Did you ever hear anyone describe a place as being “right out of an Erskine Caldwell novel?” In the musical classic The Music Man, one of the busy-body ladies is describing Marian the Librarian – “She advocates dirty books: Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac!” If the show had been set in the middle of the 1900’s, the lady might have added Erskine Caldwell.
Caldwell’s output, which included about fifty novels, dozens of short stories, non-fiction, and editing, was, along with his travels, far reaching. With his second wife of four, the photographer Margaret Bourke-White, he collaborated on three photo documentaries, including Have You Seen Their Faces, a pictorial about the troubles in the rural South.
The two most well-known of his works, Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre, both of which were made into movies, are set in that poor, rural south. Caldwell, who died 30 years ago this month, wrote about the social problems, the racism and the poverty, in works that won great critical acclaim. He said: "I could not become accustomed to the sight of children's stomachs bloated from hunger and seeing the ill and aged too weak to walk to the fields to search for something to eat. In the evenings I wrote about what I had seen during the day, but nothing I put down on paper succeeded in conveying the full meaning of poverty and hopelessness and degradation as I had observed it."
Born in Georgia in 1903, Caldwell’s parents were a Presbyterian minister whose Scots-Irish ancestors were here before the American Revolution, and his schoolteacher wife who was descended from English aristocracy and landed Virginia gentry. Ira Caldwell’s itinerant ministry took them all over the rural south during his son’s formative years. The writer’s maxim is “write what you know,” and Caldwell came to know and champion the rural poor. He wrote of the working men, the farmers and , the factory workers. He wrote vivid descriptions of their lives and their living conditions.
While his works were getting critical acclaim, they were condemned elsewhere for their profanity and explicit sexuality. God’s Little Acre, published in 1933, was banned, where else, in Boston. The Georgia Literary Commission recommended that anyone reading it be jailed. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice had him arrested and tried. He was exonerated. Caldwell’s fellow southern writers, among them Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner, condemned him for painting such an awful picture of their beloved South. All that was about 85 years ago, and times and social mores have certainly changed - or have they?