How the Proletarian Novel Became Mass Culture: God's Little Acre and the Realist Aesthetics of the 1930s Left
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In September 1936, Margaret Mitchell responded to a letter from an admiring fan regarding published novel Gone with the Wind. The fan, a doctor from Ohio, had apparently asked her if she knew the work of the other famous Southern writer at the time, Erskine Caldwell. "I did not see 'Tobacco Road' but I read the book", she replied, referring to the famous Broadway play. "When I read it I thought it was intended for a grand parody on the gloomy Russian novelists and I laughed almost as much as I did over 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'. Shortly afterwards, I learned it was supposed to be stark realism and must admit I was somewhat bewildered!" (Harwell 60). The exact contents of the original letter from Ohio have been lost, but the fan’s reference to Caldwell suggests a competing narrative of the South circulating on the national stage at that particular historical moment. Mitchell and Caldwell wrote from diametrically opposed political constellations in the 1930s and 40s, and their political positions deeply informed each of their portraits of the South. Mitchell's flippant response to Caldwell's claim to realism hints at these constellations, and more. Mitchell debunks the veracity of Caldwell's politics by denying his work the status of realism, relegating it instead to mere mass cultural entertainment (the left, no doubt, would use the same strategy in debunking her work). In doing so, Mitchell points to the way in which, for her generation, the label of realism was necessary to authorize any ontological claims. More specifically, she makes what I consider an accurate observation of left aesthetics; despite the recurrent advocacy of realism by the 1930s left as the only politically valid mode of representation, they did not always practice what they preached, and were at their most successful when they didn't.
Mitchell had good reason to be flippant. Her novel and its cinematic counterpart had already begun to cement a familiar image of the South and its history in the national imagination during the 1930s and 40s – one of bucolic plantations and fertile cotton fields, charming planters and docile slaves. The novel was number 1 on the best seller list in 1936 and 1937, and would sell close to 7 million copies to become one of the bestsellers of the 20th century (Hackett 12, 153-55). Its film adaptation was perhaps even more of a critical and popular success – in 1939, it won 4 academy awards, including best picture, and is still hailed as a cinematic classic (Gertner 51A-52A). To this day, Gone with the Wind has been held as the epic narrative of the South and its history amongst many white Southerners. In making this last claim, I speak from the personal experience of someone raised in Texas and Alabama, who can remember a friend of the family watching the film and crying when I was a child (to this day, this is the only film I recall bringing her to tears). Relatives and friends of relatives in Alabama, few of them avid readers of literature, know the story by heart, and can cite characters in everyday conversation (for example, "She's just like Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind").
It would be easy to conclude from all this that the representations of the South put forward by Gone With The Wind achieved complete hegemony in U.S. popular culture, and further, have been hegemonic for quite some time. But the matter is much more complicated. Much lesser known than Gone With The Wind's popular diffusion is that the novel was eventually outsold by a rival narrative of the South which has been largely forgotten: Caldwell's God's Little Acre. Published in 1933, Caldwell's story of poor white Georgia farmers and mill hands sold over 9 million copies, making it the best-selling work of fiction in the U.S. for the first 70 years of the 20th century (Hackett 12, Arnold 81). Compared to Gone with the Wind however, its transition from page to cinematic stage proved much less remarkable. Released in 1958, its success amongst both critics and audiences was limited at best.
The challenge God's Little Acre posed to Gone with the Wind is significant, for despite the flaws of Caldwell’s work, the portrait of the South he constructed for national audiences held radically different political implications. The setting of Mitchell's work within a sanitized slave economy provided its Depression-era audiences with an Edenic past to look back upon, while its ruthlessly practical heroine offered a moral model for survival after the Fall. Its depictions of African Americans as simple and helpless, as well as its portrayal of poor whites as criminal and treacherous, revised both the slave past and the need for continued planter class control in the present. Not surprisingly, Mitchell was explicitly conservative in her politics. The appeal of Gone With The Wind's general message of 'survival' to Depression-era audiences has already been established by critics.1 Generally overlooked, however, are the ways in which Mitchell came to view her novel’s significance within the battle over class and racial formations of the era, both domestically and abroad. One of her literary associates claimed, for example, "I practiced silence during Margaret's vituperative denunciations of FDR and all his works" (Pryon 438). In a letter to arch-conservative psychologist Dr Henry Link in 1941, she could not contain her pride that he had used her character Scarlett to illustrate his individualist, anti-New Deal philosophy. Referring to the book, and not fascism abroad, Link had written, "Ten million readers! Ten million nostalgic gasps from the victims of a machine concept of social security, a people still faintly protesting against the loss of personal responsibility" (Harwell 342).
