Novel still notorious at home

Three things from Augusta are part of the national consciousness - the Masters Tournament, James Brown's legacy and Tobacco Road.


The city has long capitalized off the first, only recently embraced the second and has never quite come to grips with the third.

Seventy-five years ago today, Charles Scribner's Sons published Tobacco Road, written by former Augusta Chronicle sports stringer Erskine Caldwell, who grew up in Wrens.

It's now considered an American classic. The book is on Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, a list that Gone With The Wind didn't make.

Mr. Caldwell's books have sold 80 million copies and have been published in 43 languages. He was once considered for the Nobel Prize. William Faulker called him one of America's five greatest novelists, along with himself.

Since Mr. Caldwell's death in 1987, there has been a revival of interest in his "Southern gothic" books and stories, with the University of Georgia Press reissuing 11 of his works. Moreland, Ga., in Coweta County, moved the house where Mr. Caldwell was born to the town square and turned it into a museum, which is full of books and personal belongings including his last typewriter and his first wedding ring. In 2000, Mr. Caldwell was voted unanimously into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

But in Augusta, the setting of his most famous novel and the region that inspired his most significant works, there's nothing honoring or commemorating him - not a plaque, not a statue, not an exhibit in the Augusta Museum of History, not even a street named for Mr. Caldwell. The same goes for Jefferson County.

Southern portrayal

It has to do with what Tobacco Road is about, said Augusta State University history professor Wayne Mixon, the author of The People's Writer: Erskine Caldwell and the South. Chief protagonist Jeeter Lester is the patriarch of an ignorant, sexually depraved family whose extreme poverty has reduced them to near animals.

The book, published in 1932, sold just 500 copies in its first year but was hailed as a brilliant protest of the capitalistic and political systems in play during the Great Depression.

The book became a long-running stage play, and later a 1941 John Ford movie. In both, scenes were played for laughs. Tobacco Road became synonymous with rural squalor.

Novelist Lewis Nordan recalls hearing the words while growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s, according to an introduction he wrote for a 1995 reprinting of the book.

"When we spoke of the poorest, or the most hopeless, or even the morally reprehensible among us, we said, 'They might as well be living on Tobacco Road,'" Mr. Nordan said.

Augustans came to resent what they perceived as mocking caricatures of Southerners, and Mr. Caldwell was painted as a traitor. Augusta historian Ed Cashin recalls meeting Mr. Caldwell as a boy at Forrest Hills-Ricker Hotel, and being told later that the author was "a bad man."

"The general consensus around here was that he wrote dirty books," Dr. Cashin said.

Set in south Richmond County, the story covers seven days leading up to the deaths of Jeeter and his wife, Ada.

There is little plot or character development, just a series of disturbing episodes written in a southern literary style that mixes horror, comic exaggeration, violence and sexual perversion. The family is on the brink of starvation, so much so that when Jeeter steals a sack of turnips, he runs off into the woods to gobble them down alone.

Jeeter marries off his teenage children - one to a female preacher with no nose named Sister Bessie, who Jeeter secretly lusts after. His son Dude and Bessie think nothing of fatally running down a black man with their new Ford, being more concerned with the damage done to the car. Jeeter's harelipped daughter and son-in-law literally - to borrow from the Beatles - "do it in the road." Jeeter stands by with detachment as his mother, struck by the Ford later in the book, dies in the dirt.

Public outrage

The backlash against Tobacco Road started after Arkansas playwright Jack Kirkland adapted the book into a play in 1933, which with 3,182 performances in seven years set a record in its day as the longest-running Broadway play.

The play butchered the book, but nowhere near as badly as the movie, Dr. Mixon said.

In Augusta, city elders tried unsuccessfully to keep out both. Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge commended the mayor of Chicago when his city banned the play on obscenity grounds.

In 1957, when there was talk of filming a movie version of Mr. Caldwell's follow-up novel, God's Little Acre, in Augusta, City Councilman G. Pierce King told The Chronicle, "That man has done more to hurt this area and the South than any man alive. His writings have been a curse to Augusta."

