When Erskine Caldwell wrote the novel Tobacco Road in 1934, the southern United States was still mired in the agricultural decline that began way before the Civil War and continued into the 1960s. My friend Jill Breckenridge describes its beginning in her poetic sequence Civil Blood (1986). Using the voice of a slave named Jacob, she writes: ” …ain’t nothing/you can give a dying field when they’re bound on working it to death.” Two crops planted each year, “corn takes more than her share, then wheat or rye…never planted in sweet clover…then tobacco…those brown leaves drinking up the little life that’s left.”
By the time Jeter and Ada Lester have raised seventeen children, each year falling further behind, the Georgia land that gave the road its name has long been planted in cotton. It now yields only a half bale an acre. But Jeter can’t afford to plant even that–the Captain who used to stake share croppers to cotton seed and guano for fertilizer has moved to Augusta. Though he’ll let the share-cropper families remain in the shacks, he won’t pour any more of his money into the used-up land.
Breckenridge describes how her ancestors left Virginia’s exhausted land in the 1790s to settle in Kentucky. Jeter Lester’s family has grubbed a kind of living from the same Georgia soil for probably 150 years, each year, the yield lessening until by the 1930s, the family is as worn down as the earth, barely able to do more than pretend to plant, their car completely wrecked; their house as gap-toothed as the old grandmother who hides from Jeter, Ada and their two remaining children, the old grandmother afraid they’ll hit her if they see her.
I’ve encountered this dirt-poor poverty in James Agee’s magesterial Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), but his prose is so elaborate and filagreed with compassion and intelligence that it’s hard to see through it to the mental and emotional poverty of his subjects. Now so with Caldwell who writes with a spare, dry humor that lets Jeter and his kin flake into awareness before our eyes. Jeter keeps going because he suspends disbelief in himself, his situation, even what is quite morally fit. He encourages his 16-year-old son Dude to marry with the preacher lady Bessie partly because he, Jeter, has the hots for Bessie too, but also because her dead husband has left her $800 and she aims to buy an automobile.
There’s nothing Jeter admires more than an automobile. When he gets a ride with Dude and Bessie, their trip to Augusta has all the makings of a carnival on half-shares. There’s a huge meal of cheese and crackers–mind you, the Lesters have almost nothing to eat from one day to the next. Their cornmeal is run out, fat back too. With no income and no likelihood of one from a crop, Lester decides to cut scrub oak and try to sell a load for firewood in Augusta. This second of his trips in Bessie’s new car ends in disappointment and disaster–the car overheats, the boy Dude has a second (or is it a third) accident, and no one wants to buy the scrub oak. But spending the night in a “hotel” in Augusta nets Bessie a sly stint as a prostitute. It’s amazing how the good Lord does provide. “I don’t know when I’ve had so much fun,” admits Bessie.
Through all this, the reader wavers between disbelief–can the Lesters be this close to starvation and receive no aid from kin or community? What about those 15 older children who have moved to the towns and work in the cotton mills? After disbelief comes amusement and a growing acknowledgment that the Lesters hang on because they’re great at fooling themselves and fooling around. It’s backwoods humor, not 1830s-style, but 1930s’ ribald, sly, teetering on the brink of destitution.
I won’t tell you how it ends because I hope you’ll borrow Mark Hammer’s wonderfully droll reading of Tabacco Road from the library. Or read the book itself, though for my money, it won’t be as much fun. Hammer is astonishingly believeable as Jeter, as Bessie, as Dude, even as the cleft-palate teen Ellie Mae, whose slide downhill toward a cute male kinfolk is one of the slyest sex scenes I’ve ever encountered. Politically correct, it ain’t. But down-to-earth and believable, it surely is.