Places: Tobacco Road

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1932

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedLester farm

Lester Tobacco Roadfarm. Georgia home of Jeeter Lester’s family, near the town of Fuller. A three-room ramshackle house with a sagging porch and leaky roof stands in a grassless yard with a few chinaberry trees here and there. The surrounding cotton fields have not been cultivated for several years and are overgrown. Some seventy-five years before, it had been a promising tobacco farm owned by Jeeter’s grandfather. Running through the property is a tobacco road nearly fifteen miles long, once used to roll tobacco casks to the steamboats on the distant Savannah River.

Jeeter’s inability to produce a reasonable crop from the sandy, depleted soil has left him so heavily in debt that he has turned to sharecropping on what was once his family’s plantation. The soil resists Jeeter’s increasingly weak, though well-intentioned, efforts to grow a sustainable crop. Its infertility mirrors the impotence that gradually overtakes Jeeter and reduces him to little more than a shadow of a man. By the end of the novel, there remains even less of the farm after a fire destroys the old house, leaving only a “tall brick chimney . . . blackened and tomb-like.”

The utter, hopeless poverty so graphically depicted by the Lesters’ plight is representative of the rural squalor and degradation faced by many Americans living at the lowest levels of economic and moral debasement.

*Augusta

*Augusta. Georgia city about fifteen miles from the Lester farm. The Lesters go to Augusta naïvely hoping to sell some firewood. The trip, in a brand-new car purchased by Sister Bessie, the new wife of Jeeter’s sixteen-year-old son Dude, fails to raise any money to buy food or other necessities. They spend the night in a “hotel,” which resembles a brothel or hookers’ hotel, and Sister Bessie, in her ignorance, gets shunted about from room to room, encountering various unknown men waiting in beds. When they all head home the next day, they are none the wiser or richer for having had the experience. Furthermore, the load of wood and the lack of oil in the engine have ruined the new car.

Fuller

Fuller. Town about five miles from the Lester farm and about fifteen miles from Augusta. It is large enough to have a Ford car dealership, at least one church (Baptist), stores, and a courthouse, where Sister Bessie and Dude Lester obtain their marriage license.

The stores in Fuller had at one time extended credit to Jeeter because he raised a fair cotton crop each year. When his debts increased so much that he had no hope of paying them, his farm was bought by Captain John Harmon. Harmon allowed Jeeter to sharecrop for several unprofitable years but finally gave up, sold out, and moved to Augusta. The stores in Fuller, aware they can no longer expect to be paid, refuse Jeeter credit, thus cutting off his last source of sustenance.

Fuller’s bounty is close and yet completely out of Jeeter’s reach. Just as his wish for a decent crop is ongoing yet unattainable, so Fuller represents the relief that is impossible for Jeeter to obtain.

BibliographyArnold, Edwin T., ed. Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. A series of essays about this generally underappreciated novelist dealing with both biographical and literary topics.Cook, Sylvia Jenkins. Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Poverty: The Flesh and the Spirit. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991. This study focuses on the physical and spiritual effects of poverty on Caldwell’s characters. For all of their preoccupation with material reality, they aspire also to a higher purpose in life.Devlin, James E. Erskine Caldwell. Boston: Twayne, 1984. An analysis of the novel’s themes and techniques. Identifies Caldwell as a naturalist and the Lesters as part of a subculture. Also tries to account for the novel’s seemingly contradictory combination of humor and serious social commentary.Klevar, Harvey L. Erskine Caldwell: A Biography. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. Covers the writing of the novel, Caldwell’s relationship with his publishers, and the influence of his father’s study of the white Southern poor for Eugenics magazine.MacDonald, Scott, ed. Critical Essays on Erskine Caldwell. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Includes introductions that Caldwell wrote for several of his novels, including Tobacco Road, as well as contemporary reviews and scholarly essays.
Categories: Places