Caldwell, Erskine 1903–1987

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Caldwell, Erskine 1903–1987

(Erskine Preston Caldwell)

PERSONAL: Born December 17, 1903, in White Oak (some sources say Moreland), GA; died of emphysema and lung cancer, April 11, 1987, in Paradise Valley, AZ; son of Ira Sylvester (a minister) and Caroline Preston (a schoolteacher; maiden name, Bell) Caldwell; married Helen Lannigan, March 3, 1925 (divorced); married Margaret Bourke-White (a photographer), February 27, 1939 (divorced, 1942); married June Johnson, December 21, 1942 (divorced, 1955); married Virginia Moffett Fletcher, January 1, 1957; children: (first marriage) Erskine Preston, Dabney Withers, Janet; (third marriage) Jay Erskine. Education: Attended Erskine College, 1920–21, University of Virginia, 1922–26, and University of Pennsylvania, 1924.

CAREER: Held various jobs, including mill laborer, cotton picker, cook, waiter, taxicab driver, farmhand, cottonseed shoveler, stonemason's helper, soda jerk, professional football player, bodyguard, stagehand in a burlesque theater, and a hand on a boat running guns to a Central American country in revolt; Journal, Atlanta, GA, reporter, 1925; script writer in Hollywood, CA, 1933–34 and 1942–43; newspaper correspondent in Mexico, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and China, 1938–40; war correspondent in Russia for Life magazine, PM, and Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 1941; writer.

MEMBER: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (honorary member), Authors League of America, PEN, Phoenix Press Club (life member), San Francisco Press Club (life member), Euphemian Society, Raven Society.

AWARDS, HONORS: Yale Review Award for fiction, 1933, for short story "Country Full of Swedes."


The Bastard (novel; also see below), illustrated by Ty Mahon, Heron Press (New York, NY), 1929.

Poor Fool (novel; also see below), illustrated by Alexander Couard, Rariora Press (New York, NY), 1930, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1994.

American Earth (short story collection), Scribner's (New York, NY), 1931, published as A Swell-Looking Girl, MacFadden-Bartell, 1965.

Mamma's Little Girl, privately printed, 1932.

Tobacco Road (novel; also see below), illustrated by Margaret Bourke-White, Scribner's (New York, NY), 1932, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1995.

Message for Genevieve, privately printed, 1933.

God's Little Acre (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1933, illustrated by Milton Glaser, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1962, illustrated by Harry Schaare, Franklin Library (Franklin Center, PA), 1979, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1995.

We Are the Living (short story collection), Viking (New York, NY), 1933.

Some American People, R.M. McBride & Co. (New York, NY), 1935.

Tenant Farmer, Phalanx Press (New York, NY), 1935.

Journeyman (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1935, with a foreword by Edwin T. Arnold, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1996.

Kneel to the Rising Sun and Other Stories by Erskine Caldwell, Viking (New York, NY), 1935, published as Kneel to the Rising Sun, White Lion Publishers (New York, NY), 1973.

The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (novel; also see below), illustrated by Ralph Frizzell, Falmouth Book House (Portland, ME), 1936, reprinted with illustrations by Alexander Calder, Galerie Maeght, 1975, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1995.

You Have Seen Their Faces (nonfiction), photographs by Margaret Bourke-White, Viking (New York, NY), 1937, with a foreword by Alan Trachtenberg, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1995.

Southways (short story collection), Viking (New York, NY), 1938.

North of the Danube (nonfiction), photographs by Margaret Bourke-White, Viking (New York, NY), 1939, Da Capo Press (New York, NY), 1977.

Trouble in July (novel; also see below), Duell (New York, NY), 1940, with a foreword by Bryant Simon, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1999.

Jackpot: The Short Stories of Erskine Caldwell (also see below), Duell (New York, NY), 1940.

Complete Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1941.

Say, Is This the U.S.A.? (nonfiction), photographs by Margaret Bourke-White, Duell (New York, NY), 1941, Da Capo Press (New York, NY), 1977.

All Night Long: A Novel of Guerrilla Warfare in Russia, Duell (New York, NY), 1942.

All-out on the Road to Smolensk (nonfiction), Duell (New York, NY), 1942, published as Moscow under Fire: A Wartime Diary, 1941, Hutchinson (London, England), 1942.

Russia at War (nonfiction), photographs by Margaret Bourke-White, Hutchinson (London, England), 1942.

