Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"The Bogus Ones": A Lost Erskine Caldwell Novel

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"The Bogus Ones": A Lost Erskine Caldwell Novel

Article excerpt

When Erskine Caldwell's first full-length novel, Tobacco Road, was accepted by Scribner's in 1932, he was soon launched on his career as one of America's most successful and widely read storytellers. As he records in his autobiography, Call It Experience, he was told that no revisions of his novel were necessary. He was especially proud of this, since his editor was Maxwell Perkins, a very exacting editor who had turned down quite a few of his stories at Scribner's Magazine before finally accepting one. (1)

The average reader, of course, knows of Tobacco Road and something of the author's subsequent career. What is not generally known is that Erskine Caldwell served a long period struggling to survive and develop as an artist; in fact, he has referred to these years as his seven-year apprenticeship in Maine, where he wrote numerous stories, poems, (2) and novelettes, which were consistently rejected. (3) Behind the controlled, evenly textured prose and compelling drama of Tobacco Road, then, was a lengthy period of trial and effort, to say nothing of bitter disappointments. Although Tobacco Road is often referred to as his first novel, he published two short novels during this apprenticeship period, The Bastard (1929) and Poor Fool (1930), in addition to a collection of stories, American Earth (1930).

In Call It Experience Caldwell tells of taking a suitcase of manuscripts to New York shortly after his first story was accepted in 1929. "I had several novelettes, portions of unfinished novels, poetry, jokes, essays, and dozens of short stories." (4) He was able to place a few of his manuscripts, but most of them were rejected, and he failed to secure an agent to handle his fiction. Later he recalls that the following year he read over three suitcases of manuscripts, "novels and novelettes as well as other material" (5) and, being disappointed in their quality, he burned them.

One of the unpublished short novels that escaped the bonfire is "The Bogus Ones." A xeroxed copy of the manuscript was given to the D. H. Hill Library at North Carolina State University by the author's first wife, Helen Caldwell Cushman, along with a collection of unpublished poems and several volumes of non-fiction. An examination of this novel, which is not mentioned in the autobiography, is helpful in explaining some of the gaps in the novelist's long and painful apprenticeship.

The manuscript of "The Bogus Ones" consists of 127 pages, (6) though there are two versions of the opening page. The untyped title page reveals two titles in the author's handwriting, "New England Twilight" (no doubt referring to the death of the New England mind and the loss of values) and "The Bogus Ones," which is typed on the first page with the author's address, 668 Congress St., Portland, Maine. The setting of the narrative is also Portland.

(Bound with the manuscript is a letter to Helen Caldwell and a five-page summary of Caldwell's difficulties with Heron Press, which had published The Bastard. This additional material is interesting because it indicates that "Bogus Ones," as it is referred to, was completed before June 2, 1930, for Caldwell had asked for the manuscript back since Heron Press had violated their contract by not paying any royalties for The Bastard. It appears that "The Bogus Ones" was rejected by a number of publishers before 1932, including Harcourt Brace, John Day, and Brentano.)

The manuscript is especially interesting and valuable, for it has been extensively revised in the author's handwriting. There are corrections and additions on almost every page, although the manuscript is still marred by frequent typos and numerous misspellings (nickle, quanities, evidenly, indenification--all from the first 26 pages). In fact, it is so riddled with mechanical errors and misspellings that it is difficult to believe that it was submitted to a publisher in this condition. Certainly there is abundant evidence that it is the work of a novice writer. …

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