on July 2, 2002
Erskine Caldwell's folk carnival 'Tobacco Road' (1932) documents the last days in the lives of Jeeter and Ada Lester, poverty-stricken and permanently befuddled sharecroppers living in rural Georgia during the Great Depression.
The tragic elements, initially almost undiscernable, strike sharply and rapidly in quick lunges before vanishing again beneath the book's brilliant comic surface.
The novel has an archetypal framework: Patriarch Jeeter, dispossessed of his ancestral land, upon which nothing will now grow but "broom sedge and scrub oak," perpetually dreams of bringing his dead and depleted soil to life.
While musing on his farm's infertility, and when not lusting after the women around him, Jeeter, a father of twelve, is preoccupied with ending his own ability to reproduce via self-castration. Like the Hanged Man of the Tarot, habitually procrastinating Jeeter is continually hamstrung and locked in the stupefying eternal moment.
Caldwell is particularly cruel in drawing his female characters: simple-minded and otherwise beautiful daughter Ellie May has a disfiguring harelip; man-crazy, self-appointed preacher Bessie has a good figure and a set of nostrils but no nose, the unnamed, unspeaking grandmother is starved by the other family members, who will no longer acknowledge her; struggling wife Ada, who has not always been faithful, dreams only of having a dress of correct length and current style to be buried in; and twelve year-old child bride Pearl has lost the will to speak and sleeps on the floor to avoid her adult husband's sexual advances.
In contrast, Jeeter and handsome teenage son Dude are merely imbecilic, gullible, and grossly self-serving.
All of the characters are God-fearing and largely well-intentioned towards one another, though uneducated and of extremely limited consciousness: they are guiltless of malice, if not of responsibility.
In a scene intended to shock, newlyweds Dude and Bessie accidentally kill a Black man, but think nothing of it.
But this blank, spontaneous indifference to reality and the reality of other people is what makes the 'Tobacco Road' hilariously funny.
The ancient grandmother meets a painful and grueling death through another careless accident with the car; Jeeter discusses Ellie May's disfigurement in front of her without the slightest regard for her feelings; Bessie, perpetually in heat, nearly rapes unwilling, unresponsive, 16 year-old Dude; car salesmen gather to enthusiastically stare down Bessie's nostril holes and insult her; Jeeter attacks his son-in-law and steals the bag of turnips he walked has seven miles to obtain; Ellie May casually masturbates in the front yard; the whole family gathers, tribe-like, to watch Dude and Bessie make awkward love on their wedding night; the Lesters destroy a new automobile (a symbol of the modern, productive, urbanized world they will never be a part of) within a few days due to recklessness and the family tradition of being unable to respect and maintain any material possession.
Like many of the characters in Muriel Spark's novels, the cast of 'Tobacco Road' are only vaguely aware, if aware at all, of themselves as moral, spiritual, or ethical beings, despite the occasional religious trappings around them.
This lack of moral awareness, "and the comedy that arises from it" is what fuels 'Tobacco Road.'
Caldwell has written the lightest of black comedies, and it is to his credit that he is capable of allowing his audience to embrace and enjoy these occasionally vigorous lost souls, even though only tragedy seems to lay ahead for all.
The universal literary and commercial success of 'Tobacco Road' in 1932 (the novel was adapted into a long-running Broadway play, and a bowdlerized John Ford film in 1941) gave new life to the country bumpkin genre in the 20th-century.
Its success helped usher in the Ma And Pa Kettle films, the Li'l Abner comic strip, some of Tennessee William's short stories, and classic American television series such as 'The Andy Griffith Show' (1960-1968), 'The Beverly Hillbillies' (1962-1971), 'Petticoat Junction' (1963-1970), and 'Green Acres' (1965-1971).
Despite the many ways in which sexual intentions go awry throughout the novel, 'Tobacco Road' has a natural, healthy approach to sexuality, as does 'God's Little Acre,' the equally-successful book which followed it.
In this age of political correctness and sexual suspiciousness, the book's vibrant acceptance of sexuality as one of life's givens is admirable.
Some Southerners, at the time of its publication and continuing to the present, have objected to the book as an indictment of Southern culture. But 'Tobacco Road' is clearly a soulful high satire, and its characters are intentionally caricatures of the basest order.