Georgia Boy (novel; also see below), Duell (New York, NY), 1943, published as Georgia Boy and Other Stories, Avon, 1946, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1995.

Twenty-two Great Modern Short Stories from Jackpot, Avon (New York, NY), 1944.

Stories by Erskine Caldwell, edited and with a foreword by Henry Seidel Canby, Duell (New York, NY), 1944.

Tragic Ground (novel; also see below), Duell (New York, NY), 1944.

A Day's Wooing and Other Stories, Grosset (New York, NY), 1944.

The Caldwell Caravan: Novels and Stories by Erskine Caldwell, World Publishing (Cleveland, OH), 1946.

A House in the Uplands (novel), Duell (New York, NY), 1946.

The Sure Hand of God (novel; also see below), Duell (New York, NY), 1947, White Lion Publishers (London, England), 1973.

Midsummer Passion and Other Stories from Jackpot, Avon (New York, NY), 1948.

This Very Earth (novel), Duell (New York, NY), 1948.

Where the Girls Were Different and Other Stories, Avon (New York, NY), 1948, published as Where the Girls Were Different, MacFadden-Bartell, 1965.

Place Called Estherville (novel), Duell (New York, NY), 1949.

Episode in Palmetto (novel), Duell (New York, NY), 1950.

(Editor) Albert Nathaniel Williams, Rocky Mountain Country, Duell (New York, NY), 1950.

The Humorous Side of Erskine Caldwell, edited by Robert Cantwell, Duell (New York, NY), 1951.

Call It Experience: The Years of Learning How to Write, Duell (New York, NY), 1951, published as Call It Experience, MacFadden-Bartell, 1966, with a foreword by Erik Bledsoe, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1996.

The Courting of Susie Brown (short story collection), Duell (New York, NY), 1952, published as The Courting of Susie Brown and Other Stories, Pan Books (England), 1958.

A Lamp for Nightfall (novel), Duell (New York, NY), 1952.

Complete Stories, Duell (New York, NY), 1953, published as The Complete Stories of Erskine Caldwell, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1953.

Love and Money (novel), Duell (New York, NY), 1954.

Gretta (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1955.

Gulf Coast Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1956.

The Pocket Book of Erskine Caldwell Stories: Thirty-one of the Most Famous Short Stories, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1957.

Certain Women (short story collection), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1957.

Molly Cottontail (for children), illustrated by William Sharp, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1958.

Claudelle Inglish (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1959, published as Claudelle, Heinemann (London, England), 1959.

When You Think of Me (short story collection), illustrated by Louis Macouillard, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1959.

Three by Caldwell—Tobacco Road, Georgia Boy, The Sure Hand of God: Three Great Novels of the South, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1960.

Men and Women: Twenty-two Stories, edited and with an introduction by Carvel Collins, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1961, published as Men and Women, MacFadden-Bartell, 1965.

Jenny by Nature (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1961.

Close to Home (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1962.

The Bastard, Poor Fool and The Sacrilege of Alan Kent, Bodley Head (London, England), 1963.

The Last Night of Summer (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1963.

A Woman in the House, MacFadden-Bartell, 1964.

Around about America (nonfiction), illustrated by Virginia M. Caldwell, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1964.

In Search of Bisco, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1965, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1995.

The Deer at Our House (for children), illustrated by Ben Wohlberg, Collier (New York, NY), 1966.

In the Shadow of the Steeple (also see below), Heinemann (London, England), 1967.

Writing in America, Phaedra Publishers (New York, NY), 1967.

Miss Mamma Aimee (novel), New American Library (New York, NY), 1967.

Summertime Island (novel), World Publishing (New York, NY), 1968.

Deep South: Memory and Observation (nonfiction; Part 1 first published in England as In the Shadow of the Steeple), Weybright (New York, NY), 1968, with a foreword by Guy Owen, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1980, 1995.

The Weather Shelter (novel), World Publishing (New York, NY), 1969.

The Earnshaw Neighborhood (novel), World Publishing (New York, NY), 1971.

Annette (novel), New American Library (New York, NY), 1973.

Afternoons in Mid-America: Observations and Impressions (nonfiction), illustrated by Virginia M. Caldwell, Dodd (New York, NY), 1976.

Tragic Ground [and] Trouble in July, with an introduction by Calder Willingham, New American Library (New York, NY), 1979.

Stories, illustrated by Dennis Lyall, Franklin Library (Franklin Center, PA), 1980.

