The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

91. Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell

This was the first book on the list that I really scratched my head over. Sure, I hated Sophie's Choice, but William Styron was an important figure in 20th century literature – not the least for his role at The Paris Review – and Sophie's Choice was his best-selling book. Valid reasons or otherwise, at least I understood. But, with Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, I haven't got a clue. 

Tobacco Road tells the story of an impoverished family in Depression-era Georgia: the Lesters. The Lester patriarch, Jeeter, is a feckless, selfish man, who happens to have descended from a family of cotton farmers. However, through the generations, the family's been so reduced that now Jeeter's barely a sharecropper: he lacks the resources and credit to acquire the seed needed to actually plant a crop. Jeeter Lester is a farmer in his mind, alone.

In fact, he wastes away the days dreaming about farming while felling the blackjack, that grows rife on his farm, to sell as firewood for a pittance in Augusta. Fortunately, most of Jeeter's 17 children have left home, leaving him with only two mouths to feed – Ellie May, 18, and Dude, 16 – besides his wife, Ada's, and his own. His mother also lives with them, but Jeeter doesn't feed her when he can help it. Instead, she's left to scrounge for scraps like a dog.

Actually, extreme poverty has reduced all of the Lesters to little more than dogs. Their hunger is so desperate that it isn't safe for Jeeter's son-in-law, Lov Bensey, to pass by the farm with a bag of turnips on his shoulder. Lov knows that he probably won't make it home with his bag of turnips full, but sexual frustration gets the better of him: it's been nearly a year since Jeeter sold his 12 year-old daughter, Pearl, to Lov for seven dollars, but she's proven to be a less than willing bed-mate, a less than affectionate wife. Lov has tried to, alternately, bully and woo her, but is now so desperate he's considering force, and so he takes his chances with the turnips to get Jeeter's opinion on the wisdom of tying Pearl down. Literally. The Lesters eagerly watch Lov approach, and by the time he reaches the farm, they are frantic with hunger, luring him and his turnips off the road like pack-animals closing in for the kill. What ensues (a more or less, successful attempt to seduce the sack away from him) is either a darkly comic set-piece or a heart-breaking portrayal of rural poverty. I wasn't quite sure.

It is precisely this confusion that ruined this book. While there's little in the way of plot (Jeeter doesn't do much; Ada pines for a fashionable burial dress and some snuff; Pearl runs away; Ellie-May takes her place with Lov; Dude marries Sister Bessie, a whore-turned-preacher twice his age, they buy a car, in place of food or seed, then, summarily destroy it; Jeeter burns his land, in preparation for seed his doesn't have, and succeeds in burning down his house), there's less in the way of pathos. Caldwell presents the sharecroppers as victims of progress, kicked when they're down by landlords and bankers. Caldwell would have us believe that Jeeter's stubborn refusal to take job in town is noble, but I couldn't help but see it as dumb. Perhaps, the problem is that I was never really convinced that Jeeter, with all the land, all the seed, all the guano, in the world would actually get off his butt and farm. Or perhaps, my inability to feel for Jeeter was the result of being made to feel like a sociopath for much of this book.

No, really.

I read decidedly unfunny things (Grandma Lester being ran over, repeatedly, with the new car; Dude's response to killing a black man on the road) and yet found myself laughing. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with dark humour, but when the priming is unclear (is this really a joke?), I was left feeling uncomfortable.

Otherwise, the book is written competently enough. Not, top-100 material, but if South Park meets Hee-Haw sounds appealing, then you might want to check it out. Unless, of course, I'm wrong, and it wasn't supposed to be funny at all. But, if that's the case, I should probably seek some psychiatric help.


May 6, 2010 at 8:50 AM The Dormouse said...

Hey there! I've been following your blog for a while, but I try to make a point of waiting to read your reviews until I've finished the book myself.

I read Tobacco Road in March for my own slog through The List, and my reaction was similar to yours. Here's my own blog post about Dude's motoring fiascos.

After giving it some thought, I've concluded that Caldwell's uncanny ability to situate comedy within deeply disconcerting events is the genius of the entire book. Our discomfort and sense of cognitive dissonance is proof of his mastery. For that reason alone, I would defend his position on the top 100 list.

