God's Little Acre
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3505.A322 G6 1995|
God's Little Acre is a 1933 novel by Erskine Caldwell about a dysfunctional farming family in Georgia obsessed with sex and wealth. The novel's sexual themes were so controversial that the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice asked a New York state court to censor it. The novel was made into a film of the same name in 1958.
Ty Ty Walden is a widower who owns a small farm in Georgia, just across the border from South Carolina. His daughter, Rosamund, is married to Will Thompson, a worker in a cotton textile mill. Another daughter, whom everyone in the novel refers to as Darling Jill, is unmarried. His son, Buck Walden, is married to the beautiful Griselda. Buck and Griselda live on the farm with Ty Ty, and along with Ty Ty's other (unmarried) son, Shaw.
Ty Ty is obsessed with finding gold on his land. Ty Ty, Buck, and Shaw spend their entire time digging holes on the farm. Ty Ty has promised to donate any profits generated by a 1-acre (4,000 m2) parcel of the farm to the church, but is terrified that gold will be found on "God's acre". So he keeps moving the acre around. Only two African American hired hands, Uncle Felix and Black Sam, do any farming on the property, and the Waldens largely live off loans and what little income Felix and Sam generate.
Roughly half the novel is told from the point of view of Pluto Swint, an obese and lazy farmer seeking election as county sheriff. Pluto sexually desires and wants to marry Darling Jill, who constantly humiliates him. At other points, the novel is told from a third-person perspective.
The novel is set in the early 1930s. The local union of mill workers was locked out by management 18 months ago after they protested against a wage cut. Extensive poverty now afflicts the towns of Scottsville and Clark's Mill and the Horse Creek Valley (where the Waldens live). Will fantasizes about entering the mill and turning on the power again to bring employment back to the townspeople.
The novel opens with Pluto Swint arriving at the Walden farm to announce that he is running for sheriff. Pluto mentions that an albino will be able to dowse for gold, and tells Ty Ty that an albino was spotted in the southern part of the county. Ty Ty, Buck, and Shaw drive off to kidnap the albino. Pluto and Darling Jill drive to the Thompson house in Scottsville, and spend the night there. The next morning, Will makes love to Darling Jill while Rosamund sleeps in the same bed next to them. Rosamund wakes, beats Darling Jill with a hair brush, and attempts to shoot Will. Will flees the house. Rosamund and Darling Jill reconcile; they both realize that Will (who is sexually promiscuous) will never love either of them, yet they cannot stop loving him.
That night, Pluto drives Rosamund and Darling Jill to Ty Ty's house near Augusta. On the way, they talk about Jim Leslie, another son of Ty Ty's, who started as a mill worker and married a rich man's daughter. Jim has become a wealthy cotton broker who now snubs mill workers as "lint-heads". Ty Ty, Buck, and Shaw return with the albino, a boy in his late teens named Dave Dawson. Ty Ty speaks at length about Darling Jill's beauty. After supper, Dave takes Darling Jill into the woods and has intercourse with her. Ty Ty and Buck search for them, and then watch them make love.
The second day, Will arrives at the Walden farm. Buck and Shaw (who suspect that Will is seducing Griselda) engage in a fist-fight with him, but Ty Ty breaks it up. Will talks to Dave, who says he does not want to return to his poverty-stricken home in the southern swamps. That night, the family drives into town so Ty Ty can ask his estranged son Jim Leslie for a loan. Ty Ty, Darling Jill, and Griselda meet with Jim, who gives Ty Ty $300. Jim tells Griselda that he sexually desires her and she must sleep with him as payment for the loan. She refuses. Jim attempts to sexually assault her, but fails. Later that night at the Walden farm, Ty Ty and Buck discover Dave and Uncle Felix asleep together in the barn. (The text is unclear, but it is implied they have had sexual intercourse.) A short time later, Ty Ty watches Darling Jill undress. There are undercurrents of incest throughout the novel.
The morning of the third day, Pluto drives Will, Rosamund, Darling Jill, and Griselda back to the Thompson house in South Carolina. Will goes out drinking. When he returns that afternoon drunk, he forces Griselda to strip naked in front of the others. He chases Griselda into another room of the house, and they have sexual intercourse all night long. (The text is not explicit, and it is possible that Will rapes her.) Rosamund, Darling Jill, and Pluto watch and listen through the open door. Darling Jill becomes sexually aroused by Will's behavior. Rosamund, Darling Jill, Pluto, and Griselda talk the next morning, but do not discuss what happened.
During the fourth day, Will learns that the mill owners have brought in out-of-state security guards to keep the plant closed. He and some other men break into the plant and turn the machinery on. The guards kill Will. That night, Darling Jill has intercourse with Pluto.
Will is buried on the morning of the fifth day. That afternoon, Pluto drives Darling Jill, Rosamund, and Griselda to the Walden farm. Ty Ty, Buck, and Shaw learn of Will's death. Buck suspects that Griselda has been unfaithful with Will. The family argues ferociously during dinner, and Buck runs out of the house and does not return. Pluto also leaves that night.
On the morning of the sixth day, Jim Leslie arrives at the farm. The text implies that he is demanding sex with Griselda. At that moment, Buck returns. Seeing what are Leslie's intentions, he shoots and kills Jim – his own brother. Ty Ty begins obsessively digging. In the final paragraphs, it is implied that Buck commits suicide with a shotgun.
God's Little Acre was published by Viking Press in 1933. Author Erskine Caldwell was influenced in part by textile mill strikes in Gastonia, North Carolina, and he considered this work to be a "proletarian" novel dealing with the plight of workers deprived of union protection. Will Thompson represents both the power of the working class and how it is frustrated by the law. When Thompson is killed by guards as he attempts to reopen the mill, his death becomes a rallying cry. But the workers remain disempowered, as the mills remain closed.
The book also examines the misuse of the land and other natural resources. Ty Ty Walden spends his time digging for gold instead of farming the rich soil. He suffers from a severe case of gold fever. "If you had the fever," he tells Pluto Swint, "you wouldn't have time for nothing else.... It gets a man just like liquor does or chasing women...." His delusion illustrates what Caldwell saw as wasteful southern attitudes toward the land.
The title of the book refers to the acre of land Ty Ty sets aside "for God". But Ty Ty's promise is only a formal one, never honored in spirit. He constantly "moves" the acre around to make sure that he never digs on it; he doesn't want his gold going to the church.
Caldwell changes the tone of the book from "farce" in the beginning to "tragedy" at the end.
Since God's Little Acre contained scenes of (what was then) explicit sexuality, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice took Caldwell and Viking Press to court for disseminating pornography. More than 60 authors, editors, and literary critics rallied in support of the book, and Judge Benjamin Greenspan of the New York Magistrates' Court ruled in its favor. The court case is still considered a major decision in the establishment of artists' First Amendment rights in freedom of expression. Caldwell counter-sued the literary society for false arrest and malicious prosecution.
In 1947, the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota, also banned the novel for being pornographic.
Having sold more than 10 million copies, the book remains one of the most popular novels ever published.
- "Sumner Defeated in Fight on a Book," New York Times, May 24, 1933.