Erskine Caldwell Centennial

CALDWELL CENTENNIAL

SCHOLARS REFLECT ON CALDWELL'S LEGACY

From The (Newnan, Georgia) Times-Herald, December 16, 2003

By W. WINSTON SKINNER
winston@newnan.com

Erskine Caldwell's son joined four scholars in reflecting on the Coweta-born novelist's legacy Sunday.

The Erskine Caldwell Birthplace and Museum sponsored "Centennial: Erskine Caldwell" at the Moreland Mill on Sunday afternoon. About 50 people gathered to hear Dr. D.W. Caldwell and four scholars and to enjoy a reception.

D.W. Caldwell, a retired geology professor, came from Massachusetts for the event with his wife, Marvin, a minister who said the blessing for the reception. Becky Gooding Laskody, Erskine Caldwell's granddaughter and D.W. Caldwell's niece, attended and brought family photographs from the 1930s and a postcard the novelist sent her mother while he was traveling in Russia.

Three of Erskine Caldwell's first cousins -- Mary, Sally and Richard Maner -- traveled from Louisville in eastern Georgia for the reception. Sally Maner remembered seeing D.W. "Dee" Caldwell when they were children.

Scholars participating in the panel discussion were Dr. Edwin Arnold of Appalachian State University, Dr. Sylvia Jenkins Cook of the University of Missouri at St. Louis, Dr. Robert McDonald of Virginia Military Institute and Dr. Wayne Mixon of Augusta State University. All four have written books about Caldwell.

"Caldwell is one of the great 20th century writers," Arnold said.

"Caldwell is probably the most unappreciated and underrated major American writer of the 20th century. I'm not sure why," Mixon said.

"I think, I hope that's beginning to change," he added.

Cook characterized Caldwell as "one of the most interesting and best writers" in part because of his versatility. He wrote in many different styles and genres during a career that stretched more than 50 years.

McDonald said he thinks Caldwell's legacy is yet to be determined. "I don't think we know what his legacy is," he said.

Several scholars talked about the fact that Caldwell's work is sometimes deemed worthy of the term "literature" and sometimes not. "The definition of literature is a tough one. It's a political issue," McDonald said.

Mixon noted that Southern writers of the 1930s were often criticized if their works addressed social concerns. McDonald emphasized that Caldwell's writings, however, treated political and themes as "very much an undertone."

"He cared a lot about poor people, but he didn't treat them in any sentimental kind of way," Cook said. She said Caldwell could see things that could be done to make life better for the poor, but he also saw "poor people could be comic and grotesque and ludicrous."

Caldwell often combined humor and violence in his stories. He has been compared to Mark Twain and to the Western humorists, but his tone is often one of hopelessness for his desperate characters.

"These are visceral works. People don't know quite how to take them," McDonald said. "Too many people come to Caldwell wanting to fit him into a particular category, and he just doesn't fit," Arnold said.

Dee Caldwell talked about the exalted status of two of his father's early novels, "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre." Both were written in Maine when Dee Caldwell was a boy. His parents later divorced, and his father went on to a more glamorous life.

"Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre" were strong works "because we were very poor then," Dee Caldwell said. When Erskine Caldwell became affluent, "he had a very hard time getting his thumb on that scene again," his son said. "He didn't quite have the gumption to do that again."

Several questions were posed by audience members. It was noted that Caldwell claimed not to read many books by his contemporaries. "He didn't want to be thought of as an intellectual," Cook said.

Dee Caldwell recalled being a college student and asking his father what he thought about the works of writers such as Faulkner and Hemingway. "I don't read books. I write them," his father replied.

The scholars reflected on the inability of filmmakers to create film versions of Caldwell's books that have been seen as creative successes. Caldwell's books are "very bleak and very empty" and don't have details about clothes and settings that make for easy transition to the screen, Cook said.

Cook said Caldwell's attitude toward his native South was "as complicated and contradictory as everything else." She said he referred to the South at different times as "a paradise" and "as purgatory," she said.

Dee Caldwell also shared some personal memories of his father.

"That was very interesting, living with him," he said. He recalled that he and his siblings called their parents Skinny and Helen -- what other adults called them -- when they were growing up. When Dee Caldwell was about 30, his father asked him to start calling him Dad.

"It was hard to do. It was hard to make that change," he said. He said that when he became an adult, his father would "summon" the Caldwell children occasionally -- paying their way to visit and sending them away when he was ready to return to his writing.

He also talked about his father's love of travel. "He loved trains," he said.

Museum volunteer Gretchen Deichelbor coordinated the reception. Each guest received a souvenir bookmark. Dee Caldwell has published works on geology, and he and scholars autographed books after the reception.

Unless otherwise stated, the above article ©2003 The (Newnan, Georgia) Times-Herald. Any reproduction of any part of this article without written permission is strictly prohibited.

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