Tobacco Road, written by Erskine Caldwell in 1932, is a landmark work of American fiction. Often compared to Hemingway, Caldwell was most famous for his 1933 novel God’s Little Acre, but Tobacco Road had no small share of success in its own right. Saul Bellow apparently believed that Caldwell should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Tobacco Road is a novel that speaks of the Great Depression of the 1930s, a subject of interest to me, and it has a clarity and apparent simplicity of style that requires considerable skill on Caldwell’s part. It is, unquestionably in my mind, a very well written book.
So all that said, it’s a bit of a shame I didn’t like it.
Tobacco Road follows a poor farmer, Jeeter Lester, who lives on a ramshackle farm on land his family once owned but which is now held by an absentee landlord. Jeeter would farm the land with cotton, if he could borrow a mule and then get credit for seed cotton and guano with which to fertilise it. In the meantime he dreams of repairing his utterly broken down car and selling blackjack wood as firewood in the nearby town of Augusta. The only impediment to this is the fact that his car is a heap of unfixable junk, and blackjack wood doesn’t burn worth a damn.
Jeeter is married to Ada Lester, whose only goal is to get a fashionable dress to die in. He lives with his mother, Grandma Lester (who wears rags, and horse collars cut into squares as shoes), and his two remaining children who have not yet left home (the other fifteen are long gone), Dude Lester and Ellie May Lester. Dude is an ungrateful son, much like his father in many ways, lazy, aggressive, unhelpful and with a peculiar obsession with car horns. Ellie May is disfigured by a harelip that her father has always been too lazy to bother having fixed.
Other characters include Lov, a man who married Jeeter’s twelve year old daughter but can’t get her to sleep with him, and Bessie, an itinerant (and apparently wholly unqualified) female preacher who takes a shine to Dude.
It is not therefore a novel with a cast of thousands, rather it is a highly focussed work which examines a few incidents in Jeeter’s life and through those incidents and his relationships with these other characters sheds light on the lives of the rural poor of the 1930s American South.
We first encounter Jeeter as Lov arrives at the Lester home with a bag of turnips he has purchased with half a day’s pay. He is there to ask Jeeter’s advice on getting his new wife, twelve year old Pearl, to sleep with him. Jeeter and the other Lesters are intent on stealing turnips, as food is distinctly hard to come by. Lov is distracted by Ellie May, who pursues him so hard she traps him on the floor pulling him on top of her and shucking her dress up for him, all this in front of her entire family in the front yard.
Lov opened the sack, selected a large turnip, wiping it clean with his hands, and took three big bites out of it one after the other The Lester women stood in the yard and on the porch looking at Lov eat. Ellie May came from behind the chinaberry tree and sat down not far from Lov on a pine stump. Ada and the old grandmother were on the porch watching the turnip in Lov’s hand become smaller and smaller with each bite.
Later in that same section:
Ellie May was edging closer and closer to Lov. She was moving across the yard by raising her weight on her hands and feet and sliding herself over the hard white sand. She was smiling at Lov, and trying to make him take more notice of her, so she was going to him. Her harelip was spread open across her upper teeth, making her mouth appear as if she had no upper lip at all. Men usually would have nothing to do with Ellie May; but she was eighteen now, and she was beginning to discover that it should be possible for her to get a man despite her appearance.
‘Ellie May’s acting like your old hound used to when he 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?’
Later, Sister Bessie arrives, she preaches but becomes enamoured of Dude and the two end up frottaging (frotteuring if you prefer) right there in front of the house. The Lester front yard is something of a hotbed of passion it seems.
Bessie marries the much younger Dude, tempting him to the union by buying a new car and offering to let him drive it. They take Jeeter to town to try and sell blackjack wood, with effects that would be comic if it were not for the sheer venality and stupidity of the characters and the unrelenting grimness of what befalls them. Indeed, in several places the novel veers close to comedy, quite intentionally I think, only to pull short of it by the sheer unpleasantness of its incident.
