Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Erskine Caldwell: Georgia's "PK" Chronicles The Rural South

Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987) was an only child, a "PK," a preacher's kid. His family moved frequently throughout the South until he was fifteen when they settled in Wrens, Georgia. Still, his father often preached on large circuits, necessitating plenty of travel. In fact, the elder Caldwell traveled so regularly that his son could determine his destinations by the odor of coal smoke on his suit. In time, father took son on many of these journeys. The peculiarity, poverty, and injustice of the Depression era South was embedded in Erskine Caldwell's memory and he soon began writing about it. His observations had little to do with remnants of "the late unpleasantness" - the Civil War - that often gripped the region. Instead, Caldwell wrote of the raw realities of the human condition in the South. This, and his crusade for improving conditions, did not sit well with many Southerners. The dislike was enhanced because he was writing "in absentia," having left the South before 1930. Furthermore, his subject matter often placed him in conflict with censors across the country.

Caldwell had a long career as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, but he is best known for Tobacco Road (1932), God's Little Acre (1933) and other works from the 1930's. An adaptation of Tobacco Road played on Broadway for eight years - a record at the time - beginning in 1933. A 
"sentimental burlesque" adaptation directed by John Ford in 1941 contributed to the stereotyping and ridicule of poor white Southerners. Caldwell greatly disliked the film. God's Little Acre remains one of the most popular novels in the U.S. with over ten million copies in print. A 1958 film version is considered the best presentation of Caldwell themes on film.

Here are the opening scenes from Tobacco Road and the theatrical trailer from God's Little Acre:

Caldwell, who was born on this day in 1903, is an interesting blend of 20th century authors. He is Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, Christopher Isherwood, Joseph Mitchell, and a reflection of other modernists. Readers who seek more than discourse on the happy veneer of the human condition will enjoy Caldwell's interpretations.

Read more about him in this article from the New Georgia Encyclopedia. The volume is also the source of a quotation and other information in this post.

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