THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

ERSKINE CALDWELL: The Journey From Tobacco Road by Dan B. Miller


Erskine Caldwell wrote 25 novels, 12 nonfiction books, and 150 short stories.  By the late 1940s, he had sold more books than any other American writer and by 1960 his sales exceeded 60 million.

However, Dan B. Miller confesses that prior to 1989 he had never even heard of Caldwell.  He only became aware of him when he read that the writer's papers had been deposited at Dartmouth College and would be available to researchers.

"His name did not ring a bell.  I had never come across one of his novels in a bookstore, nor seen his name in an anthology, syllabus, or critical evaluation of American literature.  Neither had most of my peers, although a few claimed to have heard of (but not read) a novel called Tobacco Road....

An index of American best-sellers confirmed that Caldwell's books had sold a staggering 70 million copies.  Although most of his success had taken place in the late 1940s and 1950s, one Caldwell novel, God's Little Acre, still ranked as high in total sales as any single work by Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Steinbeck."

What emerges from Miller's thoroughly researched and very readable -- and long overdue -- biography (published in 1994) is the portrait of a writer who was as flawed and as contradictory, but also as memorable, as the characters he created.

Because his fiction is a curious mixture of comedy and tragedy, he is a writer that critics always struggled to pigeonhole.  He specialized in writing about "po' white" southerners, people whose plight he sympathized with, while at the same time he could not help viewing them with disdain and little or no affection.
He went to court several times to keep his books from being banned on obscenity charges.  His defense was that if his books were obscene it was only because the truth was obscene.  He won every case.

There was even a time that critics ranked him as the third member, along with Faulkner and Wolfe, in a great triumvirate of southern novelists.  However, Miller writes that "[t]oday Erskine Caldwell has been virtually forgotten by popular readers and scholarly critics alike, and he surely represents one of the greatest disappearing acts in our literary history."

One of the strengths of Miller's book results from the fact that he had heretofore been ignorant of Caldwell's career.  That allowed him to approach his subject clear-eyed and with no preconceptions as he conducted his research and read Caldwell's work for the first time.

And thanks to Miller's discovery, we now have a better understanding of why Caldwell rose so high and fell so far.  

Friday, May 15, 2015

THE PICTURE BOX by Brownell Siscoe III

Riley Sullivan quickened his pace, reached down, and said, "Well, I'll be dogged!  I just found a quarter."

Alf Faircloth hurried to Riley's side and watched him pick up the coin, removed the ever-present cigar from his mouth, and exclaimed, "Gee whiz!  For a old man you got the eyes of a hawk.  You find more money than anybody I ever did see. I got to start looking, too.  There must be a fortune out here on this road."

They continued on their way: Alf talking, puffing on his cigar, pointing, gesticulating, periodically stopping to gaze at somebody's house or commercial establishment, or at E.B. Reeves' cotton and soybean crop that filled the gaps between the buildings on both sides of the muddy, rutted, gravel road that served as Gumbo Valley's main, and nearly only, street; and Riley walking slowly, but steadily, with head down, shoulders slumped, hands in pockets, not saying anything.

Six-days-a-week, the only exception being Sunday, the two made the sojourn they were now making.  Their destination was Nathan Hallstead's general store, which also housed the town post office.  Ostensibly, they made their almost daily pilgrimage to get their mail -- though they rarely received any.  It didn't matter.  For them it was an opportunity to get away from the house and the wife, to relax, learn the latest gossip, exchange tall tales and bald-faced lies, play checkers, watch others play checkers, or listen to Nathan's radio.  Most important, it helped to fill the day.  It gave them a purpose in life, in what sometimes seemed to them to be an almost purposeless life.

It was essentially a male ritual.  There were women who had no men, or whose men were too ill, or were working, or off on a drinking bout, that sometimes came to get their mail, but they usually arrived only minutes before the scheduled four o'clock delivery, and left immediately after it had been distributed.  The men, on the other hand, depending on field conditions and the time of the year, began to filter in early in the afternoon.  

