Caldwell, Erskine (Preston)

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CALDWELL, Erskine (Preston)

Nationality: American. Born: Moreland, Georgia, 17 December 1903. Education: Erskine College, Due West, South Carolina, 1920-21; University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1922, 1925-26; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1924. Family: Married 1) Helen Lannigan in 1925 (divorced 1938), two sons and one daughter; 2) the photographer Margaret Bourke-White in 1939 (divorced 1942); 3) June Johnson in 1942 (divorced 1955), one son; 4) Virginia Moffett Fletcher in 1957. Career: Played professional football, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 1920s; reporter, Atlanta Journal, 1925-26; freelance writer from 1926; ran a bookstore in Portland, Maine, 1928; screenwriter, Hollywood, 1930-34, 1942-43; foreign correspondent in Mexico, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and China, 1938-41; editor, American Folkways series (25 vols.), 1941-55. Awards: Order of Cultural Merit (Poland), 1981. Member: National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1942; American Academy, 1984; commander, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1984. Died: 11 April 1987.


Short Stories

American Earth. 1931; as A Swell-Looking Girl, 1951.

Mama's Little Girl (story). 1932.

A Message for Genevieve (story). 1933.

We Are the Living: Brief Stories. 1933.

Kneel to the Rising Sun and Other Stories. 1935.

The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (story). 1936.

Southways: Stories. 1938.

Jackpot: The Short Stories. 1940; abridged edition, as Midsummer Passion, 1948.

Georgia Boy. 1943.

A Day's Wooing and Other Stories. 1944.

Stories by Caldwell: 24 Representative Stories, edited by Henry Seidel Canby. 1944; as The Pocket Book of Caldwell Stories, 1947.

The Caldwell Caravan: Novels and Stories. 1946.

Where the Girls Were Different and Other Stories, edited by Donald A. Wollheim. 1948.

A Woman in the House. 1949.

The Humorous Side of Caldwell, edited by Robert Cantwell. 1951.

The Courting of Susie Brown. 1952.

The Complete Stories. 1953.

Gulf Coast Stories. 1956.

Certain Women. 1957.

When You Think of Me. 1959.

Men and Women: 22 Stories. 1961.

Stories. 1980.

Stories of Life: North and South. 1983.

The Black and White Stories of Caldwell. 1984.

Midsummer Passion and Other Tales of Maine Cussedness, edited by Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg. 1990.


The Bastard. 1930.

Poor Fool. 1930.

Tobacco Road. 1932.

God's Little Acre. 1933.

Journeyman. 1935; revised edition, 1938.

Trouble in July. 1940.

All Night Long: A Novel of Guerrilla Warfare in Russia. 1942.

Tragic Ground. 1944.

A House in the Uplands. 1946.

The Sure Hand of God. 1947.

This Very Earth. 1948.

Place Called Estherville. 1949.

Episode in Palmetto. 1950.

A Lamp for Nightfall. 1952.

Love and Money. 1954.

Gretta. 1955.

Claudelle Inglish. 1959; as Claudell, 1959.

Jenny by Nature. 1961.

Close to Home. 1962.

The Last Night of Summer. 1963.

Miss Mama Aimee. 1967.

Summertime Island. 1968.

The Weather Shelter. 1969.

The Earnshaw Neighborhood. 1971.

Annette. 1973.



A Nation Dances (documentary), 1943; Volcano, 1953.


In Defense of Myself. 1930.

Tenant Farmer. 1935.

Some American People. 1935.

You Have Seen Their Faces, photographs by Margaret Bourke-White. 1937.

North of the Danube, photographs by Margaret Bourke-White. 1939.

Say! Is This the U.S.A.?, photographs by Margaret Bourke-White. 1941.

All-Out on the Road to Smolensk. 1942; as Moscow Under Fire: A Wartime Diary 1941, 1942.

Russia at War, photographs by Margaret Bourke-White. 1942.

Call It Experience: The Years of Learning How to Write. 1951.

Molly Cottontail (for children). 1958.

Around About America. 1964.

In Search of Bisco. 1965.

The Deer at Our House (for children). 1966.

In the Shadow of the Steeple. 1967.

Writing in America. 1967.

Deep South: Memory and Observation (includes In the Shadow of the Steeple). 1968.

Afternoons in Mid-America: Observations and Impressions. 1976.

With All My Might: An Autobiography. 1987.

Conversations with Caldwell, edited by Edwin T. Arnold. 1988.

Editor, Smokey Mountain Country, by North Callahan. 1988.


Critical Studies:

The Southern Poor-White from Lubberland to Tobacco Road by Shields McIlwaine, 1939; Caldwell by James Korges, 1969; Black Like It Is/Was: Caldwell's Treatment of Racial Themes by William A. Sutton, 1974; Critical Essays on Caldwell edited by Scott MacDonald, 1981; Caldwell by James E. Devlin, 1984; Caldwell Reconsidered edited by Edwin T. Arnold, 1990; The People's Writer: Erskine Caldwell and the South by Wayne Mixon, 1995.

