Friday, February 27, 2004

Tobacco Road

I can't decide whether Erskine Caldwell was trying to write an exposé on the abject poverty of rural South during the Great Depression or lurid, exploitative trash. While it certainly is not a Depression literary classic like The Grapes of Wrath, it is a highly entertaining black comedy about the physical and moral squalor of poor white sharecroppers in rural Georgia during the height of the Great Depression. Caldwell’s purpose seems more to ridicule and entertain than to effect social change, because the characters are highly unsympathetic, grotesque caricatures who are active agents in their own misfortune as they try to eke out a living from the exhausted and depleted soil of the sand hills of Georgia.

The central character is the Jeeter family patriarch, Jed, a shiftless sharecropper who daydreams of raising a big cotton crop but never quite gets around to doing the work that that would entail. The only thing he’s capable of producing seems to be children, of which he has 17 (best that he can recollect), who all flee the farm for marriage or the mills of Augusta as soon as they reach adolescence, never to be seen or heard from by their parents again. This saddens Jed, not because he misses his children, but because he thinks that they should be sending money home. He and his wife and remaining children are lethargic and anemic from hookworm, and suffer from various other 3rd world nutritional diseases like pellagra and rickets. Picture the inbred backwoods cretins of Deliverance (also set in rural Georgia). But Burt and friends would have been safe from being stalked, terrorized, and raped by Jeeter and kin, because that would require the Jeeters' having the gumption to get up off their porch and expend some energy.

Whatever the literary merit of Tobacco Road, the Jeeters remain in our national consciousness and have affected perceptions and stereotypes of the rural South ever since it was published (it was also made into a long running Broadway play and a movie), much to the dismay of the those interested in Southern boosterism. Jed and his family were clearly inspiration for the Clampetts of The Beverly Hillbillies. One of Jed Jeeter's daughters is even named Ellie May, although his Ellie May is a harelipped half-wit who is perpetually in heat, not at all like the comely but wholesome animal healer Ellie May Clampett.

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