ERSKINE CALDWELL by Harvey L. Klevar


A Biography
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 Klevar (Anthropology/Luther College) was following a childhood fascination with Tobacco Road when he met the aging, laconic, and secretive Caldwell (1903-87) and gained permission to write his authorized biography--a task he fulfills here with tact, dignity, sympathy, and in a self-effacing style that Caldwell would have liked. Klevar poses two questions: Why the falling-off after the brilliant seven years in the 30's that produced God's Little Acre and Tobacco Road? And what made these tales of poverty and deprivation, of grotesque characters and hopeless lives--the ``strange flowers of humanity,'' as Joseph Warren Beach called them--so appealing, selling millions of copies in cheap reprints? A strange flower himself, Caldwell was educated mostly at home by his protective mother and rigid father, a Presbyterian minister. He grew up a brooding, repressed man, dependent on women, failing at several jobs and schools before finding his calling as a writer. It was with the first of his four wives, Helen, that he did his best work and endured the most poverty. The falling-off began with his mercurial second wife, photographer Margaret Bourke-White; continued with his demanding third, June, whose negotiations made the divorce last longer than the marriage; and settled into a kind of plateau of fame with his fourth and ``perfect'' wife, the devoted and adoring Virginia. A self-styled ``outcast among literary guys,'' Caldwell made a fortune writing screenplays, and he traveled the world promoting the cheap reprints of his work. His stormy business arrangements with publishers, agents, and lawyers reveal the challenges of the marketplace to a thoughtful writer coming of age in the world of modern publishing (a writer, ironically, whose affluence came from writing about poverty). While Klevar suggests that Helen and poverty lay behind the creative period of the 30's--that in capturing the popular voice, Caldwell alienated the critics--his respect for the mystery of Caldwell exceeds the temptation of such easy answers. (Twenty-nine illustrations)

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-87049-774-X
Page count: 516pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1993