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Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987)

 

American author, "master of rural ribaldry," whose unadorned novels and short stories about the family relations of Georgian poor whites and blacks combined social realism with sex and violence. In his time Caldwell struggled with censorship more than any other writer. Typical for his fiction are unpredictable plots, grotesque humor, and a straightforward and powerful style. Caldwell's attacks on poverty, ignorance, racism, and the tenant farming system deeply influenced public opinion.

"The trouble with you, Pete," Oscar said to me, "is that you think you can run all of creation the exact way you want it run. It's time you to find out that you're not the only human being in this world, and that millions of other people have rights, too. It's people like you who've got to wake up and realize that a man can't live a selfish life in this day and time." (from 'Soquots' in Gulf Coast Stories, 1956)

Erskine Caldwell was born in White Oak, Georgia. His father, Ira Sylvester Caldwell, was a Presbyterian minister who moved from church to church all over the American South. The family rarely lived for more than six months in the same place. Caldwell was mainly taught by his mother, Caroline Bell, a schoolteacher and dedicated educator. During these early years he acquired a deep knowledge of the impoverished sharecroppers, which later reflected in his best-known work,  Tobacco Road (1932).

As a young man, Caldwell took odd jobs and worked in the Southern states. He attended briefly Erskine College, Due West, South Carolina, and the Universities of Virginia and Pennsylvania for some semesters. In 1925 he married Helen Lannigan, a fellow student; they had three children. Like Maxim Gorky in Russia, and Dreiser, Carl Sandburg and William Saroyan and others in the U.S., Caldwell received his true education through the wide variety of jobs he took.

At the age of eighteen Caldwell went on a gun-running boat to South America, he played professional football and worked as mill-hand, cotton-picker, and in other such occupations. For a time he was a cub reporter on the Atlanta Journal. In the 1920s Caldwell moved to Maine to devote himself to writing. After several Spartan years, he had three stories accepted for publication. It has been argued that the The Bastard (1929) and Poor Fool (1930) show hints of disturbed state of mind. Caldwell once explained that he tried to "create a different world," he "had to imagine – I was not photographing life."

In 1930 Caldwell destroyed all his unpublished work from previous years. 'Country Full of Swedes' was published in the Yale Review, and it received $1,000 award from the journal in 1933. American Earth, a collection of short stories about petty passions and little lecheries, was came out in 1931. Some of the stories had first appeared in such magazines as The American Caravan, Blues, Frankfurter Zeitung, Front, The Hound and Horn, Nativity, Pagany, Scribner's Magazine, This Quarter, and transition.

"Tom poked Lem with his thumb, nodding his head. Lem lifted her dress a little higher, looking for something pink. There was not anything yet, except more of her legs showing. Lem was determined to prove to Tom that Ozzie did not wear ten-cents-a-yard cotton mill-end underclothes. He lifted her dress a little higher and a little higher. Nothing appeared that would prove to Tom the things Lem said on the other end of the porch were true. The boys crowded closer and closer to Ozzie." (from 'A Swell-Looking Girl,' in American Earth, 1931)

While in Maine Caldwell wrote two novels, The Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre (1933) – both were later made into films. To the general public Caldwell became known through Jack Kirkland's stage adaptation of Tobacco Road, which ran over seven years on Broadway. Caldwell's novels shocked readers, were banned from many libraries, and were prosecuted for obscenity. But critics also saw Caldwell as a literary realist and sociologist, whose works painted a naturalistic portrait of rural poverty. Although his books had social seriousness they also were peppered with grotesque humor and melodramatic exaggeration. Caldwell once explained that his aim was to describe "to the best of my ability the aspirations and despair of the people I wrote about." I'll Take My Stand (1930), a collection of essays, had marked the emergence of the Southern Agrarian movement. In the wake of Caldwell's works other writers began to examine the Southern countryside of the 1930s, among them Allen Tate (The Fathers, 1938) and Robert Penn Warren (Night Rider, 1939).