* * *

At the middle of the twentieth century Erskine Caldwell was probably the most popular fiction writer on earth, as measured by many millions of copies of his novels and short story collections sold in paperback editions in several countries. From the beginning of his career, around 1930, his short stories had been praised by serious critics, who found in his humor the gist and pith of traditional tall tales livened by a contemporary sensibility. His representations of Southern depravity and racial injustice earned him acclaim as a social critic. One of his earliest novels, Tobacco Road, was dramatized and set off on so long a run on Broadway it seemed like a permanent fixture. Another, God's Little Acre, reached a sale of 4.5 million copies in 13 years after publication. Both books prospered on a mixture of comic strip violence, misshapen characters, subhuman lack of compassion, and a diffuse, mystical interpretation of the human potential, which gratified the social conscience of the time.

His left-leaning journalism—including books of photo-journalism done in collaboration with Margaret Bourke White—reinforced the political heft of his fiction. He was a front-runner among young American writers. When his collection Jackpot was published in 1940 with 75 stories from the previous decade, he was commonly compared to Hemingway and Faulkner. Rumors of a Nobel prize somewhere down the line seemed not incredible. But even in the years of inflated reputation there was controversy and dismay from many who wished him to be a forthright champion of justice and human dignity. In 1944 Jonathan Daniels wrote, "The American lower depths are very funny indeed. In Tobacco Road they amused more people than even Abie's Irish Rose. " Daniels went on to surmise there were hosts of readers who liked to guffaw at the helpless, the deformed, the spiritually castrated, and the sadistic. He spoke for many who had concluded Caldwell was not so much exposing the grim realities of the American South as misrepresenting them for the sake of profitable sensationalism.

Whatever the rising tide of critical censure, Caldwell's appeal to masses of readers did not shrivel drastically until well into the 1950s. After that, though he continued to pump out novels, travel books, and (fewer) short stories, his reputation plummeted and now he is hardly a memory in the minds of a generation well past middle age, a footnote to an era that mistook him for a giant.

This collapse of interest in his very large body of work might be explained by saying he published too much, so that his peak performances were inundated by the flood of hasty composition and exhausted conceptions. Alas, there aren't any peak performances among his novels. Obviously they once entertained millions who came to rely in book after book on his characteristic mix of comedy and violence. Tedium took over when the violence became ridiculous because it was so obviously puffed up.

His typical characters—landowners and white sharecroppers, lubricous women and virginal victims, murderous drifters and vicious lawmen—are conceived and presented as automatons, not even so much representing human types in flat silhouette as they are exemplars of swollen obsessions bedeviling the American underclass.

At the same time these simplified figures who serve so badly in the novels function more effectively in the kind of short story he invented. The search for masterpieces gets no farther among the one hundred stories he said he published than among the novels, but in the bulk of the stories there is life and a lilt of black humor and the stab of black melodrama in many. Teller of tall tales, he learned how to craft such material so the nimbleness of craft becomes a part of the joy. There is a fascination in watching him work, weave, and increase the tension of his material until it snaps in the denouement.

In the very brief "Midsummer Passion" a farmer driving his wagon home after his day's work comes on a car abandoned by the roadside. As he snoops in it he discovers a woman's stockings and panties. Stirred with ineffable longing, he carries these garments with him as he drives on. Presently he comes on a neighbor woman working innocently in her garden. He leaps down from his wagon, tackles her, and in a wild caricature of rape, tries to put the panties on her. She is too strong for him. He can only manage to get one of her feet into a leg of the tantalizing garment. When he is winded and bested in this unequal struggle, the woman stands up, draws on the panties over her dress, and with high civility instructs him to go on home. With equal civility he agrees to do just that. This is mastery in the use of a surprise ending, though the subject is ever so slight.

The same masterful direction of suspense and gusty humor can be found in "Where the Girls Are Different," "Maud Island," "An Autumn Courtship," and "August Afternoon." Told in perfectly paced crescendo, this last story opens with a shiftless landowner waking from an afternoon's nap to be told by his black servant that there is a white stranger on the premises, leaned against a tree while he whittles and peers under the dress of the landowner's wife. When the stick is whittled down to a sliver the stranger and wife walk down a path together into the concealment of some bushes. The cogitating householder concludes he does not wish to interfere with a man who has a knife, whatever may be happening to his wife. He lapses into impotent pipe dreams and finds the better course is to go back to sleep.

Anyone wishing to savor the black melodrama of Caldwell's better stories might well begin with "Candy-Man Beechum"—more song than story, perhaps. A young black man, a hero of amorous longing, sets out one evening to go to his woman. In the town he must pass through to get to her he is, for no reason at all, shot to death by white law men. Here there is poignancy in the very lack of complication. In "Dorothy" an unemployed young man comes to believe with great sorrow that he has nudged an unemployed girl into prostitution, while in "Martha Jean" a helpless boy is witness to the rape of a girl who has come to town seeking work. In "Masses of Men" a desperate illiterate young mother prostitutes her ten-year-old daughter for money to buy food. By and large these brief tableaux of darkness lack the sly craft of the overtly funny stories. Even so, they may have more power to shock, to poison complacency, and to convince than Caldwell's novels have.

—R. V. Cassill

See the essays on "Kneel to the Rising Sun" and "Saturday Afternoon."

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Caldwell, Erskine (Preston)