Erskine Caldwell's greasy hairball of a novel.

Literature that thrills.
May 24 2006 11:50 AM

Pulp Valentine

Erskine Caldwell's lurid vision of the American South.

Click here to read more from Slate's "Pulp Fiction" week.

'Tobacco Road' by Erskine Caldwell

Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, published in 1932, is a greasy hairball of a novel—one of the sickest and most lurid books to have emerged from the literature of the American South. It's about as nutritious as a plate of pork cracklings. You're going to feel a little ill when you get up from this table. And I mean all of this, I think, in a good way.

It's cheating, really, to call Tobacco Road a pulp novel. The book—Caldwell's third—was first issued between hard covers by a respectable publisher, Scribner's, and was edited by the more-than-respectable Maxwell Perkins. Its early admirers included Faulkner and Malcolm Cowley. Saul Bellow thought Caldwell should have won the Nobel Prize. But within a decade or two, as Caldwell's books got crummier and crummier (take a look at Episode in Palmetto), he morphed into this country's best-selling dime-store novelist. By the 1940S and '50s, when most readers encountered Tobacco Road, the novel existed mostly in cheap mass-market editions with increasingly eye-popping covers. Out came the heaving cleavage and the intimations of hillbilly degeneracy. Gone were the respectable plaudits. Erskine Caldwell had been, largely of his own volition, Pulp'd.


Yet Tobacco Road's cultural reach—thanks in part to a folksy Broadway version of the novel—is long and complicated. You can trace the intensity of Caldwell's vision in Tobacco Road right up through the undervalued and largely out-of-print novels of Harry Crews, and even through those of—though it is mildly heretical to say this— Cormac McCarthy. Without Tobacco Road, it's almost impossible to imagine the arrival of Hee-Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies, not to mention Deliverance.

Tobacco Road, set in a fictionalized version of Caldwell's home town, lays bare the story of the Lesters, the poorest, whitest, trashiest, horniest family in rural Georgia. Jeeter, the Lester family patriarch in Tobacco Road, is a beaten-down sharecropper who can no longer get credit to buy the supplies he needs to farm. His family survives, in their crumbling shack, on fat-back rinds and corn meal. Ada, his wife, is wasting away from pellagra; Dude, their 16-year-old son, is a half-wit; Ellie May, their voluptuous 18-year-old daughter, has a gruesome hairlip that makes her "look as if her mouth were bleeding profusely." Jeeter and Ada's other surviving children got out as quickly as they could.

Base instincts are the only kind the Lesters seem to have. The book opens with a visit from Lov, Jeeter's son-in-law, who's distraught that his 13-year-old wife, Pearl (Jeeter's daughter), won't sleep with him. (Jeeter had sold the girl to him for $7, some cylinder oil, and a few quilts.) He wants help tying Pearl to the bed. The starving Lesters, though, are more interested in getting their hands on the sack of turnips Lov is carrying, and ultimately they do—but not until Ellie May has distracted Lov by sliding her naked bottom toward him across the dirt yard in what will become one of the most tragicomically nasty rape-seduction scenes ever put to paper.

"Ellie May's acting like your old hound used to do when he got the itch," Dude says to Lester. "Look at her scrape her bottom on the sand. That old hound used to make the same kind of sound Ellie May's making, too. It sounds just like a little pig squealing, don't it?"

From here, the grotesqueries pile up and up. Dude marries a widowed, lecherous, and much older female preacher—her nose is deformed and looking into her nostrils is like "looking down the end of a double-barrel shotgun"—only because he wants to honk the horn on her new car. There are scenes involving rats and corpses; elsewhere, the female preacher is passed around like a sex doll among the men at a fleabag hotel, while Dude and Jeeter sleep in a nearby room; finally, Jeeter, in a futile attempt to clear his land for farming, accidentally kills himself and his wife when a fire he's set burns down their shack.

Clearly, there's a muchness here, a flood of overwrought melodrama that we associate more with pulp fiction than with literary endeavor. Caldwell thought he was merely writing no-holds-barred realism. He wanted the novel to be, as Dan B. Miller notes in his gripping 1995 biography, Erskine Caldwell: The Journey From Tobacco Road, a rebuke to the perfumed "moonlight and magnolias" literature of the south. Yet it's almost impossible to not to read the most ludicrously grim passages of Tobacco Road as very black humor. It can be hard to keep a straight face when encountering bits of dialogue like this:

"Look at them two big holes running down into her face—how does she keep it from raining down in there, you reckon?"

"I'll be damned if I know. Maybe she puts cork stoppers in them to keep the water out."

Caldwell didn't see himself as a comic writer, though. According to Miller, if anyone suggested that his novel made them laugh, Caldwell stalked out of the room.


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
Dear Prudence
Sept. 16 2014 6:00 AM Can of Worms Prudie offers advice to a letter writer who wants to blackmail a famous ex with tapes of his fetish.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
Brow Beat
Sept. 15 2014 8:58 PM Lorde Does an Excellent Cover of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”
Future Tense
Sept. 15 2014 4:49 PM Cheetah Robot Is Now Wireless and Gallivanting on MIT’s Campus
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.