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CARPE LIBRUM: Erskine Caldwell paints an unsettling family portrait in ‘Tobacco Road’

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In many ways, “Tobacco Road” feels like the rural agricultural answer to Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”—a message book, if ever there was one.

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair Publishers) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an older book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many North Carolina writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Books Tobacco RoadTobacco Road
Erskine Caldwell
Scribner’s, 1932
There is a tendency to sentimentalize the South in modern and contemporary literature. Some writers often poke fun at Southerners and stereotypes—or pen beautiful, tragic, sweeping books of the Old South, like “Gone With The Wind” or “Beulah Land.” Authors write “message” books about poverty and racism, as long as their heroes are heroic or noble. Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road” refuses to play by any of those rules.

Published in 1932, “Tobacco Road” is an incredibly frustrating and upsetting book to read in 2018. Set in rural Georgia during the Depression, it centers around desperate circumstances of the Lester family, who are now squatters on land they once owned. A nearby neighbor, Lov, who married the youngest Lester daughter, 12-year-old Pearl, has paid for a sack of turnips he intends to take home to feed Pearl and himself. But he stops by the Lesters to try and talk to Jeeter about why Pearl will not preform her wifely duties. She refuses to sleep with him or even speak to him. Now, the Lesters are slowly starving to death, and between them determine to get the sack of turnips from Lov. In many ways they remind me a lot of the Snopes family from Faulkner’s world of Yoknapatawpha County—except the Snopes are cunning and wiley people who will scam folks out of what they want. The Lesters will attack and seize what they want, and if someone tries to fight back, they will beat them mercilessly.

But if you were starving to death, how far would you leave human decency and civility behind to get sustenance? Of course, the Lesters could pursue gainful employment. Dude, the 16-year-old son, could go to the city for a job, as there are none to be had farming in their area. Instead, Dude finds himself marrying Sister Bessie, a local widowed preacher woman with a facial deformity. Bessie lusts after Dude, and Dude lusts after the new car she promises to buy him.

The indulgences of the flesh are the recurring pastime and preoccupation of the Lesters, Bessie and Lov. Hence, people refer to the book and characters as “earthy.” They are desperate and forgotten, living in a world where they are invisible. Lov “marries” Pearl by giving her parents some blankets and oil. When Pearl finally escapes to a destiny filled with danger and uncertainty as a friendless, naïve, uneducated young girl, alone in the big city—earlier in the book Caldwell hints at her fate with Bessie’s night of prostitution—Lov decides to take her older sister after all. Sis is the one with a  cleft lip so awful, no one can stand to look at her.

The Lesters and Bessie didn’t understand the sand shifting beneath their feet. The world changed and any opportunities available to them relocated to the city, to the mills. None can read or write, but the one thing they still have to cling to is they are white and, therefore, they see themselves as better than their African-American neighbors—who steer clear of the violent bunch.

Faulkner’s Snopes family might be disreputable—and have children earlier than they should by the marriage calendar—but they live in civilization and work the system to their advantage. The Lesters, on the other hand, do not exist as far as the outside world is concerned. There is no safety net; there is no assistance. If left to their own devices, they will die, forgotten in the backwoods of Georgia, and none will be the wiser.

Caldwell does endow Jeeter, the smarmy family patriarch, with a love of his family’s land and a dream of making it profitable and productive again. With no means to make it so, it all remains pipe dreams of an old man.

In many ways, “Tobacco Road” feels like the rural agricultural answer to Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”—a message book, if ever there was one. Where Sinclair offers a solution, Caldwell does not. He is just painting a picture, showing the world what he has seen, what he has heard, and reminding us, though we have forgotten the Lesters of the world, they are still out there, and they are still in need.

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