The largest congregations gathered on winter afternoons when little work could be accomplished, or when wet conditions during the rest of the year prohibited work in the fields.  But some, such as Alf Faircloth, who, after losing half of his right hand in an accident while working at E.B. Reeves' sawmill, survived on relief, or such as Riley Sullivan, who, after working many years for E.B. Reeves, both at his sawmill and his cotton gin, was retired, or others who were simply too old or too ill or disabled and were supported by others, made the afternoon journey, six-days-a-week, rain or shine, hot or cold.

It was mid-October, and ordinarily at that time of the year, for it was the peak of the cotton harvest, there would have been a small contingent at the store, limited to the unemployed and unemployable, but a week of almost continuous rain or drizzle meant that it would be several days before the men could return to the fields.  Consequently, there were several cars and pickup trucks, some old and dilapidated, others fairly new, but all covered with mud, parked in front of the store.

Although it was not raining hard, there was a cool drizzle blowing in the wind and those awaiting the arrival of the mail were inside and were not, as was their custom on a warm day, sitting on the porch on the two benches that stood against the wall on each side of the front door.  They would be in the back of the store, sitting around the large Warm Morning coal stove that would later inadequately heat the building during the cold Missouri winter -- talking, gossiping, lying, playing checkers, watching others play checkers, listening to the radio.

Riley and Alf mounted the porch steps, walked across the wide porch, opened the screen door, heard the bell jingle, and stepped inside.  It took a moment for them to accustom their vision to the dim interior, but momentarily they spied Nathan Hallstead stocking shelves behind the counter.

While they waited for the storekeeper to turn and acknowledge their presence, Zeke, Nathan's large black and white spotted dog rose from a corner, stretched, yawned, shook himself, and walked to Alf and began to nuzzle his hand with his cool, wet nose.  Theoretically, Zeke was Nathan's watch dog, but hardly anyone had ever heard him bark and he was everyone's friend.  Alf patted him on the head and he dropped to the floor by the counter and resumed his nap.  Nathan claimed Zeke was a cross between a white bull terrier, the kind General Patton had with him in Europe during the war, and a German shepherd, the same as Rin-Tin-Tin.  Riley said he thought Zeke was a setter, because he was most proficient at that.

"How ya'll doing today?" Nathan said as he looked over his shoulder to see who had entered the store.  Then he glanced at his watch.  "Running a little bit late, ain't you?  It's already three."

"Yeah," said Alf.  "I had to wait till Riley was ready.  Dolly had him doing some painting.  Gee whiz, I didn't think she's never going to let him leave."

"You find any money today, Riley?" said Nathan.

"Gee whiz," said Alf, "he always does, don't he?"

"Yeah, I did," replied Riley.  "Since I found a quarter, Alf, it'll be my treat.  Gimme a Dr. Pepper out of the cooler."

After Alf left Riley winked at Nathan.

"When you going to stop pulling that trick on him?" said Nathan.  "For years now he's thought you been finding money on that road.  I don't see how he can keep falling for that."

"Well, I tell you.  He's a easy one to fool.  He's always got his head going side to side like a drag line.  All I got to do is get a little lead on him and flip the coin out in front of me.  He never sees me do it."

Riley removed the floppy, sweat-stained felt hat from his head and ran skinny, freckled fingers through his reddish-gray hair, and said "Wouldn't it be funny, though?  What if he knows what I'm doing?  And what if he don't want to ruin a good thing by letting on he knows?  Hell, he always gets a cold drink out of the deal."

"Knowing Alf, though, I don't think he knows."

"No, I don't neither.  He's too busy a looking and a talking.  Old Alf's main passions is smoking cigars, a talking, and a looking.  I know why he ain't had no kids.  It's too damn hard to talk, look, smoke cigars, and make babies all at the same time."

The two men glanced down the aisle and watched Alf experience his usual indecision in deciding what kind of drink he wanted.

"Now you take Elf," Riley said, referring to Alf's twin brother, who was currently married to his third wife and had sired twelve children, ranging in age from forty-two years to eight months.  "You notice he don't talk much -- and he don't smoke -- just chews -- and he don't spit much neither."

