BLS 380 – The New South
November 14, 2009
Caldwell’s Tobacco Road
The Depression-era setting of Erskine Caldwell’s novel Tobacco Road might be thought to give the reader a glimpse into what life was really like for people like Jeeter, and Alma, and Lov, and the rest of the characters from the book. While Caldwell’s writing certainly paints an evocative picture of the life of the downtrodden South, it is more a work of fiction with a moral than a historical document, though the author does occasionally offer a taste of what life might have been like for people of the time.
The novel tells the story of the Lester family, headed by Jeeter Lester who is a lazy, good-for-nothing sharecropper living on land once owned by his family but which had been bought up by Captain John Harmon, though even before then the land had been mostly used up or sold off to pay the family’s debts. Jeeter makes a lot of promises to his family, talks a lot about how he’s going to start farming the land again, but the truth of the matter is he is filled with excuses as to why he can’t provide for his family. It is never his fault, of course, and Jeeter even goes so far as to say that God should provide for him so that he can support his family.
What little we learn about the world of the South in the era of the Depression is revealed almost as a tangent to the plot of the story, and seems out of place. There is mention of Captain John leaving for Augusta, and how other people in the nearest town – Fuller – were also leaving for the city for work. When the children who left home for the city are mentioned, we learn that they left to find regular work in the cities, and though both Alma and Jeeter hope their children will provide for them, it’s clear they have left that part of them behind. Jeeter Lester talked a lot about how he couldn’t ever do that, how he was tied to the land, and that he’d work it again, just wait and see. Of course, he never does. Down the his very last moments, Jeeter makes promises that he’s going to work the land, but even at the very end he is a day late for burning.
One thing the novel does offer in regards to the history of the South is reflects how the poor sharecropping families might have suffered as the land grew fallow and they lost the means to support themselves. He does this very well through the symbolism used throughout the story. Caldwell’s characters are very round, all with personalities of their own, and through them he paints a vivid picture of the Depression-era South. The setting, centered around the Lester’s ramshackle home in which they’ve been allowed to stay for as long as the house still stands, reflects the slow breakdown of the way of life for most Southerners. When the fire takes the house at the end of the novel, it’s a symbol for the definite change in the way of life in the South.
Caldwell describes the experiences of a poor Southern sharecropping family in Tobacco Road, which places the novel in a historical setting, but it is not itself useful as a factual document. Rather, the novel serves to offer the reader a fictional tale in which to get a sort of a feel for what life might have been like, offering along the way brief glimpses into the history of the South but never truly offering anything one could consider factual.