Stories of Life, North and South: Selections from the Best Short Stories of Erskine Caldwell, edited by Edward Connery Lathem, Dodd (New York, NY), 1983.

The Black and White Stories of Erskine Caldwell, edited by Ray McIver, Peachtree Publications (Atlanta, GA), 1984.

With All My Might (autobiography), Peachtree Publications (Atlanta, GA), 1987.

Conversations with Erskine Caldwell, edited by Edwin T. Arnold, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1988.

(Editor) North Callahan, Smoky Mountain Country, Smoky Mountain Historical Society (Sevierville, TN), 1988.

Midsummer Passion and Other Tales of Maine Cussedness, introduction by Upton Birnie, edited by Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg, Yankee Books (Camden, ME), 1990.

The Stories of Erskine Caldwell, foreword by Stanley W. Lindberg, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1996.

Erskine Caldwell: Selected Letters, 1929–1955, edited by Robert L. McDonald, McFarland & Co. (Jefferson, NC), 1999.

Also author of screenplays A Nation Dances and Volcano. Editor, "American Folkways," twenty-five volumes, 1940–55.

A collection of Caldwell's manuscripts is housed in the Baker Library of Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH.

ADAPTATIONS: Several of Caldwell's novels have been made into films, including Tobacco Road, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 1941, God's Little Acre, United Artists Corp., 1958, and Claudelle Inglish (un-der the title Claudelle), Warner Brothers, Inc., 1961. Tobacco Road was also adapted for the stage by Jack Kirkland and ran on Broadway for more than seven years.

SIDELIGHTS: As one of America's most banned and censored writers, in addition to being one of its most financially successful, Erskine Caldwell was often "patronized or ignored by academic critics and serious readers," according to James Korges, author of a critical study of the man who has been called "the South's literary bad boy." Korges continued: "Younger readers dismiss him as a writer of the old pornography, for how tame, demure, almost tidy seem the passages that were read aloud in courts as evidence of Caldwell's obscenity…. Younger critics seem unwilling to read Caldwell with care…. That much of [his] work 'grew towards trash' [in the words of William Faulkner] does not alter the fact that Caldwell has produced an important body of work in both fiction and nonfiction." In fact, Faulkner himself ranked Caldwell among America's five leading contemporary writers.

Because his early works reflected the plight of impoverished sharecroppers, Caldwell earned a reputation as a leading proletarian novelist and won a strong following in the Soviet Union. Caldwell defended his frank handling of the seamier aspects of rural poverty as social realism. According to the Chicago Tribune, he later recalled that "in those days hunger, disease and lack of education were central factors of life in rural Georgia," where the author was raised. Indeed, although Caldwell was more than just a novelist, his specialty through the years was the fictional depiction of the seamier side of life in the American South—the bigotry, poverty, and misery among small-town "white trash." The son of a Presbyterian minister who made frequent moves from congregation to congregation throughout the South, Caldwell had ample opportunities as a boy to observe the various people and lifestyles of his native region. He often accompanied his father on visits to the homes of his parishioners, for example, and for a time he even drove a country doctor on his rounds. As he once explained to an interviewer: "You learned a lot living in small towns those days before they became smaller versions of the big towns."

Early in his career, Caldwell worked at a variety of odd jobs, including mill laborer, farm hand, and stage hand. He subsequently became a journalist, reporting for the Atlanta Journal and serving as a correspondent in Mexico, Spain, Czechoslovakia, and China, as well as a war correspondent in the Soviet Union for Life magazine. For several years Caldwell was also a screenwriter in Hollywood. Among his other writings are Jackpot: The Short Stories of Erskine Caldwell, The Sure Hand of God, The Caldwell Caravan: Novels and Short Fiction, and the screenplays A Nation Dances and Volcano. Additionally, he wrote children's books and from 1941 to 1954 served as editor of the twenty-five-volume "American Folkway Series."

Ten of Caldwell's novels—Tobacco Road, God's Little Acre, Journeyman, Trouble in July, Tragic Ground, A House in the Uplands, The Sure Hand of God, This Very Earth, Place Called Estherville, and Episode in Palmetto—comprise what the author himself referred to as "a cyclorama of Southern life." Unlike Faulkner's mythical Yoknapatawpha County, however, Caldwell's "cyclorama" does not seek to link his characters and events in any kind of overall historical framework; his goal, according to Korges, was to discover "scenes and actions that [embody] themes and types in the present."

