1903-1987 American novelist
Erskine Caldwell's first novels, The Bastard (1929) and Poor Fool (1930) were followed by a short story collection, American Earth (1931), which—although unpublished—he himself considered his first book. These stories lay the foundation for Caldwell's later recognizable style, namely a grimly deterministic perspective on human life in which the manipulation of power between men and women, whites and African-Americans, rich and poor disposed him towards a gothic preponderance for depictions of graphic violence and startlingly grotesque imagery.
Nevertheless, Caldwell did not receive any measure of success until the publication of Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933). Both books were set amongst poor whites and featured a great deal of grotesque sexual behavior. In particular, the incestuous activities of the protagonists, which Caldwell presented as near inherent in the family pattern of the sharecroppers, upset southerners and northerners alike, and culminated in a highly publicized obscenity trial in the wake of the publication of God's Little Acre. The publicity ensured the books status as a bestseller and the continued run of a theatrical adaptation of Tobacco Road, which ran on Broadway for over seven years.
The sexual content of Caldwell's work, his insistence on the grotesque absurdity of the deprived characters, and the animalistic nature of their psychological make-up, has thus often overshadowed Caldwell's reputation as a pro-proletarian writer of the period. In fact, Caldwell's perspective on sharecropping became sharpened as his political sympathies moved leftward during the Depression years. In both God's Little Acre and Tobacco Road, set in the brutalized countryside of the South, the characters remain oblivious to any notions of Southern gentility or nobility. Instead, Caldwell poignantly prefers to focus on the moral and physical destitution of a people described in starkly realist terms. In 1935, Caldwell published a collection of proletarian stories, Kneel to the Rising Sun, before moving on to a style of writing that leant itself more to his alleged objectivist style, namely documentary writing.
Some American People (1935) records Caldwell's journey through a Depression-torn America as does his later collaborations with the photographer Margaret Bourke White whom he married in 1939. As a couple they produced You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) on the plight of Southern sharecroppers, North of the Danube (1939) on Czechoslovakia, Say, is this the USA? (1941), and Russia at War (1942). Despite a tumultuous relationship and subsequent divorce in 1942, their collaborative efforts represent a unique combination of documentarist photography and Caldwell's quirky fictionalized accounts of the vernacular speech patterns of the people portrayed. In You Have Seen Their Faces, Caldwell dismisses any form of passive objectivity, instead choosing to polemically foreground the pathos of the sharecropper's plight.
Caldwell continued to write prolifically during the 40s. The subsequent decline in his critical status was abetted by a continued interest in the more lurid and commercial sale of paperback éditions of Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre. These éditions were more often than not published with paperback covers portraying an array of women with suggestively torn clothing and leering men in the background. After successive marriages Caldwell attempted to break away from this cycle by focusing on female protagonists. His 1950s novels: Gretta (1950), Gulf Coast Stories (1956), and Certain Women (1957) nevertheless all deal in various ways with the sexual behavior of unfulfilled women. Caldwell's reputation as one of America's most censored authors aided in the publication of these books at a time when Caldwell, in America, was considered a rather formulaic writer banking on earlier successes. As Caldwell moved on from his interest in the sexual behavior of women he began to deal more concertedly with issues of race and class in later work from the 1960s and 1970s: Jenny by Nature (1961) and Close to Home (1962) amongst others.
In total, Caldwell published well over 50 books of short stories, novels, and non-fiction but his work from the 1930s still stands as the foundation for his reputation as a writer engaged with the political and sexual spirit of his age. Despite the potential for his Southern fiction to be read as predominantly crass and sexually titillating, Caldwell's sociological sense and political sincerity combined to make him a crucial literary figure of his times.
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