The Charlotte News



Caldwell, Faulkner Romantic


I have two or three times before undertaken to argue on this page that writers like Erskine Caldwell and Faulkner, are essentially romantic writers, instead of the stark and terrible realists they are usually charged with being.

Hence it is with a good deal of interest that I find Paula Snelling maintaining essentially the same thesis in a review of John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" in the autumn issue of the North Georgia Review, which she edits at Clayton in the company of Lillian Smith.

Says she:

"When a writer deals with a group of lower cultural level than that of the potential readers of his book, there is the temptation to rely too heavily upon their uncouthness, upon their quaintness, upon the tang of their speech, and to bait the reader overmuch with the baldness of their sexual talk. Though Steinbeck does not capitalize on this in the manner that Caldwell does it--that is, such seducing as he does is employed toward the end of saving our souls, not of exploiting them--I believe he assumes (along with so many of our generation) there is a basic incompatibility between hard-boiledness and romanticism, that the crustacean is immune to sentimentality; that when an author has depicted the crude manners of his characters he has attained a realistic attitude toward them. Whereas realism demands the probing for the accepting of truth, palatable or unpalatable, at every level of the human soul and its relationships."

That, I think, sums it up pretty thoroughly.


In reality, and though I have used the term, the Caldwells, the Faulkners and the Steinbecks, are not only [not] realists, they are not romantics either, for the great romantic novel of the old tradition was intent on probing the human soul after its own fashion also. What they really are is purveyors of the picturesque--the old-fashioned "romanticism" of the South in reverse, dealing with obscene poor-whites instead of lordly ladies and loyal old slaves, but dealing with them in essentially the same spirit of an eye for the gaudy! The materials in the one case, to be sure, never existed anywhere on land or sea save in the imaginations of their creators, whereas the persons of the three moderns often have a distinct resemblance to the facts of life. The notion that they are realists, indeed, has arisen mainly from the fact that a great many people take realism and brutally frank treatment of sexual themes as being synonyms.

I am not trying to cry any of them down. I like Caldwell a good deal, for with all his faults he has a sardonic sense of humor that sometimes raises Jeeter Lester and the rest of his brood to Rabelaisian proportions. It has not been generally noted, but it seems to me that "Tobacco Road" is, among other things, a near-great comic novel. Maybe you have to go to Dr. Freud to get a theory of comedy to fit that view of the matter, but the fact that comedy is cruel does not deprive it of its comic nature, as Rabelais, as well as Aristophanes, understood. Indeed, great comedy and great cruelty often go together, in life as in books. Hitler is as funny as Charlie Chapman, who invented him before Hitler had the idea.


Steinbeck seems to me to be an excellent reporter, so far he goes, and my prejudices all run with his in the matter of the dust-bowlers and the little despised and ignored people at the pitiful bottom of the American social scale.

As for Faulkner--I liked "The Sound and the Fury" enormously, could take "As I Lay Dying" and "Sanctuary." But lately he seems to settle down to trying to mix Margaret Mitchell, turned savage, with badly assimilated and entirely extraneous James Joyce. It does not seem to be a promising attempt.

But, for all their merits, the criticism still holds--their people are two-dimensional creatures as surely as were the old ladies and gentlemen of the Thomas Nelson Page school. They talk more like recognizable human creatures, and execute antics that brand them as at least as human as guinea pigs. But they are in the end simply abstractions made up of various unlovely human realities. Did anybody ever see a Faulkner hero in the life? Of course not; they walk through his pages as fleeting ghosts. White men, who exhibit the characteristics which distinguish old Jeeter Lester and his family, are common enough in Dixie, the sentimentalists to the contrary notwithstanding. But no one, you may lay to it, ever saw white men in Dixie or anywhere else who performed on the strictly behavioristic level which Caldwell attributes to them.

Do you remember Will in "Gods Little Acre?" I know Will as does every white Southerner who has had contact with the people who till the land and run the mills of the South. Will is a great romantic hero in his heart--carries in himself a tradition and dream which is the explanation of his deeds. But you would never suspect it from Mr. Caldwell's report of him, just as you would never suspect that his women were anything but half-bawds, half-drudges kept around to feed the animals and perpetuate the race.

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