restricted access Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Poverty (review)
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Reviewed by
Sylvia Jenkins Cook. Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Poverty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1991. 301 pp. $37.50.

We think of Erskine Caldwell today—if we think of him at all—as the purveyor of a distinct brand of Southern grotesque: the erotic exotica to be found down the tobacco roads and cotton rows of Caldwell's Georgia. Leaving the excesses of Southern history to Faulkner, religion to Flannery O'Connor, [End Page 154] and psychology to Welty, Caldwell first flourished by remembering that sales and the salacious belong together. Once Jack Kirkland's 1934 Broadway adaptation of Caldwell's 1932 novel Tobacco Road —with its leering Jeeter Lester and writhing Ellie May—became a sensation, Caldwell's reputation as a popular writer was secure. The play's success stimulated the modest sales of his two most recent novels (God's Little Acre had appeared in 1933), and led to mass market paperback sales that stagger the imagination. By the mid-sixties, Caldwell's works had sold at least 40 million copies, and God's Little Acre had surpassed its coeval Gone With the Wind by a million buyers.

Although popular literature has earned increasingly serious scholarly consideration, the kind of appeal made by Caldwell's squirming, sex-starved, murderous deviants still tends to embarrass reputable critics. In the recent Columbia Literary History of the United States, for example, Caldwell receives passing mention as a leftist Southern writer on social issues and no discussion of his work—a treatment slimmer than Steinbeck's, Plath's, and even Leslie Fiedler's. Sylvia Jenkins Cook makes the case amply for Caldwell's need to be reckoned with, however, as she surveys the immense output of a long career, appreciates Caldwell's engagements with social and aesthetic questions central to post-World War I America, and cites the impressive testimony of other writers to his influence and achievement.

There is no gainsaying the sheer quantity and diversity: across six decades beginning in the 1920s, over fifty books and hundreds of magazine pieces—novels, story collections, works of photo-journalism, autobiographies, edited volumes. Cook quotes the staggered Truman Capote: "Just to TYPE that much, let alone WRITE." Other writers offer more substantial tributes, too. Faulkner frequently named the early Caldwell as among the best novelists the South had produced; the French included him among "Les Cinq Grands" (with Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck); contemporary critics accorded him genuine respect, Kenneth Burke, for example, writing a shrewd, if bemused, appreciation of Caldwell's fascination with "balked religiosity" (The Philosophy of Literary Form); and Gabriel Gárcia Márquez identified his two masters as James Joyce and Erskine Caldwell, with, Cook observes, no sense of irony in the combination.

Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Poverty acknowledges the contradictions in Caldwell's writing as its point of departure. Cook shows how Caldwell's dedicated study of the experimental short fiction in the little magazines surprisingly taught him formulae for commercial success. Swiftly efficient beginnings, narrative concision, stylistic spareness and economical repetition merge avant garde and mass market procedures. American Earth (1931) collected these earliest stories, and the novel The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (1936) consolidated his experimentalist phase. The stories in Kneel to the Rising Sun (1935) show Caldwell's emergence as a significant socialist-leaning realist. The novels of his cyclorama of the South (including the famous two mentioned above as well as the important Journeyman [1935] and Trouble in July [1940]) yoke convictions about deterministic social and [End Page 155] natural forces with a contrary interest in personal turpitude and questions of will. Caldwell's fiction continually negotiates social analysis, farcical humor, and sentimental pity, while his later photodocumentary work (especially on the South in You Have Seen Their Faces [1937]) mediates worries over respect for his subjects, aesthetic exploitation, moral indignation, and political despair.

Cook serves as a thorough and reliable guide to Caldwell's oeuvre. As readers of her earlier fine study of the poor white in Southern literature (From Tobacco Road to Route 66 [Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1976]) might expect, Cook offers sensible readings of the works from thematic and...


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