Georgia-born Erskine Caldwell, on the other hand, despite his claim to be "a writer, not a reformer," was heavily involved with the various social movements for economic and racial justice in the 1930s and 40s (what cultural historian Michael Denning has labeled "the Popular Front"), and he intended his work to further these movements (Arnold 172). Caldwell sat on the National Advisory Board of the communist Photo League (Alexander 30), supported the Communist Party's presidential candidate in the 1932 election (McDonald 33), wrote for the Popular Front tabloid P.M., and tirelessly agitated for Southern sharecroppers in print and in touring lectures with his second wife Margaret Bourke-White. Given these politics, God's Little Acre eschews the planter class to focus on the attempts of poor-white small farmers and mill hands to make ends meet in the decaying rural Georgia of the Depression. Unique amongst the 'proletarian novels' of the decade, however, we are supposed to empathize with and laugh at his highly flawed characters – at their own notions of racial superiority, at their bizarre attempts to get ahead, at their sexual relationships, etc. As a result, while the film and novel Gone with the Wind is littered with African American stereotypes, the racial and class politics of Caldwell's work were praised by no less than Richard Wright and NAACP president Walter White (Klevar 231).
Considered in the context of the 'proletarian novel', the sales figures of God's Little Acre are even more intriguing. Most class-conscious literary works of factory workers, mill hands, and downtrodden farmers did not achieve a mass audience in the U.S. Of all the anti-capitalist stories of working class life, only Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath made the American top 10 list during the 1930s (Hackett 159). But while Mike Gold, Jack Conroy, Josephine Herbst, and John Dos Passos achieved critical praise but modest popular recognition, seemingly everything Caldwell put to print broke sales records. Out of the top 40 best-selling works of fiction in the U.S. between 1895 and 1965, six were written by Erskine Caldwell (Hackett 12-14).2 In regards to Caldwell, what I would like to address in this chapter are the reasons why God's Little Acre in particular did so well in the arena of mass culture, an arena where so many other proletarian novels did not make their mark. Implicitly, I will be exploring whether or not its success explains the other novels' failure. Was the popularity of God's Little Acre attributable to a compromised political agenda? In what ways did Caldwell infuse narratival structures from his own mass cultural upbringing into the novel’s form, and were these structures antithetical to standards for “proletarian art” held up by left periodicals such as The New Masses and The Daily Worker? Did its comic qualities and sometimes clownish depiction of its downtrodden characters cause it to run afoul of the aesthetic expectations of critics on the left? And if it did depart from the field of properly 'proletarian' art, must it have necessarily done so in order to appear in mass culture at all?
Answering these questions will require an exploration of the politics and aesthetics of the novel, a look at its reception by critics on the left, and a brief consideration of its marketing and textual history. I will argue that Caldwell's popularity can be explained not only by effective marketing, but in his departure from a strict, Marxian realism in favor of a hybrid realism that incorporated mass cultural 'magic'. I will also assert that Caldwell’s vision of the South did indeed run afoul of both the aesthetic expectations of the left and the conservatism of Southern planters. The discomfort of left critics toward Caldwell is reflected in contemporary cultural criticism on the 1930s and 1940s in which, despite his immense diffusion throughout popular culture, he receives scant attention at best. Barbara Foley's Radical Representations and Michael Denning's The Cultural Front, both seminal works on the proletarian novel and left cultural politics of the 1930s, give him only passing mention, and few of the many articles emerging from the revived interest in the 1930s left over the last ten years have dealt with his work in a sustained manner.3 This is not to say that Caldwell’s politics were so avant-garde as to be beyond the register of contemporary scholars; it is merely to say that Caldwell's work provides us with an excellent opportunity to reflect on the conditions under which the proletarian novel could become mass culture: an opportunity which is yet to be explored. Ultimately, as a Southern narrative, God's Little Acre failed to come near the place of Gone with the Wind in the national imagination because of the difficulty of adapting the novel’s particular representational dynamic to film. Further, I will argue that Mitchell's work, and the heroic subjectivity it puts forward, ironically comes far closer to Marxian prescriptions for aesthetic form than anyone at The New Masses would have dared to admit. To establish the particular image of the South that Caldwell and Mitchell wanted to project in the national eye, we should first look at the politics within God's Little Acre and Gone with the Wind, as well as their contemporary critical reception.4
Margaret Mitchell and the Politics of "Gumption"
What made the Gone with the Wind such an organic cultural narrative of so many white Southerners, I would argue, are the ways in which it not only vindicates the historical record of the South within a compelling romance plot, but also, ironically, the way it 'updated' the South to a national audience, showing its protagonists the masters of both modernity and capitalism – the very forces to which the South is supposedly antithetical. More than this – something completely overlooked by its contemporary critics – Gone with the Wind articulated the kind of heroic subjectivity necessary to restore the class and racial formations threatened by Popular Front social movements.
