The American writer Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987) was one of the best-selling authors of all time. His novels and stories are distinguished by their brutally realistic depiction of the rural South; his early work was outstanding for a sexual candor uncommon in its time.
Erskine Caldwell was born in backwoods Coweta Country, in the town of White Oak, Georgia, on Dec. 17, 1903. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and the family moved frequently throughout the South. Caldwell's schooling was fragmentary; he attended high school sporadically and took college courses at the University of Pennsylvania, at Erskine College, in South Carolina, and at the University of Virginia.
As a young man, he worked in Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Baltimore as a mill laborer, farmhand, cotton picker, cook, stagehand in a burlesque house, and book reviewer. In 1925 he left the University of Virginia to become a reporter for the Atlanta Journal, and he married the first of his four wives, Helen Lannigan, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. Discovering that newspaper work left him no time for creative writing, Caldwell retreated to Maine for four years. His prolific career as an author was launched by The Bastard, (1929), Poor Fool (1930), and American Earth (1931).
But it was the 1932 publication of Tobacco Road that assured Caldwell's success. The novel depicts the life of Jeeter Lester, a Georgia sharecropper, and his family as they stumble through a series of sexual and financial misadventures, culminating in the destruction by fire of their home and themselves. The novelistic treatment is comic, the structure is episodic, and the rural southern types appear childish, grotesque, and, ultimately, pathetic.
In 1933 Tobacco Road was dramatized and ran for a record-breaking seven years on Broadway, despite an obscenity charge that was brought against it by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The charge was dismissed, as was a similar charge against Caldwell's next novel, God's Little Acre (1933), the story of Ty Ty Walden, a Georgia dirt farmer, and his sons and daughters, and the barren, useless acre of land that he dedicates to God. As in Tobacco Road, Caldwell's theme is the folly and promiscuity of rural southerners. God's Little Acre is one of the all-time best sellers in the history of book publishing.
In the mid-1930s Caldwell spent some years as a Hollywood script writer but continued his amazing book production. After a play, Journeyman (1935), he wrote Kneel to the Rising Sun and Other Stories (1935), The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (1936), and Southways (1938).
In 1938 and 1939 Caldwell was a newspaper correspondent in Mexico, Spain, and Czechoslovakia, and in 1941 a newspaper and radio correspondent in the Soviet Union. His strong social conscience is evidenced in his nonfiction: Some American People (1935); You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), with photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who in 1939 became his second wife, and who also collaborated with him on North of the Danube (1939), Say, Is This the U.S.A.? (1941), and Russia at War (1942). His Russian experience is also reflected in Moscow under Fire (1941), All Out on the Road to Smolensk (1942), and All Night Long (1942), a novel of Russian guerrilla warfare.
Two of Caldwell's best-selling novels appeared in the early 1940s, Trouble in July (1940) and Georgia Boy (1943). In 1942 Caldwell married his third wife, June Johnson, with whom he had a son. His postwar works included The Sure Hand of God (1947), Episode in Palmetto (1950), and A Lamp for Nightfall (1952).
In 1957 Caldwell married his fourth wife, Virginia Moffett Fletcher, who illustrated his travel book Around about America (1964). In Search of Bisco (1965) was an account of Caldwell's unsuccessful quest to locate a childhood friend.
After World War II Caldwell lived for many years in Tucson, Arizona.; in the late 1950s he moved to Rheem Valley, California. He finally settled in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1977. While he remained popular abroad, Caldwell and his plain style fell out of fashion in the United States. While he continued to publish new work, he shunned interviews and public appearances. His later books included the comical Miss Mama Aimee (1968), Annette (1973), and Afternoons in Mid-America (1976), a collection of his impressions of ordinary people.
Caldwell's later books failed to generate the excitement of his earlier works, but he had earned his niche as a serious if sensational regionalist. In 1982, the New American Library marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Tobacco Road by releasing it and God's Little Acre in new paperback editions. In 1984, Caldwell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1985, the Georgia Endowment for the Humanities invited him back to his native state for a series of teas and lectures in his honor. After his visit, Caldwell took note of the many economic and social changes that had taken place in the once destitute rural south.
Shortly before his death, Caldwell completed his autobiography, With All My Might (1987). A heavy smoker for all of his adult life, Caldwell twice underwent surgery for the removal of portions of his lungs. Lung cancer finally overtook him on April 11, 1987 in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
The best discussions of Caldwell's work are in Joseph Warren Beach, American Fiction: 1920-1940 (1941); Leo Gurko, The Angry Decade (1947); and Wilbur M. Frohock, The Novel of Violence in America (1950; rev. ed. 1958). Caldwell himself penned the autobiographical Call It Experience: The Years of Learning How to Write (1951) and With All My Might (1987). Biographies of the writer include J.E. Devlin, Erskine Caldwell (1984), Harvey L. Klevar, Erskine Caldwell: A Biography (1993), and D.B. Miller, Erskine Caldwell (1995). □
Erskine Preston Caldwell (December 17, 1903–April 11, 1987) was a prolific writer whose novels, stories, and nonfiction about the American South combined burlesque humor, social criticism, brutal violence, and graphic sexuality. He was one of the Depression-era's most prominent and controversial literary figures.