Ultimately, 'Tobacco Road' is a novel which seductively illuminates and instructs while it seamlessly entertains.
on August 13, 2003
If you were to ask me if I liked "Tobacco Road," my answer would be "I guess so.....I think."
It's hard to decide whether or not I liked this book because it's hard to decide what exactly this book is. It's a wisp of a thing really, about 150 pages of nothing happening. Yet it's not boring. There are parts of it that I found funny, but they are so grotesque that I'm not sure they're supposed to be funny. I wanted to sympathize with these poor, pathetic people living like animals, yet I didn't, because they so frustratingly refuse to do anything to help themselves.
Erskine Caldwell's story involves a couple of days in the life of a dismally poor one-time sharecropper and those members of his family who haven't yet left home, scraping a living out of the dust in Depression-era Georgia. Like I said, not a lot happens in the way of plot until the hurried ending, which feels tacked on by Caldwell at the last minute as if to justify to his readers why they spent their time reading his book.
If you thought the Joads of "The Grapes of Wrath" had it bad, wait until you get a load of the Lesters. This family has none of the dignity displayed by Steinbeck's characters, and it's this difference that ultimately makes the Lesters not worth caring about. Jeeter, the family's patriarch, stubborly refuses to leave his land, even though other poor families are finding opportunities and means for providing for their own families in the nearby mill towns. Jeeter justifies his refusal to leave by taking on a martyred air and feigning a noble attachment to the land, but in reality he's victim to an intensely lazy malaise that will prevent him from ever doing anything to help himself. He thinks the children who have left home never to return or even communicate with their parents have acted selfishly and callously (mostly because they refuse to send money home), but who can blame them? I wouldn't ever return home either.
I think this book is supposed to be funny; the back cover of the book compares Caldwell to Mark Twain. However, if that's the case, then this book borders on the appalling. Caldwell's tone throughout is snide and nasty--he invites us to laugh at the Lesters and their stupidity. And if we're supposed to be laughing, then one wonders what Caldwell's purpose was in writing this. If we're meant to simply read this book as a comedy, then I'm repelled at the pointlessness of the whole enterprise. I don't truly believe this was Caldwell's sole purpose, yet the book also fails as an indictment of the social institutions responsible for reducing families to this state of destitution.
"Tobacco Road" falls into that category of books that you might as well read, since it's held in high esteem by the literary establishment and will take virtually no time to finish. I think you'll be moderately entertained, but I also wouldn't be surprised if you have the the urge to scratch your head when it's all over and wonder what in the world you just sat through.
on May 3, 2005
Tobacco Road must be one of the funniest and yet heart breaking American fiction I have ever read. The patriarch, Jeeter Lester, twentieth century Don Quixote, also a predecessor to Al Bundy, selfish, lazy procrastinator, who would do anything , say anything to have his way. Every year he would plan on tilling his land to grow cotton but he is so broke that no body would lend him any money for seeds or a mule for this endeavor.
He and his wife live in a ramshackle house with two children,18 year old Ellie May who has a congenital deformity and a 16 year old imbecile, Dude, along with Jeeter's mother, who is completely ignored by the family. They had 17 children, 5 died and the rest flew the coop as soon as they could from this mad house except Ellie May and Dude. They have an equally comic neighbor, Bessie, a widow in her late 30's, who ends up marrying Dude. She lures Dude by promising him a brand new car with the money she received from her husband's insurance. She is a promiscuous nit wit and pretends to be a preacher! This "preaching", she contends is inherited from her husband. Using this logic she wants to marry Dude and make him a preacher.
Jeu d'es-prit of the book is when Jeeter, Bessie and Dude take the brand new automobile to Augusta to sell wood and end up spending the night in a sleazy motel, where Bessie is taken to different rooms by various men. Jeeter and Dude sleep in one bed, wondering why the motel owner keeps changing Bessie's room and why don't they leave her alone so she can get some rest. However, Bessie never complaints.
