Shadow and Act (Modern Library Nonfiction #91)

(This is the tenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Power Broker.)

mlnf91When I first made my bold belly flop into the crisp waters of Ralph Ellison’s deep pool earlier this year, I felt instantly dismayed that it would be a good decade before I could perform thoughtful freestyle in response to his masterpiece Invisible Man (ML Fiction #19). As far as I’m concerned, that novel’s vivid imagery, beginning with its fierce and intensely revealing Battle Royale scene and culminating in its harrowing entrapment of the unnamed narrator, stands toe-to-toe with Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as one of the most compelling panoramas of mid-20th century American life ever put to print, albeit one presented through a more hyperreal lens.

But many of today’s leading writers, ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Jacqueline Woodson, have looked more to James Baldwin as their truth-telling cicerone, that fearless sage whose indisputably hypnotic energy was abundant enough to help any contemporary humanist grapple with the nightmarish realities that America continues to sweep under its bright plush neoliberal rug. At a cursory glance, largely because Ellison’s emphasis was more on culture than overt politics, it’s easy to see Ellison as a complacent “Maybe I’m Amazed” to Baldwin’s gritty “Cold Turkey,” especially when one considers the risk-averse conservatism which led to Ellison being attacked as an Uncle Tom during a 1968 panel at Grinnell College along with his selfish refusal to help emerging African-American authors after his success. But according to biographer Arnold Rampersad, Baldwin believed Ralph Ellison to be the angriest person he knew. And if one dives into Ellison’s actual words, Shadow and Act is an essential volume, which includes one of the most thrilling Molotov cocktails ever pitched into the face of a clueless literary critic, that is often just as potent and as lapel-grabbing as Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

For it would seem that while Negroes have been undergoing a process of “Americanization” from a time preceding this birth of this nation — including the fusing of their blood lines with other non-African strains, there has been a stubborn confusion as to their American identity. Somehow it was assumed that the Negroes, of all the diverse American peoples, would remain unaffected by the climate, the weather, the political circumstances — from which not even slaves were exempt — the social structures, the national manners, the modes of production and the tides of the market, the national ideals, the conflicts of values, the rising and falling of national morale, or the complex give and take of acculturalization which was undergone by all others who found their existence within the American democracy.

This passage, taken from an Ellison essay on Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, is not altogether different from Baldwin’s view of America as “a paranoid color wheel” in The Evidence of Things Not Seen, where Baldwin posited that a retreat into the bigoted mystique of Southern pride represented the ultimate denial of “Americanization” and thus African-American identity. Yet the common experiences that cut across racial lines, recently investigated with comic perspicacity on a “Black Jeopardy” Saturday Night Live sketch, may very well be a humanizing force to counter the despicable hate and madness that inspires uneducated white males to desecrate a Mississippi black church or a vicious demagogue to call one of his supporters “a thug” for having the temerity to ask him to be more respectful and inclusive.

Ellison, however, was too smart and too wide of a reader to confine these sins of dehumanization to their obvious targets. Like Baldwin and Coates and Richard Wright, Ellison looked to France for answers and, while never actually residing there, he certainly counted André Malraux and Paul Valéry among his hard influences. In writing about Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ellison wisely singled out critics who failed to consider the full extent of African-American humanity even as they simultaneously demanded an on-the-nose and unambiguous “explanation” of who Wright was. (And it’s worth noting that Ellison himself, who was given his first professional writing gig by Wright, was also just as critical of Wright’s ideological propositions as Baldwin.) Ellison described how “the prevailing mood of American criticism has so thoroughly excluded the Negro that it fails to recognize some of the most basic tenets of Western democratic thought when encountering them in a black skin” and deservedly excoriated whites for seeing Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson merely as the ne plus ultra of African-American artistic innovation rather than the beginning of a great movement.

shriversombreroAt issue, in Ellison’s time and today, is the degree to which any individual voice is allowed to express himself. And Ellison rightly resented any force that would stifle this, whether it be the lingering dregs of Southern slavery telling the African-American how he must act or who he must be in telling his story as well as the myopic critics who would gainsay any voice by way of their boxlike assumptions about other Americans. One sees this unthinking lurch towards authoritarianism today with such white supremacists as Jonathan Franzen, Lionel Shriver, and the many Brooklyn novelists who, despite setting their works in gentrified neighborhoods still prominently populated by African-Americans, fail to include, much less humanize, black people who still live there.

