Erskine Caldwell

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Erskine Caldwell photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1938

Erskine Preston Caldwell (December 17, 1903 – April 11, 1987) was an American author.[1][2] His writings about poverty, racism and social problems in his native South in novels such as Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre won him critical acclaim, but also made him controversial among fellow Southerners of the time who felt he was deprecating the people of the region.

Early years[edit]

Caldwell was born on December 17, 1903, in a house in a wooded area outside Moreland, Georgia. He was the only child of Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church minister Ira Sylvester Caldwell and his schoolteacher wife Caroline Bell Caldwell. Rev. Caldwell's ministry necessitated moving the family throughout the South, including the states of Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina. When he was 15 Erskine's family settled in Wrens, Georgia.[3]

Caldwell attended but did not graduate from Erskine College, a Presbyterian affiliated school nearby in South Carolina. His political sympathies lay with the working classes and he used his experiences with farmers and common workers to write stories portraying their lives and struggles. Later in life he presented public seminars on the typical conditions of tenant-sharecroppers in the South.[3]

His first and second published works were The Bastard (1929) and Poor Fool (1930) but the works for which he is most famous are his novels Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933). Maxim Lieber was his literary agent during (parts of) the 1930s and 40s.

His first book was banned and copies were seized by authorities. With the publication of God's Little Acre, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice instigated legal action against him in New York. Caldwell was arrested when he attended a book-signing there but was exonerated in trial.[4]

Through the 1930s Caldwell and his first wife Helen managed a bookstore in Maine. Following their divorce Caldwell married photographer Margaret Bourke-White, collaborating with her on three photo-documentaries: You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), North of the Danube (1939), and Say, Is This The USA (1941) during their three years together from 1939 to 1942.

Disillusionment with the anti-revisionist socialist government had led him to compose an eleven-page short story, "Message for Genevieve," published in 1933. In this story, a woman journalist is executed by a firing squad after being tried in a secret court on charges of espionage. During World War II, Caldwell obtained papers from the USSR that allowed him to travel to Ukraine and work as a foreign correspondent documenting the war effort there.

Later years[edit]

After he returned from World War II, Caldwell took up residence in San Francisco. During the last twenty years of his life, his routine was to travel the world for six months of each year, taking with him notebooks in which to jot down his ideas. Many of these notebooks were not published, but can be examined in a museum dedicated to him in the town square of Moreland, Georgia, where the home in which he was born was relocated and dedicated to his memory.

Caldwell died from complications of emphysema and lung cancer on April 11, 1987, in Paradise Valley, Arizona. He is interred in Scenic Hills Memorial Park, Ashland, Oregon.[5] Though he never lived there, his stepson and fourth wife did, and wished him to be buried near his family.[6]


Caldwell wrote 25 novels, 150 short stories, twelve nonfiction collections, two autobiographies, and two books for young readers.[7] He also edited the influential American Folkways series, a 28-volume series of books about different regions of the United States.[8]


  1. ^ Obituary New York Times, 13 April 1987.
  2. ^ Obituary Variety 15 April 1987
  3. ^ a b "Erskine Caldwell". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 21, 2012. 
  4. ^ "SUMNER DEFEATED IN FIGHT ON A BOOK: Magistrate Greenspan Finds Novel by Erskine Caldwell Is Not Obscene". The New York Times (in ProQuest ID 100709788). May 24, 1933. p. 19. 
  5. ^ "Scenic Hills Memorial Park". Find A Grave. Retrieved 2011-09-29. 
  6. ^ "Novelist Erskine Caldwell’s Ashes Rest in Ashland, Ore.". Jefferson Public Radio. Retrieved 2012-03-14. 
  7. ^ "Storyteller: A Life of Erskine Caldwell". Retrieved 2011-09-29. 
  8. ^ Firsts Magazine, v.8, n.5 (May, 1988).


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