Much has been written about Mitchell's famous narrative. Amazingly, however, very few of the scores of essays written on her work critically examine its class and racial dimensions. Most of the criticism to date has been guided by a second-wave feminism that takes Scarlett's agency as its central consideration. The political significance of Gone with the Wind, according to these critics, is the strength of its protagonist vis-á-vis the male characters, as well as the narrator’s implicit and explicit rebukes of sentimental ideals of womanhood.5 Other contemporary criticism on Mitchell similarly glosses over class and racial considerations in order to produce various other celebratory readings, either of its aesthetic merits, its contribution to Southern intellectual history, or its general message of survival.6 Whether or not Gone with the Wind is properly nostalgic (in other words, whether or not it subverts or maintains the plantation romance) has already been debated within this corpus, but the debate has primarily revolved around the implications of the 'backward glance' for the narrative's gender politics. Breaking with this tendency of the criticism, Tara McPherson (2002) offers a refreshing third wave feminist critique of the novel. She writes that "while at one level Gone with the Wind debates whether Scarlett should side with modernist Atlanta or the agrarian past, this struggle is not just about gender; her character's development also hinges upon a very specific and overt relationship to blackness" (521). McPherson goes on to chart the ways in which the protagonist’s whiteness is defined vis-a-vis the blackness of Mitchell's highly racialized portrayal of Mammy. One could add that Scarlett's relationship to modernity and to notions of blood and bloodlines commonly associated with the more aristocratic, 'agrarian past,' has everything to do with class as well.
As some critics have already argued, Gone with the Wind is not really guided by nostalgia. To be sure, this is not because Mitchell was highly critical of slavery or the antebellum South. The novel presents slave labor as essentially humane; Scarlett's father Gerald, we are told, "could not bear to see a slave pouting under a reprimand, no matter how well deserved, or hear a kitten mewing or a child crying" (19). The southern world enabled by slavery is represented throughout the early part of the novel as a site of abundance, with lavish barbeques (62) and elegant parties. Mitchell makes it quite clear, however, that there is no turning back the clock to this golden age. Though the antebellum South may have been a wonderful place, the war destroyed that society, and Scarlett must repress its memory as much as possible in order to function in the present. Commenting on Scarlett's return to Tara immediately after the war, Mitchell writes: "Throughout the South for fifty years there would be bitter-eyed women who looked backward to dead times, to dead men, evoking memories that hurt and were futile, bearing poverty with bitter pride. . . . But Scarlett was never to look back" (283).
The novel posits the destruction of antebellum Southern society as a historical rupture, like others before and since, which allows for the individual's raw talents and inner fortitude to emerge through the course of social regeneration. As if the course of events in the novel were not enough to convey this notion, Mitchell articulates it for the reader in the words of Rhett Butler. In a conversation with Scarlett, he reasons,
The recurrent word that Mitchell uses to signal her heroines and heroes to the reader is "gumption", a quality that encompasses energy, ruthlessness, and business acumen (classic bourgeois virtues, to be sure). Those lacking in gumption are by no means the traditional have-nots; Ashley Wilkes, to whom Rhett’s commentary is aimed, is the quintessential Southern gentleman. Those with "neither cunning or strength" in the face of adversity are plentiful in the ranks of the old Southern elite as represented in the novel – Cathleen Calvert (471), the McRae family (478), Hugh Elsing, Frank Kennedy, and Suellen O’Hara to name a few.
But the theory of history Gone with the Wind espouses vindicates the old planter class nonetheless. Despite the leveling effect that Mitchell describes via Rhett, no character in the novel who was poor before the war actually rises substantially in the years that follow. Those with gumption, the raw quality that allows one to be on top when the world turns right side up again, all hail from the antebellum planter class: Mrs. Merriwether (514), Grandma Fontaine and her son Alex (478), Rene Picard (514) , and, of course, Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. Former slaves remain in states of either debauchery or helplessness after the war, and the only way blacks or poor whites rise to any position of authority is through the system of criminal graft enabled by the "bayonet rule" of Reconstruction. The slave Prissy, in particular, is used by Mitchell as a yardstick against which Scarlett's "gumption" is measured. The siege of Atlanta, during which she must deliver Melanie Hamilton's baby as the battle rages outside, is the first real test of Scarlett's character, as it is the first time she must truly fend for herself without the advantages of her privileged upbringing (241). While Prissy is reduced to "teeth chattering idiocy" (217) and the repetition of the famous phrase "I doan' nuthin' 'bout bringin' babies" (241), Scarlett rises to the occasion, taking command of the scene to deliver the child successfully. Significantly, she learns to dominate others in this moment of self-definition, as demonstrated by her striking of Prissy for her cowardice. We are told that "She had never struck a slave in all her life, but now she slapped the black cheek with all the force in her tired arm". Immediately afterward, Scarlett speaks "with authority in her voice" for the first time in the novel (242).7
Through a closer reading of the novel, we find that gumption, though at first glance a properly bourgeois quality accessible to anyone regardless of caste or privilege, is actually an innate quality of certain bloodlines. When Scarlett returns to Tara after the war, she realizes that her ancestors, "whose blood flowed in her veins", always had the will to conquer, as they had endured Napolean's throne, English landlords, and the Haitian revolution, always recovering their fortunes (278). Grandma Fontaine relates the same narrative of ancestry to Scarlett, her lineage also composed of aristocrats thrust out of France, England, Scotland, and Haiti by popular revolutions (both class and race-based) but always emerging victorious through the force of their will. In the last passage of the novel as Scarlett sets out to save her marriage with Rhett, Mitchell writes, "With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face, she raised her chin" [emphasis added], effectively granting Scarlett's drive a social, rather than an individual, history.
