Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Southwestern Humor, Erskine Caldwell, and the Comedy of Frustration

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Southwestern Humor, Erskine Caldwell, and the Comedy of Frustration

Article excerpt

Erskine Caldwell enjoys what is, perhaps, one of the most dubious distinctions possible for a writer: he is popular--one of the most, if not the most, popular of all modern Southern writers. This has brought him money, security, even fame (who, after all, hasn't heard of him?), but also a great deal of obloquy. It is usual, for example, to claim that Caldwell is a sensationalist posing as a journalist: a historian, of a kind, who tends to forget facts and concentrate instead upon bizarre, intriguing details. The assumption, somehow, is that Caldwell is really after verisimilitude, and that only another, more important ambition--namely, his wish to be successful in the accepted meaning of that term--has prevented him from ever properly fulfilling his desire.

Few things could, I think, be further from the truth. Certainly, there is a journalistic aim implicit in most of Caldwell's work, in a sense that he was in a way trying to tell us what it is like to live in the South now. But with him this aim assumes new dimensions because (as he himself has more than once suggested) he is not so much interested in verisimilitude as in special pleading: the kind of report that tends to emphasize certain chosen aspects of its subject. He has a number of observations, important observations as he sees it, to make about the South and he makes them to the exclusion of almost everything else. The result is something which is perhaps closer to the art of the caricaturist than to the comparatively objective account of the reporter; particular aspects of the described situation are continually being exaggerated in the interests of theme.

What is Caldwell's theme? Stated simply, it is one of degeneracy--the reduction of the human being to the lowest possible levels of his experience. In appearance, at least, his rural characters bear no resemblance at all to Jefferson's idea of the noble tillers of the earth. Grotesques responding only to a basic physical urge, they represent an abstraction not merely from the human to the animal but from the complete animal to a single instinct: "Ellie May got down from the pine stump and sat on the ground. She moved closer and closer to Lov, sliding herself over the hard white sand ... `Ellie May's acting like your old hound used to when she got the itch,' Dude said to Jeeter. `Look at her scrape her bottom on the sand. That old hound used to make the same kind of sound Ellie May's making too. It sounds just like a little pig squealing, don't it?'" (1) The difference of perspective, when we compare this description of Ellie May in Tobacco Road, with, say, most of William Faulkner's portraits of poor whites, is a radical one. Faulkner tends, usually, to take us inside the consciousness of his "peasants," to share the wealth of their inner life as well as the poverty of their condition. Caldwell, however, nearly always insists--as he does here--on keeping his readers at a distance; in other words, on presenting his characters entirely in terms of externals and, in the process, dehumanizing them.

This distancing, dehumanizing approach is responsible among other things, I think, for the nature of Caldwell's comedy. Nearly all of his country folk operate between the poles of greed and sexual desire, they are the slaves of appetite, and such humor as his novels possess is generally the result of the violence which these appetites provoke. In fact, the comic note is at its wildest in his fiction when the two appetites actually clash, throwing the victim of the subsequent crossfire into confusion. The description of Ellie May quoted above, for instance, is part of a much longer sequence in which Ellie's father, Jeeter Lester, uses Ellie to distract his son-in-law Lov while he steals a bag of turnips from him. To summarize the complicated interplay of hunger and lust which follows is hardly to do justice to the Grand Guignol effects of the situation. As soon as Jeeter does grab the bag of turnips Lov turns to recover it, but he is immediately pulled to the ground by his would-be seducer. …

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