Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road:
Socio-economic Critique or Spectacle?
Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 Tobacco Road depicts the plight of a family of poor white farmers in Georgia. By setting
his novel some eleven years "since the big war," Caldwell locates his depiction within a specific socio-economic
milieu, that of the Great Depression (10). While Caldwell does take pains to detail the economic forces that shape
the lives of the members of the sharecropping Lester family, his exaggerated characterizations oftentimes degenerate
into caricature and compromise the validity of what appears to be an attempt at a socio-economic critique. However,
it is his intention to employ this type of comedic approach in order to lead his readers to a fuller and more serious
understanding of his underlying message.
Caldwell’s narrative technique creates a dismal atmosphere which focuses our attention on the pitiful lives of the
Lester family, who are distinguished as the stereotypical "white trash" family. It is a common notion to think of
"white trash" as poor whites who live in the desolate country side. By manipulating existing ideas of the "white
trash", Caldwell exaggerates the Lesters’ such that they appear to be very humorous, in the midst of their tragedy.
Yet his exaggerations of the Lester family, aim not at criticizing the characters themselves, but, rather the futile
socio-economic situation of sharecroppers during the Great Depression. Jeeter Lester is a prime example of that
situation, being very much a victim of the "antiquated" sharecropping system in the novel (63). Jeeter had once
worked under Captain John Harmon, who "allowed Jeeter and his family to live in one of his houses, and work for
him on shares" (65). However, when it came to his attention that!
, "there was no longer any profit in raising cotton," he "abandoned the farm and
Kim 2
moved to Augusta" (63). Selling his "stock and implements" and not attempting "to show his tenants how to
conform to newer and more economical methods of modern agriculture," the Captain left people like Jeeter "reduced
to painful poverty" (63). In the begining of the novel, some light is shed on the economic status of the Lesters_
during the sad, yet the humorous scene of the Lesters_ theft of Lov_s (a son-in-law) turnips. Jeeter, who hasn_t
worked in years had "come to the conclusion that the only possible way a quantity of food could be obtained was by
theft" and with that idea comes his violent attempt to steal the turnips (5). With the help of the other family members
"ready to club Lov," for his turnips , this scene is seemingly amusing for the passing by "negroes" (35). In this scene
the Lesters are a spectacle and are considered to be the laughingstock of the neighboring "blacks". It is ironic that
the Lester often referred to them as "niggers" and labeled the !
"black" families as inferior, when in fact, it was themselves who were at the bottom of the social ladder. The
disgusting humor found in this scene creates a sense of pity for the desperate Lesters_, who are stripped of all morals
because of their insatiable hunger. The actions of the Lesters_ fit perfectly under the stereotypical depiction of
"white trash", or the lowest of the low; however, only through this perspective can one see the insane desperation of
these people.
Caldwell is not only blaming the failed sharecropping system in Tobacco Road; he is also pointing a finger at the
rich who time and time again exploited and hurt the poor white farmers. Caldwell refers to Jeeter_s problems with
the rich loan companies of Augusta to address his point. "You rich folks in Augusta is just bleeding us poor people
to death. You don_t work none, but you get all the money us farmers make" (115). Jeeter_s thoughts on rich people
had been summed up into that one statement after he had made out a loan for two hundred dollars, but ultimatley
ended up paying back more than three hundred dollars in interest and fees. Jeeter_s unpleasant experience with the
loan companies reinforces the idea of him being "white trash", in that Jeeter, being the
Kim 3
unsophisticated country folk was taken advantage of by the loan companies who were the "sharpest people he had
ever had anything