It is important to note that the recovery of wealth enabled by the possession of conquering blood is simultaneously about the re-composition of hierarchical class and racial formations. Turning the world right-side up again fundamentally involves putting blacks and poor whites back "in their place", a place that has been destabilized by Reconstruction governments imposed on the South. We have already seen how the foundational act of Scarlett's agency was the striking of Prissy, but Mitchell, as a proper historical novelist, places her heroine's actions within a much broader social context. The Northern occupation of Georgia, we see in the novel, has allowed "no account" poor whites of the old regime, like Hilton, Jonas Wilkerson, the MacIntoshes, and the Slatterys (the latter Mitchell described as "shiftless and whining," possessing "little energy" (32)), to take positions of power by way of the Freedman's Bureau. There, the author relates, they "stir up" former slaves with false atrocity stories in order to consolidate their new power over their former betters, ultimately endangering white womanhood. To Scarlett, Reconstruction means that "The negroes were on top and behind them were the Yankee bayonets. She could be killed, she could be raped, and very probably, nothing would be done about it" (430). The remedy, however, lies in the conquering blood of the planter class:
This violent blood, essentially masculine in its manifestation, congeals politically in the Ku Klux Klan, represented in the novel as a "tragic necessity" that attempted to restore the class and racial lines blurred by Northern rule (435). In this context, it is not a coincidence that when Scarlett is assaulted in the shantytown, it is by two attackers: an ex-slave and a poor white man. The fact that one of her attackers is white prompts Pyron to suggest that Gone with the Wind is a subversion of the older Lost Cause romance, as it helps to de-racialize the incident (585). Mitchell's move, I would argue, is less of a subversion and more of a complication of the older narrative á la Griffith or Dixon. By rendering Scarlett's attackers bi-racial, Mitchell represents the assault on white womanhood as an unholy coalition of freed blacks and dispossessed whites whose acts are given political articulation by progressive Northerner occupiers.
Coalitions of working class whites, middle-class Progressives, and working class blacks were indeed forming in the South as Mitchell was revising her novel in the 1930s. And as Robin D.G. Kelley has shown, many African Americans in Alabama saw the arrival of the Northern-based Communist Party in the South as a second Reconstruction, and received it enthusiastically. Kelley argues that many Southern black radicals attracted to the party even regarded the Russians as "the New Yankees" (99-100). Not surprisingly, Mitchell was increasingly aware of the role her book played in the emergent political coalitions. Sliding revealingly between the 1930s left and the post-Civil War Northerner occupation, she wrote in 1939 that "The Radical press tried to use 'Gone with the Wind' as a whip to drive the Southern Negroes into the Communist Party somewhat in the same manner that 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' was used to recruit Abolitionists. Of course, you know how happy it made me to have the Radical publications dislike [it]" (Harwell 273). It is difficult to tell here whether "Radical" refers to the Popular Front or to Radical Reconstruction. The one scholarly work that has confronted Mitchell's explicit politics, Pyron's biography of Mitchell entitled Southern Daughter, suggests that the constant attack from the left of Gone with the Wind helped to solidify and define Mitchell's political thinking (436-443).After the war, she quite consciously placed her novel in service of the fight against international communism, linking the reviews of her work in the Soviet bloc to the reviews in Daily Worker, and serializing Gone with the Wind in a Gaullist publication in France to increase its readership. Her agent, George Brett, signed the permission for the latter with the phrase "Yours for the death of Communism" (Pyron 443).
In sum, Gone with the Wind was a call to affluent Southerners to re-discover the gumption in their veins necessary to re-established their threatened power. Significantly, the Klan sequence alluded to above, in which Scarlett was attack and then avenged by the white hooded organization, was one of the few chapters composed from scratch by Mitchell in the 1930s.8 The New Deal, and the popular movements behind it that challenged white supremacy and capitalism at an intensity not seen in decades, was a new Reconstruction that threatened to decompose established hierarchies; like Reconstruction in the novel, "It wasn't to be bourne" (430).