The characters are not intended to be sympathetic, Jeeter steals food from his friend, hides it from his family, and beats his ailing grandmother whenever she asks for some. He does this not in the manner of a thug or brute, but more in the manner of a mindless animal from a species lacking any sense of pack or herd instincts. The Lesters generally are like insects in human form, utterly devoid of empathy, fellow feeling, love or any hint of a sense of humour. They hunger, they lust, they fear, they act without any concept of consequence, they reminded me at times rather strongly of zombies in a Romero movie but without the pathos. Their conversation is highly repetitive, and generally (and again, clearly intentionally) is solipsistic, with characters sometimes engaging in essentially overlapping monologues in which each simply says what is concerning them while showing no evidence that they have heard what the other is saying.
Jeeter’s main desire is to be a farmer again, to sow crops and watch them grow. As dreams go, it is not a large one, but it is quite impossible to achieve. He has no mule with which to plow, he has no seed cotton to plant, he has no guano to fertilise with. All are essential. He cannot obtain credit, too many men are seeking it and he has no collateral, and the only lenders who will lend to a man such as him take so much in interest that he would end up making a loss:
The loan companies were the sharpest people he had ever had anything to do with. Once he had secured a two-hundred-dollar loan from one of them, but he swore it was the last time he would ever bind himself to such an agreement. To begin with, they came out to see him two or three times a week; some of them from the company’s office would come out to the farm and try to tell him how to plant the cotton and how much guano to put in to the acre. Then on the first day of every month they came back to collect interest on him. He could never pay it, and they added the interest to the principal, and charged him interest on that, too.
By the time he sold his cotton in the fall, there was only seven dollars coming to him. The interest on the loan amounted to three per cent a month to start with, and at the end of ten months he had been charged thirty per cent, and on top of that another thirty per cent on the unpaid interest. Then to make sure that the loan was fully protected, Jeeter had to pay the sum of fifty dollars. He could never understand why he had to pay that, and the company did not undertake to explain it to him. When he had asked what the fifty dollars was meant to cover, he was told that it was merely the fee for making the loan.
When the final settlement was made, Jeeter found that he had paid out more than three hundred dollars, and was receiving seven dollars for his share. Seven dollars for a year’s labour did not seem to him a fair portion of the proceeds from the cotton, especially as he had done all the work, and he had furnished the land and mule, too. He was even then still in debt, because he owed ten dollars for the hire of the mule he had used to raise the cotton. With Lov and Ada’s help, he discovered that he had actually lost three dollars. The man who had rented him the mule insisted on being paid, and Jeeter had given him the seven dollars, and he was still trying to get the other three to pay the balance.
The scene where Bessie buys a car is not dissimilar. There is a strong implication that she is overcharged, the car is not topped up with sufficient oil and Bessie is in no way equipped herself to understand that this might be a problem.
In part then, the novel is a work of social realism depicting the seemingly impersonal forces that brought ruin to poor farmers and by which the proceeds of the land went not to benefit those who worked it but instead rich men living in the towns and cities. The characters are routinely exploited, their opportunities limited, their ignorance used against them. Bessie’s experiences with the car are a microcosm of the larger struggle of Jeeter in his desire to be a farmer.
Jeeter’s problems are not wholly external, however. He is a man so lazy that he has a habit of going to sleep in the field when carrying out chores. He procrastinates to an extraordinary extent. He is unwilling to work in the cotton mills where he could make a decent wage, as that kind of work is alien to his self image. He is utterly improvident, devoid of any ability to consider the future other than in terms of empty dreams of borrowing a mule so that he can sow crops, if he can get credit for seed cotton and guano. Jeeter is not unusual in this, the characters in this novel are uniformly portrayed as essentially imbeciles, completely lacking in even the meagrest common sense. It was a portrait that I found ultimately unconvincing, for while I wholly believe that absolute poverty can strip people both of dignity and hope, I do not believe the poor are necessarily also stupid. At times, Caldwell is subtler, in his portrait for example of how local traditions can lead to farmers continuing practices which actually damage their livelihoods, and in that he persuades, it was in the total lack of any intelligence on the part of the named characters that he left me behind. Caldwell might well respond that he wrote as he found, the following is a quote from a reporter who toured with Caldwell’s Presbyterian minister father:
‘We were met by dull, stolid, stupid people, seemingly unaware of all their ills save hunger. Their clothes were rags in many cases. They seemed to possess no jot of pride of appearance. From babies to adults, nearly all were unkept and dirty.’
