A Southern Writer Who Rocked the World
Around 8:00 pm in late May, I was searching for something (anything halfway decent) to watch on TV. Programs such as: “I Love My 600-lb. Carcass” and “I Was a Nut Hoarder For 25 Years” didn’t inspire me. And then, I hit on a movie titled “God’s Little Acre” that came out in 1958, with Robert Ryan and Tina Louise, and is based on the best-selling novel by Erskine Caldwell – that I had never read. Within minutes I was caught up in this riveting film.
WHO WAS ERSKINE CALDWELL?
According to an insightful report by Jack Jones, an American journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times, “this author shocked readers and outraged many of his fellow Southerners with unvarnished novels and short stories about squalid life in the cotton country backwoods. Caldwell was the talented writer of ‘Tobacco Road’ (published in 1932) and ‘God’s Little Acre’ – that came out a year later.”
Jones goes on to say that, “Caldwell was one of the most successful writers in history. His books have sold more than 80 million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than 40 languages. But it wasn’t smooth sailing because ‘God’s Little Acre’ was banned in Boston and reviled by many after it was published.”
HE WAS A PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER’S SON
When I read this my jaw dropped. Apparently, as a boy he saw poverty govern the lives of both blacks and whites throughout rural Georgia and other parts of the South so he wrote what he saw – with his own eyes. And, he never seemed perturbed by the criticism he received for putting his seamy images in print.
In 1985 he said, “I must have had an impact for good, rather than bad. There’s been a great deal of change in Georgia and the rural south. If my writing opened someone’s eyes, then I have been successful.”
THE BOOK “TOBACCO ROAD” AS A STAGE PLAY
Now let’s switch to author, Studs Terkel who wrote the book, “Working” (published in 1974) and is “oral histories of everyday people talking about their jobs.” This is a fascinating book that includes an interview with writer-producer, Jack Kirkland, who brought Caldwell’s book, “Tobacco Road” to the Broadway stage where it ran for close to eight years. (The royalties from this stage play alone were enough to keep Caldwell comfortable for many years.)
WHO WAS JACK KIRKLAND?
Here’s his story: “In the spring of 1932, I woke up with a violent hangover. That afternoon, my agent gave me the book ‘Tobacco Road’ to read. He said, “You’re a southerner, you’ll dig this. I went home with my hangover and read it. I said to myself, ‘This is a play.’ I took the book and went to live in Majorca for four months. I was quite broke at the time.”
He completed the play in Hollywood where he wrote films for “very big salaries” – one was a highly successful Shirley Temple movie. “Let’s face it,” he says with a laugh, “Shirley Temple is responsible for ‘Tobacco Road’.”
TOBACCO ROAD OPENED ON BROADWAY IN 12/3/33
Kirkland says, “No one would touch it – they were all afraid. I put up all the money myself. The reviews were not too good, except for the raves for Henry Hull’s performance. Then the ‘Daily News’ newspaper liked it and wrote an editorial. The next day we were in – George Jean Nathan, Bob Benchley, Dorothy Parker, all came out for it.”
“Mrs. Roosevelt came down to Atlanta when it opened there. She did this in case there was any trouble. But there was none whatsoever. For the next eight years, I had a swinging time. Everything was so reasonable and my income was so big,” he says laughing again. Overall, I think this is a great story. And here am I – in 2019 watching a movie based on a book published in 1932. That’s longevity plus-plus.