because poverty is the same

Funny how one thing can lead to another.

In a recent column about Lewis Grizzard, the famous Southern author and humorist, I mentioned that he was from Moreland, Ga., a town in Coweta County about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta.

Moreland is a community of fewer than 500 souls, but this tiny town has produced two of Georgia’s most famous sons. The other was Erskine Caldwell, born in 1903, who became one of the world’s best-selling authors.

Erskine Caldwell by Giorgio LottiLet me repeat that: One of the World’s Best-selling Authors.

Think Tobacco Road, a best-seller about the rural poor. Adapted later as a play, it ran on Broadway longer than any other play until “Oklahoma” surpassed it.

Think “God’s Little Acre,” a best-seller about the rural poor and cotton-mill workers, a novel so realistic (and, some say, salacious) that even the semi-literate people he wrote about read it, too.

Boy, did they! When I flew out to Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1973 to interview Caldwell for The New York Times, I saw in his foyer a huge tri-fold easel bearing the covers of the foreign editions of all his books. His books had been translated into every language on earth, even Croatian, and were hugely popular in countries like India and Indonesia.

He also had a great answer to one of my first questions: Why are your books so popular around the world?

“Because poverty is the same the world over,” he said.

Caldwell’s reputation today is on a downswing, a common phenomenon among the famous in any field. Among novelists, the downswing is often a precursor to a new upswing, but for Caldwell we’ll have to wait and see.

Bitterness about his portrayal of the South lingers in many a Southern precinct. Makes no difference that a literary giant like William Faulkner named Caldwell among America’s five best writers. A College of Cardinals could proclaim the same thing without appeasing the kind of readers who greeted his books the way they always greet the scalding truth: with bitterness and denial.

But Caldwell had observed first-hand what he wrote about. Though born in Moreland, he moved to Wrens, Ga., at age 15 and often accompanied his father on buggy rides around Jefferson County to minister to the flock. The flock were the kind of people who were already poor before the Great Depression descended upon them.

Tobacco Road and Little Acre by Erskine CaldwellThough famous and well off from his writing, Caldwell never had an easy time of it. Tobacco Road was banned and copies were seized by authorities. And with the publication of God’s Little Acre in 1933, The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice brought legal action against Caldwell and arrested him when he showed up for a book-signing.

He was exonerated at trial, but long after the 1930s his name was reviled in many parts of the South, including Wrens, his old hometown.

Nowadays, when I wouldn’t be shocked to hear the F word interpolated into the Lord’s Prayer, Caldwell’s novels seem like tame stuff. But as late as 1973, his books still were not on the shelves of the public library in Wrens. I checked.

“Heaven forbid!” said the lady who answered the phone.

I feel another long-distance phone call to Wrens coming on.

But no. It’s been only 44 years since I last called. That’s not even the half-life of a Southern grudge. They stay radioactive a long, long time.

Just ask William Tecumseh Sherman.



Image: Erskine Caldwell by Giorgio Lotti (Mondadori Publishers – in the public domain) via
Robert Lamb

Robert Lamb

I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After service in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English, and then began a (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and ended years later in Atlanta at The (great) Atlanta Constitution, which I left in late 1982 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. My second novel, Atlanta Blues, spent a few minutes on the best-seller list in (at least) Columbia, S.C., and was described in one newspaper’s year-end roundup as “one of the three best novels of 2004 by a Southern writer.” My third novel won no honors but at least didn’t get me hanged; titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in the high school of a Georgia town. For my next novel, And Tell Tchaikovsky the News, I returned to an Atlanta setting for a story about the redemptive powers of, in this case anyhow, “that good rock ’n’ roll.” I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. One of its stories, “R.I.P.,” was a winner in the S.C. Fiction Project in 2009. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.comand I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.

  1. Austin McMurria

    Gulf Coast Stories , Caldwell’s collection of vignettes from Tampa to Galveston is one of my favorite books. Right up there with O’Henry and the other Robert, Robert W. Service.
    Must’ve been a delight to interview him. I’d love to read your Times piece.

    1. Never read those stories. But now I will.
      It was a delight to interview him; he much appreciated the stories and told me so in a letter that sparked a correspondence between us. I donated his letters to the Caldwell Museum in his hometown.

  2. Noel Holston

    I interviewed quite a few novelists in my newspaper days, from Irwin Shaw to Joseph Wambaugh. Caldwell was a great “get” for you. I did not know until recently, when I saw the (very good) movie “Genius,” that Caldwell was another of editor Maxwell Perkins’ clients, along with Fitzgerald and Wolfe. Nice piece for the Dew, btw.

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