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Group Read > Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell

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message 1: by Frederick (last edited May 29, 2009 01:53AM) (new)

Frederick (I've also posted this comment under the topic, "Group Read for Tobacco Road.) This is a book about patriarchy. As monstrous as everybody in the book (except the one main character we never actually see, Pearl) is, Caldwell is not trying to show us that people are naturally bad, but, rather, he is trying to show us what happens when men are not allowed to continue the work of their fathers.
Time and time again, patriarchy is a pivotal issue in TOBACCO ROAD. Jeeter Lester, head of a once-prosperous but now destitute farming family, won't work for anybody but himself now that his father is dead. Many of his generation and his sons' generation have gone to work in the mills. He has worked for a man named Captain John, who owned the land after Jeeter's father died, but as Jeeter says, when somebody points out that the land he's on is not his, "It's the old Lester place. Captain John ain't got no more right to it than nobody else." Captain John, of course, has taken what money he's made from the land and abandoned the farmers who once worked for him, leaving them to struggle in the dilapidated houses he will no longer repair. He charges no rent, but he has betrayed the farmers, anyway.
Without a trace of sentimentality, Caldwell nevertheless shows how the weak are exploited by the strong, the tragedy being that the weak are often those who opt for honor. They will not compromise their legacy, spurn the gifts of their fathers or, indeed, be reconstructed. It is a harsh view of a cruel life. It is Li'l Abner recast by Anton Chekov.


message 2: by Ben (new)

Ben (benjaminaaron) It has been a while since I have read this, and despite it being one of my favorites there are a few things that I have forgotten. I seem to remember that the land was best for growing Tobacco, but that instead of growing Tobacco they tried, and failed, to grow another crop, though I can't remember what crop. My interpretation was that that was the fundamental problem that the Lester's had, not just in the specific but also in general. The Lester's were the cause of their own problems. Meaning the great depression that is the setting for the book wasn't an external force, but an internal one.

I also found the car to be quite significant and symbolic. Their approach to the car was the same as their approach to life - a rabid impatient consuming of everything, future be damned.

I have heard quite a few people talk about this book, and read quite a few goodreads reviews, and there seems to be quite a divide between people who think that this novel is grounded in reality, or symbolic. I fall on the symbolic side of the argument. Money isn't really about money, the Lester's poverty wasn't financial.


message 3: by Frederick (last edited May 31, 2009 12:03AM) (new)

Frederick Although he did not live to witness Goodreads, we can read a Goodreads-size bite of what Caldwell had to say about his book. Here, in full, is his introduction to the 1978 edition, published by Robert Bentley, Inc:
"TOBACCO ROAD is a novel derived from the experience of living in an era of American life that has come to be known as the Great Depression of the 1930s. And, as fiction of its time and place, this is the story of imaginary people in a realistic world where life often was an agonizing and distressful existence and only occasionally joyful. As a place in the rural South - in the State of Georgia to be precise - the locale of TOBACCO ROAD was remote and obscure and its people and their social and economic misery were seldom observed and were more frequently ignored by more fortunate citizens. Although the people of TOBACCO ROAD, represented by Jeeter Lester and his family, knew all too well where they were (and I had seen them in their homeplace and talked to them along the roadside), just the same there were numerous readers and critics who were quick to become offended by my depiction of hunger and squalor and prevailing despair. There were nearby observers who were familiar with life in these depths and were concerned about the social and economic welfare of its despondent people. Nevertheless they expressed regret that such a book as TOBACCO ROAD had ever been written. When such comment was made, it was to the effect that it was unfortunate that the rest of the world would find out by reading the novel that such primitivism existed in this historically cultured and privileged region of the Deep South. This first shock wave that followed the appearance of the novel soon engulfed the entire region surrounding the locale of the story and incited editors of some of the local newspapers to produce editorials denouncing and excoriating the author for being, to mention some of the lesser allegations, untruthful, unpatriotic, unclean, unsanctified. As a result, both in letters to the editors and in letters mailed to the author, it was pointedly suggested - when not explicitly worded - that I go somewhere else to live if I did not recall copies of the book from bookstores and publicly apologize to readers for depicting a large number of people of my native state as being leprous outcasts in a world without conscience. While the first shock wave was intense and its effect emotionally disturbing within the immediate territory of the scene of the novel, the second shock wave extended far beyond the earlier boundary within Georgia and violently shook and rattled the typewriters of the self-styled Agrarians of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. These learned men, also known as the Twelve Southerners (in a more recent time they might have been called the Gang of Twelve), issued a manifesto early in the 1930s denouncing all forms of industrialism and urbanism, proclaiming the virtues and rewards of rural life, and imploring all Southerners to resist the entreaties of outsiders and take their stand with agriculture and religion as a cultural heritage to be cherished. The Agrarians were scholars and professional critics and as such were able to address a wider and more intellectual readership than had been possible earlier in Georgia by the local newspaper editors. When taking up their assault against TOBACCO ROAD, the Agrarians not only scathingly denounced the author for his implied criticism of the pastoral life as a social and economic panacea, but also delightedly reproached the readers above the Mason-Dixon Line for being responsible for the success of such a derogatory novel about the South because of their patronage as book buyers. Whatever the faults and virtues of TOBACCO ROAD may be, the people of the novel remain unchanged after the years of controversy and their story still exists to be read and pondered. Erskine Caldwell, Scottsdale, Arizona, 1978."




