‘Tobacco Road’ Author Dies At 83
PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. (AP) _ Erskine Caldwell, a storyteller who said he liked to ″hammer, hammer and make all the noise I can,″ and whose depictions of rural poverty in ″Tobacco Road″ and ″God’s Little Acre″ outraged fellow Southerners, has died at the age of 83.
The author’s widow, Virginia Caldwell, said he died Saturday night at home in this affluent suburb of Phoenix, said Paul Messenger of Messenger Mortuary.
A heavy smoker from 1918 to 1972, Caldwell suffered three times from lung cancer and twice underwent surgery for removal of portions of his lungs. The third case, diagnosed last year, was inoperable and was treated with chemotherapy.
″I’m very willing to be cited as an example of what happens to cigarette smokers, because in my case, I’m working on my third cancer,″ he said in a November 1986 interview with The Scottsdale Progress.
A private memorial service was scheduled Sunday, with cremation on Monday, Messenger said.
″I don’t care anything about fame or recognition,″ Caldwell once insisted. ″If one of my short stories opened someone’s eyes, then I have been successful. But I don’t need a monument of any kind.″
Caldwell was a minister’s son who worked as a seaman, cotton-picker, professional football player, bodyguard and real estate salesman before settling down to write. He became a prolific author, producing some 50 books and 150 short stories.
But he was best known for ″Tobacco Road,″ published in 1932, and ″God’s Little Acre,″ published the following year.
Both portrayed impoverished, cruel, ignorant sharecropper families struggling to survive in the Augusta, Ga., area. The characters were amoral; the language was coarse and blasphemous.
″In those days hunger, disease and lack of education were central factors of life in rural Georgia,″ Caldwell said in a 1985 interview in Atlanta.
″I got a good look at these conditions, first hand, after I took a job as a driver for a country doctor who made visits out in the countryside. 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,″ he said.
Southerners were shocked and infuriated at being lumped together in the eyes of the world with such characters as Jeeter Lester, Ty Ty Williams and Darling Jill.
″For a while, my mother used to beg me not to come home because she feared for my life,″ Caldwell said, and he said some coolness remained a half- century later.
″I thought I had depicted life as I had seen it, observed and felt it. I finally decided I was being taken to task for something some people simply didn’t want to know about,″ he said.
″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 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.″ He completed his second autobiography, ″With All My Might,″ in 1986.
But his later works drew less attention, and some critics called him a literary curiosity, a ″flash in the pan.″
Caldwell called critics ″the eunuchs or the procurers of the business of literature.″
He also refused to put himself into any category of writers.
″In fact, I behave like a heavy-handed boilermaker in the literary field. I like to hammer, hammer, hammer and make all the noise I can,″ he told an Atlanta audience in 1985.
He hoped to be remembered as a story teller. ″And, if there is such a thing as the art of story telling, I must admit a devotion to it.″
Erskine Preston Caldwell was born Dec. 17, 1903 in White Oak, Ga.
His 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, Jay Erskine.
He married Virginia Moffett Fletcher in 1957, and in the late 1970s, after years in San Francisco, they moved to Paradise Valley.