The Politics and Critical Reception of God's Little Acre
God's Little Acreis composed of a series of family struggles and romance plots revolving around the farm of Ty Ty Walden. The aging Ty Ty, his two sons Buck and Shaw, and several black sharecroppers on his land work hard every day, not farming cotton, but digging for gold on the Walden land in a futile and comic attempt to escape from poverty.A second, intertwined plot takes place in the cotton mill town of Scottsville, South Carolina, where Will, husband of Ty Ty's daughter Rosamond, is leading a strike against local mill owners.The plots come together when Will goes to visit the Walden farm and destroys its fragile harmony through his flirtations with Griselda, Ty Ty’s daughter-in-law.Will and Griselda resume their romance back in Scottsville, where Will is eventually killed leading the strike.The novel ends where it begins, with Ty Ty digging for gold on his land, reflecting on human nature, justice, and the relationship between town and country.
Two main critiques of Caldwell's work emerge from the 1930s left. The first was that the poor Southern whites in his novels were overly simplistic 'caricatures'. Edwin Rolfe of The New Masses wrote that the even the most well-developed character in the story is "a complete caricature, developed through a series of witty exaggerations of description and action, and not through any synthesis of his character with the unfolding situation" (McDonald 32). Jack Conroy added that "the characters fail to emerge full blown", while Kenneth Burke noted Caldwell's dirt farmer figures appeared as "subnormal mannequins" (49). The second critique leveled against Caldwell's work by the 1930s left was that it was too erotic. Norman MacLeod wrote "Caldwell, is first of all interested in sex", adding, "He should go left" (21). Kenneth Burke simply noted that "Caldwell has yet to learn that the revolution begins above the belt" (50).
Like all of Caldwell's work, God's Little Acre is undoubtedly sexualized. No other proletarian novel comes close to the level of sexual desire depicted in God's Little Acre. The story is filled with scenes of bawdy flirtation (often in the presence of family members), passionate kissing, and direct and indirect references to sexual intercourse. The charge of 'caricature' is implicitly linked to this sexual aspect, as Caldwell's primary "exaggeration" is his representation of his characters' sexual drive. In the tradition of naturalism, both male and female characters appear to be driven by their basic desires (particularly sex), though unlike naturalism, sexual matters in God's Little Acre are often narrated suggestively. He does not describe the physical traits of his figures, nor does narrate sexual scenes in graphic detail, but he manages to convey a sense of sexual desire in most scenes of the novel through the explicit statements of the characters: Ty Ty, Will, and Jim Leslie repeatedly vocalize their lust for Griselda, Darlin’ Jill for Will and Dave, and Dave and Pluto Swint for Darlin' Jill. The repetitive nature of their lusts, combined with their poverty, racism, and lack of education, do combine to make the characters appear simplistic on first glance.
The thrill of "looking" is a recurrent motif both within Caldwell's novels and in their marketing. The male reader is often inscribed into sexualized scenes in the form of another character who watches the bawdy action unfold; in God's Little Acre, Pluto watches Darlin' Jill in the bathtub, Will looks at Rosamand and Darlin' Jill asleep, Darlin' Jill oggles Dave for an extended period, and Rosamand and Darlin' Jill watch Will ravage Griselda. The thrill of looking is even more pronounced in Tobacco Road, where virtually every sexual moment happens with other characters watching, whether from behind a tree, outside a window, or in plain sight. This is taken to a new level in Journeymen. In one of the more bizarre moments in Caldwell's work, male characters take turns staring through a hole in a cow shed which affords a view of absolutely nothing; despite the fact that they are only looking at trees, the act of viewing provides a feeling of complete euphoria. As Tom exclaims, "it's just the sitting there and looking through it that sort of makes me feel like heaven can’t be so doggone far away" (103). "Jonas", the artist who illustrated the book covers for the 1940s Penguin editions of the novels, captured this spirit of Caldwell's work. His 1946 cover of God's Little Acre positions us as viewers through a knothole looking onto a barren landscape and a little house, the element of eroticism suggested by a heart punctured with arrows carved into the fence wood in the foreground (see cover illustration at the beginning of the paper). As the examples above suggest, sometimes the pleasure of viewing is panoptical, with the onlooker concealed and deriving power from concealment, and other times it is not, with the pleasure residing, for the viewer, in his or her complete visibility.
