The Rhetoric of Exhaustion and the Exhaustion of Rhetoric: Erskine Caldwell in the Thirties

By Watson, Jay | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

The Rhetoric of Exhaustion and the Exhaustion of Rhetoric: Erskine Caldwell in the Thirties


Watson, Jay, The Mississippi Quarterly


I

The South in which Erskine Caldwell Sets his major fictional and nonfictional writings of the 1930s is a region which is literally exhausted. The land itself, always an irreducible material and political fact in Caldwell, has been worn out by nearly a century of aggressive, one-crop cash farming by planters, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers. If the South's "was not a rich soil to begin with," as Caldwell noted in You Have Seen Their Faces, his 1937 collaboration with photographer Margaret Bourke-White, "[i]t now lies barren and worthless after decades of cotton-growing": "every bale that is gathered from these hardscrabble acres" only "hastens the lands depletion." With the depletion of the land comes the corresponding depletion of those upon it, in a relationship that ironically inverts the logic outlined by Caldwell's contemporaries in Nashville. While there is a bond between the individual and the land in Caldwell's South, that is, this bond differs radically from the symbiotic one proposed by Agrarians like Andrew Lytle, who offered a panegyric upon the rich cultural life, the stubborn self-reliance, and the unique ecological consciousness of the yeoman farmer in his essay "The Hind Tit" - cataloging along the way many other homely virtues of life on the soil. Caldwell's small farmers and sharecroppers stake their futures on much the same soil, much the same way of life, extolled by Lytle, only to find themselves economically exhausted, so desperately impoverished as to be, like Jeeter Lester of Tobacco Road, absolutely penniless at times.

Moreover, they must endure the dilapidation and inevitable ruin - often as a result of their own mindlessly destructive behavior - of the few meaningful possessions they do manage to hold on to, in what Richard Gray has labelled Caldwell's grim "comedy of waste."(2) Their automobiles, powerful symbols of the American dream of personal autonomy and material prosperity in the Caldwell world, are reduced to junk with appalling speed, or gambled away in crap games (the fate of Clay Horey's "mud-spattered rattle-trap" in Journeyman). The general dilapidation even extends to the houses in which the Lester and Walden families live, the former slowly coming apart under a baseball barrage from brother Dude, the latter propped precariously by the gold-hungry Waldens over a crater into which it threatens to collapse, like a white-trash House of Usher, at any moment.

Nor is the deprivation suffered by these men and women solely, even principally, economic. "They are either already worn out physically and spiritually," Caldwell writes, "or are in the act of wearing themselves out" (YSF, p. 5). It was not in a novel but in a newspaper, the New York Post, that Caldwell described grown men "so hungry that they eat snakes and cow dung," and rural children "deformed by nature and malnutrition."(3) Likewise, the fictional Lesters of Tobacco Road linger on the edge of starvation, victims of an exhausted food supply which they have neither the means nor the inclination of replenishing. Their hunger overrides the basic moral obligations that we associate with simple human decency: in one of the novel's better-known scenes, for instance, Jeeter Lester robs his son-in-law of a bag of turnips which he then refuses to share with his own family, and his conscience pricks at him only after he has satisfied his hunger.(4) Similarly, Sister Bessie insists on offering a prayer for Jeeter's sinning ways, but not before polishing off "all the turnips Jeeter would let her have" (p. 40). Eat now, pray later: these are words to live by in the Caldwell world.

Small wonder, then, that human bodies themselves grow literally smaller and smaller, weaker and weaker, under such conditions, eventually succumbing to a pervasive inertia. Throughout his work, Caldwell often takes pains to trace the stereotypical indolence of the Southern poor-white to poverty and desperation, rather than attributing it exclusively to an inherent lack of ambition or motivation: "Somewhere in his span of life," Caldwell argues, such a man The perpetually weary Pluto Swint of God's Little Acre, who can be roused to action only by voyeuristic sexual thrills - and barely then - is the finest embodiment in Caldwell of this general lethargy.

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