Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
Though Tobacco Road is on the Modern Library List of top 100 novels of all time, it was banned in the south for many years because of it’s offensive politically incorrect content. Therefore, be cautioned… digest this book at your own risk. Tobacco Road took me through a wide range of emotions, and none of them were positive; disgust, outrage, anger, sadness, disappointment, and fear. Is it really possible this book was based on a real American society? Exaggerated? Or not? Some reviews refer to the book as a farce, a comedy, and a satire. I guess it makes the story and characters more palatable, if you don’t take it seriously. But Erskine Caldwell spent his youth traveling around the Southern countryside with his father who was a minister. Erskine had a first-hand view of the destitute sharecroppers, and the Introduction he wrote for the 1940 Edition is grave and somber.
Tobacco Road takes place in the late 1930s in the rural countryside of Georgia. At one time tobacco grew on this land, and later cotton, but due to ignorance, and neglect the earth had been raped and abused. For the past ten years, not much of anything grows. Many of the farmers gave up their forefather’s occupation of farming and went to town to work in the cotton mills. But not Jeeter Rice. Jeeter and Ada live in a run down three room shack where they raised a total of 12 children. As the story begins, two of the offspring are still living at home, harelipped Ellie May and dim-witted Dude, along with the ancient grandmother. No car, no tractor, no horse, one set of clothing each, and little communication with the outside world. If he only had some cotton seed and fertilizer Jeeter could plant a crop, but he has no money and terrible credit. His family is starving, yet they don’t really struggle to put food on the table. Old Jeeter figures if God wants them to eat, he will provide some food.
Right about now, you are probably feeling sorry for the Rice’s. Don’t waste too much sympathy on them. According to Erskine Caldwell, they aren’t worthy. Old Jeeter isn’t much smarter than a dog, an untrained dog at that; dirty, lazy, selfish, and ignorant. A disgrace to humanity. I previously stated in my review of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, that Anse Bundren was the most selfish, ignorant, lazy character in American fiction. But Jeeter Rice is more than qualified to deserve that prize. One of the first scenes in the book is 18-year-old Ellie May copulating in the dirt road, with her brother-in-law Lov (who’s married to Ellie May’s 12-year-old sister), while her father boasts about fathering some of the neighbor’s kids, and then sneaks off with Lov’s treasured sack of turnips, and the rest of the family watches – entertained by the sex scene and hoping to get a turnip because none of them have eaten for several days.
As the plot unfolds you witness the Rice family indulge in satisfying their most primal instincts, and just as you have come to the conclusion that nothing more could possible shock you, you are confronted with one shocking, nauseating, vulgar scene after another; murder, rape, infidelity, theft, starvation, stupidity, ignorance, and sloth. I initially thought Caldwell was making fun of the handicapped, the illiterate, and those in poverty. But I have come to the conclusion that he was simply revealing a very realistic dark side of human nature. It is much easier to put blind faith in the Lord than to take rational action, and it is more convenient to blame ones misfortunes on others than to remedy the situation by doing something productive. Ignorance and poverty often perpetuate ignorance and poverty unless one is eventually going to take the responsibility to break the cycle of primitive existence and better their lives. Jeeter Rice chose to wallow in his white trash existence, and drag his family down with him.
Rated 4 Stars, March 2012
All contents © 2012 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved