ERSKINE CALDWELL by Dan B. Miller

ERSKINE CALDWELL

The Journey from Tobacco Road
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 An engaging, if unchallenging, account of an author whose route into--and out of--literary celebrity makes him seem, for better and worse, a man of his time. From the first short stories Caldwell (190387) struggled to get into print, his works drew on the observations he made of poverty in the rural South and the lessons in social consciousness he received from his father, a preacher. Caldwell's first wife, Helen, and their children shared his life of grinding poverty while enduring his volatile temperament. He honed his craft, helped by Helen's editing, but even his best-known work, Tobacco Road, generated poor initial sales--in Miller's estimation because the publisher, Scribner's, marketed the sexually explicit book so timidly. When playwright Jack Kirkland turned Tobacco Road into ``the bawdiest Broadway hit in history,'' Caldwell gained a solid income and practice at arguing for artistic freedom as local officials across the nation tried to close down touring-company productions. As he adapted to a more luxurious life, he also found himself a more glamorous wife: photographer Margaret Bourke-White, with whom he collaborated on studies of southern sharecropping and of Russia during the German invasion--an arrangement that collapsed as Caldwell learned he came second to her art just as Helen and the children had come second to his. Miller (who has a Ph.D. in History of American Civilization from Harvard) tends to avoid probing such fissures in his subject's actions and writings, particularly during Caldwell's decline from celebrity, finally giving this account the feel of a life observed with only intermittent intensity. For example, when discussing Caldwell's mid-1950s output--stories for ``mediocre (often X-rated) journals'' and a ``melodramatic, mildly pornographic'' novel whose sales were enhanced by its spicy cover--he concludes without a trace of irony that Caldwell was ``earning a living from his craft.'' Miller reveals, but never really explores, the complexities and inconsistencies of a man who wrote both first-rate fiction and disposable prose.

Pub Date: Jan. 17th, 1995
ISBN: 0-679-42931-X
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1994