IN SEARCH OF BISCO by Erskine Caldwell


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In that little classic, The Mind of the South, the late W.J. Cash described the underlying Southern misfortune as ""too great attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values."" Twenty five years later, the description still holds, though it's certainly expressively tame compared to the current stereophonic versions, everything from the jeremiads of Baldwin to jumbo confections like Hurry Sundown. Now Caldwell, who more than twenty five years past made his name with Tobacco Road et al., follows suit with a slow-winding, fault-finding journey through Lower Dixie (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana). It is the same stretch where he struck artistic (and financial) pay dirt, where he grew up, and which furnished material for a somewhat similar documentary, the quite forgotten share-cropper epic of the New Deal era, You Have Seen Their Faces. In this one, nostalgia is turned on its head via a well-worn gimmick: Caldwell in an actual (and also symbolic) search for a long lost childhood buddy, the Negro Bisco. He revisits sites and mores of the past, records the monologues of the whites and blacks he spoke with, sketches in some socio-economic backdrops, and lets the depressing picture speak for itself. The Negroes are largely noble and put-upon; the whites (storekeepers, poor buckra, and Citizens Council die-hards) are so bigoted, self-deceiving or paranoid that they come off as vaudeville turns. True, Caldwell meets more enlightened whites, but the overall impression is of cracker mania. It is all fairly sharply observed.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux