Editor’s Note: “Underground Nashville” covers artists, authors, musicians, poets, political figures, and other compelling people and happenings not typically covered by the mainstream Nashville media. It also presents reflections and commentary from an underground/indie perspective. As I told ‘The Tennessean’ in 2008, “since moving to Nashville twenty-five years ago, I have met people whose lives do not remotely reflect the caricature of what many outside our city presume to be a ‘Nashvillian’ or the Nashville experience.” “Underground Nashville” thus explores the soul of the city, not its surface—offering “thoughts from the shadows of a great American city.”
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Book review by Roy E. Perry: “Erskine Caldwell: The Journey from Tobacco Road” by Dan B. Miller
Mark Twain once wrote, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Dan B. Miller (Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University) has written a biography, Erskine Caldwell: The Journey from Tobacco Road) concerning which Twain’s aphorism is a propos. As I read Professor Miller’s volume, I was greatly impressed that he continually chooses “the right word” to paint his convincing portrait of Erskine Caldwell. Of the many biographies I have read, his work is one of the best I’ve ever discovered.
Portraying Caldwell as a complex and complicated man, Miller provides an even-handed and fair picture of his subject, warts and all, a man of ingratiating strengths and infuriating weaknesses, a man who could often sink into sullen, moody silence or erupt in angry outbursts, but who could also be generous and unselfish—neither saint nor devil.
William Faulkner (no mean writer himself) one opined that Erskine Caldwell was one of the five greatest writers of his (Faulkner’s) generation. Of Caldwell’s 25 published novels, at least two of them deserve to be placed in the first rank in the canon of American literature: Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933). A third novel is almost as good: Trouble in July (1940). Caldwell also wrote 150 short stories, “Kneel to the Rising Sun” being perhaps the best among them.
What kind of writer was Erskine Caldwell. Was he a comic satirist? an amoral sensationalist? a social propaganda writer? a plain realist? Miller writes, “He was, of course, all these things—a politically conscious writer, with no interest in political dogma, a social realist with a strong taste for the surreal and grotesque, an instinctive and uncalculating artist well versed in current American literature and literary theory.”
Critics often disparaged Caldwell’s novels, because of their steamy sex and gratuitous violence, as being “obscene,” “pornographic,” and “low-class,” and his works were often banned in various cities. Perhaps so, but the best of his works are never boring, and his “comedy” has an undercurrent of tragedy, including vivid descriptions of racial intolerance and violence, the bigotry of religious fundamentalism, the sufferings of the poor, and a strong concern for social justice, the latter bred into him by his beloved and respected minister father, who was his chief muse.
I wish I could convey adequately what an excellent, informative, and satisfying biography this is. It’s evident that a lot of research went into this work, and the style and word choice is remarkable. I recommend this book highly. Kudos to the author! Bravo, Dan B. Miller!
Roy E. Perry of Nolensville, Tennessee was a book reviewer for the ‘Nashville Banner’ and ‘The Tennessean’ for more than thirty years. Now retired, he also was an advertising copywriter at a Nashville publishing house for more than twenty-five years.
David M. (Dave) Carew is writer/editor of “Underground Nashville” and the author of the novels “Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville” and “Voice from the Gutter.” He also is a freelance book editor, publicist, and advertising/marketing/public relations writer.