“White supremacist” may seem like a harshly provocative label for any bumbling white writer who lacks the democratic bonhomie to leave the house and talk with other people and consider that those who do not share his skin color may indeed share more common experience than presumed. But if these writers are going to boast about how their narratives allegedly tell the truth about America while refusing to accept challenge for their gaping holes and denying the complexity of vital people who make up this great nation, then it seems apposite to bring a loaded gun to a knife fight. If we accept Ellison’s view of race as “an irrational sea in which Americans flounder like convoyed ships in a gale,” then it is clear that these egotistical, self-appointed seers are buckling on damaged vessels hewing to shambling sea routes mapped out by blustering navigators basking in white privilege, hitting murky ports festooned with ancient barnacles that they adamantly refuse to remove.

Franzen, despite growing up in a city in which half the population is African-American, recently told Slate‘s Isaac Chotiner that he could not countenance writing about other races because he has not loved them or gone out of his way to know them and thus excludes non-white characters from his massive and increasingly mediocre novels. Shriver wrote a novel, The Mandibles, in which the only black characters are (1) Leulla, bound to a chair and walked with a leash, and (2) Selma, who speaks in a racist Mammy patois (“I love the pitcher of all them rich folk having to cough they big piles of gold”). She then had the effrontery to deliver a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival arguing for the right to “try on other people’s hats,” failing to understand that creating dimensional characters involves a great deal more than playing dress-up at the country club. She quoted from a Margot Kaminski review of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee that offered the perfectly reasonable consideration, one that doesn’t deny an author’s right to cross boundaries, that an author may wish to take “special care…with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.” Such forethought clearly means constructing an identity that is more human rather than crassly archetypal, an eminently pragmatic consideration on how any work of contemporary art should probably reflect the many identities that make up our world. But for Shriver, a character should be manipulated at an author’s whim, even if her creative vagaries represent an impoverishment of imagination. For Shriver, inserting another nonwhite, non-heteronormative character into The Mandibles represented “issues that might distract from my central subject moment of apocalyptic economics.” Which brings us back to Ellison’s question of “Americanization” and how “the diverse American peoples” are indeed regularly affected by the decisions of those who uphold the status quo, whether overtly or covertly.

Writer Maxine Benba-Clarke bravely confronted Shriver with the full monty of this dismissive racism and Shriver responded, “When I come to your country. I expect. To be treated. With hospitality.” And with that vile and shrill answer, devoid of humanity and humility, Shriver exposed the upright incomprehension of her position, stepping from behind the arras as a kind of literary Jan Smuts for the 21st century.1

If this current state of affairs represents a bristling example of Giambattista Vico’s corsi e ricorsi, and I believe it does, then Ellison’s essay, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” astutely demonstrates how this cultural amaurosis went down before, with 20th century authors willfully misreading Mark Twain, failing to see that Huck’s release of Jim represented a moment that not only involved recognizing Jim as a human being, but admitting “the evil implicit in his ’emancipation'” as well as Twain accepting “his personal responsibility in the condition of society.” With great creative power comes great creative responsibility. Ellison points to Ernest Hemingway scouring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn merely for its technical accomplishments rather than this moral candor and how William Faulkner, despite being “the greatest artist the South has produced,” may not be have been quite the all-encompassing oracle, given that The Unvanquished‘s Ringo is, despite his loyalty, devoid of humanity. In another essay on Stephen Crane, Ellison reaffirms that great art involves “the cost of moral perception, of achieving an informed sense of life, in a universe which is essentially hostile to man and in which skill and courage and loyalty are virtues which help in the struggle but by no means exempt us from the necessary plunge into the storm-sea-war of experience.” And in the essays on music that form the book’s second section (“Sound and the Mainstream”), Ellison cements this ethos with his personal experience growing up in the South. If literature might help us to confront the complexities of moral perception, then the lyrical, floating tones of a majestic singer or a distinctive cat shredding eloquently on an axe might aid us in expressing it. And that quest for authentic expression is forever in conflict with audience assumptions, as seen with such powerful figures as Charlie Parker, whom Ellison describes as “a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos…served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which had but the slightest notion of its real significance.”