Thanks for this -- I've been enjoying your posts.

May 6, 2010 at 12:42 PM Devon S. said...

You make a great point -- the whole experience was one of cognitive dissonance, from the horrid/comedic situations, to our ambivalence toward Jeeter, to the characterization of Sister Bessie (preacher/whore), to our mixed reaction when the successful son, Tom, refuses to help his starving family out.

But,although I can see what Caldwell was aiming for, I can't shake the feeling that he didn't quite hit his mark.

I need to think more about it though, and maybe return to the book.

Thanks for following along.

Oh yeah, and I checked out your post. Interesting blog!

May 7, 2010 at 12:29 PM SocrMom78 said...

I laughed through this one too. I see where you felt uncomfortable, as it's a weird feeling to laugh at someone else's ignorance or misfortune. I agree with Dormouse though, that really is the genius of the book.

May 10, 2010 at 8:51 AM Devon S. said...

Dormouse and SocrMom78:

I have thought about it and I still disagree.

I don't deny that in the Tobacco Road, Caldwell demonstrates skill as a writer. You both point out, quite correctly, that it's no easy feat to mix the dark and the funny effectively. I'd argue that a book that invokes an intended emotion in its reader is, on some level, a success.

I get that.

But this book lacked the thematic weight to give Caldwell's literary devices purpose, to give them something to do. A well handled device is uninteresting, outside of a writing exercise, unless it is being used in the service something. That something, I'd argue, are the greater themes of the book. This book felt shallow to me because I scratched my head over what exactly Caldwell was trying to do, over what he was really writing about.

Perhaps, part of the problem is that the illiterate, inbred, hillbilly has become such a cultural cliche, that I, as a reader, need heavy thematic significance to respond to it. I can't read the book as it would have been read in 1932. But, even then, I still can't see what he set out to accomplish. Perhaps, this is an imaginative failing on my part.

The people who would have read the book when it came out would have been literate, educated, and with enough discretionary income to buy a book, precisely the sort of people who may have already harboured negative stereotypes about the people out on the Tobacco Road. Caldwell does nothing to challenge those stereotypes, if anything, he reinforces them, gives us more reasons to laugh at the hillbilly in overalls with a piece of hay in his mouth.

I am not saying that a text needs to be socially responsible to be good. Not at all. But the greater authorial purpose does need to be, more or less, accessible to the reader.

I guess what I am saying is that in order for the humour, and the discomfort I felt, to be the "genius" of the book, it needs to challenge me to something, to push me toward a realization of some sort. Here, it just felt gratuitous. It just pushed me to challenge the text, from which I got no answers.

But I think disagreement is stimulating: it motivated me to reexamine (although not change) my opinion, so thank you.

June 6, 2010 at 7:25 AM SocrMom78 said...

Here is a blog award for you, since I couldn't find an email address for you! I love your blog! Keep up the good work!


July 6, 2014 at 1:22 PM Anonymous said...

After retiring I decided I wanted to write, am writing, and to learn how to do it properly downloaded the Modern Library list of 100 best books. I am randomly, as the spirit moves me, selecting books from the list and reading them.

I just finished Tobacco Road and, to say the least, was intrigued by it. All the way through I kept thinking of Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. In that hierarchy there are five levels of needs, on the bottom the physical needs such as food, water, safety etc. Only when the lower needs are met in some effective way can one -- humans -- look to a higher level, the highest the need for self actualization (creativity, esthetic needs, self fulfillment, etc.)

The Lester family, unwilling -- "unable" -- to adjust to the changing reality around them, were slowly starving to death. Their quest for food so dire that it had totally destroyed their capacity for common sense, decency, morality, and any higher human sensibilities. In short, they had become animals.

I thought it was a combination of dark humor -- certainly not "Ha, ha" humor, effective social critique, and tragedy. I was frustrated by each dysfunctional decision the characters made, and at the same time saddened by the heartless people who took advantage of their neediness and inability to think straight. In more sophisticated and surreptitious ways the same thing is happening today -- I guess has always happened.

The book was well written, challenging, and I am happy that I read it. I like books that make me think.

Dan Doty

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