Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
A recent New Yorker article about paperback book publishing reminded me about Erskine Caldwell’s entry on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th century, number 91, Tobacco Road, as well as his other well-known work, God’s Little Acre, which is more memorable in my experience. Caldwell’s writing straddles that thin line between literary writing and pulp fiction. It is possible that Tobacco Road makes the list while God’s Little Acre doesn’t because Tobacco Road is somehow less pulpy, somehow more elevated.
Like many novels on this list, Tobacco Road was considered obscene when it was published because of its depictions of sex and sexuality, in particular. Also like many of the list’s novels, it remains shocking in some of its scenes and themes, though not always the same ones that earned it obscenity charges originally. It is the story of an abjectly poor white family in Georgia in the era of the Great Depression. They are share-croppers growing increasingly poverty-stricken while adhering stubbornly to their notion that they are independent and can fend for themselves. The story includes weird physical afflictions, weird romances, weird phobias and obsessions, and a starkly realistic style with no romantic overlay to give these people any nobility in their down-trodden state. There is something almost clumsy about the writing at times.
Caldwell is said to have meant his writing to be a form of social and political protest. He wrote what he knew of his own Southern American society to bring attention to the terrible circumstances in which people were living. Steinbeck did the same thing, but with a desire to ennoble his characters that Caldwell doesn’t seem to capture. Or perhaps Caldwell didn’t have the same kind of starry-eyed faith in humanity that comes through as a Steinbeck characteristic. Both write with a style that is somewhat raw and anti-lyrical. Caldwell’s is more brutish, even, like the German expressionists’ paintings.
Another comparison Caldwell has to endure is with his fellow Southerner, William Faulkner. “Southern gothic” is the label commonly applied, an unfairness to each of them (and countless other writers) that betrays the prejudice and bias still present in the American literary world. Unfortunately, Tobacco Road is built on a premise that is hard to reconcile with open-minded reading: that the protagonist family is especially pitiable because they are white, not black, but are living at a level “worse than” or “lower than” the black families around them. This is supposed to be an added injustice to this family, as if being white alone entitled them to a better standard of living. Putting this offensive premise aside (with difficulty), the depiction of this family is refreshingly unflinching. They are not nice people; they are not innocent victims of circumstance. Through their ignorance, they make things worse for themselves. They are ridiculous and frustrating to an onlooker. Yet this picture of a sector of America is appalling, and Caldwell’s writing style makes it impossible to look away.
Where Faulkner also depicts blacks and whites living side-by-side in a broken society, where Steinbeck also depicts people brought lower than low by poverty, they both do so with empathy and with careful story construction, which allow their characters to have humanity. Caldwell goes for luridness. This work is more similar to The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, a muck-raking call-to-arms-against-injustice, which is apparently what it was meant to be. It is more similar to pulp fiction than to literary fiction or even to intentioned protest fiction because of the luridness and the feeling that comes across that the story is meant to titillate and engross rather than reveal and edify. However, Tobacco Road does all of these things. (Likewise God’s Little Acre, with a bit more tawdriness.)
There are, in the end, multiple ways to take this novel. Caldwell doesn’t have the power and skill that the other writers mentioned do, but he gets the job done. This novel leaves a gritty taste in the mouth, or maybe more aptly, an irritation in the consciousness.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.