In Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell relied on a combination of humor and social consciousness that sometimes created confusion among critics. They wondered if they were to laugh at the impoverished and degraded characters he described or sympathize with them. They questioned whether humor was the best way to inspire social change.
Caldwell was made acquainted with the social conditions of the persons he described by his minister father. Besides helping the poor of every denomination, Ira Caldwell was also an amateur sociologist, who published his observations of the white people who lived in poverty in Georgia in Eugenics, a magazine concerned with the devolution of society. Entitled “The Bunglers,” Ira’s series of articles detailed the nearly hopeless condition of the rural poor. Caldwell, who accompanied his father on his visits to impoverished households, fictionalized many of the same facts mentioned in his father’s articles.
The literary movement of naturalism, which served as a vehicle for similar subject matter in the fiction of Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Stephen Crane, was congenial to Caldwell’s purpose. Like other naturalistic works, Tobacco Road uses stark, realistic detail to establish its characters on the bottom of society, among its poorest and most degraded elements. Caldwell’s purposes in choosing characters so remote from middle-class norms are to shock his readers out of their complacency and to call attention to the devastating effects of poverty. The details of the lives he chooses to describe are stripped of any civilized buffer. He prods his audience with Ellie’s harelip, Ada’s pleurisy, Grandmother’s pellagra, Pearl’s marriage at a young age, and Jeeter’s chronic laziness resulting from malnutrition. He dramatizes a Darwinian struggle for survival over a bag of turnips; the...
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