What makes Ellison’s demands for inclusive identity quite sophisticated is the vital component of admitting one’s own complicity, an act well beyond the superficial expression of easily forgotten shame or white guilt that none of the 20th or the 21st century writers identified here have had the guts to push past. And Ellison wasn’t just a writer who pointed fingers. He held himself just as accountable, as seen in a terrific 1985 essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter” (not included in Shadow and Act, but found in Going with the Territory), in which Ellison writes about how he went to the theatre to see Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. (I wrote about Tobacco Road in 2011 as part of this series and praised the way that this still volatile novel pushes its audience to confront its own prejudices against the impoverished through remarkably flamboyant characters.) Upon seeing wanton animal passion among poor whites on the stage, Ellison burst into an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter, which emerged as he was still negotiating the rituals of New York life shortly after arriving from the South. Ellison compared his reaction, which provoked outraged leers from the largely white audience, to an informal social ceremony he observed while he was a student at Tuskegee that involved a set of enormous whitewashed barrels labeled FOR COLORED placed in public space. If an African-American felt an overwhelming desire to laugh, he would thrust his head into the pit of the barrel and do so. Ellison observes that African-Americans “who in light of their social status and past condition of servitude were regarded as having absolutely nothing in their daily experience which could possibly inspire rational laughter.” And the expression of this inherently human quality, despite being a cathartic part of reckoning with identity and one’s position in the world, was nevertheless positioned out of sight and thus out of mind.

When I took an improv class at UCB earlier this year, I had an instructor who offered rather austere prohibitions to any strain of humor considered “too dark” or “punching down,” which would effectively disqualify both Tobacco Road and the Tuskegee barrel ritual that Ellison describes.2 These restrictions greatly frustrated me and a few of my classmates, who didn’t necessarily see the exploration of edgy comic terrain as a default choice, but merely one part of asserting an identity inclusive of many perspectives. I challenged the notion of confining behavior to obvious choices and ended up getting a phone call from the registrar, who was a smart and genial man and with whom I ended up having a friendly and thoughtful volley about comedy. I had apparently been ratted out by one student, who claimed that I was “disrupting” the class when I was merely inquiring about my own complicity in establishing base reality. In my efforts to further clarify my position, I sent a lengthy email to the instructor, one referencing “An Extravagance of Laughter,” and pointed out that delving into the uncomfortable was a vital part of reckoning with truth and ensuring that you grew your voice and evolved as an artist. I never received a reply. I can’t say that I blame him.

Ellison’s inquiry into the roots of how we find common ground with others suggests that we may be able to do so if we (a) acknowledge the completeness of other identities and (b) allow enough room for necessary catharsis and the acknowledgment of our feelings and our failings as we take baby steps towards better understanding each other.

The most blistering firebomb in the book is, of course, the infamous essay “The World and the Jug,” which demonstrates just what happens when you assume rather than take the time to know another person. It is a refreshingly uncoiled response that one could not imagine being published in this age of “No haters” reviewing policies and genial retreat from substantive subjects in today’s book review sections. Reacting to Irving Howe’s “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Ellison condemns Howe for not seeing “a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell” and truly hammers home the need for all art to be considered on the basis of its human experience rather than the spectator’s constricting inferences. Howe’s great mistake was to view all African-American novels through the prism of a “protest novel” and this effectively revealed his own biases against what black writers had to say and very much for certain prerigged ideas that Howe expected them to say. “Must I be condemned because my sense of Negro life was quite different?” writes Ellison in response to Howe roping him in with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. And Ellison pours on the vinegar by not only observing how Howe self-plagiarized passages from previous reviews, but how his intractable ideology led him to defend the “old-fashioned” violence contained in Wright’s The Long Dream, which, whatever its merits, clearly did not keep current with the changing dialogue at the time.

Shadow and Act, with its inclusion of interviews and speeches and riffs on music (along with a sketch of a struggling mother), may be confused with a personal scrapbook. But it is, first and foremost, one man’s effort to assert his identity and his philosophy in the most cathartic and inclusive way possible. We still have much to learn from Ellison more than fifty years after these essays first appeared. And while I will always be galvanized by James Baldwin (who awaits our study in a few years), Ralph Ellison offers plentiful flagstones to face the present and the future.