In 1964, a British rock band called The Nashville Teens covered a John D. Loudermilk song, Tobacco Road, singing, "I was born in a trunk / Mama died and my daddy got drunk."

Five years later, the Augusta-Richmond County Planning Commission considered renaming Tobacco Road because of the stigma. The idea was shot down, with Commissioner J. Newton Thompson saying, "Next to the Augusta National, that's the best known thing in Augusta."

As late as the 1980s, Chronicle columnist Margaret Twiggs was lambasting Mr. Caldwell, saying his famous novel "was a slap in the face to Augusta."

In the mid-1990s, the mayor of Moreland, Ga., tried to shut down The Erskine Caldwell Birthplace and Museum, arguing in part that the author wasn't someone who should be honored. The effort failed.

"His relationship with the South was generally tense," museum Director Winston Skinner said. "He wrote about poor people. He wrote about people who were depraved. He wrote about people that maybe genteel Southerners didn't want to talk about."

Last month, when Dr. Mixon gave a talk at the Augusta Museum of History to mark the book's 75th anniversary, a 99-year-old woman who grew up off Tobacco Road spoke out about how much damage the book did to the area.

Speaking by telephone from Medford, Ore., Mr. Caldwell's widow, Virginia, said that even though her husband went on to live in Russia, up north, in Florida and finally out west, he always considered Georgia his home. He was a "phlegmatic" person, and didn't hold a grudge against the Augusta area, she said.

"I always compared Erskine to John Steinbeck, because in general, they were writing about the poor and the downtrodden, and writing at the same time," said Mrs. Caldwell, 87, the writer's fourth wife who was with him for 30 years. "I think California forgave John very quickly, but it was very hard for the South to forgive Erskine."

Real message lost

Those critical of Tobacco Road for its portrayal of poor whites missed the point, Dr. Mixon said. It was a cry for help for those languishing in the throes of the Depression. Mr. Caldwell had come in contact with such people through his father, Ira S. Caldwell, a socially minded Presbyterian minister.

Whereas the sharecropper family in Mr. Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath rose above their desperate environment, Mr. Caldwell's Lesters were crushed by it, Dr. Mixon said.

"Caldwell had an amazing gift - and I don't know if anyone can do it as well - of combining humor and horror," he told the museum audience. "The most important aspect of it is the setting, the overwhelming impact that environment can have on people."

A section of the book takes place in the city of Augusta, where Jeeter, Dude and Bessie go in an attempt to sell non-burning blackjack wood, then unwittingly spend a night in a brothel, where Bessie gets passed from bed to bed, her being too ignorant to realize what's going on.

There's also mention of Burke County, where Jeeter's eldest son is a successful cross-tie contractor but has written off his parents and refuses to send help.

Dr. Mixon isn't convinced that the primary setting took place along what Augustans know today as Tobacco Road. In the early 20th century, there were a number of dirt "tobacco roads" that farmers used to roll barrels of products to ships waiting on the Savannah River. He said he believes the location Mr. Caldwell probably had in mind was somewhere around the convergence of Richmond, Jefferson and Burke counties, on what is now part of Fort Gordon.

In modern times, Tobacco Road is a thoroughfare that runs from Augusta Regional Airport to the Army base, passing a polymers plant, fast-food restaurants and entrances to middle-class neighborhoods in the midst of a demographic race shift from white to black.

Dr. Cashin said in the 1980s, he hooked up with a crew of Japanese documentary filmmakers who talked to him about the book, then asked him to take them to the real Tobacco Road. He obliged them.

"They saw the Tobacco Road sign and the paved road, and they were very disappointed," Dr. Cashin said. "They just started talking in Japanese, then they just took a real close-up shot of the road."

