Authors: Erskine Caldwell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist


Erskine Preston Caldwell, a prolific and popular writer of novels about the American South and of photojournalistic travelogues, has eluded easy definition. Styled variously as a humorist, social critic, and writer in the Southern Renaissance tradition, he has also been vilified as a pornographer and pulp novelist. Caldwell simply regarded himself as a writer, a storyteller about the worlds he observed in America and elsewhere. Based on the enormous, and continued, sales of his best-known works, Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre, his principal reputation continues to rest on his depictions of poverty and sensuality in the rural American South. Indeed, many stereotypes and metaphors about poor southern whites draw on Caldwell’s works.{$I[AN]9810001220}{$I[A]Caldwell, Erskine}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Caldwell, Erskine}{$I[tim]1903;Caldwell, Erskine}

Erskine Caldwell

(Library of Congress)

Caldwell was born on December 17, 1903, “in a three-room manse” in Coweta County, Georgia, the only child of the Reverend Ira Sylvester Caldwell, a preacher in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, whose travels as a troubleshooting minister for the denomination kept the Caldwell family on the move from one rural church to another. Young Caldwell’s interest in writing developed early. In 1917, he drafted his first piece of fiction, “A Boy’s Own Story of City Life,” about Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. While attending high school in Wrens, Georgia, in 1919 and 1920, he began to write and do other chores for the local Jefferson Reporter. He became a baseball “string” correspondent for several Augusta, Macon, and Atlanta dailies. Few of his stories were published, but he continued to write for newspapers until 1926. The journalistic experience proved valuable for, by Caldwell’s own account, it taught him to write quickly and efficiently in a manner capable of reaching a wide audience, a practice that both shaped Caldwell’s style and drove him to prolific production. Journalism fascinated Caldwell throughout his life, and his most successful nonfiction bears the stamp of Caldwell the journalist.

In 1920, Caldwell entered Erskine College, his father’s alma mater, but he withdrew after three semesters. The ever-curious and peripatetic Caldwell spent his weekends traveling around the South Carolina countryside. In the spring of 1922, while traveling to New Orleans, he was jailed for nine days in Bogalusa, Louisiana, ostensibly for failing to pay his rent but in fact because he was suspected of being a labor organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Caldwell frequently recalled that, even more than his earlier travels with his father among tenant farmers, the injustice and powerlessness he felt in the Bogalusa jail awakened his social conscience. Caldwell left Erskine College to attend the University of Virginia in 1923. Caldwell neither read much nor studied hard; he later confessed that throughout his life he rarely read others’ work and never sampled more than one work by any one author. As a novelist, Caldwell wrote from instinct rather than from learning. At Virginia, the passion to write seized Caldwell. He ran with a small group of self-proclaimed writers-to-be, dashed off poems and ephemera for the Virginia Reel, and placed similar items in several national humor magazines. The Southern Renaissance, with its emphasis on “real people as subjects,” had reached Virginia during Caldwell’s brief stay (he never graduated) and, in his own words, inspired him “to write about the people I knew as they really lived, moved, and talked.”

Caldwell eloped with Helen Lannigan, with whom he eventually had three children. The Caldwells moved to Mt. Vernon, Maine, in the mid-1920’s. In 1929, the Heron Press published a small edition of Caldwell’s short novel The Bastard, a book remarkable only for the local furor it caused when it was banned in Portland. His second novella, Poor Fool, was published in 1930, with a similar response. Thus Caldwell had entered into clashes with censors that would nag his work throughout his career.

In 1932, Caldwell published Tobacco Road, which he had written after a brief return to backcountry Georgia. The year 1933 saw the publication of Caldwell’s second southern novel, God’s Little Acre. The book sold well. It also thrust Caldwell into prominence when the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice brought charges against the book. Although he was exonerated in a famous judicial decision, Caldwell never shook the public’s perception of his work as mild pornography. This reputation at least boosted sales; so, too, did Jack Kirkland’s stage adaptation of Tobacco Road, which opened on Broadway in 1933 and ran for more than seven years. Indeed, it was Caldwell’s vision of “tobacco road” that lodged in the public mind. His two southern novels sold more than seven million copies by the 1950’s and along with the long-running play brought Caldwell the fortune that escaped his fictional characters.

In 1935, he met Margaret Bourke-White, the Life photographer, whom he would marry in 1939 and with whom he collaborated on the famous photo-essay volume You Have Seen Their Faces, about sharecropping and southern poverty. Caldwell and Bourke-White produced other books together as well. Caldwell’s criticism of American capitalism, his affinity with Russia, and his part in making the propaganda film Mission to Moscow (1943) led some critics to tar him as a communist–a charge Caldwell always denied. Caldwell divorced Bourke-White in 1942. Two more marriages would follow.

