- Weeding Out the Recessive Gene:Representations of the Evolving Eugenics Movement in Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre
Because of the sense of desperation and the peculiar family antics in Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, these two novels have often been critiqued as versions of the same story. In a 1933 review of God's Little Acre, Bennett A. Cerf actually criticized Caldwell for the "striking parallels" and "unescapable duplications" between the novels (34). Critics such as Kenneth Burke, John Miller Maclachlan, and Jay Watson have written about the novels as if the characters in each blend together into a stock Caldwellian poor-white characterization.1 Despite these critics' assessments of the novels, however, Caldwell actually creates two separate family studies with the Lesters of Tobacco Road and the Waldens of God's Little Acre, and each presents a distinctly different representation of poor-white life. Even though both the Lesters and the Waldens exhibit the "uninhibited" behavioral ideology that these critics have associated with poor-whites, the Waldens do not face the economic degradation that the Lesters do (Maclachlan 133). In fact, the Waldens live in a modestly successful economic environment that should rank them just above this poor-white category. Therefore, when Caldwell places the Waldens with the Lesters in this category, he blurs the definition of "poor-white," making it no longer defined by economics. [End Page 78]
Expanding the category of poor-white to include the Waldens allows Caldwell to focus not just on the physical degradation of poverty, as he does in Tobacco Road, but also on the process of economic and social decline that eventually situates a family firmly in this category. This shift by Caldwell to identify families that have the potential to become like the Lesters parallels the shift that also occurred in the American eugenics movement from the late 1920s to the 1930s. Karen E. Keely and Sarah C. Holmes have recently linked Tobacco Road to the early American eugenics movement by focusing on the poverty of the Lesters, the physical deformities of Ellie May and Sister Bessie, and the obvious connections between Tobacco Road and "The Bunglers" articles written by Caldwell's father, Ira, in 1929.2 In contrast, the Walden family of God's Little Acre appears neither economically nor physically deprived; in fact, the Waldens have both economic and physical privileges that make them seem far better off than the Lesters. Eugenicists in the 1920s and 1930s, however, no longer worried about identifying the "genuinely lame, insane, and deformed," genetically "inferior" people such as the Lesters, who could be recognized physically (Black 53). They worried about genetic "inferiors" who looked just as "normal" as genetically "superior" people did and who could possibly remain undiscovered for as many as three generations (East 44). With increased emphasis put on uncovering hidden defectives, eugenicists turned to environmental and familial factors that could expose inferiority and open up a chance to create a "superior" race in America. In God's Little Acre, Caldwell borrows the rhetoric of this new eugenics movement as he conducts a second fictional eugenic family study that forces attention not on the economic circumstances and outer appearance of his subjects, as he did in Tobacco Road, but on the inherited behavioral patterns of the Waldens that raise questions both about the possibility of their genetic inferiority and about how America should handle these possible threats to future progress.
While early American eugenicists aimed many of their race betterment endeavors at African Americans and immigrants, they also focused a great deal of energy on rural poor-whites who refused to accept their role in the new industrial society driving the American economy from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century (Rafter 17).3 Elizabeth Yukins has argued that economic failure by poor-whites spurred the eugenics movement because "[d]ominant whiteness was threatened by the spectre of inadequacy and fallibility within its own racial borders" (167). By focusing on "individual genetic weakness rather than racial inferiority", eugenicists would be able to "maintain the ideology of white superiority" [End Page 79] and to pinpoint "'degenerate' whites" who "threatened the...