Alf returned to the counter and handed Riley his drink.  He turned up his RC and consumed half of its contents in one sustained gulp.  Riley shook his head in amazement and said, "Well, let's go to the back and see who all is here."

Nathan watched as they walked away.  A glint came into his eyes as he relished the thought of catching Riley off guard.  Pulling the wool over Alf's eyes was a cinch, but rare was the occasion when one could catch Riley by surprise.

The two men walked down the central aisle of the store.  To their right was a counter that ran almost the entire length of the long building and behind it was shelves of canned goods.  To their left was the assorted miscellany -- brooms, mops, shovels, hoes, rakes, livestock feed, potatoes, onions, lettuces, cabbages, apples, oranges, bananas, buckets, tubs, cotton sacks, dry goods -- that was always part of the inventory of country stores in the Missouri bootheel.  About midway through the store the odds and ends were interrupted by the post office cage where Nathan sorted and dispensed the mail, placing it in rented combination lock mail boxes -- numbered one through 135 -- or in slots, not accessible from the outside, lettered from A through Z, for general delivery customers.

"They must be a listening to the radio," Alf said, referring to the sounds coming from the back of the store, an area that was obscured by the post office cage.

"Must be," replied Riley as he reached into a bin and snatched an orange which he placed in his shirt pocket.

As they rounded the corner of the post office cage and stepped into the open area around the stove they saw what the object of the group's attention was on this day -- and it wasn't radio.

"Gee whiz!" said Alf.  "Nathan's done gone and bought one of them picture boxes."

It was the first television that either man had ever seen.

In a semicircle around the set were about twenty people, sitting on old cane-bottomed chairs, nail kegs, soda crates, and the floor, watching a western movie.  Since all the possible seats were occupied, and Josh Dove was the only black person in the store, he stood, indicated the nail keg upon which he had been sitting, and said in a soft drawl, "Here, Mr. Alf, Mr. Riley, one of you gentlemen can have this here seat."

Riley declined, but Alf said, "Gee whiz.  Thank you, Josh.  I am a little bit tired."

Alf sat and Josh moved to stand beside Riley.

Periodically, the movie was interrupted and a bewhiskered and toothless old man, dressed in a tattered, beat-up hat and patched shirt and vest, appeared on the screen.  He was known by all the viewers in the store.  They had all watched him ride the range with the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers on the big screen in the Reeves Theater across the street.  It was Gabby Hayes.  Addressing his audience as "buckaroos," he extolled the culinary delights of Quaker Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice, which was shot from cannons, so he said.  During one break he demonstrated the process by firing a muzzle load toward the camera.

"I'll be dogged!"  It was Jake Pierce who could contain himself no longer.  "Boy howdy, I didn't know that was how they puffed that dad-gummed stuff up."

Riley, standing behind Jake, said, "You didn't know that, Jake?"  He looked down and winked at Nathan's son, a small towheaded, freckle-faced boy seated on the floor between Jake and Sarge Carstairs.  "That's the only way they can do it.  Of course, the big job's gathering the stuff up afterwards and washing it off."

Jake nodded his head that he understood.  Several others in the area stifled laughter and gave each other knowing looks.  Jake was never all that bright, but his mental capacity had been further overloaded by an accident while working for E.B. Reeves' lumber company.  A large limb had prematurely cracked and fell about twenty feet and landed squarely on Jake's head.  His skull encased a steel plate that saved his life but caused his perceptions to be even more clouded.

Silence descended as the commercial interruption concluded and the western movie resumed.  A few minutes later Gabby reappeared, informed the buckaroos that the story would continue tomorrow -- you durn tootin' -- same time, same station, and after a final word about his sponsor, fired one last muzzle of cereal, and faded from the screen.

The timing was exquisite.

Just as Riley extracted the pilfered orange from his shirt pocket and began to remove the peeling, a young, pretty, well-dressed woman appeared on the screen, and began to pour orange juice into a glass.  An off-camera announcer meanwhile intoned a running commentary informing the viewers of the great taste and healthful qualities of Sunkist Orange Juice.