The book reminded me of Steinbeck's unforgettable paisanos of Tortilla Flat. It is a MUST read.
on December 7, 2000
In Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell tells the humorous yet incredibly detestable tale of an extremely poor southern family during the Great Depression. Their amazingly ignorant, destructive, and immoral behavior is almost painful to read about at times but is somehow strangely amusing.
The story begins with Jeeter Lester stealing a sack of turnips from his son-in-law who has walked all day to buy them. After hearing the description of the family's living conditions, however, the reader almost feels he is justified in taking them to feed his starving children, wife, and mother. Any sympathy quickly vanishes when Jeeter runs off into the woods to stuff himself with turnips before he returns to give the little that is left to his family. It should come as no surprise that nearly all of his children ran away from home as soon as they could and never return home to visit. One of his two children that is still at home when the book begins is Dude, Jeeter's sixteen-year-old son. Soon Dude gets married to a traveling preacher woman named Bessie who was born without a nose. Bessie lures Dude into the marriage with the promise of a new car for Dude despite the fact that they are twenty-five years apart in age. After running over and killing a black man, an event which does not bother any of the Lesters, and other such calamities, the car is quickly rendered into a piece of junk by the destructive hands of Dude and Jeeter. When Bessie complains about their rough treatment of the car, Jeeter kicks her off his land and starts hitting her with sticks. In her rush to get away, Bessie runs over Jeeter's mother, but she does not even stop to see if she is alright. The amazing thing is that Jeeter does not go check on her either, and his mother suffers a slow, agonizing death as she attempts to crawl to the house.
The characters in the book are not developed much beyond the fact that they are incredibly ignorant and immoral, but the reader gets the impression that that is because there is really not much more to the Lester family than those qualities. Any potential redeeming qualities are quickly obscured by a flood of more and more horrendous characteristics. An example of this is Jeeter's love of the land, which could be seen as a positive attribute. Quickly, however, the reader realizes that this love of the land is the root of the Lesters' poverty, because Jeeter cannot afford seeds to plant but will not leave the land to work in the city. This also serves to display the theme of the book which is man's often irrational refusal to accept changes in life.
The style of the book, although plain, contains very well written dialog and the setting is excellently portrayed as well. If there is one problem in the book, it is the extremity to which the depravity of the characters is taken. This can make it nearly impossible to relate to or sympathize with the characters in any way. Although this can detract slightly from the story, overall the book was very entertaining.
on June 23, 2003
"Tobacco Road" is about a family of Georgia sharecroppers who are so appallingly stupid, ignorant, and cruel, they can barely be regarded as human beings. Wretchedly poor, uneducated, living in a dilapidated house on a defunct cotton farm, unable to afford seed to grow crops, literally starving, the Lesters are both the cause and the product of their predicament. Erskine Caldwell does not attempt to make them heroes, villains, or clowns; he simply portrays them naturally, without ideological filters over the camera lens, and leaves the crusading against agrarian capitalist exploitation to John Steinbeck.
Jeeter Lester, the patriarch of this dirtwater dynasty, and his wife Ada have seventeen children, but the accuracy of that number is in question since he can't even remember all of their names. We get to meet only two of them: Ellie May, his harelipped daughter who, unmarried at age eighteen, is considered an old maid by local standards; and his teenage son Dude who has a promising future as a living scarecrow. There is also a creepy old woman who wanders around and hides behind trees, and this, we are told, is Jeeter's mother, although it is scary to think how she could be anybody's mother, even Jeeter's.
But the most frightening character is Sister Bessie, a noseless woman preacher with no particular denominational affiliation who just likes to thank God for everything. She (sort of) marries Dude and uses the money she inherited from her dead husband to buy a new Ford so they can drive around the county to preach. The car is, in fact, more deserving of sympathy than any character in the novel because of the brutal treatment it receives at the hands of the Lesters in just the first week of ownership -- a headlight is lost, a fender is crumpled, the front axle is bent, the paint is scratched, the engine is ruined for lack of oil, the upholstery is torn, and the spare tire is hocked. Dude's careless driving also causes two fatal accidents, but there is some consolation in the fact that one of the fatalities is Jeeter's mother.