SUPPLEMENT: One of the great mysteries that has bedeviled Ralph Ellison fans for decades is the identity of the critic who attacked Invisible Man as a “literary race riot.” In a Paris Review interview included in Shadow and Act, Ellison had this to say about the critic:

But there is one widely syndicated critical bankrupt who made liberal noises during the thirties and has been frightened ever since. He attacked my book as a “literary race riot.”

With the generous help of Ellison’s biographer Arnold Rampersad (who gave me an idea of where the quote might be found in an email volley) and the good people at the New York Public Library, I have tracked down the “widely syndicated critical bankrupt” in question.

sterlingnorthHis name is Sterling North, best known for the children’s novel Rascal in 1963. He wrote widely popular (and rightly forgotten) children’s books while writing book reviews for various newspapers. North was such a vanilla-minded man that he comics “a poisonous mushroom growth” and seemed to have it in for any work of art that dared to do something different — or that didn’t involve treacly narratives involving raising baby raccoons.

And then, in the April 16, 1952 issue of the New York World-Telegram, he belittled Ellison’s masterpiece, writing these words:

This is one of the most tragic and disturbing books I have ever read. For the most part brilliantly written and deeply sincere, it is, at the same time, bitter, violent and unbalanced. Except for a few closing pages in which the author tries to express something like a sane outlook on race relations, it is composed largely of such scenes of interracial strife that it achieves the effect of one continuous literary race riot. Ralph Ellison is a Negro with almost as much writing talent as Richard Wright. Like his embittered hero (known only as “I’ throughout the book, Mr. Ellison received scholarships to help him through college, one from the State of Oklahoma which made possible three years at the Tuskegee Institute, and one from the Rosenwald Foundation.

If Mr. Ellison is as scornful and bitter about this sort of assistance as he lets his “hero” be, those who made the money available must wonder if it was well spent.

North’s remarkably condescending words offer an alarming view of the cultural oppression that Ellison was fighting against and serve as further justification for Ellison’s views in Shadow and Act. Aside from his gross mischaracterization of Ellison’s novel, there is North’s troubling assumptions that Ellison should be grateful in the manner of an obsequious and servile stereotype, only deserves a scholarship if he writes a novel that fits North’s limited idea of what African-American identity should be, and that future white benefactors should think twice about granting opportunities for future uppity Ellisons.

It’s doubtful that The Sterling North Society will recognize this calumny, but this is despicable racism by any measure. A dive into North’s past also reveals So Dear to My Heart, a 1948 film adaptation of North’s Midnight and Jeremiah that reveled in Uncle Tom representations of African-Americans.

North’s full review of The Invisible Man can be read below:


Next Up: James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough!

Tobacco Road (Modern Library #91)

(This is the tenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Ironweed)

Like many great writers of the 20th century, Erskine Caldwell experienced difficulties keeping his dick in his pants. While such bulging foibles aren’t normally the stuff of pertinent consideration, Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered (edited by Edwin T. Arnold and published by the University Press of Mississippi) is the rare academic volume offering a partially persuasive case that Caldwell’s philandering was one throbbing element of the creative package.

In an essay titled “Caldwell’s Women,” Harvey L. Klevar writes, “During the first decade of his career — during the period he was married to Helen — he published quality novels and stories enough to satisfy a lifetime’s quota for an average writer.” Helen Caldwell Cushman, Erskine’s first wife, didn’t just correct Erskine’s mistakes and critique and type his fiction. She apparently allowed Erskine to carry on extramarital affairs, with the family living in near destitution as Erskine plugged away. How does Klevar know all this? Well, in the same volume, Klevar scored an interview with Helen, digging up considerable dirt. On their first date, Erskine told Helen, “I’d like to knock you in the head with a rock and go to bed with you.” As pickup lines go, that’s somewhat audacious for the early 1920s. Yet Helen managed to stick around. Erskine’s effrontery carried on into their wedding night, when Erskine took Helen to five burlesque shows. Years into the marriage, Erskine’s reliance on Helen had reached remarkable heights:

I used to cut his work. I used to cut through with a big blue pencil. And I corrected his errors. When he was in the throes of creation, shall we call it, he was completely inapproachable, and nobody was allowed to make any noise in this house. And don’t think that was easy, with two young children. I had to keep them out of the way. He wrote very painfully and was possessed to write. He had this internal compulsion. And I was truly interested in his work or I would have left him long, long before.

