Although Erskine Caldwell wrote more than sixty books, twenty-five novels among them,
Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries
Erskine Caldwell, he is best known for two works of long fiction, Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933). Tobacco Road was named one of the Modern Library’s 100 best novels of the twentieth century, and God’s Little Acre remains Caldwell’s single most popular work, having sold more than 10 million copies. Along with the less well-known Journeyman (1935), these books make up a serio-comic trilogy of Georgia life in the first half of the twentieth century. They detail the ruination of the land, the growth of textile mills, and the abiding influence of fundamentalist religion in the South. These books thus present a radical contrast to the traditionally genteel and romantic views of the region, popularized most notably by Margaret Mitchell in Gone With the Wind (1936).
Tobacco Road, published by Charles Scribner and Sons in 1932, was Caldwell’s third novel. It was inspired by the terrible poverty he witnessed as a young man growing up in the small east Georgia town of Wrens. His father, Ira Sylvester Caldwell, who was pastor of the local Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, was also an amateur sociologist and often took his son with him to observe some of the more destitute members of the rural community. Erskine Caldwell’s sympathy for these people and his outrage at the conditions in which they lived were real, and his novel was meant to be a work of social protest. But he also refused to sentimentalize their poverty or to cast his characters as inherently noble in their sufferings, as so many other protest works did.
The novel’s Lester family, headed by the shiftless patriarch Jeeter, both appall and intrigue readers with their gross sexuality, casual violence, selfishness, and overall lack of decency. Living as squatters on barren land that had once belonged to their more prosperous ancestors, the Lesters have come to represent in the American public’s mind the degradation inherent in extreme poverty. That Caldwell also portrays them as often-comic figures further complicates the reader’s response. Tobacco Road is a call to action, but it offers no easy answers and thus has generated intense debate both in and out of the South. Many southerners denounced the novel as exaggerated and needlessly cruel and even pornographic, an affront to the gentility of the region. Northern critics, however, tended to read the book as a serious indictment of a failed economic system in need of correction. Caldwell later explained that the book was not meant to represent the entire South, but for many this work confirmed demeaning southern stereotypes.
The Play and Film
The stage version of Tobacco Road was written by Jack Kirkland and opened on December 4, 1933, at the Masque Theatre in New York City. Caldwell had little to do with the play version and initially felt it would fail. First reviews were mixed, and after a month of sporadic attendance, the play moved to the 48th Street Theater, where it slowly became a word-of-mouth success. With Henry Hull as the first of five actors who would play Jeeter Lester, Tobacco Road ran for more than seven years, through 3,182 performances. When it closed on May 31, 1941, it had become the longest-running play in the history of the Broadway stage up to that time.
Road shows took the play to cities throughout the nation and later into foreign countries. In 1934 Chicago mayor Edward F. Kelly declared the play obscene and closed it down. The producers sued, and in a major court case, the play was allowed to continue. This was the first of numerous attempts to censor the show, which was often taken to court or banned during its many runs. Caldwell tirelessly defended the play and the book and, in the process, became a leading advocate for artistic freedom and First Amendment rights.
In 1940 Darryl F. Zanuck and Twentieth Century Fox, which had just produced John Ford’s classic film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, bought the screen rights to Tobacco Road. Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (a Georgia native) attempted to preserve the caustic comedy and social protest of the book and play, but the studio overruled them on central issues, specifically the tragic ending. The result was a sentimental burlesque that Caldwell himself disavowed. Starring Charley Grapewin, repeating his stage role as Jeeter Lester, the film was released in 1941. It enjoyed initial success but is now considered one of Ford’s lesser movies, a poor relative of his great work in The Grapes of Wrath.
God’s Little Acre
God’s Little Acre was published by Viking Press in 1933, one year after the publication of Tobacco Road. In it, Caldwell shifts his sights to the industrialized South. Influenced in part by the textile mill strikes in Gastonia, North Carolina, he considered this work to be a “proletarian” novel dealing with the plight of workers deprived of union protection. It was intended to support these mill hands, or “lintheads,” as they were sometimes called. Will Thompson, who leads the strike, represents both the inherent power and the frustration of the working class. When Thompson is killed by guards as he attempts to reopen the mill shut down by its ruthless owners, his death becomes a rallying cry; and his corpse is borne through the streets, but the mills remain closed.
The book also examines the misuse of the land and other natural resources. Ty Ty Walden, who (unlike Jeeter Lester) still owns his farm, spends his time digging for gold instead of farming the rich soil. His delusion and the tragedy it brings to his family again illustrate the waste Caldwell saw in southern attitudes toward the land.
Like Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre contains scenes of explicit sexuality. In April 1933 the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice took Caldwell and Viking Press to court for dissemination of pornography. More than sixty authors, editors, and literary critics rallied in support of the book, and Judge Benjamin Greenspan of the New York Magistrates Court ruled in its favor. The court case is still considered a major decision in the establishment of artists’ First Amendment rights in freedom of expression. The book became a worldwide best-seller and remains today one of the most popular novels ever published.
In 1958 director Anthony Mann and screenwriter Phillip Yordan, in collaboration with Caldwell, made the film version of God’s Little Acre, starring Robert Ryan as Ty Ty Walden and Aldo Ray as Will Thompson. The film, like the book, was considered scandalous and became one of the top-grossing movies for that year. Truer to its source than John Ford’s Tobacco Road had been, God’s Little Acre remains the best representation of Caldwell on film.
Edwin T. Arnold, ed., Conversations with Erskine Caldwell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988).
Sylvia Jenkins Cook, Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Poverty: The Flesh and the Spirit (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991).
Robert L. McDonald, ed., The Critical Response to Erskine Caldwell (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997).
Dan B. Miller, Erskine Caldwell: The Journey from Tobacco Road. A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995).
Wayne Mixon, The People’s Writer: Erskine Caldwell and the South (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995).
Edwin T. Arnold, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina