Saturday Afternoon by Erskine Caldwell, 1931

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by Erskine Caldwell, 1931

Although Erskine Caldwell gained fame writing novels, his short stories may be his finest artistic achievements. In the 1930s more than 30 of his stories appeared on the honor rolls of Edward J. O'Brien's Yearbook of the American Short Story. Six were listed among the best stories of the year, and Kneel to the Rising Sun was ranked the best short story collection of 1936. "Saturday Afternoon," which first appeared in 1930 in the little magazine Nativity and was then included in American Earth (1931), is one of his best short stories.

Caldwell consistently maintained that he was a mere storyteller without artistic pretensions, but the works of his early career are as disciplined in their craftsmanship as are Ernest Hemingway's. Like Hemingway, Caldwell was a minimalist who used a striking image rather than explanation to convey his message. Indeed, Caldwell preferred the short story genre because it avoided the "excessive verbiage" and "contrivances" of the novel. The consequences of the young author's careful study of methodology are stories distinguished for their simplicity and economy.

"Saturday Afternoon" is a representative example of this aesthetic. It is simply plotted. Opening on a humdrum Saturday afternoon in Tom Denny's small-town butcher shop, the plot thickens when Tom's assistant interrupts his nap to announce a lynching. The excitement created by the lynching is what one might associate with a sporting event rather than a murder. The lynching itself is hardly described at all; instead, Caldwell focuses on the holiday atmosphere and stresses the callousness of the participants. After the lynching the butcher shop routine is described again in terms almost identical to those used in the exposition. Although the plot is simple in outline, its function is complex. It reinforces Caldwell's portrait of a community inured to its ritualistic racial violence. The lynching fits comfortably into an afternoon of buying meat for Sunday dinner.

Caldwell uses an equally simple method of characterization. He delineates his characters with a few select images so that the reader gains an impression of them and the society in which they live, but he makes no attempt to provide a fuller portrait. For example, the salient features of Will Maxie, the lynching victim, are that he takes the grass out of his cotton before he harvests it and that he has none of the vices whites expect blacks to exhibit. This impression of Will is all the reader really needs to understand the motives of his lynchers—they envy and feel threatened by the black man—which is Caldwell's focus in the story. The characterization of Tom Denny is only slightly more developed. His folksy, colloquial voice as he waits on his customers establishes that he is well accepted in the community, even though his shop is unsanitary and he fills everyone's order—whether for pork, veal, or ham—using the same side of beef. News of the lynching stimulates him out of his beastlike stupor, but there is no sense in which his intellectual or moral faculties comprehend the event. The overall effect created by the two characterizations is a clear contrast between Will's competence and decency and Tom's sloppiness and near bestiality.

An important aspect of Caldwell's technique is the rigidly noncommittal perspective of his narrator. One reviewer called his work, in which brutal events are depicted without comment, "the poetry of unfeeling." This hard-boiled technique was common during the 1920s and 1930s. In an age of growing political and commercial propaganda, the artist chose not to compromise the integrity of his vision with commentary or persuasive appeal but rather to let it speak for itself.

Although Caldwell used a sophisticated set of techniques that included omitting his personal voice, this does not mean that he was insensitive to social injustice. Critics often grouped him with a growing tide of committed left-leaning writers of the 1930s. In a review of American Earth in New Masses, Norman Macleod commented that "Saturday Afternoon" proved Caldwell "capable of good proletarian work" and then suggested that he "go left." Powerful images such as the town doctor sending his son to a lynching to sell Coca-Cola and a burning black man being shot "so full of lead that his body sagged from his neck where the trace chain held him up" provided graphic testimony in an era anxious to rectify social inequities.

Some 50 years after the publication of "Saturday Afternoon," in a foreword to a collection of his stories Caldwell referred to southern race relations as "a savage heritage." Through his ability to exert rigorous control over his materials, he was able to evoke with power that shocking heritage for his readers.

—William L. Howard