A possible attraction

Capitalizing off Mr. Caldwell would be tricky, said Don Rhodes, a Chronicle music columnist who got to know Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell while working for The Augusta Herald in the 1970s. Mr. Rhodes' book Entertainment in Augusta and the CSRA has Mr. Caldwell on the cover with several women holding up a banner reading "Southern girls for Southern movies" - shot when God's Little Acre was almost filmed in Augusta.

Whereas Atlanta can embrace the Old South allure of Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler, Augusta would have a hard time marketing Jeeter Lester and Sister Bessie, Mr. Rhodes said.

Asked if there was anything in Augusta involving Tobacco Road that tourists could visit, Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau spokesperson Jennifer Bowen said no, but maybe the idea could be looked into.

Dr. Mixon said there needs to be a roadway named for Mr. Caldwell, and it should be a long one.

"Caldwell's intent was to expose wrong so it could be made right, but at the same time, he was a very gifted artist," he said. "It's something that Augusta should be proud of, instead of ashamed of."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or


Upon its release, The Augusta Chronicle predicted that Mr. Caldwell would become an outcast: "Mr. Caldwell illustrates his point with extreme cases, and no good citizen will admit anything worse than average," the newspaper said in a 1932 book review.

In 1973, Mr. Caldwell himself said of the characters in Tobacco Road, "Those people may no longer be existing due to economic and social changes since those days."

So is the book still relevant? Mr. Caldwell's widow, Virginia, thinks so. "I think it's important that people know that we did have these conditions, and we have dealt with them," Mrs. Caldwell said. "It's a part of our history."


Erskine Caldwell wrote 60 books, including 26 novels, 16 short story collections, five works of nonfiction, four text-picture books, two autobiographies and two children's books. Here are some works, still in print, for Caldwell beginners:

God's Little Acre (1933): The story centers around protagonist Ty Ty Walden - who neglects his farm to dig holes in search of his grandfather's gold - and his libidinous progeny. It takes place in South Carolina just across the Savannah River from Augusta. The book mentions Graniteville, Warrenville, Langley, Bath, Clearwater and "the dead city of Hamburg." The follow-up to Tobacco Road was so controversial Mr. Caldwell got arrested over it. The New York Society for the Prevention of Vice tried to ban the book and had its author arrested when he went to New York for a book signing, and he was tried for obscenity. Exonerated in a landmark First Amendment case, Mr. Caldwell later sued the society for false arrest and malicious prosecution.

You Have Seen Their Faces (1937): Something of an effort to corroborate his portrayal of poor, white Southerners, this work of nonfiction was a collaboration with photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who would become Mr. Caldwell's second of four wives. The two set about on a journey through the South from South Carolina to Arkansas, documenting the desperate conditions of farmers during the Great Depression. She took the pictures, he wrote the captions. "Snuff is an almighty help when your teeth ache," a woman from McDaniel, Ga., says in the book.

Georgia Boy (1943): Originally a cycle of short stories, as a whole Georgia Boy works as a Caldwell-style The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The narrator, young William Stroup, idolizes his father, Morris Stroup, who is every bit the lazy, selfish, lustful, sorry Southern male figure Mr. Caldwell had depicted in other works. Unlike Jeeter Lester, though, Morris Stroup doesn't have poverty as an excuse.

With All My Might: An Autobiography (1987): Writing autobiographies wasn't Mr. Caldwell's best talent, said Augusta State University history professor Wayne Mixon, but if you're looking to read his memoirs, this one is superior to Call It Experience: The Years of Learning How To Write (1951). Written shortly before his death, With All My Might covers most of his life while spending more ink on his literary career. Books about Mr. Caldwell, such as Dr. Mixon's The People's Writer, might be more enlightening.

The Stories of Erskine Caldwell (1996): (originally The Complete Stories of Erskine Caldwell, 1953): Deliverance author James Dickey called Crown-Fire one of the short stories in this collection, "the best story in the language." For an unsettling story set nearby, check out Savannah River Payday.

- Johnny Edwards, staff writer