Tobacco Road was about a family of white sharecroppers driven to desperation by the oppression of a changing economic system. Its central character is Jeeter Lester, who dreams of winning a good tobacco crop from neglected land. His physical hunger parallels with his psychological hunger to cultivate the land, which his family do not own any more. Jeeter believes in his dream as he believes in God. "Him and me has always been fair and square with each other," Jeeter says. Lov Bensey has married Jeeter's 12-year old daughter Pearl, and her sister Ellie May has a sexual appetite which knows no boundaries. Sister Bessie, widowed, marries the young Dude Lester. Dude doesn't care that Bessie's nose is only two holes in the middle of her face, because she buys him a car. When the family drives to town, Caldwell contrasts their somewhat innocent degeneration and primitivism with the organized decay of the surrounding society. At the end Jeeter and his wife Ada die in a fire but Dude hopes that next year will give a good cotton crop. The sales of Tobacco Road were first so small that Caldwell's advance was barely covered. The book was adapted for screen and gained success as a play. A dramatization of the story by Jack Kirkland was almost closed after two weeks. However, it then ran for seven and half years in the 1930s and early 1940s on the New York stage.

John Ford's film adaptation was a failure. The Grapes of Wrath, which he had made a year before, is an unforgettable portrayal of poor Oklahoma farmers, but in Tobacco Road Ford ridiculed impoverished sharecroppers. "William Tracy's hideous screeching as the moronic Dude Lester and the embarrassing spectacle of Ward Bond and Gene Tierney writhing toward each other in the dirt to convey sexual passion are among the lowest points in Ford's oeuvre." (Joseph McBride in Searching for John Ford, 2001)

In Gods Little Acre the protagonist is the benevolent patriarch Ty Ty Walden who tries to find gold under useless soil. He worships his beautiful daughters but complains that his sons Buck and Shaw do not help him enough at digging. Jim Leslie, his firstborn son, scorns his own family. He has moved to town and gained success. Ty is obsessed with gold but Jim Leslie and Ty's son-in-law Will Thompson are obsessed with Griselda, Buck's beautiful wife. Ty, King Lear of the cotton fields, is too weak and blind to stop approaching disaster. As in Tobacco Road, Caldwell juxtaposes urban and agrarian world. Will rapes Griselda who is visiting the town with his sister. Nobody wants to stop him, not even his wife. Will is later killed during a strike and Buck kills Jim Leslie, who tries to rob Griselda from him. When Ty's dreams are ruined and blood is spilled on his land he says: "There was a mean trick played on us somewhere. God put us in the bodies of animals and tried to make us act like people. That was the beginning of trouble." God's Little Acre was charged with being "obscene, indecent, and impure." In 1934, faculty members at Columbia University complained that the novel was "indicent and tending to corrupt." Though Caldwell's novels and stories were popular in Russia, this work was not published there.

Georgia Boy (1943) was a series of closely related incidents narrated by a twelve- year old boy, William. Through William's innocent observations Caldwell reveals human weaknesses and follies, especially his father's childishness and self-indulgence. Caldwell's other works with Southern themes include Journeyman (1935), a chronicle of the activities of a self-proclaimed minister, A House in the Uplands (1946), The Sure Hand of God (1947), This Very Earth (1948), A Place Called Estherville (1949), and Episode in Palmetto (1950). 'Kneel to the Rising Sun,' published in Complete Short Stories (1953), was a story about lynching, and is considered among his best stories. Later noteworthy novels include Miss Mamma Aimee (1967).

Caldwell marriage to Helen Lannigan ended in 1938. Writing was an agony for Caldwell, who would sit frozen in his chair before the typewriter. Finally Helen persuaded her husband to use dictionary while working. Caldwell preferred the older Webster's Dictionary, the 2nd edition. According to a story, he once went through a Webster's Collegiate and crossed out all the words of more than four syllabes. In an interview he said, that "it was my conviction that a simple word is much more effective than a long, compund word."

In 1936 Caldwell met the photographer Margaret Bourke-White, with whom he travelled for the next six years, married, divorced, and collaborated on four books. Caldwell married in 1942 June Johnson, a 20-year-old college senior; they had one child. The marriage lasted until their divorce in 1955. In 'Advice About Women' Caldwell wrote: "When a woman gets a notion in her head, no matter how silly a man thinks it is, give in to her. Let her go ahead every time and do what she wants to. That's the finest, and cheapest, insurance in the world to keep peace under the roof, and peace it what a man wants around the clock when he's married." (from Gulf Coast Stories, 1956) Bourke-White was one of the most adept photographers of the decade. She had visited Russia several time when she was employed by the business magazine Fortune. In 1936 she joined the Life. With Caldwell she produced You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a documentary account of impoverished living conditions in the South. A similar book combining photographs and text appeared just before the outbreak of World War II, this time depicting Czechoslovakia.