Many floundering marriages squeeze in a few additional years because of money or children or tax advantages or a capitulation to religious hypocrisy. But I was amazed that Helen suffered Erskine’s cavalier caprices simply because she was curious about his writing. It’s a testament to either Erskine’s wild originality or Helen’s supreme patience.

Klevar also reports in his book-length biography that Caldwell started work on his first novel, Tobacco Road, not long after Helen’s father died, just after Christmas 1930. It’s also worth noting that Caldwell informed legendary Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins that he was “trying to get a new book started,” only to finish the novel in rough draft less than three months later. On May 4, 1931, Perkins received the manuscript, a little more than two weeks after Caldwell finished the rough draft. Was Helen instrumental in getting the book up to speed in such a short time? Perkins would later reply, “I’ll tell you plainly that I think myself [Tobacco Road] is well nigh perfect within its limits.” Another biography by Dan B. Miller suggests that Caldwell began writing Tobacco Road “six months before in California, and completed the actual writing in only three months.” On the other hand, Miller also writes that, despite Helen trimming “a bit here and there,” “the bulk of the novel remained as Caldwell had originally written it.”

I bring up the salacious details not to impugn or slander Erskine Caldwell, although there are many reasons for austere moralists to disapprove of his life choices (in Erskine’s defense, he would stay with his fourth and final wife Virginia — initially his editorial assistant and secretary — for close to thirty years). One must take great care to separate the art from the artist. Yet Caldwell’s fiction, with its truths about human perversity rooted in the libidinal and the louche, often resonates so strongly that one cannot help but consider these personal circumstances.

* * *

I will say that I’ve enjoyed Erskine Caldwell’s writing a great deal ever since I first read his salacious short stories (along with Cheever, de Maupssant, Maugham, and many others) as an aimless yet endlessly curious undergrad reading books while working evening and graveyard shifts as a desk clerk at a halfway house in the Tenderloin. When you’re a shy kid scrutinizing and buzzing in recovering heroin addicts and former alcoholics and ex-prostitutes and sundry streetwise fulminators, you become more willing to give people a second chance. Caldwell’s outlandish tales, especially when read at 3AM, were helpful vessels for this raucous world.

Yet for some reason (likely laziness or obliviousness), I never got around to reading Tobacco Road until a few weeks ago. I hadn’t read Caldwell in recent years, mainly because I have resisted revisiting authors who meant much to me as a young man. The profound insights one purports to detect at twenty are silly and superficial when one edges closer to forty.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy Tobacco Road as much as I did. This is a rare novel that not only gets the vernacular exact, but that forces an audience outside this world to confront its own inherent prejudices about the impoverished. (When Tobacco Road was turned into a play by Jack Kirkland — the 15th longest running Broadway show in history — did its success have more to do with New York audiences laughing at their own biases about the seemingly backward or the overt sexuality? Caldwell’s most lucid answer on the subject came from a 1941 interview in The Washington Star: “When people laugh at the antics of Jeeter Lester, they’re only trying to cover up their feelings. They see what they might sink to.”)

Five pages into the book, Lov Bensey, just after walking seven and a half miles with a sack of turnips on his back (no convenience stores in Depression era Georgia, of course) and just after complaining about his twelve-year-old wife not sleeping with him, is already “thinking about taking some plow-lines and tying Pearl in the bed at night. He had tried everything he could think of so far, except force, and he was still determined to make her act as he thought a wife should.” I love how Caldwell orphans the phrase “except force” in commas, suggesting that there’s another level to Lov’s ruminations. What makes this situation perversely funny is how Lov seeks advice from his father-in-law Jeeter Lester before going ahead with this plan. He requires confirmation from another that this terrible idea is terrible.

While it’s certainly true that we all possess terrible ideas, if you subscribe to any religious or philosophical ideas of universal enlightenment, you’re probably inclined to believe that there is a common goodness within every soul which repairs these base instincts. This essential goodness generates remorse, reconsideration, penitence, and numerous other feelings in response to previous actions.