The difficulty is that what this describes is the loss of dignity that flows from poverty and hunger. The stupidity of the characters in this novel goes beyond that. The copy of the book I read has a cover photograph on it by the remarkable Walker Evans, and the great difference between Evans and Caldwell is that in his portraits Evans retained the truth that those he photographed were, ultimately, the same as we are.
As noted above, the Lesters are not merely stupid, they are also lacking in any recognisable form of human empathy. Jeeter can watch his daughter pull a man onto her in front of him and then later see her lie naked from the waist down in the dirt and think nothing of it. When his mother is run over, he leaves her lying in the dirt without a thought, later prodding her to see if she still lives and without noticing she has crawled several yards to the house begins to dig her grave when it is far from clear she’s actually dead. Poverty can cause people to do terrible things to each other, but the lack of emotion here did not convince me. Jeeter’s lack of sentiment became literally inhuman, not a convincing portrayal of the brutality of those reduced to their basest instincts but rather a description of sociopaths lacking the wit to pretend normality.
Other elements are more successful. Race is a theme in the book, with the Lesters and their associates regarding the black families who live near them with a mixture of fear, loathing and incomprehension. When Bessie and Duke first take the new car out for a drive, they become distracted when they see an unusually large turpentine still at the side of the road, and drive into the back of a two-horse wagon, damaging their car and killing the other driver. He is black, so they leave his body lying mangled in a ditch and later complain to Jeeter that the accident was the black driver’s fault. His life is of literally no consequence to them, and their indifference to it is both powerful and shocking (though this is diminished slightly as the book progresses and one realises that they are equally indifferent to the deaths of family members).
Equally, Caldwell excels at depicting the squalor of genuine poverty, the terrible conditions the characters are living in and the constant misery of hunger and in the scenes with Lov or between the grandmother and the family how it can overwhelm all normal human restraint. In an interview in 1985, Caldwell spoke of his experience in the South of this time as follows:
‘I got a good look at these conditions firsthand after I took a job as a driver for a country doctor,’ … ‘I saw people eating clay to fill their stomachs, and I entered tiny shacks with dirt floors that had as many as 15 people living inside.’
In part then, the book is fictionalised reportage, and this is why Caldwell portrays not only the external forces that prey upon these rural poor but also their own failings that contribute to their lot.
As the novel continues, the futility of Jeeter’s half-hearted attempts to improve his particular lot becomes increasingly apparent. The only real option available to him is the one he will not take, to go work in the cotton mills, and indeed Jeeter’s devotion to the land is his only real redeeming quality – his only genuinely human trait. The core tragedy of the novel is how little money he needs to achieve his dreams, and how far he is even from achieving that pittance. When Bessie and Duke take Jeeter to town, they cram the back of the car with wood (tearing the seats in the process), but none of it can be sold. Bessie rather randomly becomes a prostitute for the night, as best I can tell without pay, and they return home with the car increasingly battered and even its spare tire sold to pay for their food and lodgings. On the way back, Jeeter decides that if he cannot sell the blackjack wood he will at least prevent anyone using it for free, and so decides to burn it himself:
They waited for the blackjack to burn so they could leave for home. The leaves had burned to charred ashes, and the flame had gone out. The scrub oak would not catch on fire.
Jeeter scraped up a larger pile of leaves, set it on fire, and began tossing the sticks on it. The fire burned briskly for several minutes, and then went out under the weight of the green wood.
Jeeter stood looking at it, sadly. He did not know how to make it burn. Then Dude drew some gasoline from the tank and poured it on the pile. A great blaze sprang up ten or twelve feet into the air. Before long that too died down, leaving a pile of blackened sticks in the ditch.
