ERSKINE CALDWELL: The Journey From Tobacco Road by Dan B. Miller (Alfred A. Knopf: $30; 459 pp.). Erskine Caldwell, writes history teacher Dan Miller in the preface to this biography, has performed "one of the greatest disappearing acts in our literary history." As late as the early 1960s, as his paperback publisher New American Library loved to proclaim, he was "The World's Best-Selling Author!"; by the time of his death in 1987 Caldwell had sold something like 70 million books. Today, though, he's little more than an academic footnote, rarely read and known mainly for the titles of his earliest and best novels--"Tobacco Road," "God's Little Acre." One picks up this volume hoping Miller will explain Caldwell's eclipse, and he does so (mostly between the lines), but Miller proves such an accomplished and reliable biographer you're willing to go anywhere he leads.

The only child of a liberal Presbyterian minister and a distant, controlling mother, Caldwell grew up contemptuous of his native South and any form of authority. He was a terrible student at every level, and only Caldwell's enormous ambition and love of hard work plus the sponsorship of legendary editor Maxwell Perkins allowed him to become anything more than a hack journalist. After countless rejections, usually taken very personally, Caldwell found uneasy, uneven acceptance in the literary community when a few important critics began to see he delivered gritty, unromantic and credible portraits of Southern life far removed from the sentimental "moonbeams and magnolias" school.

Usually highly sexual for their time and often censored, Caldwell's novels would eventually make him rich, first through the stage adaptation of "Tobacco Road" (it closed on Broadway in 1941 after a record-breaking eight-year run) and then the postwar explosion in paperback sales, prompted in large part by garish and suggestive covers. Success seemed to spoil Caldwell, however, for he began living the high life, signing Hollywood script contracts, marrying party-loving photographer Margaret Bourke-White (the second of his four wives) and coming to regard writing as just another job. He remained a good reporter, publishing books on international subjects as well as the South (often in collaboration with Bourke-White), but as a novelist he seemed unable to develop, his fiction coming to resemble his paperback covers--repetitive, slapdash, cliched, pointlessly coarse. Miller is sympathetic but not indulgent toward Caldwell, chronicling both his violent personality (he beat his sons) and outrage at injustice, and realizes that Caldwell's life story is, above all, a good tale.

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