message 4: by Ben (new)

Ben (benjaminaaron) I have read a bunch about Caldwell writing social protest, but unlike others he didn’t portray his characters in a noble light, nor offer solutions to the problems he was detailing. Which leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks. Which makes the book somewhat of a Rorschach test; does society influence the individuals, or do the individuals influence society? Caldwell leaves both open for debate, as his characters don’t help themselves and neither does society.


message 5: by Frederick (new)

Frederick So, it is now June 2nd, and Ben and I have posted some thoughts on this novel.
Some things about it might lead to more discussion. Here is one thought I have about the book:
Caldwell's humor may seem over the top and even cruel, but I find it actually humanizes his characters. In the depths of their despair and debauchery, two or three characters occasionally burst out laughing. Dude suddenly laughs at Sister Bessie's nose, although he suppresses the laughter when he realizes it might mean she won't buy the car she's been promising to buy and which he plans to use. By allowing his characters to feel the superiority one feels when one is laughing at somebody, Caldwell makes these characters something more than symbols of depravity or oppression.
Do you find Caldwell's humor a distraction? I imagine some may, although I do not.


message 6: by Frederick (new)

Frederick Caldwell in ways is similar to his contemporary, Dashiel Hammet. Hammet's THE MALTESE FALCON has no authorial intrusion at all. I've reads critics who think that mean Hammet isn't letting us know what the characters think. I disagree. It's written on their faces, which he describes.


message 7: by Diane (new)

Diane McHorney (dianemch) | 2 comments Fredrick, to your point about Caldwell's humor: In my opinion this book would have been almost unreadable without it. His humor, while it may break up some of the more morose commentary of their world, also makes the people real. The humor stands not only as a necessary break but also rounds the characters.

On another note, he does craft a solid message about how the cycle of poverty continues. The poverty is not just about money, as proven by Sister Bessie buying her new car (which is promptly abused to near demolition). It's their mentality that drives the poverty. Ben put it well - it's the consumption of everything in sight without regard to consequences or future. And their lifestyle will continue...after the death of Jeeter, Dude takes up the reins of planting the land. Their lifestyle is (hopefully) foreign to us - but is all they know. I also fall on the symbolic side of the fence. The Lesters represent the cyclical and mental state of poverty. Even with a successful crop and money to spend, I have no doubt the Lesters would be the same - just with more to consume.




message 8: by Frederick (new)

Frederick I'm also going to add that I found this one of the most shocking novels I've read in years. Today's novels are full of harsh reality, but somehow, TOBACCO ROAD's lack of an air of apology makes it quite horrifying.



message 9: by Melody (new)

Melody (melodyclayton) | 2 comments did anyone else have the Squidbilly voices in their head as they read this book?


message 10: by Frederick (new)

Frederick I'll Google Squidbilly. While I didn't hear over-exaggerated accents as I read, I noticed images from "Li'l Abner" matching some of the descriptions.


message 11: by Sihem (new)

Sihem | 1 comments hi,can someone here explain to me the influence of the southern renaisance on tobocco road, as i read about the tenants of SR , there is a focus on the family community for example , but as you known tobocco road lacks of this principle, there is no link betwen the family members ...


message 12: by Nick (new)

Nick (doily) Frederick wrote: "I'll Google Squidbilly. While I didn't hear over-exaggerated accents as I read, I noticed images from "Li'l Abner" matching some of the descriptions."

I thought there was a direct relation between "Li'l ABner" and "Tobacco Road." Am I wrong about that?

(It could be something I dreamed!)


message 13: by Nick (new)

Nick (doily) In the credits of the movie "Sling Blade" there is an homage to Erskine Caldwell. I notice similarities in the story and Caldwell's Georgia Boy, though that book is so strange in its form, it's hard to say if there's anything direct.


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