The son of a reform-minded itinerant minister, Caldwell lived in seven southern states by the time he was twelve. Although he never received a high school diploma, he attended the University of Virginia, which he left without a degree in 1925 to work as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal. Dedicated to becoming a professional fiction writer, Caldwell quit the paper in 1926 and moved to Maine, where he lived in dire poverty and obscurity, gradually gaining notice for stories published in several of the era's little magazines.
The central theme of Caldwell's Depressionera writing is the agony of rural impoverishment. His first two novels, Poor Fool (1929) and The Bastard (1930), hard-boiled tales of amoral loners, attracted little critical or popular notice. Caldwell came to literary prominence with the publication of Tobacco Road (1932), the story of a family of destitute Georgia sharecroppers, the Lesters, stubbornly clinging to farmland that has been ruined by soil erosion. Lazy, licentious, and morally depraved, the Lesters' brutal, often obscene behavior culminates when one of the family's sons, Dude, backs his automobile over his grandmother, who is left unattended for hours until she is thrown, still alive, into an open grave. God's Little Acre (1933) narrates the story of the Waldens, another indigent farm family that has been digging futilely for gold on their barren land. The plot, noteworthy for the pornographic rendering of an adulterous sex scene, also includes the proletarian tale of a temporary takeover of a closed mill by the locked-out workers.
The 1933 theatrical adaptation of Tobacco Road, which became the decade's longest-running Broadway play and toured the country, brought Caldwell fame and financial security. The play's popularity outside the South, however, stemmed in part from the fact that the story was often played for comedy rather than social critique, and quite likely reinforced stereotypes about the degeneracy of southerners.
In addition to writing two other novels during the thirties, Journeyman (1935) and Trouble in July (1940), Caldwell also published hundreds of short stories, many about poverty, sex, and racism, in magazines and in five collections, including the critically-acclaimed Kneel to the Rising Sun (1935). In later decades, many of Caldwell's Depression-era novels were released as mass-market paperbacks, with astonishing results. By the early 1960s, he had sold over sixty million books and was being advertised as "the best-selling novelist in the world."
A committed, if idiosyncratic, leftist, Caldwell also wrote journalism designed to expose the horrors of American poverty. A 1935 series for the New York Post described the dire malnutrition suffered by several Georgia families, claiming that "men are so hungry that they eat snakes and cow dung." In 1937, Caldwell collaborated with celebrated photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, whom he would marry in 1939, on the decade's first major photo-essay book, You Have Seen Their Faces, which offered a pointed critique of economic exploitation in the rural South. However, some liberals, including James Agee, contended that Bourke-White's photographs were manipulative and that the book's depiction of the poor was sentimental and condescending.
Throughout his work, Caldwell sought to challenge romantic misconceptions of his native South by exposing the human costs of soil erosion and economic exploitation. However, the exceedingly debased nature of his characters often reinforced stereotypes of poor whites, African Americans, and women, and seemed to place blame on the very people Caldwell saw as victims, rather than on larger social structures. Moreover, the pornographic quality of his writing generated virulent protest, including campaigns to have his work banned in several cities.
Caldwell's work, a volatile blend of social protest, ribald humor, sexual frankness, and shocking violence, defies conventional aesthetic and political categories. He remains one of the Depression era's most enigmatic authors.
Burke, Kenneth. "Erskine Caldwell: Maker of Grotesques." In The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd edition. 1973.
Caldwell, Erskine. The Bastard. 1929.
Caldwell, Erskine. Poor Fool. 1930.
Caldwell, Erskine. Tobacco Road. 1932.
Caldwell, Erskine. God's Little Acre. 1933.
Caldwell, Erskine. Journeyman. 1935.
Caldwell, Erskine. Kneel to the Rising Sun. 1935.
Caldwell, Erskine. Trouble in July. 1940.
Caldwell, Erskine. The Complete Stories of Erskine Caldwell. 1953.
Caldwell, Erskine, and Margaret Bourke-White. You Have Seen Their Faces. 1937.
MacDonald, Scott. Critical Essays on Erskine Caldwell. 1981.
McDonald, Robert L. The Critical Response to Erskine Caldwell. 1997.
Miller, Dan B. Erskine Caldwell: The Journey from Tobacco Road, a Biography. 1995.