Cover image for Erskine Caldwell : the journey from Tobacco Road : a biography
Erskine Caldwell : the journey from Tobacco Road : a biography
Miller, Dan B.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : A.A. Knopf, 1995.

Physical Description:
xiv, 459 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3505.A322 Z74 1994 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A major new biography, Erskine Caldwell: The Journey from Tobacco Road presents the fascinating life and times of a prolific and profoundly influential -- yet nearly forgotten -- figure in American literature. In the 1930S and '40s, Erskine Caldwell's impassioned work dealing with the Southern poor -- most notably, the novels Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre -- earned him wide critical acclaim. Although many Southerners reviled him for his brutal exposes of their region, literary scholars at the time ranked him alongside Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and Steinbeck. William Faulkner thought him one of America's five greatest novelists, and as late as 1960, Caldwell was under consideration for the Nobel Prize. Although Caldwell worked for years in abject poverty, eventually his commercial success matched his lofty critical standing. The dramatic adaptation of Tobacco Road became the biggest hit in Broadway history, and paperback editions of Caldwell's novels -- frequently under attack for their explicit sexuality -- sold in record numbers around the globe. By the 1960s, in fact, his publicists declared him "The World's Best-Selling Novelist," and by 1970 he had written more than one hundred short stories and twenty-five novels. This should have secured Caldwell an enduring place in America's literary history, but today he is largely forgotten, one of the great disappearing acts in American letters. Caldwell's personal life was no less complicated than his professional one, and Dan B. Miller's evocation of it is uncommonly subtle and provocative. Lonely and isolated as a boy; Caldwell treated his own children with alternating neglect and brutality. He was married four times (once to the photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White), had a number of extramarital affairs, drank heavily, and was prone to violent mood swings. Yet Caldwell could be extraordinarily generous, gentle, and funny, a man of startling inconsistencies and startling energy. The first scholar to explore the entire (and voluminous) collection of Caldwell material at Dartmouth College Library, Dan B. Miller blends narrative grace, keen psychological insight, and dispassionate analysis to trace the tumultuous arc of a true American original and the vibrant literary culture in which he lived.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The story of Erskine Caldwell, author of Tobacco Road, God's Little Acre, and 20 or so great, savage short stories that took on themes of racial violence even before Richard Wright did, is vital to an understanding of American literature. And yet it has been a hard story to tell, since what was most interesting about the man--his early work and his marriage to the photographer Margaret Bourke-White--all occurred before the end of World War II, and Caldwell did not die until 1987. Moreover, to the generation growing up in the 1950s, Caldwell was not a fierce proletarian writer to be ranked with Steinbeck and Farrell. He was a pornographer whose status as the "world's best-selling author" came about through the sale of millions of 25-cent drugstore paperbacks with lurid covers. Miller solves the narrative problem of a subject who peaks early and then suffers a long, bitter decline by showing how Caldwell's paperback successes and business acumen essentially began the mass-market paperback business and by portraying a proud, deeply hurt man, stung by critics, rejected by his children and wives, and stumbling into alcoholism. In light of the 40 years of suffering endured by the mature Caldwell, we can forgive even the abusive behavior documented in Miller's unflinching portrait of the writer's younger years: his insane demands for silence, his infidelities against his long-suffering first wife, Helen, and his physical abuse of his children (on one occasion, he beat them with a canoe paddle). Caldwell was greedy, selfish, and stubborn, but he strove always to be true to his crusading minister father's vision of an impoverished, racist South; he tried to improve once he understood the costs of his personal failures; and he never, never stopped writing. Last year, the University of Tennessee published Harvey J. Klevar's Erskine Caldwell [BKL Je 1 & 15 93], a fine effort as far as it went. Klevar was inhibited by his authorized status, however, and did not have access to the voluminous files of correspondence Caldwell donated to Dartmouth shortly before his death. In addition, Klevar was forbidden to refer in any way to the research of Caldwell's first, unpublished biographer, William Sutton. Miller, a young scholar who first heard of Caldwell in 1989, has a few of his facts wrong, and his dismissals of some of the late novels are questionable. He couldn't be better on Caldwell's efforts as a Hollywood screenwriter but should have stayed longer with the making of the one good film from a Caldwell novel, God's Little Acre. But Miller draws upon and fully credits the Dartmouth files, Sutton's interviews, and his own interviews, and, most important, he shows us the full, flawed man. Caldwell's story has been told at last. ~--John Mort

Publisher's Weekly Review

This interesting but uneven biography of Caldwell (1903-1987), based on Miller's Harvard doctoral dissertation, examines the life of a volatile, rough-hewn novelist who had slipped sufficiently into obscurity that Miller had not even heard of Caldwell until 1989. Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933) were celebrated for their unsparing depiction of the squalid lives of Southern farmers and laborers but also vilified for their sensationalism. The novels, according to Miller, might not have been published were it not for the guidance of celebrated Scribner's editor Maxwell Perkins and of Caldwell's first wife, Helen, who edited his work with a sensitivity that contrasted sharply with her husband's selfishness and irascibility. But Helen is sketchily characterized here; of Caldwell's four wives, only photographer Margaret Bourke-White emerges fully fleshed. Less vexing is Miller's sometimes inelegant prose, as it does not usually detract from the engaging story of a raw and impolitic writer's controversial career. Although his work was often banned as obscene or pornographic, Caldwell was ``one of the first authors to be published in mass-market paperback editions [and] is a key figure in the history of American publishing.'' Miller is dean of students at Riverdale Country School in New York City. Photos. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Although he is not Caldwell's first biographer (see Harvey Klevar's Erskine Caldwell, Univ. of Tennessee Pr., 1993), Miller, the dean of students at Riverdale Country School in New York and a historian of American civilizations, is the first biographer to make use of the extensive collection of Caldwell material deposited at Dartmouth College in 1987, the year the writer died. Miller's biography is an important contribution to the reappraisal of Caldwell begun in the 1980s. It is a thorough, well-written, -researched, and-documented, sympathetic, and fair discussion of a man who was often difficult and unpleasant. At his best, Caldwell was a fine writer (Tobacco Road, 1932; God's Little Acre, 1933) and a significant social critic. Miller analyzes Caldwell's literary reputation, explaining how a writer so widely read and highly acclaimed could have become unread and unappreciated at the end of his life. Highly recommended for literature collections.-Judy Mimken, Boise, Id. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.