In 1998, the Modern Library released a list of the 100 Best American Novels to much acclaim and much derision. Randian poltroons and sci-fi nerds and feminists and African-Americans and librarians and English majors and everyone but my mom whipped up a complaint about the list’s validity, but I was enchanted. I love lists; I love year-end best-of lists; I love lists by the famous and infamous; I love supposedly impartial lists; and I love self-improvement reading lists. With books, I tend to take lists as personal challenges and to this date have at least twenty such lists in a thick (and growing thicker) manila folder. Completing any given list is a deeply fulfilling sensation; they are my own private Everests.
And so it was when I passed by the audiobook version of Erskine Caldwell’s now mostly forgotten 1932 novel Tobacco Road, I was aware of its status on the list (number 91, near the bottom), but unaware of the novelist as anyone other than a list place holder. Apparently, even though now a footnote to his more famous wife, the photographer Margaret Bourke-White, Caldwell is known for this novel and for the novel whose title is synonymous with a pleasant place to live, God’s Little Acre.
I hadn’t marked Caldwell off my list at this stage, so it was the proverbial two birds and one stone motive that made me select this novel. Less than halfway through the novel, I became aware that I’d actually read it before, possibly in an American Lit class sometime in college. I don’t recall my initial thoughts on reading the book, but I found this run through repellant, frustrating, and far from enjoyable, enlightening, or entertaining. Which even though it may sound like it, isn’t a condemnation of the novel as bad writing. It’s quite clear that Caldwell is a capable writer; what remains unclear is whether you should care for the characters about which he writes.
The Lesters are a down-on-their-luck ex-sharecropping family in Georgia at the time of the Great Depression. The novel’s opening scene involves the Lester family working in tandem to deprive their neighbor and in-law Lov Bensey of a sack of turnips. The lascivious harelipped daughter Ellie May seduces him because his wife (twelve year old Pearl Lester) won’t sleep with him; while she distracts him, the Lester patriarch Jeeter snatches his turnip sack and runs off with it while Jeeter’s wife Ada and Grandma Lester beat Lov back with sticks. Lov then has sex with Ellie May in the yard and leaves her there, dress hiked up to her neck, naked, in the yard where she naps.
It’s an unpleasant introduction to unpleasant people who are stupid, callous, lazy, perverse, and disgusting. Through every travail of the family, you want to grab them by the neck and shake them or plant a foot up their collective ass. When sixteen year old Dude Lester marries widowed preacher Sister Bessie, like Ellie May also facially disfigured (she has no bone in her nose and her nostrils aim straight forward), the elements of their stupidity only accelerates. Jeeter Lester thinks he’d farm cotton and raise a good crop if only someone would loan him money for seed and guano fertilizer; he’s thought that for at least years. On their own, the family would simply starve and do little to nothing to prevent it. Sister Bessie has big plans of travelling around the country with Dude preaching the gospel and her entrance to the family lights a fire under them. To this end, she is suckered out of all $800 left her by her husband’s insurance policy, by two unscrupulous car salesman, and she is married off to an idjit who’d much rather blow the new car horn than sleep with his wife. In less than two days, her new husband Dude and her father-in-law Jeeter manage to wreck the car three times losing a fender off the side; load the car up with jaggedy blackjack lumber, tearing all the upholstry; burn out the engine by not adding any oil’ sell off the spare tire; bend the front axel hitting a tree stump; and kill both a black farmer and Grandma Lester by running them over.
It’s exhausting just cataloging all the amazingly stupid things the family does, let alone listening to them or reading them. It makes experiencing the novel a painful time and there is never any glimmer of hope or the possibility that any of them will ever do anything different than be entirely ignorant, impoverished white trash. Even after his father accidentally kills himself, Dude begins to believe he will try to get a loan to raise cotton himself to carry on in the family tradition.
There is a temptation in criticism of the novel to suggest that Jeeter’s devotion to the land has some kind of redemptive quality, but what can you say for an idiot sticking to his guns all the way to the grave? I fail to see the wisdom or admirability in that or in generally any novel in which stupid people believe stupid things. That he passes this ignorant notion on to his son only compounds the sin.
What is peculiar about the novel is its sexual frankness which is, save for the use of the f-word, actually rawer than that of Joyce’s Ulysses published ten years earlier in France and legally appearing in America two years after Caldwell’s book. Perhaps it is the ignorance of the characters that gives their perversity the kind of acceptance not accorded to other novels of the time. When educated characters think in terms of screwing, it offends the educated classes and the judges who believe their lily white skins provide them with likewise spotless souls; When ignorant hillbilly women get taken from one room to another all night at a whorehouse, educated critics can merely cluck their tongues at the depraved state of southern cracker trash and feel a kind of patronizing pity — as though you were reading about the sexual follies of apes.
The book, though, was clearly influential, though in a mass culture way now divorced from its specific point of origin. The very names of the characters have become redneck joke comedy staples while its literary effect can be most clearly seen in Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat for the portrait of a small group of people in a geographic region and Flannery O’Connor for the portraiture of southern eccentricity and deformation.