because of Jeeter’s utter laziness. Jeeter and his wife Ada had seventeen children. Twelve of them survived, and all except Ellie May and Dude left home.

Bessie returns and announces that God gave her permission to marry Dude, but Dude refuses to listen until Bessie says that she is planning to buy a new car with some money that her late husband left her. She...

(The entire section is 712 words.)