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Kneel to the Rising Sun by Erskine Caldwell, 1935

by Erskine Caldwell, 1935

Erskine Caldwell was a prolific writer of novels, documentaries, and short stories, the most successful of which were about his native Georgia. His modernistic techniques enabled him to create intense, economical, and aesthetically near perfect short fiction that rivals the finest ever written. Thematically, his concern for social injustice conformed well to the era of the Great Depression, the period in which his works first began to be published.

Between 1931 and 1940 Caldwell published 14 books, including the strongest he would write. Although he denied any affiliation with communism, his works about southern poverty provided vivid support for many of that decade's revolutionary assertions on economic and social injustice. Commenting on his first book of stories, published in 1931, a reviewer wrote in the New Masses, "We need writers like Caldwell. He should go left."

"Kneel to the Rising Sun," first published in Scribner's Magazine four years later and then collected in Caldwell's third book of stories, under the same title, serves almost as a response to that reviewer's urging. It is a story about a black and a white sharecropper, Clem and Lonnie, whose poverty and struggle against exploitation at the hands of a brutal landlord, Arch Gunnard, provide them with a basis for solidarity. Ultimately, however, the landlord's appeal to southern racial prejudice foils the workers' union, makes of Lonnie a cowardly Judas, and ensures Clem's lynching.

The Left was never entirely happy with Caldwell, for all of his promise. His characters lacked class consciousness, and their proletarian virtue was more often than not shrouded by proletarian vice. Whatever Caldwell's political ideals, he rarely created a character without foibles. In the case of Lonnie weakness, cowardice, and disloyalty are salient. Although the sight of his friend's lynching stirs him to try "to say things he had never thought to say before," the end of the story finds him "slumped down" with "his chin falling on his chest."

Recognizing that African Americans were often the scapegoats of southern society, Caldwell never allowed his black characters to sink to the degraded level of his poor whites. Whereas the poor white man Lonnie cowers in fear, Clem stands up for himself and Lonnie, helps Lonnie find his starving father, and objects to Arch Gunnard's sadistic behavior. In return Lonnie tenders only weakness and betrayal. In this and Caldwell's other accounts of lynchings, such as "Saturday Afternoon" and Trouble in July, racial violence is shown to occur because of the character flaws of whites and in spite of the complete innocence of the black victims. Clem's crime is actually the virtue of retaining his dignity in vicious surroundings.

Caldwell first published in little magazines, small-circulation periodicals that featured experimental works by what would turn out to be some of the finest writers of the twentieth century. From these publications he was exposed to modernistic techniques such as imagism, which he uses with effectiveness in his finest short stories.

In "Kneel to the Rising Sun" several concrete, vivid images serve to convey the story's message economically. For example, Lonnie's "sharp chin" effectively emblematizes his malnutrition. When his chin is jabbing into his chest, it also illustrates the dejected, defeated posture with which he responds to his exploitation. The "fattening hogs" in Arch Gunnard's pigpen symbolize the landlord's greedy feeding off his sharecroppers. And the rising sun at the story's end is replete with possible meaning. James Devlin regards it as a Christian motif that represents the ascension (the sun/Son rising into heaven) following Clem's betrayal and crucifixion. The emphasis on the sun's redness and Lonnie's struggle with a new consciousness may also imply the birth of the communist revolution, a political force arising from the experience of social and economic injustice. Finally, the image of Lonnie kneeling before the mysteriously rising orb suggests nature worship in a savage world in which people are hunted and killed like animals.

This use of concrete images to suggest abstract ideas can be found throughout the story. With Lonnie's dog Nancy, Caldwell uses what T. S. Eliot termed an objective correlative. When Gunnard beckons to Nancy, she crawls to him on her belly, wagging her tail, and then turns over on her back with paws in the air in complete surrender. This image of Arch's complete mastery over the dog correlates with the absolute power he wields over his sharecroppers and the community at large. That he is willing to use physical force to maintain his power is demonstrated when he kicks the dog in the stomach. In the scene in which he cuts off the dog's tail with his knife, Caldwell ultimately carries the brutal landlord's violence into the realm of sadism. The cropping of the dog's tail parallels Lonnie's relinquishing of his manhood to Gunnard and demonstrates that he cannot stand up for himself or his family, let alone his dog. In a final bizarre touch Caldwell establishes that Arch Gunnard keeps a collection of cropped dogs' tails in a trunk at home. Thus, an almost surrealistic dimension is added to the malevolence of this landlord/collector archfiend who owns his tenants body and soul.

Another aspect of Caldwell's technique is the use of repetition. As Scott MacDonald has pointed out, certain repeated phrases and motifs serve as indexes to character or are used to build suspense, thus increasing their implications with each occurrence. In the first section of "Kneel to the Rising Sun" Gunnard says several times that Nancy does not need such a long tail, and each repetition increases the reader's sickening realization of what will inevitably happen. In the second section the phrase "the fattening hogs" occurs periodically as Lonnie and Clem search for Lonnie's father, until the horrible meaning of the phrase becomes apparent—the hogs are literally fattening themselves on Mark Newsome.

With the help of these technical innovations Caldwell creates a world in which civilized values seem too fragile to withstand the brutal forces that drive both human and beast.

—William L. Howard

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