The Lester family contains seventeen kids (at least one of them not sired by Jeeter) who have all occupied the ramshackle environs of Tobacco Road and have largely stuck it out waiting to be married off. When the aptly named Lov shows up at the beginning of Tobacco Road to complain about Pearl, there are only two kids left: the harelipped Ellie May and the baseball thumping and car horn blasting Dude. (Physical infirmities abound in this novel. When Bessie Rice shows up later, tricking Dude into a shotgun wedding without the premarital fumbling, her underdeveloped and boneless nose is compared to “looking down the end of a double-barrel shotgun.”)

Escape would seem to be the only option for the Lester kids. Yet in fleeing this poverty, do they not become as sneering in their own way as the judgmental northern audiences reading this book? We learn that the oldest child, Tom, has become a successful cross-tie contractor “at a place about twenty miles away.” Later, when members of the family attempt to pay Tom a visit in Burke County, Tom wants nothing to do with them. Upon hearing this news, Jeeter repeats the phrase, “That sure don’t sound like Tom talking,” almost as if it’s a curative mantra to help one cope with an unforgiving reality. Another child, Lizzie Belle, has fled to a cotton mill, but “had not said which one she was going to work in.”

Are these characters good in some way? Have the Lesters developed any standards approximating some form of enlightenment? These questions of civilization — the brutal northern metric Caldwell passes along uncomfortably to the reader — hardly matter when these people are so impoverished. Especially when the impoverishment hinges upon how they believe the world operates (rather than how it really operates) and how capitalism has exploited them. Unable to raise a profitable cotton crop and denied the credit to purchase guano and seed-cotton, we learn that Jeeter has been forced to take a high-interest loan where it’s impossible for him to get back into the black. The financial situation sounds eerily similar to predatory lending during the recent subprime crisis:

The interest on the loan amounted to three per cent a month to start with, and at the end of ten months he had been charged thirty per cent, and on top of that another thirty per cent on the unpaid interest. Then to make sure that the loan was fully protected, Jeeter had to pay the sum of fifty dollars. He could never understand why he had to pay that, and the company did not undertake to explain it to him. when he had asked what the fifty dollars was meant to cover, he was told that it was merely the fee for making the loan….Seven dollars for a year’s labor did not seem to him a fair portion of the proceeds from the cotton, especially as he had done all the work, and had furnished the land and mule, too.

Jeeter still believes that he can get the farm back, even though he has sold off nearly every possession. And it is this tragicomic belief which sustains the Lester legacy, even after death and tragedy, in the book’s final paragraph. Should the Lesters, however repugnant they are perceived, be condemned because they have aspirations? This is a difficult question for elitists to swallow. Even the seemingly progressive-minded Kenneth White, writing in the July 16, 1932 issue of The Nation, complained, “There is nothing sentimental, for example, about Jeeter’s lyrical speeches of complaint, for everything is complained about. The error of the last words of the book is the error of dropping the comic method to point a moral.” What White failed to understand was that the comic, the sentimental, and the moral exist simultaneously in Caldwell’s novel. Judging by some of the surprisingly harsh reactions to Tobacco Road on Goodreads (“it seems like we were meant to laugh at the horrible people doing stupid things and making disastrous decisions, but what’s the fun in that?” or “I was horrified at what I perceived Caldwell was trying to do: get us to laugh at abject poverty, ignorance, and low down misery.”), it would appear that people remain just as uncomfortable contending with these blended emotions nearly eight decades after the book’s publication.

Caldwell is careful to demonstrate that surviving based on how one thinks isn’t confined to the low-class Lesters. When Bessie Rice cajoles Dude Lester into marrying her, bribing the young Dude with the purchase of a car with nearly the total savings of her recently departed husband, the Clerk asks the couple how they intend to support each other. “Is that in the law, too?” asks Bessie. “Well, no,” replies the Clerk. “The law doesn’t require that question, but I thought I’d like to know about it myself.”

Does the answer to one simple question offer the smoking gun? People, even the ones we frown upon, are more complicated than this. Should we judge Erskine Caldwell on his adultery or the Lesters on their apparent atavism? If all of us remain judgmental to some degree, believing we know or assuming we are entitled to know, perhaps all of us occupy some form of Tobacco Road.

Next: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children!