Caldwell spent some time in the Soviet Union, where he worked as a newspaper correspondent and witnessed the German invasion of 1941. When he met the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg in a bomb shelter, he asked how much the Russians love their country. Ehrenburg answered that the Russians love the Soviet system and their country – his pride prevented him from speaking of all their difficulties. All-Out on the Road to Smolensk (1942) was Caldwell's personal account from this time. He also published travel books, essays, short stories and literary autobiographies, Call It Experience (1951), Caldwell's informal review of his career as a writer, and In Search of Bisco (1965).

Caldwell worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood for several years (1933-34, 1938, 1942-43). From 1942 to 1955 he was editor of American Folkways, a series of regional books. In 1984 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. During his last years Caldwell settled down at Scottsville, Arizona. He continued publishing novels into the 1970s, but they were often considered semi-pornographic. Claudelle Inglish (1958), like Gretta (1955), explored the sexual habits of a young woman. Warner Brothers paid the author $45,000 for film right; Natalia Wood was first mentioned for the starring role, but eventually Diane McBain was cast in the role of Claudelle. Caldwell died of inoperable cancer in Paradise Valley on April 11, 1987 – he had been a heavy smoker since the age of fifteen. Caldwell was married four times; his fourth marriage to Virginia Moffet Fletcher, who had worked as his secretary, was most stable and lasted thirty years. "I was not a nice guy," Caldwell said once. "I considered my job more important than anything else. But I had to take a stand, selfishly, not thinking of anybody, just myself."

For further reading: Erskine Caldwell by J. Korges (1969); Critical Essays on Erskine Caldwell, ed. by S. MacDonald (1981 ); Conversations with Erskine Caldwell, ed. by E.T. Arnold (1988); Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered by E.T. Arnold (1990); Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Powerty by S.J. Cook (1991); Erskine Caldwell: A Biography by H.L. Klevar (1993); The Critical Response to Erskine Caldwell by R.L. McDonald (1997); Storyteller: A Life of Erskine Caldwell by C. J. Stevens (2000); Reading Erskine Caldwell: New Essays by Robert L. McDonald (2006) - See also Depression America: John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1939), Hemingway's To Have and To Have Not (1937), John Dos Passos's USA (1930-36), James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932-35), Richard Wright's Native Son (1940)

Selected works:

