Erskine Caldwell

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Erskine Caldwell
Erskine Caldwell photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1938
Born Erskine Preston Caldwell
December 17, 1903
Moreland, Georgia, U.S.
Died April 11, 1987(1987-04-11) (aged 83)
Paradise Valley, Arizona, U.S.
Occupation Novelist, short story writer
Notable works Tobacco Road
God's Little Acre

Erskine Preston Caldwell (December 17, 1903 – April 11, 1987) was an American author.[1][2] His writings about poverty, racism and social problems in his native South in novels such as Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre won him critical acclaim, but also made him controversial among Southerners of the time who felt he was deprecating the people of the region. Caldwell was a supporter of eugenics at a time it was gaining in popularity in the United States, and his novels can be read as promoting new legislation requiring involuntary sterilization.[3]

Early years[edit]

Caldwell was born on December 17, 1903, in the small community White Oak in Coweta County, Georgia. He was the only child of Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church minister Ira Sylvester Caldwell and his schoolteacher wife Caroline Preston (Bell) Caldwell. Rev. Caldwell's ministry necessitated moving the family throughout the South, including the states of Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina. When he was 15 Erskine's family settled in Wrens, Georgia.[4] His mother Carrie was from Virginia. Her ancestry included English nobility which held large land grants in eastern Virginia. Both her English ancestors and Scots-Irish ancestors fought in the American Revolution. Ira Caldwell's ancestors were Scots-Irish and had also been in the country since before the revolution and had fought in it.[5]

Caldwell attended but did not graduate from Erskine College, a Presbyterian affiliated school nearby in South Carolina. His political sympathies lay with the working classes and he used his experiences with farmers and common workers to write stories portraying their lives and struggles. Later in life he presented public seminars on the typical conditions of tenant-sharecroppers in the South.[4]

His first and second published works were The Bastard (1929) and Poor Fool (1930) but the works for which he is most famous are his novels Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933). Maxim Lieber was his literary agent during (parts of) the 1930s and 40s.

His first book was banned and copies were seized by authorities. With the publication of God's Little Acre, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice instigated legal action against him in New York. Caldwell was arrested when he attended a book-signing there but was exonerated in trial.[6]

Through the 1930s Caldwell and his first wife Helen managed a bookstore in Maine. Following their divorce Caldwell married photographer Margaret Bourke-White, collaborating with her on three photo-documentaries: You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), North of the Danube (1939), and Say, Is This The USA (1941) during their three years together from 1939 to 1942.

Disillusionment with the anti-revisionist socialist government had led him to compose an eleven-page short story, "Message for Genevieve," published in 1933. In this story, a woman journalist is executed by a firing squad after being tried in a secret court on charges of espionage. During World War II, Caldwell obtained papers from the USSR that allowed him to travel to Ukraine and work as a foreign correspondent documenting the war effort there.

Later years[edit]

After he returned from World War II, Caldwell took up residence in San Francisco. During the last twenty years of his life, his routine was to travel the world for six months of each year, taking with him notebooks in which to jot down his ideas. Many of these notebooks were not published, but can be examined in a museum dedicated to him in the town square of Moreland, Georgia, where the home in which he was born was relocated and dedicated to his memory.

Caldwell died from complications of emphysema and lung cancer on April 11, 1987, in Paradise Valley, Arizona. He is interred in Scenic Hills Memorial Park, Ashland, Oregon.[7] Though he never lived there, his stepson and fourth wife, Virginia Caldwell Hibbs, did, and wished him to be buried near his family.[8]


Caldwell wrote 25 novels, 150 short stories, twelve nonfiction collections, two autobiographies, and two books for young readers.[9] He also edited the influential American Folkways series, a 28-volume series of books about different regions of the United States.[10]

  • The Bastard (1929)
  • Poor Fool (1930)
  • "American Earth", short story (1931)
  • Tobacco Road (1932)
  • We Are the Living, collection of short stories (1933)
  • God's Little Acre (1933)
  • Tenant Farmers, essay (1935)
  • Some American People, essay (1935)
  • Journeyman (1935)
  • Kneel to the Rising Sun, short stories (1935)
  • The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (1936)
  • "Saturday Afternoon", short story (1936)
  • You Have Seen Their Faces (with Margaret Bourke-White, 1937)
  • "Southways", short story (1938)
  • North of the Danube (with Margaret Bourke-White, 1939)
  • Trouble in July (1940)
  • Say Is This the USA (with Margaret Bourke-White, 1941)
  • Moscow Under Fire, foreign correspondence (1942)
  • Russia at War, foreign correspondence (1942)
  • All-Out on the Road to Smolensk, foreign correspondence (1942)
  • All Night Long (1942) — subtitled A Novel of Guerrilla Warfare in Russia
  • Georgia Boy (1943)
  • Tragic Ground (1944)
  • A House in the Uplands (1946)
  • The Sure Hand of God (1947)
  • This Very Earth (1948)
  • Place Called Estherville (1949)
    1959 paperback of Place Called Estherville (1949)
  • A Swell Looking Girl
  • Episode in Palmetto (1950)
  • The Humorous Side of Erskine Caldwell, edited by Robert Cantwell (1951)
  • Call It Experience, autobiography (1951)
  • The Courting of Susie Brown, short stories (1952)
  • A Lamp for Nightfall (1952)
  • The Complete Stories of Erskine Caldwell (1953)
  • Love and Money (1954)
  • Gretta (1955)
  • Gulf Coast Stories, short stories (1956)
  • Certain Women, short stories (1957)
  • Claudelle Inglish (1958)
  • Molly Cottontail, children's book (1958)
  • When You Think of Me, short stories (1959)
  • Jenny by Nature (1961)
  • Men and Women, short stories (1961)
  • "Close to Home" (1962)
  • The Last Night of Summer (1963)
  • "All About America" (1964)
  • In Search of Bisco, travel writing (1965)
  • The Deer at Our House, children's book (1966)
  • Writing in America, essay (1967)
  • Miss Mama Aimee (1967)
  • "Summertime Island" (1968)
  • Deep South, travel writing (1968)
  • Annette (1973)
  • Afternoons in Mid America, essays (1976)
  • With All My Might, autobiography (1987)
  • Erskine Caldwell: Selected Letters, 1929–1955, edited by Robert L. McDonald (1999)


  1. ^ Obituary New York Times, 13 April 1987.
  2. ^ Obituary Variety 15 April 1987
  3. ^ Keely, Karen A. (April 2002). "Poverty, Sterilization, and Eugenics in Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road"". Journal of American Studies, Cambridge University Press 36 (1): pp. 23–42. doi:10.1017/S002187580200676X. 
  4. ^ a b "Erskine Caldwell". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 21, 2012. 
  5. ^ The People's Writer: Erskine Caldwell and the South By Wayne Mixon pages 5-6
  6. ^ "Sumner Defeated in Fight on a Book: Magistrate Greenspan Finds Novel by Erskine Caldwell Is Not Obscene". The New York Times. May 24, 1933. p. 19. ProQuest ID 100709788. 
  7. ^ "Scenic Hills Memorial Park". Find A Grave. Retrieved 2011-09-29. 
  8. ^ "Novelist Erskine Caldwell’s Ashes Rest in Ashland, Ore.". Jefferson Public Radio. Retrieved 2012-03-14. 
  9. ^ "Storyteller: A Life of Erskine Caldwell". Retrieved 2011-09-29. 
  10. ^ Firsts Magazine, v.8, n.5 (May, 1988).


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