Despite his Neanderthal mentality, Jeeter does have a conscience about certain things. It is out of an almost spiritual devotion to farming and not laziness that he refuses to earn a living by working in a cotton mill. He has always wanted but could never afford to get Ellie May's harelip fixed so she can attract a man. After stealing a sack of turnips from his son-in-law and endeavoring to keep them all for himself, he feels a brief pang of remorse. And both he and Ada are distinctly modern in their irrational fears about death; not about the dying itself, but about the body's postmortem condition -- Ada hopes to have a nice dress for the coffin, and Jeeter just wants to be assured that he won't be laid to rest anywhere rats could chew off his face like one did his father's.
However, for the most part there is no love nor humanity among the Lesters; they are animalistically selfish and insensitive to the extent that they resemble a pack of wolves more than a human family. In that sense, I enjoyed this novel because it's like a simpler cousin to Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" in subject and setting. I'm just thankful the edition I read wasn't illustrated.
on January 10, 2003
I tried reading Tobacco Road several times in the past, but could never get past the first few pages. Now, I finally have read the whole thing, and I'm glad I did. This book could be tucked, whole, into the Canterbury Tales: it would fit very well there.
If you don't read much, but thought the ATM machine theft sub-plot in the 2002 Ice Cube movie "Barbershop" was hysterical, this whole book is a story like that-- hairbrained ideas spinning horribly out of control. It's really funny on the top, but sad and inevitable underneath.
Caldwell breaks with the silliness right in the middle of the book, inserting a chapter that explains the forces that have brought his characters to this particular brink. It's a bit of a change-up, so I suspect many readers skim over it. But the true story, the devastating cultural and economic shifts that occured as the region turned from tobacco to cotton and from agriculture to manufacture is a key part of understanding the South. And if you want to understand and feel hopeful about the future of the rural, agricultural, and disease-stricken Third World, in my opinion, you'd probably better work hard at understanding the emergence of this American region.
on June 17, 2012
If you're well acquainted with this novel, and merely wondering whether the Kindle version is plagued with the sloppy editing that all-to-often infests older titles in e-book form, go ahead and buy this. I found no more issues than I would with a paper-and-glue edition. If you're not acquainted with this "classic," read on, if you want an in-depth analysis.
The story follows a few days in the lives of the Lesters -- a hillbilly family of former sharecroppers living on their former employer's land beside a "tobacco road." Jeeter, the self-doomed patron of the Lester family, is obsessed with trying to farm the land again despite its increased infertility and his toxic reputation amongst creditors. His family is so consumed with hunger that they have room for few thoughts, other than wanting a fashionable dress to die in, (his wife), a working car horn to honk, (his son), and a man to seduce (his harelipped daughter). We are introduced to the family when Lov, the son-in-law, stops by to ask for assistance in coercing his twelve year-old bride into sleeping with him. Having bought her from Jeeter for food, he expects the full use of his purchase. Jeeter notices the sack of turnips he has with him, and waxes poetic about how much he's been craving turnips for the next several pages--to the point that he couldn't care less about the overtly public seduction of Lov that Ellie Mae attempts. Finally, Jeeter promises to help his son-in-law sexually coerce his own child, then, with the other members of the family running interference, he steals Lov's bag of turnips, (and only reluctantly decides to share with his family afterwards). If you didn't know before that you were reading a book about trashy backwoods tragicomic figures, you do now.
Sister Bessie, the nose-less preacher's-widow-turned-preacher comes along just after the theft. She accepts a stolen turnip or two before praying over Jeeter to absolve him of the sin of theft (a well-penned example of irony, I must admit, and one that had me thinking about mafia "Dons" and the Catholic church for a micro second). Having decided (aka "received a message from God") that her widowhood has gone on long enough, she sets her eyes on Jeeter's 16 year-old son, Dude. (Yes, his name is Dude, a word that at the time of publication meant a fashionable city slicker -- another bit of wink-nudge irony). Of course, Dude the pretty boy isn't at all interested in marrying a 40-something widow with a facial deformity, or becoming her side-kick street preacher. So, what super-human feat must she perform in order to win his hand in marriage? Easy -- say she'll buy a new car with the insurance money her husband left her. Dude's only question regarding whether a car is worth a lifelong commitment to a woman more than twice his age is, "Will the horn work?" The depth and complexity of character here is staggering, isn't it?