Very few, if any, of Caldwell's characters or themes inspire admiration or optimism. His point of view was essentially pessimistic—man is more or less doomed to a life of pain and hurt, subject to the whims of chance and the effects of the actions of others. Virtually everything that happens—whether the results are bad or good—is regarded by Caldwell's characters as a manifestation of the will of God. And though there is room for humor in Caldwell's work, it is of a very bitter variety that only serves to reinforce the author's dark vision of life.

One reviewer, W.M. Frohock, saw this type of humor as Caldwell's greatest strength. "There is a special sort of humor in America," Frohock wrote in The Novel of Violence in America. "Its material is the man who has been left behind in the rush to develop our frontiers, the man who has stayed in one place, out of and away from the main current of our developing civilization, so largely untouched by what we think of as progress that his folkways and mores seem to us, at their best, quaint and a little exotic—and, at their worst, degenerate…. [This type of humor] has been the main source, as well as the great strength, of Erskine Caldwell's novels."

For the most part, Caldwell's characters exhibit the last quality—degeneracy—far more than quaintness and exoticism. This characteristic has inspired much of the negative reaction against his two best-known novels, Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre. Southerners in particular have found his graphic descriptions of incest, adultery, lynchings, prostitution, lechery, murder, and the excesses of that "old-time religion" to be extremely offensive. Joseph Wood Krutch observed in The American Drama since 1918: An Informal History: "[Of] Mr. Caldwell one may see that the rank flavor of his work is as nearly unique as anything in contemporary literature…. His starveling remnant of the Georgia poor-white trash is not only beyond all morality and all sense of dignity or shame, it is almost beyond all hope and fear as well. As ramshackle and as decayed as the moldy cabins in which it lives, it is scarcely more than a parody on humanity." Caldwell succeeds in making comedy out of these people's wretched lives, Krutch continued, "because he manages to prevent us from feeling at any moment any real kinship with the nominally human creatures of the play…. [But] his race of curiously depraved and yet curiously juicy human grotesques are alive in his plays whether they, or things like them, were ever alive anywhere else or not … and no attempts at analysis can deprive them of their life."

Korges also thought that Caldwell's characters are "alive" and that they personify very real human needs and desires. Tobacco Road, he proposed, "is about tenacity in the spirits of men and women deserted by God and man. The book is not about tobacco or Georgia, about sexology, or sociology, but is instead a work of literary art about the animal tug toward life that sustains men even in times of deprivation." However, Korges continued, "The book is also a study in relationships and desertions. Man in this symbolic landscape is frustrated in his relationship to the soil because fertility has deserted the land. The sterile relationship of man to land is paralleled in the sterile [relationships between the main characters]."

Korges discovered this same theme of sterility in the novel he considered Caldwell's masterpiece, God's Little Acre. He questioned its reputation as an "'expose' of southern mentality or habits," insisting that it is instead "a novel of rich sexuality, sexuality being in this symbolic landscape … the one impressive life-sign. Yet just as the farm produces neither cotton nor gold …, so no woman in the novel is pregnant, despite all the sexuality." The theme of sterility also appears in a more general sense in Caldwell's work. Despite appearances to the contrary, the preservation of family values plays an important part in his novels. In a less "somber" manner than someone like John Steinbeck, for example, Caldwell emphasizes the richness of rural family life as opposed to the sterility and brutality of life in the city. Thus, as Korges pointed out, "the emotional poverty of the city folks is set off against the richness of feeling of the impoverished country folk, free from the economic meanness of making good marriages or of charging for sex."

For the most part, critics of the 1930s did not recognize these subliminal shades of meaning in Caldwell's work. Those who were not disgusted by his stories were amused by what they called his "burlesque"-type humor. Commenting on Tobacco Road, for example, Horace Gregory of Books noted that "Caldwell's humor, like Mark Twain's, has at its source an imagination that stirs the emotions of the reader. The adolescent, almost idiotic gravity of [his] characters produces instantaneous laughter and their sexual adventures are treated with an irreverence that verges upon the robust ribaldry of a burlesque show." A Forum critic noted that "Cald-well recites the orgiastic litany calmly and with a serene detachment. Such detachment is not likely to be shared by most readers, who, if they take the book seriously, will probably finish it—if they do finish it—with disgust and a slight retching; but anyone who considers it as subtle burlesque is going to have a fine time."

