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I first read Tobacco Road in the 1970’s. Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel of the rural south taught me lessons about poverty that have stayed with me for a lifetime. These are valuable lessons for a pastor who deals with requests for help every week from people in need.
I’ve reread the book in order to comment on it here. Additionally I’ve looked at a dozen reviews on popular websites. My conclusion? Many readers clearly don’t know enough poor people to analyze the book adequately.
In the past 25 years I performed marriage ceremonies for two couples who were borderline in competence for marriage. The clerk in the local probate office nearly threw me out when I attempted to help one of these couples obtain a license. Why did I perform those ceremonies? Because Erskine Caldwell’s character, Sister Bessie, taught me that sometimes, in the underclasses of ingrained poverty, marriage is about desperation. Certainly Sister Bessie is a sexually charged character and some her motives are as base as motives can get. But she’s also desperate to sleep under a roof that doesn’t leak every time it rains. The couples I married were desperate to join limited abilities and resources to escape homelessness or helplessness. I still believe I helped those couples find the best chance to survive by marrying them. If you dare, read Caldwell’s short story “The Masses of Men” for an even darker picture of poverty’s desperation. I read it not long after reading Tobacco Road and I still don’t like thinking about it.
I also learned from Tobacco Road that handing out money may stem a crisis for some people in poverty’s cycle, but it rarely cures the long term problem for them. A man once sat in my office and told me how he had mashed the accelerator to the floor in his car. “I told that transmission,” he said, “you’re gonna shift or blow. Well, it blew. Now I needs money to fix it so I can get to work.” I wanted to weep. In his story I heard echoes of Dude Lester’s treatment of Sister Bessie’s new car, which was ruined in a day and practically destroyed in a week. All the money in the world would not have lifted the Lester family or Sister Bessie out of poverty.
Let me pause for a moment, lest you think I am painting every poor person with the same brush. The poor are no more all alike than are the wealthy. There are people who work hard to escape poverty’s grasp (illustrated by Jeeter’s older children, who described but never seen). They may not have new clothes, but they always have clean clothes. I know poor individuals who save a small amount out a week’s paycheck that wouldn’t support many reviewers of this book for a day. When crises come, they may ask for help, but they only need a bridge over their immediate problem. Deeply ingrained poverty, however, can normalize procrastination and lethargy. The saddest moment in the book is when Dude becomes the bearer of his father’s unfulfilled dream of raising a crop of cotton. Jester, Sister Bessie, and Dude could win the lottery and they would never have enough money. Incentive would help them more. The key for people in helping professions is to weigh the need to alleviate desperation versus creating dependency. You will never know the struggle of that decision unless you actually know the people involved in the crisis.
Laziness and lust are never more than a page away. Perhaps Caldwell wants us to know that only lust can compete with hunger as a dominating motive in the human heart. Death is careless and painfully callous.
Reviewers debate whether Tobacco Road in a tragedy or a comedy. Certainly there are elements of both. How readers makes that determination will be based on how well they know the South and how well acquainted they are with poverty. I lean toward describing it as tragedy, but find no tragic hero.
Here are a few quotations, with page numbers from the 1995 edition, published by UGA Press:
Down there on the tobacco no one ever laughed. p. 31.
Prayer always did a man more good, she said, if there was something he was ashamed of. p. 45
There were always well-developed plans in Jeeter’s mind for the things he intended doing; but somehow he never got around to doing them. One day led to the next, and it was so much more easy to say he would wait until tomorrow…things had been going along that easy for almost a lifetime now….p. 60.
Good folks don’t want God to send them sermons by cussing preachers. p. 158.
He (Jeeter) still could not understand why he had nothing, and would never have anything, and there was no one who knew and could tell him. It was the unsolved mystery of his life. p. 173.