‘Well, I reckon that’s all I can do to that damn-blasted blackjack,’ Jeeter said, getting into the car. ‘It looks like there ain’t no way to get rid of the durn wood. It won’t sell and it won’t burn. I reckon the devil got into it.’
They drove off in a swirl of yellow dust, and were soon nearing the tobacco road. Dude drove slowly through the deep white sand, blowing the horn all the way home.
Inevitably, and unsurprisingly, the book moves toward tragedy. Jeeter and Ada try to contact some of their children for help with money, but not one child who has left home has ever returned or even written, and the one they manage to contact tells them to go to hell. Jeeter cannot of course get a mule, or seed cotton, or guano, and he will not work in the mills. The car, with depressing predictability, is almost a wreck within a week of purchase. There is no light of hope at all. I will not detail the ending, but it is in keeping with the rest of the work. The difficulty with it, however, is that in order to get a suitably bleak ending Caldwell rather forces events in a way I found personally very unconvincing:
Jeeter and Ada normally got up with the sun, and it was that time now. Neither of them came to the windows now, however, nor did either of them open the door. They were both asleep.
Tragedy ensues due to their obliviousness. Tragedy which in my view Caldwell hasn’t earned, as he admits himself they do not normally oversleep, he merely decrees that on this occasion they do and this is of course the only occasion when it matters. To me, it was a crude device, in which the tragedy flowed not from the improvidence or misfortune of the characters but from an intrusive act of authorial fiat required in order to bring the novel to a suitable close. Caldwell’s generally naturalistic style failed him here in my view, and rather than evoking sympathy I felt simply that I was watching a writer manipulating the rather unconvincing characters he had created.
Worse yet, we get a speech by Lov in which the dialogue is essentially identical to that used by Jeeter, so much so that were you to excerpt Lov’s monologue and place it next to any of Jeeter’s several monologues the only way you would be able to tell that these are supposedly different people speaking is that Lov refers to Jeeter in the third person. Interchangeability of character is sometimes intentional, it is made very clear in the novel that Dude is really just a younger version of Jeeter (a fact made ironic by Dude’s contempt for Jeeter as a father and human being). I wasn’t persuaded though that the sudden interchangeability of Jeeter and Lov was intentional in that way, in any event if it was it didn’t work for me, reminding me rather that these characters were merely vehicles for an authorial argument.
And that takes me to my essential problem with this work. I disliked the pat ending which only occurs because the author suddenly declares the characters depart from their normal behaviour, I disliked Lov suddenly becoming some kind of were-Jeeter the moment he got a monologue to himself, but more than any of that by some way I disliked the sheer lack of persuasive humanity on the part of the characters. I have recently read two other novels featuring the abjectly poor, Animal’s People and Q & A. The first I liked, the second I didn’t, but both portrayed the poor as still essentially human, flawed yes but also gifted with humour and intelligence and feeling for those close to them. Caldwell’s characters have none of this, and the fact that nobody evidences even the intelligence one would expect from a developmentally challenged chicken, that they have no more empathy or concern for each other than would stick insects, this ultimately makes them unpersuasive as human beings and if these terrible things are happening to beings that don’t persuade as human ultimately why should we care?
Poverty is degrading, and can rob people of their humanity, but here there is no particular evidence of any humanity to be robbed. Steinbeck, in his novels of the Great Depression, sometimes erred in making his poor too virtuous, too put upon. Caldwell commits the opposite error, his poor are objects of pathos, ciphers in a desolate landscape, Steinbeck’s characters are sometimes too human and Caldwell’s not human enough.
The poor have little enough, to rob them of their humanity seems to me a step too far. For that reason, although this is in my view a very well written novel, it is not one I am likely to return to.
Since writing that final line above, I checked online for countervailing views, and found this excellent account on a local history site: http://chronicle.augusta.com/history/caldwell.html. The quotes above from Caldwell and from the reporter accompanying his father are both from this site, and I recommend it as a differing view to my own.