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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Monday, June 1, 2015

TOBACCO ROAD by Erskine Caldwell

 Nathaniel Rich writes on The Daily Beast website, "As a comedy, Tobacco Road is a modest failure; as a tragedy, it is an abject failure" and that the novel is "as indelible as a freak show or car crash."  Dwight Garner on the Slate website called it "a greasy hairball of a of the sickest and most lurid books to have emerged from the literature of the American South."  Both writers, however, proceed to give the novel a generally positive review.  Their conflicted response is typical of both critics and readers.
Experts, however, have ranked it as one of the hundred most significant novels written in English in the 20th century.  And, especially after its success as a Broadway play, the novel eventually sold ten million copies.

Rich goes on to say that Erskine Caldwell is a "progenitor of what could be called the degenerate school of American fiction," which I suppose could be called a subgenre of the so-called grit-lit genre.  At any rate, it seems that a straight line can be drawn from Caldwell to writers such as Harry Crews, who also attempted to combine tragedy and comedy in their novels.

Tobacco Road, published in 1932, was meant to be a work of social protest, a condemnation of poverty among the poor whites of the Deep South.  John Steinbeck wrote about some of the same issues a few years later in The Grapes of Wrath.  But it is only on the surface that the two books are similar.   Unlike Steinbeck, Caldwell refused to resort to sentimentality or to imbue his characters with any degree of dignity in coping with their suffering.  Other than poverty and being dispossessed of their land, Caldwell's Lesters share very little in common with Steinbeck's Joads. 

Most readers, and I include myself, struggle with Caldwell's depiction of the Lesters as being "ignorant, selfish, crude, sexually promiscuous, indecent, but also comic figures."  Caldwell seems to simultaneously sympathize with his characters while at the same time maintaining a disdainful attitude toward them.  It is call for social action to combat poverty, but one that provides no solutions to the problem. 
Caldwell claimed that he wrote the novel as "a rebuke of the perfumed 'moonlight and magnolias' literature of the South."  Well, it was that.

And there is this, too: it was edited by Maxwell Perkins; William Faulkner and Malcolm Cowley admired the book; and Saul Bellow thought Caldwell should have been awarded the Nobel Prize.


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