Erskine Caldwell: Selected Letters, 1929-1955
What can I say about this collection of letters? Firstly, that the orthography is horrible (hence, only three stars)! It’s a little hard to believe that a professional writer would let these repeated errors sneak by him even if, as he admits on p. 212, “I can’t read my own handwriting.” For that, Caldwell had a number of wives, each of whom also seemed to serve as copy editor.
The second thing that jumped out at me page after page was just how beholden Caldwell was to his publisher(s). I mean, yes: without a publisher, a writer might just as well consign himself to writing an extended personal journal/diary. But without a writer or writers, a publisher—or so it seems to me—might just as well consign himself to pud-pulling.
It seems to me, finally, that the two are reciprocally dependent … or am I missing something?
In any case, perhaps now is the time to cite some passages to let you decide whether you think this compendium of letters is for you. On p. 30, in a footnote, we find: “THE BASTARD features a hard-boiled cast, including assorted physical grotesques and a protagonist who coldly commits two violent murders. In the broadside, Caldwell defended the book as an honest depiction of life among people who are ‘realistically uninhibited,’ insisting that it was ‘conceived and written as an important and untouched phase of American mores.’ Though it perhaps has ‘grave faults’ as a novel, Caldwell said, his motives were pure: ‘I did not write this novel with obscenity, lewdness and immorality in mind. I wrote it … because I have a deep sympathy for the people in it … I know them and I like them. I have slept with them in jails, I have eaten with them in freight cars, I have sung with them in convict camps, I have helped the women give birth to the living, I have helped the men cover up the dead – but I have said enough. I have said that I know these people, that I love them. This is why I could not stand silent while the story of their lives was branded obscene, lewd and immoral; because this story belongs to them even more than it belongs to me. It is of no concern to me that I, too, have had this same brand placed upon me by Cumberland County. But these friends of mine—I shall defend them until the last word is choked from me. I cannot disown them.’”
And what does he have to say about the writing of TOBACCO ROAD – perhaps his most famous work right after GOD’S LITTLE ACRE? On pp. 64 – 65, we find: “However, whereas TOBACCO ROAD and to a lesser degree, AMERICAN EARTH, is a study of a group of people existing under and outmoded system of agriculture and economics, I want to write in the book I have in mind something of the direction which the masses must turn to in order to live under the present and forthcoming conditions of life. It is a sort of union of agrarian and industrial societies. This is a condition that exists to some extent in any sections of the Nation, but it is, I believe, affecting more peculiarly the millions in the South. The tenant farmer, the textile mill operative, and all those living somewhere between those two occupations, cannot continue living under present conditions without losing a great part of their moral, social, and economic stamina. This is no longer a debatable problem, and yet no one, with any degree of sureness has pointed out the direction the masses must take in order to keep from falling below the deplorable standard of living the Negro has already become heir to. And the problem, while acute to the masses, is of even greater significance, or should be, to the Nation at large. I do not pretend to say that my solution would be better than another man’s, but I do insist that no writer has yet undertaken to go beneath the surface of the subject, and I am confident that no person who knows the South will fail to see the usefulness of an initial undertaking. I believe I have the necessary understanding of the white tenant farmer and the white textile mill operative to enable me to write the novel which would at least lay open the sore which is spreading the germs to every man, woman, and child. I am a Southerner by birth, by inheritance, and by residence, and my sympathies lied with the millions who do not know what to do. Shall they continue a precarious existence, living from hand to mouth, always in debt, uneducated, and solemnly waiting for ‘a better day’? Or shall they be given an opportunity to become educated, independent, and self-respecting? The answers to these questions lie in an inclusive novel of proletarian life, purely creative, written perhaps from the point of view of the masses. There is no use in waiting endlessly for ‘better times’: the masses in the South have always been undernourished, uneducated, and without a spokesman. There has already been too much of ‘romance’, of ‘magnolia blossoms’, of ‘Negro dialect’; it is time someone really wrote about ‘life’. I should like to have the leisure, the funds, and the time to try to let ‘the poor whites’, ‘the white trash’, and ‘the lint-heads’ present a different picture. I am confident that I have the material, my work in the past should show my ability to undertake the writing, and my seriousness of purpose will, I believe, give to the completed task the sincerity and significance that it requires. Outstanding, as in any creative work, should be the quality of the writing. I am confident that I can bring to it the best that is in my power.
I propose to do the writing of the book in America.”
Caldwell has some rather trenchant observations about (then-) modern-day poets and poetry, but I’ll leave those observations to you to find so as not to abuse your patience here and now.
Does Caldwell suffer misgivings about his own literary work? On pp. 96 – 97, we read in his letter of February 13, 1933 to Milton A. Abernethy: “Tell Cerf I am ashamed of the two noveletts; but I am also ashamed of TOBACCO ROAD now, and if I’m not ashamed of GOD’S LITTLE ACRE inside of six months, I’ll never be able to write another book.”
And what do others have to say about GOD’S LITTLE ACRE? The footnote on p. 102 reads: “Censorship troubles with God’s Little Acre emerged when John S. Sumner, secretary and attorney for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, brought charges of obscenity against Caldwell and Viking Press, arguing that ‘the sale of the book is a violation of section 1141 of the Penal Law and that the book is, within the meaning of that statute, ‘obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent or disgusting.’”
That said, in the footnote on pp. 109 – 110, “New York Magistrate Court Judge Benjamin E. Greenspan dismissed the case of May 23, calling the novel a fair literary representation of the ‘truth’ and therefore rejecting the description of it as ‘pornography’: ‘This Court has carefully read the book in question. It is an attempt at the portrayal, in a realistic fashion, of life as lived by an illiterate Southern white farm family …. They are of a simple nature, and savage passion is found close to the surface …. The author has set out to paint a realistic picture. Such pictures necessarily contain certain details. Because these details related to what is properly called the sex side of life, portrayed with brutal frankness, the Court may not say that the picture should ot have been created at all. The language, too, is undoubtedly coarse and vulgar. The Court may not require the author to put refined language into the mouths of primitive people.”
And what does Erskine Caldwell think of Hollywood and writing for the big screen? On p. 129, we find: “(a)s you probably surmise, I’m holding out tooth and nail against going Hollywood. Most of them think I’m a ‘funny’ person because I won’t fill in with the crowd. The ninety-dollar tailors are shocked because I won’t let them in my office; the crowd is speechless because I refuse to buy a car, rent a four-room apartment, and keep a couple of girls. And to knock them completely speechless, I only have to add that I drink nothing stronger than beer….”
And what, precisely, is Caldwell’s definition of the short story? On p. 147, in a letter to Alfred Morang, he writes: “(t)he golden mean is the short story, a telling that relates what happened to somebody, somewhere, sometime. And the artistry appears when the telling is done in such a way that the reader is moved by the feeling the author has for the subject.”
I could go on and on. But I won’t. We’ll finish right there. Would I recommend Caldwell’s SELECTED LETTERS? Quite frankly, no. Instead, read his prose. That’s something I highly recommend!
28 December 2019