• Erskine Caldwell’s novels of rural Georgia life are so completely forgotten that it is hard to grasp how popular they were a half-century ago, much less how seriously he was taken by his colleagues. Saul Bellow actually thought that the author of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933) rated a Nobel Prize, while William Faulkner, who got one, regarded Caldwell as one of America’s top five novelists (his other picks, for the record, were John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Faulkner himself). He was one of the most successful ones, anyway. God’s Little Acre sold 10 million copies—one of which was read and underlined by Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts*—while Jack Kirkland’s stage version of Tobacco Road ran on Broadway for 3,180 performances, still the longest run ever racked up by a straight play.
So what happened to Caldwell, who died in obscurity in 1987? I can’t tell you—I’m no better at forecasting the changing winds of literary fortune than the next man—but I now know that at least one of his books is worth remembering. I’d never read a word of Caldwell when I flew down to Greensboro, N.C., to see Triad Stage give the first professional revival of Tobacco Road in some twenty-odd years. I found it hugely impressive, not just as a stage production but also as a work of theatrical art. “It combines humor and horror to strikingly modern effect,” I wrote in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, “and its unattractive characters are portrayed with an unsentimental sympathy that fills the viewer with pity.”
Curious as to whether the novel was as good as the play, I procured a copy of Tobacco Road (University of Georgia Press, $16.95 paper), which was reissued in 1995 and remains in print to this day. (The stage version, alas, is unavailable, though used copies can be found online.) Somewhat to my surprise, I found that Kirkland’s play tracks the events of Tobacco Road very closely indeed, and that most of the dialogue comes more or less directly from Caldwell’s novel. To be sure, the play is tighter and more conventionally “effective,” but in either form Tobacco Road, if by no means a masterpiece, is still quite remarkably compelling.
What is most striking about Tobacco Road is the unsparing frankness with which Caldwell writes about what we now call the underclass. Despite his sympathy for the backwoods sharecroppers who are his characters, he never makes the mistake of supposing that they bear no responsibility for their desperate plight, and his candor on this score is far more likely to shock modern readers than the comparative sexual explicitness that got him in trouble with the censors seven decades ago. Jeeter Lester, the coarse, illiterate anti-hero of Tobacco Road, may have a certain primitive dignity arising from his unswerving (if ineffectual) commitment to “the struggle to break the land each spring and plant cotton,” but his inability to support his family is unambiguously presented by Caldwell as a failure of character, and we are made to see that the tragedy of his life is in large part one of his own making:
There were always well-developed plans in Jeeter’s mind for the things he intended doing; but somehow he never got around to doing them. One day led to the next, and it was much more easy to say he would wait until tomorrow. When that day arrived, he invariably postponed action until a more convenient time. Things had been going along in that easy way for almost a lifetime now.
Such implicit censoriousness long ago went out of literary fashion, and I suspect that it is one of the reasons why Tobacco Road is no longer looked upon with favor by the literati, though there are other passages more likely to please them:
“I reckon Jeeter done right,” Lov contended. “He was a man who liked to grow things in the ground. The mills ain’t no place for a human who’s got that in his bones. The mills is sort of like automobiles—they’re all right to fool around in and have a good time in, but they don’t offer no love like the ground does. The ground sort of looks out after the people who keeps their feet on it. When people stand on planks in buildings all the time, and walk around on hard streets, the ground sort of loses interest in the human.”
Fortunately, that kind of Popular Front pseudo-poetry is rarely to be found in Tobacco Road (and is almost completely missing from the leaner stage version). For the most part Caldwell laid it on the line, leaving the reader in no possible doubt that Jeeter and his family were what the rural folk of my own Midwestern youth called “white trash.” That doesn’t make their terrible fate less tragic, but it definitely makes it more interesting.
*Editorial error originally reversed the name of the play and the name of the character.