Caldwell's South

December 17: Erskine Caldwell was born on this day in 1903 in rural Georgia. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Caldwell often accompanied his father as he spread his Social Gospel among the farmers and blue collar workers of the American South. Both Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933), Caldwell's two most famous novels, combine generational poverty and fundamentalist, though often bent, religion. In the excerpt below, from the end of God's Little Acre, the patriarch Ty Ty is trying to explain that his gold-digging obsession is based on more than money:

It ain't so important that I get money out of God's little acre to give to the church and the preacher, it's just the fact that I set it up in His name. All you boys seem to think about is what you can see and touch—that ain't living. It's the things you can feel inside of you—that's what living is made for. True, as you say, God ain't got a penny of money out of that piece of ground, but it's the fact that I set God's little acre aside out there that matters.

But it was the sex and Caldwell's skill as a "master of rural ribaldry" which made God's Little Acre an all-time bestseller, and which drew the wrath of censors and fellow southerners. Margaret Mitchell complained that Caldwell (and Faulkner) had cartooned their home, "betraying the South for Yankee dollars." Perhaps because he had written both his hit novels while living in Maine, Caldwell determined to prove that he had not imagined his portrait of sharecropper poverty. During the middle years of the Great Depression he toured the South with photographer Margaret Bourke-White, documenting sharecropper poverty; when their collaborative photo-essay You Have Seen Their Faces was published in 1937 (three years before Walker Evans and James Agee published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), it, too, was a bestseller.

 

Caldwell's autobiography describes Maine winters devoted to the wood-stove and writing, nourished by dwindling supplies of potatoes and preserves. Perhaps imagining the heat and passions of home-state Georgia kept him warm: "Upstairs in my unheated workroom I wore a navy watch cap pulled down over the ears, a sweater, a leather jerkin, and a padded storm coat while seated at my typewriter. …The only sign of life would sometimes be seen on clear days under pale blue skies when an antlered moose tramped laboriously through the deep snowdrifts."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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