  • The Bastard, 1929 (illustrations by Ty Mahon)
    - film: Le bâtard, 1983, prod. France 3 (FR 3), Mallia Films, dir. Daniel Roebuck, starring Gérard Klein, Brigitte Fossey, Julie Jézéquel, Mylène Demongeot  
  • Poor Fool, 1930 (pictures by Alexander Couard)
  • American Earth / A Swell-Looking Girl, 1931
  • Tobacco Road, 1932
    - Tupakkatie: romaani (suom. Niilo Teerimäki, 1947; Mikko Ukkonen, 1963)
    - film 1941, dir. by John Ford, starring Charley Grapewin, Marjorie Rambeau, Gene Tierney; script Nunnally Johnson, play Jack Kirkland
  • God's Little Acre, 1933
    - Luojan oma maatilkku: romaani (suom. Matti Rossi, 1966)
    - film 1958, dir. by Anthony Mann, starring Robert Ryan, Tina Louise, Aldo Ray, Michael Landon. "Rousing, rollicking and ribald, God's little Acre is a rustic revel with the kick of Georgian mule. The production of Erskine Caldwell's novel is adult, sensitive and intelligent. ... Ryan dominates the picture, as his character should. Aldo Ray, his son-in-law, creates a moving character as the husband torn between his wife, sensitively played by Helen Westcott, and the voluptuous barnyard Susannah, strikingly projected by newcomer from legit Tina Louise." (Variety Movie Guide 2000, ed. by Derek Elley, 2000)
  • We Are the Living: Brief Stories, 1933
  • Journeyman, 1935
  • Kneel to the Rising Sun, and Other Stories, 1935
  • Some American People, 1935
  • Tenant Farmer, 1935
  • The Sacrilice of Alan Kent, 1936 (wood engravings by Ralph Frizzell)
  • You Have Seen Their Faces, 1937 (photographs by Margaret Bourke-White)
  • Southways: Stories by Erskine Caldwell, 1938 (A Small Day; Negro in the Well; Nine Dollars' Worth of Mumble; Carnival; Hamrick's Polar Bear; Snacker; The Fly in the Coffin; Uncle Henry's Love Nest; Return to Lavinia; New Cabin; The Sunfield; The Night My Old Man Came Home; Runaway; A Knife to Cut the Corn Bread With; Wild Flowers; Man and Woman)    
    - Hamrickin jääkarhu ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Timothy Binham, 1985)
  • North of the Danube, 1939 (photographs by Margaret Bourke-White)
  • Trouble in July, 1940
  • Jackpot, 1940
  • Complete Stories, 1941
  • Say, Is This the U.S.A., 1941 (photographs by Margaret Bourke-White)
  • All Night Long: A Novel of Guerrilla Warfare in Russia, 1942
  • All-Out on the Road to Smolensk / Moscow Under Fire: A Wartime Diary, 1942 (photographs by Margaret Bourke-White)
  • Russia at War, 1942 (with Margaret Bourke-White)
  • Georgia Boy, 1943
    - Georgian poika (suom. V. Vankkoja, 1946)
  • A Day's Wooing, 1944
  • Stories by Erskine Caldwell, 1944 (selected and introduced with a critical foreword by Henry Seidel Canby)
  • On Tragic Ground , 1944
    - Köyhän pojan kaupunki (suom. Panu Pekkanen, 1970)
  • The Caldwell Caravan: Novels and Stories by Erskine Caldwell, 1946 (with an introduction by the author)
  • A House in the Uplands, 1946
  • The Sure Hand of God: A Novel, 1947
    - Oikeus ja kohtuus (suom. Katri Puumalainen, 1958)
    - film 2004, dir. Michael Kolko, starring Gail O'Grady, Jennifer Morrison, Will Wallace, Daniel Roebuck
  • This Very Earth, 1948
    - Tämä maa: romaani (suom. Matti Rossi, 1967)
  • Midsummer Passion, and Other Stories, 1948
  • Where the Girls Were Different, 1945
  • A Place Called Estherville, 1949
  • Episode in Palmetto, 1950
  • Call It Experience: The Years of Learning How to Write, 1951
  • The Humorous Side of Erskine Caldwell: An Anthology, 1951 (edited with an introd. by Robert Cantwell)
  • A Lamp for Nightfall, 1952
  • The Courting of Suzie Brown, 1952
  • The Complete Stories of Erskine Caldwell, 1953
  • Love and Money , 1954
  • Gretta, 1955
  • Gulf Coast Stories, 1956
  • Certain Women, 1958
  • Molly Cottontail, 1958 (with illus. by William Sharp)
  • Claudelle Inglish, 1958
    - film 1961, dir. Gordon Douglas, screenplay Leonard Freeman, starring Diane McBain, Arthur Kennedy, Will Hutchins, Constance Ford
  • When You Think of Me, 1959 (with illus. by Louis Macouillard)
  • Men and Women, 1961 (introd. by Carvel Collins)
  • Jenny by Nature, 1961
  • Close to Home, 1962
  • The Last Night of Summer, 1963
  • Around about America, 1964 (illustrations by V.M. Caldwell)
  • A Woman in the House, 1964
  • In Search of Bisco, 1965
  • In the Shadow of the Steeple, 1966 
  • The Deer at Our House, 1966 (illustrated by Ben Wohlberg)
  • Miss Mamma Aimee, 1967
  • Writing in America, 1967
  • Deep South; Memory and Observation, 1968  
  • Summertime Island, 1968
  • The Weather Shelter, 1969
  • The Earnshaw Neighborhood, 1971
  • Annette, 1973
  • Afternoons in Mid-America: Observations and Impressions, 1976 (drawings by Virginia M. Caldwell)
  • Stories of Life, North & South, 1983 (chosen by Edward Connery Lathem)
  • The Black and White Stories of Erskine Caldwell, 1984 (selected by Ray McIver; foreword by Erskine Caldwell)
  • With All My Might: An Autobiography, 1987
  • Conversations with Erskine Caldwell, 1988 (edited by Edwin T. Arnold)
  • Smoky Mountain Country / by North Callahan, 1988 (edited by Erskine Caldwell)
  • Stories of Erskine Caldwell, 1996 (foreword by Stanley W. Lindberg)
  • Erskine Caldwell  Selected Letters, 1929-1955, 1999 (edited by Robert L. McDonald)


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