As Bessie and Dude go on to automotive shenanigans and connubial not-quite-bliss, hijinks ensue, and the book gets much more readable. Jeeter tries to go along for the ride, and more hijinks ensue, even if the book does put a toe or two over the boundary of believability. I won't say any more about what happens, because I don't want to give away the good parts, so I'll just get to my critical analysis.
There is something approaching the poetic in Caldwell's use of repetition here -- it seems designed to portray the ruts a mind falls into when the path it is on is barren and charmless. I found myself reminded of Whitman, but with none of the joy, and almost none of the insight -- only the incidental music. Caldwell's characters, especially Jeeter, worry every thought like a dog with a bone -- the less meat to the thought, the more they seem to chew on it. This was intriguing at first, but became a little tiresome after a bit, (I swear, you could skip entire pages once Jeeter starts talking about wanting something). The artistry of the portrayal was subjugated by the subject--I can only read the inane sentences about wanting turnips or guano so many times before I become a bit numb to the brilliance of the repetition. Ok, ok, I get it, Mr. Caldwell -- hunger and longing is all these people have left to fill their claptrap lives, and they have fallen so low that even tasteless food and feces are transformed into symbols of elevated status.
The portrayal of systemic abject poverty and the inhumanity such a condition breeds is very well done here. The atmosphere of starvation, desperation, and bewilderment is palpable. There is also a clear and believable picture of how people (on every rung of the social ladder) will ruthlessly take advantage of others. Caldwell doesn't go for the easy-out of castigating the rich for the plight of the poor; nor does he allow the poor to be solely the authors of their own tragedy. His characters -- illiterate, insolvent sharecroppers living on land they don't own and can no longer afford to farm -- are constantly taken advantage of by city folk. But they refuse to help themselves in many ways -- Jeeter is in love with the land that will no longer yield anything but unsalable "blackjack" wood for him. He cannot bring himself to leave the home his family lived in for generations, the land they tilled, or the methods and traditions they upheld. It is this stubborn resistance to progress that authors his fate, and the fate of those who have not yet escaped him.
The Mixed (bad put to good use):
The inhumane treatment of others by every (white) person in the book is abhorrent, and at times made the book damn near unreadable. The grandmother, for example is openly abused and despised, presumably for her drain on the available resources; even Sister Bessie, the "preacher woman" who should know about the biblical commandments regarding one's elders, treats her like a dog she'd like to kick. Blacks, (of course referred to in the most temporally-accurate derogatory language), are viewed as animals. The only thing more frightening to the Lesters than starving to death is being laughed at by one of the black workers trudging past their yard. The Lesters are starving, illiterate, bankrupt, lazy, ignorant, thieving squatters living in filth and rags and marrying off their underage children for food, but at least they have a group of people to whom they can feel superior! The portrayal here makes it easy to see why racism is still alive and well in the world -- when you have no good qualities to rely on but a sense of unearned superiority, you're not likely to give that little bit up. It is, in part, an artistically astute image of the human addiction to status, and, in part, a scathing condemnation of the lack of empathy that can accompany despair. It makes it REALLY hard to like any character in the book, though. Which leads me to:
While this book may be well-worded (if a tad too repetitive), and while it may raise interesting questions about the relationship between poverty and inhumane behavior, and whether a detachment from humanity and the progress humanity is wont to make can be a contributing factor to economic calamity, there is simply too much negativity here to make this book an astounding work of fiction. There is NO HOPE here -- the cycle is getting ready to repeat itself by the end of the book, as Jeeter's son learns nothing from his father's self-destructive actions. None of the characters grow one tiny bit, or learn any single lesson, (other than a car needs oil), or discover any ounce of empathy or ingenuity within themselves. They start with the emotional depth of Saharan rain puddles, and they end as they began. They are so unbelievably unlikeable that, when they are grossly taken advantage of, it becomes comical, instead of eliciting outrage or sympathy. (This book could almost be read as a brilliantly successful comedy, if it wasn't for some of the pervasively depressing and disgusting overtones.) Don't get me wrong, I can get along with a good anti-hero, but he or she must do something worth reading about other than steal turnips, try to sell twigs, and whine about not having seed cotton or guano to procrastinate planting with. I can get along with dark and dreary fiction, too, but the characters must be fully fleshed-out and thoroughly engaging. When the characters seem to be so utterly uncharmed by their lives that they can't be bothered to fight for it, I can't be bothered to find their story compelling, either. Give me something of beauty, or hope, or epiphany, or, at the very least, human connection, please!
