Tobacco Road Summary
by Erskine Caldwell

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Tobacco Road Summary

(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 titillated a decade of theatergoers. Seen from another perspective, Ellie May’s seduction appears only the desperate act of a neglected teenager, starved for affection. Indeed, Caldwell later suggests that Ellie May is the proper mate for Lov, who married her sister mostly because she lacked Ellie May’s disfigurement. In Tobacco Road, Caldwell comments obliquely and with great economy on a number of problems: human sexuality and love, agriculture in the South, hunger in America, the plight of the old, the place of labor in human life, and people’s relation to God.

With the appearance of Sister Bessie Rice, Caldwell investigates this latter theme, though not to the extent that he does in God’s Little Acre. Bessie, almost forty, decides that God has directed her to marry Dude and conduct a revival crusade. Like so many Protestants of fundamentalist background, Caldwell distrusts clergy, believing that a person’s relationship with God must be direct, not attained through the office of fallible intermediaries—let alone via half-baked ignoramuses such as Bessie.

Although he is lazy, dishonest, mean-spirited, and lecherous, Jeeter often provides the reader with the author’s viewpoint. Caldwell approves of Jeeter, who, despite his myriad faults, obeys his deepest instincts and trusts in God and the land. Strangely enough, the reader comes to feel the same way. Although there is little reason to believe that Jeeter will ever change his ways, in death he seems a sacrificial victim. Ultimately, one is ready—or almost ready—to believe Dude, who, in eulogizing his father, suddenly speaks about growing “a bale to an acre like Pa was always talking about doing.”


(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,...

(The entire section is 1,640 words.)