Caldwell’s literary reputation declined in proportion to his prolific output and robust sales through special paperback contracts. His final novel, Annette, was published in 1974. Caldwell’s travel books fared better than his fiction. His Afternoons in Mid-America, completed in collaboration with his fourth wife, Virginia Fletcher Caldwell, recalled an invigorated Caldwell style. While in chemotherapy for lung cancer, Caldwell completed his autobiography With All My Might, which was published one month before his death.

Caldwell never accepted the critics’ tag as a novelist of the “grotesque”; rather, he considered himself a southern writer. As his principal literary legacies, Caldwell bequeathed to American literature enduring images of bleak southern landscapes and “poor white” characters marked by lassitude and libido; a flat writing style; the primacy of storytelling as the role of the novelist, whom Caldwell regarded as a recorder more than a creator of characters’ actions and thoughts; and an insistence on imagination as the soul of the creative process.

BibliographyArnold, Edwin T., ed. Conversations with Erskine Caldwell. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. Collection of more than thirty articles about and interviews with Caldwell covers a wide range of subjects. Provides good insight into both Caldwell the writer and Caldwell the man. Includes an informative introduction and a chronology.Arnold, Edwin T. Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Caldwell, Erskine. With All My Might: An Autobiography. Atlanta: Peachtree, 1987. Caldwell’s second autobiography is his final work and was published a month before his death. A chatty and informative style suffuses the book and affords an interesting glimpse of Caldwell’s remarkable career.Cook, Sylvia Jenkins. Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Poverty: The Flesh and the Spirit. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991. Contains chapters on Caldwell’s apprenticeship years as a writer, his short stories, his novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and his later novels dealing with sex, race, and degeneracy. A concluding chapter discusses Caldwell and his critics. Includes bibliography and index.Devlin, James E. Erskine Caldwell. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Provides a good but limited introduction to Caldwell’s literary career. Contains an interesting overview on the writer’s career, five chapters covering individual works, and a final assessment. Supplemented by a chronology, notes and references, and a select bibliography.Klevar, Harvey L. Erskine Caldwell: A Biography. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. Biography draws on both extensive archival research and interviews with Caldwell. Explores the regional context of Caldwell’s life and writing, emphasizing the reasons for the popular and critical success of the author’s early fiction and the decline of his later work.Korges, James. Erskine Caldwell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. Brief volume examines Caldwell’s early work. Korges asserts that Caldwell had a great comic vision and that he should be recognized as one of the most important American writers. Augmented by a select bibliography.McDonald, Robert L., ed. The Critical Response to Erskine Caldwell. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Collection includes reviews of Caldwell’s major works, scholarly discussions of his themes and techniques, and academic analyses of the image of the South presented in his fiction.McDonald, Robert L., ed. Reading Erskine Caldwell: New Essays. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. Collection of twelve essays examines Caldwell as a novelist, a humorist, and a modernist. Some of the essays focus on Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre, and Trouble in July.MacDonald, Scott, ed. Critical Essays on Erskine Caldwell. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Excellent collection of critical essays on Caldwell, arranged chronologically, constitutes a good introduction to the author’s work. Includes eight essays by Caldwell himself.Miller, Dan B. Erskine Caldwell: The Journey from Tobacco Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Biography focuses on Caldwell’s first forty years, detailing his growing up in the culture of the American South and placing his writing in the context of the events of his life.Pembroke Magazine 11 (1979). This special issue, devoted to Caldwell on the occasion of his seventy-sixth year, contains a large number of articles, many of them characterized by a note of nostalgia. Old friends, scholars, and foreign admirers acknowledge the septuagenarian’s realism, politics, and permanent contribution to American fiction.Silver, Andrew. “Laughing over Lost Causes: Erskine Caldwell’s Quarrel with Southern Humor.” Mississippi Quarterly 50 (Winter, 1996/1997): 51-68. Discusses some of the characteristics of nineteenth century American frontier humor inherited by Caldwell, such as the narrator as cultured observer of frontier rustics. Argues that Caldwell subverts southern humor and critiques Depression-era capitalism.Stevens, C. J. Storyteller: A Life of Erskine Caldwell. Phillips, Maine: John Wade, 2000. Comprehensive biography traces the details of Caldwell’s life and discusses his “complicated personality.” Describes how he wrote his novels and other works and also summarizes their contents.
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