Poverty, Depravity and Desperation in the Rural South
Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel Tobacco Road is at once a brute force portrayal of the Depression-era poverty of the Deep South and an exaggeration of rural southern stereotypes. But the story serves as a potent reminder of the despair of the not-to-distant past, and how ordinary people were left to fend for themselves at the hands of an indifferent and predatory society that was undergoing seismic change. Caldwell’s book resonates loudly today, lest there’s a return to a time when government, and citizens, abandoned the most vulnerable. Although Caldwell’s depiction of poor, white tenant farmers might be characterize as unkind and perhaps unfair, he does so in order to highlight the lack of opportunities for improvement, and the soul-stealing poverty, which were prevalent for sharecroppers during this time. While the lurid details in the book surrounding death, lust, sex, ignorance, backwardness and physical deformity could be considered sensational, Caldwell uses these shocking elements to alert the reader to the simple truth that the landless class of the Deep South suffered profoundly and in ways that other Americans could never have imagined.
The Lester’s are a poor sharecropping family with virtually nothing to eat. Their main concern is survival, not with making appearances. The Lester family, and in the main character of Jeeter, stand as a representation of changes taking place in Georgia, and the entire south, as the agrarian lifestyle slowly gave way to the promise of the city.
Jeeter and his family epitomize this struggle, and the different forms that hope can take. The lure of the city, and the cotton mill, does not entice Jeeter. He stubbornly refuses to even consider leaving the land, even if it means starvation. He hopefully burns the fields each spring, waiting for salvation to intervene and allow him to find the means to plant again. But many of his children...