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Erskine Caldwell Dead at 83

April 12, 1987

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. (AP) _ Erskine Caldwell, whose earthy depictions of the rural poor in ″Tobacco Road″ and ″God’s Little Acre″ outraged fellow Southerners but placed him in the pantheon of the region’s leading writers, died Saturday. He was 83.

The author’s widow, Virginia Caldwell, said he died at home shortly before 8 p.m., said Paul Messenger of Messenger Mortuary. ......................BULLETIN.............................................

Erskine Caldwell, whose earthy depictions of the rural poor in ″Tobacco Road″ and ″God’s Little Acre″ outraged fellow Southerners but placed him in the pantheon of the region’s leading writers, died Saturday. He was 83. (0156EDT) ............................................................................

A heavy smoker since 1918, Caldwell had suffered three times from lung cancer, and had twice undergone operations for removal of portions of his lungs. The last case proved inoperable.

Caldwell, a minister’s son who worked as a seaman, cotton-picker and professional football player before settling down to write, was a prolific author, producing some 50 books and 150 short stories.

But he was best known for his novel ″Tobacco Road,″ published in 1932, and ″God’s Little Acre,″ published the following year.

Both portrayed impovished, cruel, ignorant sharecropper families struggling to survive in the Augusta, Ga., area. The characters were amoral and highly sexed, and the language was considered by many to be profane and blasphemous.

Southerners were shocked and infuriated at being lumped in the eyes of the world with such characters as Jeeter Lester, Ty Ty Williams and Darling Jill.

One Georgia congressman, calling the play based on ″Tobacco Road″ an ″infamous, wicked and untruthful″ portrayal of his district, tried unsuccessfully to have the House halt a production at the National Theater. The books were barred from some library shelves, and the play banned in Detroit and Chicago.

But Caldwell’s work proved highly popular in other quarters.

″Tobacco Road″ sold more than 3.5 million copies. The stage adaptation, which emphasized the comedy in the story, ran for 7 1/2 years on Broadway, a record for a drama bested only by ″Life With Father.″

More than 8 million copies of ″God’s Little Acre,″ found their way into homes. Together, the works were translated into 40 languages, and Caldwell was popular in the Soviet Union.

His later works drew far less public attention, and while some critics listed him with William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor among the top Southern writers, others called him a literary curiosity, a ″flash in the pan.″

For his part, Caldwell called critics ″the eunuchs or the procurers of the business of literature.″

Erskine Preston Caldwell was born Dec. 17, 1903 in White Oak, Ga., son of a Presbyterian minister who traveled throughout the region.

″In those days, hunger, disease and lack of education were central factors of life in rural Georgia,″ Caldwell recalled later. ″I got a good look at these conditions, first hand. ... I saw people eating clay to fill their stomachs, and I entered tiny shacks with dirt floors that had as many as 15 people living inside.″

Caldwell mother, a former teacher, preferred to tutor her son at home, so he was 14 before he attended school. The family was then in Wrens, Ga., believed to have inspired ″Tobacco Road.″

His first stint in college, at Erskine College in South Carolina, was interrupted when he signed aboard a boat supplying guns to Central America. He entered the University of Virginia on a scholarship from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, but remained just a year before he turned to playing football, being a bodyguard and selling bad real estate.

After another two tries at college, the tall redhead went to work for the Atlanta Journal, but left that in 1925, after a year, and moved to Maine. He stayed there for five years, producing a story that won a Yale Review award for fiction, and his two novels of the Georgia poor.

His other major works include ″The Bastard,″ ″Poor Fool,″ ″Georgia Boy,″ ″All Night Long,″ ″A Lamp for Nightfall,″ ″Some American People″ and the autobiography ″Call It Experience.″

Caldwell’s first marriage, to Helen Lannigan in 1925, ended in divorce after they had three children. In 1939, he married famed photographer Margaret Bourke-White, with whom he collaborated on ″Have You Seen Their Faces,″ a text-and-picture book on the sharecroppers’ plight.

Caldwell and Bourke-White divorced in 1942, and he married June Johnson, with whom he had a son.

He married Virginia Moffett Fletcher in 1957, and in the late 1970s, after years in San Francisco, they moved to Paradise Valley, an affluent community between Phoenix and Scottsdale. Cancer was first detected in his lungs in 1974, and he also suffered from emphysema.

He completed work on his second autobiography, ″With All My Might,″ in 1986.

A private memorial service was scheduled for Sunday, with cremation on Monday, Messenger said.

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