December 2012

Josh Zajdman

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Fool's Gold

What the hell happened to Erskine Caldwell? Why has he become a footnote in American Literature? He was one of the early twentieth century's bestselling authors and proto-Oatesean in his output -- with twenty-five novels, over 150 short stories, and twelve books of nonfiction to his credit. For a man who died a mere twenty-three years ago, his work has fallen, if not plummeted, dramatically out of favor. His two most famous works, Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre (the focus of this column), sold millions of copies, and spawned successful theatrical and cinematic adaptations. In fact, God's Little Acre was Caldwell's favorite novel as mentioned in his 1982 interview with the Paris Review. Well, the novel he found "most acceptable," at least. That modesty is a thread throughout the interview, as it's the interviewer who makes note of the millions of copies it sold, and the "eighty million books sold to readers in nearly forty different languages." Thirty years later, only ten of his books are readily available. You might expect to find them published by the Modern Library who listed his Tobacco Road as number ninety-one in their list of the hundred best novels. You won't find it there, though. Tobacco Road, God's Little Acre, and eight other Caldwell titles aren't available from a mainstream publisher, but the University of Georgia Press. This is fantastic, but renders his work much less accessible to a general reading public than it once was. But, as I'll point out, marketing was behind that one-time accessibility also. While it's terrific that his work, albeit a very truncated portion, is available, it's been a strange journey.

Caldwell was a veritable superstar of the South, outshining the sales, if not the efforts, of more famous names like Warren, Welty, McCullers, Faulkner, and Wolfe. He sold so well that he was one of the bestselling authors, of any region or era. But something didn't take. After all, it's Wolfe that Michael Fassbender is playing in an upcoming film about the golden age of literature, not Caldwell. Where's the love? It's not to say that Caldwell is the most talented author of the South, but it's a safe bet to crown him the most powerful, assaultive, and still somehow enjoyable. That now-famous dictum that "what Faulkner implied, Caldwell recorded" is apt. Faulkner was a mythologist-cum-historian, whereas Caldwell strikes a careful reader as a journalist who can turn a phrase. If for no other reason than sheer accessibility, you would have expected Caldwell to survive. For a while he did. He made hundreds of thousands of dollars during the second World War, when his earlier works were repackaged with pulpy covers and sold more as tastes of the salacious South rather than the punishing looks at rural life that they were, and continue to be.

God's Little Acre, published in 1933, deserves far more attention. As you would expect from any book "censured by the Georgia Literary Commission," it's a prurient delight. But it's not just strange sex and backcountry proletarian politics, though both are amply provided. It's a little bit of Cain and Abel, a little bit of King Lear, and even a tinge of Gothic family secrets and inappropriate behavior. Perhaps a bit more than a tinge.

In an age where Honey Boo Boo reigns supreme, this Georgian family is even more disturbing. However, don't mistake the discomfort and shock that pervades the larger part of the book as its chief offering. This isn't just a case of bad behavior, but a chronicle of a family undone, and blinded by lust and greed on an epic scale. Caldwell's tale of the patriarch TyTy Walden and his family of three sons (Buck, Shaw, and Jim Leslie), two daughters (Rosamond and Darling Jill), and various in-laws (Will, Rosamond's husband, and Griselda, Buck's wife and everyone's object of desire) is one of the great family declines captured in a novel. Oh, and don't forget Pluto Swint, the morbidly obese man running for sheriff and working just as hard to capture Darling Jill in a matrimonial net. Yet she only has eyes for Will, her brother-in-law, and Dave, the albino, whom she ruts with in the dirt while her father watches. Then there's Griselda, whom TyTy credits with "the finest pair of rising beauties a man ever laid eyes on." Do you begin to see what you're signing up for when you encounter the Walden clan? The name, in itself, is a far cry from anything introspective, thoughtful, or Thoreauvian in any way. This is all the ugliness, loudness, and crassness of humanity writ loudly and externally. The volume of the Walden Clan's transgressions and their enormous consequences as captured in the novel's three hundred pages is just staggering. Yet, by the end, you're definitely moved and saddened by the plight of God's Little Acre. In fact, one might wonder whether his back had long been turned on said acre.

Even during a recession, reading a novel about a poor family obsessively digging for gold seems strange, almost quaint. It's difficult to envision, but when you realize what the family is really up to, the subsequent anxiety propels you through the pages. Suddenly, striking gold, or uncovering truth, is a far scarier option than another day of sweat and coming home empty handed.

The novel opens with a scene oft repeated throughout its course. The Walden men are digging in the hot Georgia sun.

Several yards of undermined sand and clay broke loose up near the top, and the land slid down to the floor of the crater. TyTy Walden was so angry about the landslide that he just stood there with the pick in his hands, knee-deep in the reddish earth, and swore about everything he could think of...

"Why in the pluperfect hell did that dirt have to break loose up there just when we were getting deep?"

The Waldens dig and dig and dig, and just when they're about to strike, their lives start to crumble around them. The family members long for a future they can't attain, or a past they can't reclaim. God's Little Acre is the story of what happens when a family double-crosses each other, sleeps with one another, puts their dirty fingers in every gaping wound, and rules out nothing in service of satiating their desires and feeding the eternally hungry monster that is greed. Having been at it for fifteen years, TyTy and sons are sure (with varying degrees of certainty) that this will be the year. By the time the novel ends, a member of the Walden Clan is dead, another soon to follow, and everyone else devastated and traumatized. The Walden clan falls prey to vanity and desire (often blaming it on the women), and is left stunned and saddened by the realization. Their fall makes one for one of the more entertaining novels I've recently encountered and one that deserves another shot. And a feminist reading to boot.

Throughout the novel, repetition of entire paragraphs is used to great effect. Toward the conclusion, TyTy once again, and for the last time, pleads with his children. "I've aimed all my life to have a peaceful family, and I can't stand here and see you boys scrap." All the years of weak complaining, however well intentioned, and turning of his cheek yields a horror TyTy couldn't have imagined. In a property that yields barely enough cotton and is riddled by giant craters that don't yield gold, the only plentiful crop is familial discord. Unfortunately for the Waldens, but fortunately for readers, it's a banner year.