American author Erskine Caldwell was born in Georgia in 1903. His most famous novel, 1932’s Tobacco Road, boldly addressed the South’s inequalities during the Great Depression.
“He was writing about racial relations when one did not write about racial relations," said Phillip Cronenwett of Dartmouth College in 1989. "He was writing about the difference between the rural wealthy and the rural poor when one did not talk about that sort of thing.”
This week, we’re taking a fresh look at Caldwell, whose writing depicted what he saw as the realities of society – however unpleasant those realities might be.
Caldwell’s connection to New Hampshire began at the peak of his fame in 1940. That year, Dartmouth reached out to establish a collection of his papers and manuscripts in Hanover. Caldwell made numerous appearances on campus for lectures and readings and even spent a month as a writer in residence before passing away in 1987.
Dartmouth English professor Henry Terry told NHPR’s Robbie Honig that Caldwell’s work is an essential piece of American history.
“In his best books he has left us indispensable portraits of segments of American life," Terry said. "So if we want to remember everything about the way we have lived in America, we need Caldwell’s books to show us one part of that life.”
From the archives this week, Robbie Honig’s 1989 report on author Erskine Caldwell and his collection at Dartmouth.
You can chart the rise in Erskine Caldwell’s international popularity by looking at when volumes of Tobacco Road were published in Czechoslovakian, Russian, and dozens of other languages. But Dartmouth College Curator of Special Collections Phillip Cronenwett was bothered by the fact that Caldwell is not better known in this country today. With the final installment in the collection of Caldwell’s papers at Dartmouth, Cronenwett hoped that would change.
Caldwell’s work was never easy to like, even at the height of his popularity, said Cronenwett, because he wrote about difficult and distressing subjects.
“He was writing about sex when one did not write about sex,” Cronenwett said. “He was writing about racial relations when one did not write about racial relations. He was writing about the difference between the rural wealthy and the rural poor when one did not talk about that sort of thing.”
Caldwell’s Tobacco Road came out in 1932, followed the next year by God’s Little Acre. Both are bawdy tales of lusty folk humor with subcurrents of indignation at social inequality. Those two are his best known works, but Caldwell went on to write some 50 books in all – at least one when he was the writer-in-residence at Dartmouth College in Hanover.
English professor Henry Terry knew him then.
“He was writing about conditions of economic deprivation and oppression in the deep South, right in the middle of the depression,” Terry said. “And he had some very unpleasant things to say about a segment of American society. And for many people, the things Caldwell had to say were simply too painful to accept at that time.”
“What he was saying was that we have a whole class of people in this country, or had, at least at that time, a whole class of people who simply had no chance to live on any human level. So many of his characters come across as really subhuman. They behave like animals. And part of what Caldwell was trying to tell us was that it’s the economic conditions that make them live like animals.”
Caldwell himself never cared for the Hollywood versions of his works. They may have made him better known, but they did little for his literary reputation. That reputation with American critics declined in the 1950s and 1960s, even as his international stature rose. Caldwell remains one of the most widely translated American authors of all time, most notably in Eastern Europe.
Cronenwett, who was in charge of Caldwell’s papers at Dartmouth, and who knew Caldwell before his death in 1987, suggested that his personal life at times paralleled his work. Some critics say his brief marriage to the photographer Margaret Bourke-White coincided with the pinnacle of his career.
“Caldwell’s first three marriages were not particularly happy marriages, and his relationship with Margaret Bourke-White started long before they were married,” Cronenwett said. “They did a spectacular book called You Have Seen Their Faces, which is a blend of his writing and her spectacular photography, in 1937. They were not married until 1939. That marriage broke up by 1942. They were divorced. And so the working relationship, I think, was damaged by the marriage.”
“There are a number of people I know that have said that his work really did in fact peak with that marriage, and then begin to tail off quite rapidly. I’m not sure that’s true. Some of his really fine short stories are much later than that. But I think that in working with Margaret Bourke-White, he was challenged by a kind of creativity that he was never challenged again by. And the combination of the two, they’re just spectacular. Both the writing and the photographs in You Have Seen Their Faces is just tremendous.”
Twenty original photographs from You Have Seen Their Faces are now part of the Dartmouth collection. Terry was one who thought Caldwell’s reputation would rise as scholars got a fresh look at his works and begin to appreciate his unique contribution to American literature.
“Some authors are remembered for a single poem or a single novel. And they’ve written a lot of other work that doesn’t come up to it. And this is a pattern, by the way, in American literature – that our novelists tend to write a big, important book early in their careers and then trail off at the end.”
“Certainly, it seems to me, that in his best books he has left us indispensable portraits of segments of American life – parts of American life that, but for him, might be lost forever. So if we want to remember everything about the way we have lived in America, we need Caldwell’s books to show us one part of that life.”
In literature, as in life, timing may be everything. Caldwell’s realism was ahead of its time, said Cronenwett. And now the passage of time may be his reputation’s redeemer.
“And I think, because he was ahead of his time, made the impact of his work even more important,” Cronenwett said. “Not only to the canon of American literature but also to American society. He, in many ways, led the way to the civil rights movement, in fiction, for writing what he did write. And I think, if he is remembered for anything, he ought to be remembered for that.”
The Caldwell papers will be kept at Dartmouth virtually forever in the underground vaults of its Rauner Special Collections Library -- a final resting place for his work, and a new wellspring for the papers and books sure to follow on the life and legacy on Erskine Caldwell.
Dartmouth's Caldwell collection is summarized here.
More info about Caldwell's history with Dartmouth here.
A review of Tobacco Road can be found here.
Erskine Caldwell's page on Amazon.
Caldwell's biography by New Georgia Encyclopedia here.