But whether panoptical or not, the ever-presence of 'watching' in Caldwell's novels is another limitation of his politics. Not only does it advocate a passive form of desire, it also effectively positions the characters, along with their entire social milieu, as Other for the reader. We are not inscribed as active participants, but as watchers: male watchers of women eroticized by the words of male characters and non poor white watchers of Southern poverty. This limitation is particularly underscored by Caldwell's subject position Not only is he a male author writing a novel which allows the opportunity for men, both as characters within the story and as readers, to gaze incessantly at eroticized women, but he is also as a Southerner from a middle class background producing degraded representations of those lower than himself on the socio-economic ladder. In one of the few substantial pieces of contemporary criticism on God's Little Acre, Laura Hapke insightfully notes that Caldwell's novel betrays a fear of women in the workplace, as the narrator repeatedly depicts down-trodden, male strikers impotently looking on as energized and vital female "scabs" take their jobs at the mill (22). In terms of class, God's Little Acre also comes dangerously close to the stereotype of poor white Southerners in his novel – a stereotype which has long held poor Southern whites to be lacking in both intelligence and character. I must note, however, that this projection is not confined to poor whites. The only rich man depicted in the novel, the villainous cotton broker and prodigal son Jim Leslie, is arguably driven more by irrational lust than anyone on the Walden farm or in the Scottsdale mills. And, to his credit, Caldwell refrains from infusing lust into his peripheral black figures.
Details from Caldwell's biography support Hapke's critique of the gender politics in God's Little Acre; Caldwell generally wanted his female companions to devote themselves not to employment in the public sphere, but to providing solace to him on the domestic front. As for the politics of his representations in the field of class, however, Caldwell's characters are not simply 'caricatures' as implied by 1930s critics, nor are they merely 'white trash' stereotypes. Their Otherness, produced by the trope of watching, is somewhat necessary given the character's racial politics, in which overt empathy would be dangerous (nonetheless, other tendencies of Caldwell's writing do work to produce some level of empathy, which I will explore later). Caldwell deploys what are at first glance caricatures to draw the reader into a critical exploration of the complex class and racial formation in the South which has generated those caricatures. In both the novel and the film, for example, the characters do not work as a farm family should, but yet they are far from lazy. Though Ty Ty and his sons dig for gold instead of planting cotton, they dig frantically and diligently, sometimes into the night (67). And though Will is drunk and unemployed, his consistent refrain of "I want to turn the power on" expresses a clear desire not only to go back to work, but also to take over the means of production. Consequently, we are led to believe that the seemingly irrational work habits of the men in the novel are not so much the product of laziness or ignorance, but the best choice available in social system which does not pay farmers or workers enough to make ends meet (the author's narrative interventions which contextualize the plight of Southern farm and mill communities aid greatly in this regard).
Further, it is not the narrator who 'explains' the flaws of the mill and farm people; rather, poor white characters point out each others' flaws within the dialogue. Rosamand and Will laugh at Ty Ty’s attempt to get rich by digging for gold, Ty Ty chides Will for his drunkenness and infidelity, all laugh at Pluto's sloppy flirtations with Darlin' Jill – forming an incomplete circle of critique in which no character stands completely on the outside. The circle is closed in a speech at the end of the novel that lays bare the meaning of the social structure, and this moment of metaphysical wisdom is not uttered by the narrator, but by Ty Ty and Griselda. Further, though it is clear that the characters lack a formal education, Caldwell actually de-emphasizes this fact in the dialogue he infuses his characters. In the tradition of 'local color' fiction, he could have made their Southern dialects much more pronounced and still remained relatively accurate to the realities of Southern life. He removes high vocabulary from their speech, to be sure, but also eliminates many local speech patterns and idiomatic expressions such as "goin'"and "'em" (as opposed to "them"). Echoing Victorian, sentimental fiction, for example, Rosamand says to Pluto as she sets up the dinner table, "'The cream is stiff by this time, Pluto. . . . Take off the top while we're getting the dishes and spoons. And be careful of the salt" (58). The relative lack of a recognizable Southern accent could be seen as Caldwell's way of lessening the distance between the poor white Southerner characters and national readers, helping to bridge a gulf created by the characters' actions.
There does need to be a partial gulf, however, one necessitated by Caldwell's racial politics. Many proletarian novels written by white authors in the 1930s and 1940s avoided a critical treatment of race by either relegating racism to the words and actions the bourgeois and their allies (Cantwell, Page, Conroy), or by not even attempting a critical treatment of race (Steinbeck, Gold). Others offered a more complex look at U.S. racial politics by placing a racist antihero at the center of the story (Farrell, Algren). Caldwell takes a unique path by creating characters whose lives we are clearly predicated upon white supremacy, but whose values we are not supposed to wholly reject either. African Americans are peripheral figures in God's Little Acre, to be sure; they appear mainly in the form of "Black Sam" and "Uncle Felix," sharecroppers on the Walden's land who help out Ty Ty in his various tasks. But their presence, and their status of dependency on figures as flawed as Ty Ty and Pluto (who, we are also told, exploits black sharecroppers), ultimately serves to critique racial privilege by highlighting white pretensions to supremacy. At the beginning of the novel, Ty Ty tells his son Buck:
His scientific method, we soon learn, is to capture an albino to help him divine the location of gold - a quest that occupies a significant portion of the plot. Clearly, the joke is on him.