The Nation reviewer, on the other hand, appeared to sense that there was something more to Tobacco Road than just entertainment. He wrote: "The notion has gone about that the deliquescent characters, their squalor, their utter placidity, make Caldwell's writing 'primitive'; his sentence structure has made possible the belief that his work is naive; and because the setting is rural and the humors supposedly exaggerated, he is said to resemble Mark Twain and Bret Harte. These false notions have completely obscured what is an original, mature approach to the incongruities existing in a people who ignore the civilization that contains them as completely as the civilization ignores them."

Though God's Little Acre also offended some critics, more seemed willing to identify and comment on its literary merits. The Saturday Review of Literature critic, after having admitted that it was a novel "that will lift the noses of the sensitive," concluded that it "is nevertheless a beautifully integrated story of the barren Southern farm and the shut Southern mill, and one of the finest studies of the Southern poor white which has ever come into our literature…. Mr. Caldwell has caught in poetic quality the debased and futile aspiration of men and women restless in a world of long hungers which must be satisfied quickly, if at all."

A Forum reviewer wrote: "There has been considerable genteel ballyhoo in behalf of Erskine Caldwell but this novel is the first thing he has done which seems to this reader to justify in any way the praise the critics have heaped upon him. Despite its faults … it is immensely superior to Tobacco Road and American Earth. This superiority results from the fact that the author has stressed that element in which he is at his best, poor-white rural comedy." Horace Gregory, commenting once again in Books, also thought that "as a novel God's Little Acre has its faults, and there are flaws that in the work of a less gifted writer would be fatal to his progress…. But even as it stands I believe the book is an important step in the development of an important young novelist."

After this 1930s "golden age" came a gradual decline in the quality of Caldwell's work, a decline from which many critics believed the author never really recovered. More and more frequently, noted Korges, Caldwell turned to "sensational plotting and trite characterization … mixed with a good deal of superficial psychological comment and superficial motivation." Edward Hoagland of the New York Times Book Review declared that Caldwell simply "vegetated." He wrote: "The trouble with Caldwell seems to have been that he was finally lackadaisical. The eye that could distill so narrowly, the decent heart that roamed Tobacco Road, … rather soon stopped looking for new insights…. [In his later works] there is no bite or discipline, no old-pro's vigor of craftsmanship. Even his way with dialogue … has fallen off to casual indifference."

Korges, on the other hand, concluded his study of Caldwell on an optimistic note. He wrote: "Caldwell, now in such disrepute among academic critics, will one day be 'discovered,' and his reputation will rest on a few books…. Such a selection from the large and uneven body of Caldwell's writing will make clear the strength of his best work in fiction and nonfiction, and will reveal what is now obscured by the very bulk of his output: his is a solid achievement that supports the assertion that he is one of the important writers of our time."



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Authors in the News, Volume 1, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.

Beach, Joseph Warren, American Fiction: 1920–1940, Russell (New York, NY), 1960.

Caldwell, Erskine, Call It Experience: The Years of Learning How to Write, Duell (New York, NY), 1951, published as Call It Experience, MacFadden-Bartell, 1966, with a foreword by Erik Bledsoe, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1996.

Caldwell, Erskine, With All My Might: An Autobiography, Peachtree Publications (Atlanta, GA), 1987.

Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 1, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.

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Mixon, Wayne, The People's Writer: Erskine Caldwell and the South, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1995.

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Journal and Constitution (Atlanta, GA), May 13, 1973.

Mississippi Quarterly, spring, 1993, Jay Watson, "The Rhetoric of Exhaustion and the Exhaustion of Rhetoric: Erskine Caldwell in the Thirties," pp. 215-229; winter, 1996, Andrew Silver, "Laughing over Lost Causes: Erskine Caldwell's Quarrel with Southern Humor," pp. 51-58; summer, 2000, Sylvia J. Cook, review of Erskine Caldwell: Selected Letters, 1929–1955, p. 473.

Nation, July 6, 1932, review of Tobacco Road; October 18, 1933, review of God's Little Acre; June 11, 1977, Walton Beacham, profile of Caldwell's work.

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Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1987.

Dallas Times Herald, April 13, 1987.

Detroit Free Press, April 13, 1987.

Los Angeles Times, April 13, 1987.

New York Post, April 13, 1987.

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Time, April 20, 1987, p. 64.

Washington Post, April 13, 1987.

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Caldwell, Erskine 1903–1987

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Caldwell, Erskine 1903–1987