Southern Voices from the Past: Erskine Caldwell

Along with Tobacco Road (1932), God’s Little Acre (1933) destined Erskine Caldwell to become one of the greatest Southern Voices of the Twentieth Century.

After a stellar, extended career as an author of twenty-five novels, countless short stories, and twelve non-fiction books, Erskine Caldwell became a charter member of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, 2000.

Born in 1903 to a Presbyterian minister and a schoolteacher mother in Moreland, GA, he lived an itinerant life in his early years living in Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, Virginia, and Tennessee before his family returned and settled back in Georgia not far from Augusta. His father’s compassion for the desperately poor folks impacted Erskine. His first notable writing came while he studied at the University of Virginia. “The Georgia Cracker” (1926) established the themes that infused his future writing: political demagoguery, racial injustice, depraved religion, cultural sterility, and social irresponsibility. He continued to develop as a writer through several groundbreaking magazine articles before F. Scott Fitzgerald recommended him to Maxwell Perkins, the senior editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons. In addition to numerous short stories and articles, Caldwell wrote three highly successive novels by 1940, Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre, and Trouble in July. Through these novels, Caldwell brought attention to the Depression’s dire effects upon Georgia’s tenant farmers, abuse of southern industrial workers, the disintegration of family values, and punctuated the brutal, racist attitudes aroused by white southern fears of interracial relationships.

Though interest in his novels waned by the early 1940s, they received a resurgence in the paperback revolution in American publishing following WWII.

In Caldwell’s later years he turned to non-fiction to focus on social injustices earned him some harsh criticism of his views during the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Though he lived and traveled extensively away from his beloved Southern roots and family home in Wren, GA, he wrote to then GA Governor Lester Maddox in 1967, “I think that I am as much a Georgian as Brer Rabbitt.” His final book was published fittingly by Peachtree Publishers in Georgia a month before his death, April 11, 1987, an autobiography, With All My Might.

Personal Insights

During a conference on Lost Southern Voices two years ago, I listened and learned how Erskine Caldwell influenced and interacted with the likes of Pat Conroy and Terry Kay. I live ten minutes from Moreland, GA’s tribute to Erskine Caldwell. One cannot survey his humble beginnings and the collection of memorabilia on display without a sense of awe. How many more Southern novelists did he inspire?

Thanks to my extended conversation with folks behind Moreland’s exhibits on Erskine Caldwell, it is worthwhile to note that his novel successes and notoriety in the early 1930s stirred Madison Avenue publishers in New York to leave their sanctimonious ivory towers and scour the South to discover more nascent Southern voices.

Mixon, Wayne. “Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987).” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 16 May 2016. Web. 11 July 2018.