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An American Tragedy
on May 23, 2008
Set in his familiar sandy hills in the Savannah River Valley, Caldwell presents another piece to what he called his Cyclorama of Modern Southern life. The tragedy of Southern race relations after Emancipation is allegorized in the lynching of a young black man for the rape of a white sharecropper's daughter.
The closest thing to a main character is the Sheriff of the county, Jeff McCurtain. McCurtain is convinced to "keep the lynching politically clean." Representing the political powers of the inter War South, McCurtain is afraid to stand up to the people in the name of the law. As he tries to avoid contact with the lynch mob, he also seeks out a Black man who he considers "harmless" and therefore shouldn't be mixed up in the whole lynching.
Characters represent the three commonly thought views of Black Americans held by Southern whites at the time. The rich landowner wants the sheriff to catch the suspected racist, so as life can get back to normal and other blacks will keep working his plantation. The catalyst of the incident, a politically involved woman who may be sleeping with the pastor, is circulating a petition that all blacks should be rounded up and sent back to Africa. Yet the third is a man in the mob who is against the petition:
"The best way is just like I said. String one of them up ever so often. That'll make all of them keep their place. Hell, if there wasn't no more niggers in the country I'd feel lost without them. Besides, who'd do all the work if the niggers were sent away?"
Caldwell appears to have his finger on the pulse of white social-economic view of black Southerners. Like the helots and the Spartans, the backward stagnant economic system of the interwar South is based on white Southerners keeping black Southerners in virtual economic servitude.
"Trouble in July" is the most real of Caldwell's novels in his "cyclorama" that I have read yet. The allegory is not too far from the tree as the almost surreal characters in "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre." However, it does not have the full emersion in the world of the sand hills that the other two have. One almost expects the end where McCurtain begins to question his own actions during the story.
All in all I find it not a great work. Its subject matter is more important to the modern reader than some of Caldwell's other works as he like Ida B. Wells, throws the Southern view of civilization upon its head. Additionally, it reminds us why the words of people like Kelly Tilghman, the Golf channel anchor, and Bill O'Reilly (declaring he would lynch Michelle Obama if there was evidence) are so dangerous. People are quick to join mobs and the law is slow to challenge what seems the will of the people even if it is against the very things we stand for.