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Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987)

Erskine Caldwell

Erskine Caldwell is a progressive American author, script-writer, journalist, political activist and pacifist of the twentieth century. He wrote twenty five novels, 150 short stories, twelve books of nonfiction and many articles and documentary reports from around the world. His works are translated in more than fifty languages and are printed again and again especially in inexpensive paperback editions. His novels have been made into three movies and a stage adaptation of his famous novel, Tobacco Road, ran for seven-and-a-half years and set Broadway records.

Erskine was born on December 17th, in White Oak, Georgia. His father Ira Sylvester was a socially conscious protestant minister who moved from church to church all over the American South to convey his humanitarian massage. As a result, the family rarely lived for more than six months in the same place. Helping his father to provide assistance to deprived people in the South, and witnessing the miserable lives of sharecroppers and rural families had great impact on Erskine and shaped much of his long life writings. He was the only child of the family and mainly was taught by his educated mother Caroline Bell. But as a youngster his real teacher was the strange life in the wild field of American capitalism. In 1921, at the age of eighteen he took a job and went on a gun-running boat to colonized Latin America. He played professional football and worked as a cotton picker and mill-hand.

Caldwell attended Erskine College, Due West, South Carolina, universities of Virginia and Pennsylvania for brief periods.

His first novel, The Bastard (1929), is the story of a man whose unfortunate childhood shapes his later criminality.

It was in Maine where he wrote his famous works, Tobacco Road (1932), and God’s Little Acre (1933), six million copies of the latter was sold in five years. When Caldwell went to New York for the presentation of God’s Little Acre, he was arrested and copies were seized at the instigation of the New York Literary Society. A full trial exonerated him completely. In 1932, prior to this event, Caldwell along with fifty-two other intellectuals had officially supported presidential candidacy of Communist Party nominee William Foster.

In 1936, Erskine met Margaret Bourke-White, a progressive attractive photographer who became his second wife (of four). Together they wrote three books about impoverished rural families of the American South and one book about life in Czechoslovakia just before the outbreak of WWII.

During WWII Caldwell was correspondent of radios and journals in Europe. In 1941, he was invited to the Soviet Union and documented the Nazi invasion of that country. In 1942, he wrote “All Out on the Road to Smolensk, and praised Soviet people’s struggle against fascism and for building socialism. He also criticized the lack of democracy under Stalin’s rule in his four page story “Massage for Genevieve” which was published in the U.S. in 1944.

During his lifetime, Caldwell contributed to many journals and magazines, including The Masses. From 1942-55, he was editor of American Folksways, a series of regional books. He was an ardent advocate of racial equality and civil rights. In the “kneel to the Rising Sun” (1933), he writes about lynching, in the “search of Bisco” (1965), he pens about race and White-South opposition to integration, and in the “Deep South” (1968), he inscribes concerning religion, and shows how white Christians use their faith to oppose social reform; whether they are holy-rollers in the country or corporate executives in the city. Caldwell was honored by the Soviet Union, France, and Bulgaria as a great writer. In 1972, he was a jury member of Cannes Festival. In 1981, he received Cultural Award from Poland. In 1984, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Caldwell continued his writings into the 1970s, and gave seminars on low income tenant-sharecroppers in the American South.

Erskine Caldwell died from lung cancer in Paradise Valley, Arizona on April 11, 1987. His birth place in Moreland, Georgia turned into a museum which many of his unpublished works are also kept in display there.

Other famous works are:

  • Poor Fool (1930)

  • We Are the Living (1933)

  • Journeyman (1935)

  • Tenant Farmers (1935)

  • Some American People (1935)

  • The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (1936)

  • You Have Seen Their Faces (1937)

  • South ways (1938)

  • Trouble in July (1940)

  • Moscow Under Fire (1942)

  • 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)

  • Episode in Palmetto (1950)

  • Call it Experience (1951)

  • A Lamp for Nightfall (1952)

  • Love and Money (1954)

  • Gretta (1955)

  • Claudelle Inglish (1958)

  • Jenny by Nature (1961)

  • Close to Home (1962)

  • The Last Night of Summer (1963)

  • Miss Mamma Aimee (1967)

  • Writing in America (1967)

  • Summertime Island (1968)

  • The Weather Shelter (1969)

  • The Earnshaw Neighborhood (1971)

  • Annette (1973)

  • With All My Might:  An Autobiography (1987)

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