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A Quick Look Back Down Tobacco Road

April 11, 2012

It’s been a quarter-century today since Erskine Caldwell shuffled off this dusty mortal coil. One of the most famous novelists of the Depression Era South (and beyond), Caldwell was also one of the most infamous; his two best-known novels, Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933), were intended as books of social protest and earned wide critical acclaim but their sometimes lurid storylines also garnered a different kind of attention, including accusations of pornography, got the books not just banned but also burned, and even led to  the author’s arrest on what were essentially vice charges! (A landmark court case ultimately ruled in his favor.)

Thanks to the good folks at Open Road Integrated Media (which has recently published each of these novels and a few of Caldwell’s other books in e-book format), here’s a quick excerpt from the opening of Tobacco Road to honor today’s anniversary:

Lov’s wife was Jeeter Lester’s youngest daughter, Pearl. She was only twelve years old the summer before when he had married her….

Pearl had never talked, for that matter. Not because she could not, but simply because she did not want to. When she was at home, before Lov had married her, she had stayed apart from the other Lesters and rarely opened her mouth from the beginning of one day to the next. Only her mother, Ada, had been able to converse with her, and even then Pearl had never used more than the barest of negatives and affirmatives in reply. But Ada was herself like that. She had begun to talk voluntarily only during the past ten years. Before then, Jeeter had had the same trouble with her that Lov was now having with Pearl. Lov asked Pearl questions, he kicked her, he poured water over her, he threw rocks and sticks at her, and he did everything else he could think of that he thought might make her talk to him. She cried a lot, especially when she was seriously hurt, but Lov did not consider that as conversation. He wanted her to ask him if his back were sore, and when was he going to get his hair cut, and when was it going to rain again. But Pearl would not say anything.

He had spoken to Jeeter several times before about his troubles with Pearl, but Jeeter did not know what was the matter with her. Ever since she was a baby she had been like that, he said; and Ada had remained untalkative until the last few years. What Jeeter had not been able to break down in Ada for forty years, hunger had. Hunger loosened her tongue, and she had been complaining ever since. Jeeter did not attempt to recommend the starving of Pearl, because he knew she would go somewhere to beg food, and would get it.

“Sometimes I think it’s just the old devil in her,” Lov had said several times. “To my way of thinking, she ain’t got a scratch of religion in her. She’s going to hell-fire when she dies, sure as day comes.”

“Now, maybe she ain’t pleased with her married life,” Jeeter had suggested. “Maybe she ain’t satisfied with what you provide her with.”

“I done everything I can think of to make her satisfied and contented. Every week I go to Fuller on pay-day and buy her a pretty. I get her snuff, but she won’t take none; I get her a little piece of calico, but she won’t sew it. Looks like she wants something I ain’t got and can’t get her. I wish I knowed what it was. She’s such a pretty little girl—all them long yellow curls hanging down her back sort of gets me all crazy sometimes. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I’ve got the need of Pearl for a wife as bad as any man ever had.”

“I expect she’s too young yet to appreciate things,” Jeeter had said. “She ain’t grown up yet like Ellie May and Lizzie Belle and Clara and the other gals. Pearl ain’t nothing but a little gal yet. She don’t even look like a woman, so far.”

“If I had knowed she was going to be like she is, maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to marry her so bad. I could have married me a woman what wants to be married to me. But I don’t want Pearl to go now, though. I sort of got used to her around, and I’d sure miss seeing them long yellow curls hanging down her back. They make a man feel kind of lonesome some way. She sure is a pretty little girl, no matter if she does act like she does all the time.”

(Sounds like something from the American Noir class I’m teaching at George Mason right now…. Or maybe I’m just seeing the world through the noir lens these days…. Either way, a potential addition to future syllabi, of course.)

For a fuller excerpt and some additional links to info on Caldwell, check out Open Road’s own blog post today. — Art Taylor

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