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.  

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