This is a quick read, it's rather entertaining in some places, and there is some salient social and historical commentary, so it's not at all a waste of time. It's just not at all a masterpiece, either.
on September 3, 2011
I knew I had to read this novel when I discovered it was banned by many libraries upon it's publication. This is what is called "rich description" in sociology courses. At times I thought I was reading something by Malinowski or some other ethnographer.
The Lester family were sharecroppers who have fallen on extremely hard times due to the depression and the departure of the owner of the land they sharecropped. They are left destitute with barely a roof over their heads. The entrenched poverty suffered by this family is heart-breaking.
The Lester family patriarch is Jeeter. Imagine equal parts womanizer, opportunist and schemer all rolled in to one big package. If a movie had been made from this novel, the great character actor Chill Wills, (PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID) immediately comes to mind. He goes so far as to practically sell his fourteen year old daughter into a marriage for which she is ill-prepared. The rest of the Lester family is comprised of Ada, Lester's long-suffering wife; Dude, Jeeter's hang-about son, who marries a nearby widow/spritualist with no nose on her face, simply because she promises Dude an automobile, an automobile which Dude proceeds to wreck upon driving. Then there is the libidinous ElleMae, who has the great fortune of having a rich libido, and an amazing body, but the great misfortune of a horrendous facial feature left untreated due to apathy, lack of money, etc. Oh and when we first discover ElleMae she is trying to dry-hump her fourteen year old sister's husband in their dirt driveway. Then there is a grandmother who dies lying in the driveway while the family just goes on about their business....
The outsiders who become entwined in the web of schemes thought up by Lester are another story entirely. The widow with no nose who may have been a prostitute at one time (and enjoyed it thoroughly)...are you getting the picture. Poor Lov, a coal-miner who is married to Jeeter's fourteen year old daughter, and who just can't understand why she doesn't want to sleep with him.
A fascinating, riveting and deeply sad, moving and-at times-hilarious adventure with a family you won't soon forget....a forgotten classic from one of America's great authors! Highly recommended!
on March 5, 2013
Sometime there are no words...but, in this case, I am writing this review having no clue what I will write..thus, the meaning of Sometime there are no words...Most of us have heard of the Great Depression, read books, seen movies, heard our ancestors talk of it..maybe it's just me, but, if this book is accurate (although it is a fiction) in it's portrayal of depression era times, this is beyond disbelief..it's like, where did these characters in Tobacco Road, come from?? Did this really happen?? Are there actually people who lived, thought, acted like this?? And are thee still people like this, today..if so, I don't know any of them, and I don't want to..I gave this book 5 stars, and the reason for that is because, it being classified fiction, Mr. Caldwell had an imagination above any I have ever come across..and, if he interviewed people to see how they actually lived during this time, he was a very brave man..I can so understand how this book received all of the attention and acclaim..it is truly one of a kind. If you have not read this book yet, be prepared for the unbelievable..
on March 28, 2016
There's a lot of controversy about this book. Is it a pulp novel, black comedy, tragedy, trage-comedy, does it "bash The South"? I can only say it's largely a little bit of all of the above. For sure it is a bare bones, no holds barred depiction of a moment in time. Characters that may not have been real per se but be assured there WERE real people quite like them. It not so much addresses as depicts the issues of poverty, ignorance, sloth yes but more so the phenomenon of being placed in the situation of having expectations, however low, placed upon you & then sinking to them; all the while feeling yourself a victim of the system that places those expectations. Violence, substance abuse, hunger, sexual abuse and promiscuity, desensitization are all depicted as the scourge of the rural South at the time. Oddly these things are lamented as the scourge of urban America now. So we've learned little other than how to transplant our problems' locale. It may be unflattering and downright disturbing but never the less an excellent read.