Ty Ty's gold dig, a central facet of the plot, is also clearly predicated on the exploitation of the black sharecroppers on his land, whose labor enables his futile project. "Ty Ty always managed to keep an eye on them", writes Caldwell of the patriarch's tenants, "because he realized that if they didn't raise any cotton or corn, there would be no money and little to eat that fall and winter" (11). Despite this fundamental dependence, Ty Ty angrily balks at Black Sam's request for a food advance, a traditional facet of the sharecropping relationship, stating "I ain't going to have darkies worrying me for rations at a time like this" (7). Pluto Swint, who Caldwell clearly marks as simple-minded and comical, is also a small landowner who exploits black sharecroppers. He is running for sheriff, we are told, because the "colored share-cropper" on his land doesn't provide him with enough to eat, and he has not figured out what else he can do (71). If Scarlett's whiteness is constructed in relation to Mammy's blackness, Pluto and Ty Ty's whiteness is constructed through their relationship to their black tenants – with very different results. If whiteness, following David Roediger's reading of DuBois, is a "public and psychological wage" that enables its downtrodden beneficiaries to claim certain short-term advantages while ultimately denying them the class consciousness necessary to recognize the real social forces which hold them down, then the image of Ty Ty digging in a hole and Pluto sweating in his car illustrates this nicely. While the exploitative, sharecropping relationship confers a degree of power to both Ty Ty and Pluto, this power does not ennoble them. Rather, it makes the former a tyrant and the latter a fool, and helps neither to see the social causes of scarcity in the countryside driving them to dig and sweat.
Dialectical Realism or Mass Cultural Magic?
What united the critique of 'caricature' for many left critics of the 1930s was an adherence to a dialectical, Marxist realism which pre-dominated aesthetic theory in the 1930s, one present in even the critique of the 'fellow traveling' Burke. According to this aesthetic, the novel should be a space where 'typical' (i.e., emergent) character types are to be shown in a process of becoming within a complex and shifting social environment. The major conflicts of the age were to be represented through a story of everyday characters, who should be flawed figures, capable of change, whose traits were to be allowed full expression in the new historical formation the novel charts.9 Rolfe notes in New Masses, for example, that Caldwell "must go beyond mere sympathetic depiction into the higher sphere of dialectical development of characters placed in situations that clamor for treatment today" (33). Remarking on the character Pluto Swint, he adds "the sense of growth or change is conspicuously lacking" (32). In New Republic, Burke very lucidly compared Caldwell's treatment of his characters to a scientist who removes the higher centers of a frog's brain to simplify its responses to stimuli. The frog jumps or croaks when prodded, but loses its free will in the process. He concludes, "What the decerebrated frog is to the whole frog, Caldwell's characters are to real people" (MacDonald 170).
Judged by such standards, God's Little Acre is not really 'proletarian', and definitely not dialectical in the sense outlined above. His characters are in fact placed within social contexts; the problem is that within the terms of the dialectical realism, the characters lack the dynamic qualities necessary to change it. Caldwell is not as explicit in his references to the Southern social structure in God's Little Acre as he is in Tobacco Road (in which the exact relationship between creditors, landlords, and tenant farmers is articulated by the third-person narrator), but the socio-historical context of exploitation is most definitely present in his famous novel. It appears in the narrator's references to "the bloody lipped [male mill workers] spitting their lungs into the yellow dust" (60), in Ty Ty's son Jim Leslie, a cotton broker who Will authoritatively states has become rich off the farmers' destitution (64), as well as in Ty Ty's exploitation of black share-croppers (7). But Caldwell's characters do not develop or grow within this context. Rather, each maintains his or her particular relationship to their social environment, a relationship apparently developed before the narrative began. We see Will's class consciousness from our first encounter with him, so that his defiant act at the mill at the climax of the novel appears inevitable. Darlin' Jill and Griselda remain as under-developed objects of male desire, and Caldwell leaves Ty Ty exactly as the reader found him at the beginning – digging for gold.
Not only is Caldwell un-dialectical, it is questionable whether or not he is even a realist in the classic sense. Kenneth Burke explicitly distances him from 19th century realism and instead places his outlandish plots, exaggerated characters, and sometimes bizarre depictions of mill work in the category of the fantastic, the surrealistic, and the magical (McDonald 52-53). As examples, he cites the women in God's Little Acre who kiss the factory walls with their lips, Will's simplistic scheme to "turn the power on", and the bizarre death of the grandmother in Tobacco Road, concluding that "All this is magic, not reason; and I think we are entitled to inspect it for the processes of magic" (53). With this observation, I find that Burke, more than any other 1930s critic, hits closest to the mark in his analysis of Caldwell. But whereas Burke faults the author for not matching the complexity of 19th century realism, I find the presence of the 'magical' in God's Little Acre to be a sign of a complex fusion of realism and mass cultural forms within his work. It is also a key factor in explaining the popularity of the novel. What the 1930s critics lambasted as "exaggeration" is part and parcel of mass culture – a medium which relies on a departure from strict realism for its success. Michael Denning has persuasively argued that to read "novelistically", in which characters are seen as neither literal people nor metaphors, but as "typical" individuals operating in an everyday world, is a product of a bourgeois cultural revolution in reading. Subordinated groups, however, generally cannot psychically afford realist modes of reading. Instead, "allegorical reading", which involves magical transformations, master plots, and emblematic figures, is the preferred by people in highly exploited circumstances (72-74).