"I'll be dogged!  That's pure amazing!"  It was Jake Pierce again.  "That must be dad-gummed good orange juice.  I swear I can smell it!"

Those situated where they could see the orange in Riley's hand could not contain themselves.  Gus Brandtmeier pounded the floor with his cane; Sarge Carstairs bent double with laughter; Alf Faircloth let go with a rapid succession of gee whizzes; Josh Dove smiled, dropped his head and shook it slowly from side to side; and Coy Doyle overturned the soda crate he was sitting on, fell to the floor and pounded his fist.  Riley quickly returned the half-peeled orange to his shirt pocket before Jake, looking around in bewilderment, could spot it.

A few minutes later, after the group had returned its attention to the television screen, Sarge Carstairs turned to the boy beside him and patted him on the head.

Sarge was one of the town drunks; there were several; but if the town had decided to appoint an official town drunk, it would have been Sarge.  Needing a shave and a bath, as usual, he was today wearing a long, tattered, heavily stained, dirt-encrusted overcoat, and a red and black plaid lumbermen's cap was perched atop his head.  At least it was once red and black.  The black had long ago become the dominant color.  Mingling with the various odors that swarmed in the air around Sarge was the ever-present smell of his favorite drink; his favorite drink being anything that was cheap, available, and contained alcohol.  But Sarge was an affable, gregarious drunk and most everyone, with one notable exception, liked him, or at least tolerated him.  The exception was Amos Stubblefield.  And Sarge, which was out of character for him, had absolutely no use for Amos.

"You go to school today, boy?" Sarge said.

"Naw.  We don't have school during cotton picking time."

"Well -- yeah -- I reckon that's right.  I forgot."  After a pause Sarge said, "When school starts again, you be sure to go every day.  Cause you don't go to school all the time, the teacher going to ask you how to spell shit one day and you ain't going to be able to."

Reaching inside his coat Sarge removed a stubby lead pencil and picked up a discarded candy wrapper from the floor and handed it to the boy.

"Let me see if you can," said Sarge.  "Let's see if you can spell shit."  The boy grinned shyly, took the pencil and paper, and printed the word.  He handed the paper back to Sarge, who stared at it for a long moment.

"Well, can he?" asked Gus Brandtmeier, whose attention had been temporarily diverted from the television screen.

"Damn if I know," said Sarge.  "Hell, I never went to school."

It was then that Amos Stubblefield made his appearance on the scene.  With his thumbs hooked in his overall galluses the tall, bulky man rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet and launched one of his sermons: "Nathan Hallstead is a wolf in sheep's clothing.  The dad-blamed devil is working through Nathan Hallstead.  He's caused him to buy a dad-gummed contraption and to place it here where it'll dad-blamed tempt and dad-gummed mislead you down the dad-blamed path to dad-gummed hell and dad-blamed damnation."

In the silence that followed the boy looked at the television, but he didn't see the devil, just a freckle-faced marionette dressed in a cowboy suit talking to a clown.  The silence was broken by Sarge who stood and walked toward Amos.

"Hold on just a minute, Amos," said Sarge.  I want to show you something."  He handed the candy wrapper to Amos and asked, "What does that say?"

Amos took the wrapper, his features creasing as he stared at it, and then handed it back.

"Just as I thought, Amos," Sarge said.  "You don't know shit, neither."

Again the rear of the store erupted with laughter, knee-slapping, and floor-pounding.  Amos, muttering to himself, turned on his heel, and waddled to the front of the store with his unique pigeon-toed stride, and after pausing to tell Nathan what he thought of his television set, walked out the front door.

After the four o'clock mail delivery most of the group reluctantly drifted, one by one, out of the store.  For some had lingered longer than normal today, attracted by the sights and sounds of the picture box, but eventually the afternoon gathering departed.  As others came in to purchase a few groceries, to check their mail, or to mail a letter, they, including the women, found themselves attracted to the television.  A few had seen television before, but none owned one.  It was Gumbo Valley's first.  Not even E.B. Reeves owned a television.