Academic journal article American Studies

"White Trash" in Literary History: The Social Interventions of Erskine Caldwell and James Agee

Academic journal article American Studies

"White Trash" in Literary History: The Social Interventions of Erskine Caldwell and James Agee

Article excerpt

That [Erskine] Caldwell was unshakably committed to his craft should not be questioned. . . . That he mounted, throughout his career, an uncompromising assault on social injustice should likewise not be questioned.

-Wayne Mixon, from The People's Writer: Erskine Caldwell and the South

. . . Agee insisted that the connections between ethics and politics, means and ends, human compassion and social jus- tice were always tenuous and paradoxical. For the most part he distrusted the activists and "reformers" who spoke of the sharecroppers as a problem to be solved.... Precisely because he was acutely sensitive to all the social, moral, and aesthetic implications of a particular experience, precisely because he wanted to alter the way his readers saw reality, precisely because he believed that the total understanding of a problem would not immobilize but liberate mankind, Agee had fash- ioned the most radical work of the 1930s.

-Richard H. Pells, from Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years

Knowledge and power are integrated with one another. . . . It is not possible for power to be exercised without knowledge; it is impossible for knowledge not to engender power.

-Michel Foucault, from Power/Knowledge

In the twenty-first century, literary scholars and teachers have become more invested in an interdisciplinary understanding of the connection between socially interested writing and literary history. However, in spite of what may be characterized as a general critical movement away from the organic, signifying aspects of textuality, a central focus of much American literary criticism remains on the canon and authorship, even when situating texts within their historical moment in the interest of better historical/cultural understanding. In spite of a more historical orientation, we are often left with a surprisingly canonical distinction between which American texts are worth studying and which are not, and these reasons usually derive at least in part from a sense of authorial merit, literary or social or both. However, this prioritization becomes increas- ingly difficult to justify as contemporary American literary scholars become ever more aware of the role of literature in the workings of social power and of the active part that canonical valuations and shifts can play in these operations. It is with the intent of suggesting the benefits of a less canonically rooted, and more interdisciplinary, literary scholarship that I engage with the work of two rather "noncanonical" American writers of the thirties: Erskine Caldwell and James Agee. My purpose is to investigate the ways in which their works offered potent, if problematic, historically situated social discourses. And, while it may not provide definitive answers about writing the "truths" of poor rural whites, this comparative discussion may allow us to raise significant questions about class representations and Otherness.

Enormously popular during their own time, the central fictional works of Erskine Caldwell, specifically Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933), have fallen out of fashion in literary circles these days. They are read by many critics as failed attempts to produce legitimate social intervention through art, and their failings are typically seen in terms of lack of awareness of stereotyping and the degree to which they constitute a confusing amalgam of genuine social concern and an incommensurate literary style based on gothic humor. In contrast, the work of James Agee, particularly his social intervention through art, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), not popular in its own time, has apparently come into its own in current circles of cultural, if not literary, scholarship.1 Agee's ethics and orientation are touted and emulated, and his book has become an academic touchstone for engagement with social otherness, particularly in the social sciences. But it is not my purpose here to take issue with the aesthetic evaluation of these works. …

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