At the plot level, God's Little Acre ultimately shows the failure of magical transformation, as both Dave the Albino’s divination for gold and the mystical "God's Little Acre" itself do not bestow good fortune on the Waldens. But the fantastic reveals itself in more subtle ways in the novel – in the unexplained sexual allure Caldwell infuses both Will and Griselda, in the surrealistically gendered representation of mill work that Hapke rightfully deplores, and in the bawdy nature of Caldwell's writing which draws much more from True Confessions than from William Dean Howells. A rather interesting feature of the novel that takes it away from literary realism is its particular use of repetition, a key trope in God's Little Acre that Caldwell borrows from mass culture (interestingly enough, repetition was cited by a number of critics, including Burke, as a sign of Caldwell's simplicity as a writer). On the one hand, repetition in dialogue gives the characters a comic quality; Ty Ty repeatedly says, "What in the pluperfect hell?", we know Pluto Swint by his phrase "And that's a fact", and the refrain of Will is "I'm going to turn the power on". Such use of repetition for comedy has a long history in popular culture. From Aiken's popular adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin to the TV series The Simpsons, characters in pop cultural narratives have often been marked by a peculiar phrase, that, when uttered, marks the character for a comic reading and lightens the scene. Whenever Aiken’s Phineas exclaims "Teetotally!" (606), whenever Groening's Homer utters "D'Oh!", or when Pluto asserts "And that’s a fact!", we are immediately signaled to read the scene as entertainment, not as realism. On the other hand, the repetition of diction within the narrative voice drives home the class politics of the novel by making certain images stick in the reader’s memory. Caldwell uses the a variant of the phrase "the bloody-lipped men spitting their lungs into the yellow dust" multiple times in his description of the mill workers, a reference to their work-related illnesses and the vitamin deficiencies from their inadequate diets (60). But the comic repetition also furthers the novel's politics, as it allows readers to laugh at Ty Ty's presumed racial superiority. As Ty Ty digs for gold, he incessantly distances himself from blackness by repeating "I'm scientific all the way through. I wouldn't have anything to do with conjur"(5). His scientific method, as we have seen, is to capture Dave the albino.
The scenes involving Dave the albino offer another instance of how humor and surreality further the novel's racial politics. Ty Ty creates a new racial category for Dave by repeatedly referring to him as an "all-white man", and he inscribes this new category with similarly rigid boundaries as the familiar Southern black-white relationship. As he tells his son-in-law Will the story of how he abducted Dave from his cabin in the swamp, Ty Ty reveals his disgust upon discovering that Dave was married to a white woman, stating, "It's a good thing we brought him away. I hate to see a white woman taking up with a coal black darky, but this is just about as bad, because he is an all-white man" (70). After his abduction, Dave is forced to work at gunpoint on the Walden farm in the absurd quest to find gold. As can be seen in the assertion "It's a good thing we brought him away", Dave's presumed racial difference forms a shallow justification for this enslavement to Ty Ty, and Caldwell's inclusion of this material can be read as a satire on the arbitrary and self-serving nature of racial categorization. But despite his abduction and enslavement by the patriarch of the Walden farm, Dave's "race" is based upon ultra-whiteness, and this places him in a unique position within Ty Ty's racial hierarchy. As an albino, we are told, "He was said to possess unearthly powers to divine gold. In that respect, Ty Ty held him above all other men" (75). However, we soon find that the "purity" of his whiteness does not grant him any special powers and that he is guided by the flaws and lusts as everyone else. He and Darlin' Jill have a brief fling, he then wants to stay on the farm of his own free will and hunt for gold so that he can see her further, and eventually disappears when her affections are diverted elsewhere. Again, the joke is on Ty Ty – and on his faith that whiteness grants one any innate abilities.
It should come as no surprise that Caldwell ran afoul of Mike Gold, the aesthetic arch-theoretician of the Daily Worker and New Masses, stating in a letter that Gold "doesn’t think so much of my Communism . . . .and he devoted most of our conversations to harangue. I tried to argue my special brand of communism with him, but I had little success" (Klevar 107). Humor, and the pleasure that derives from it, often relies on the repetition of recognizable character traits for its success, but in doing so, we are indeed taken away from the holistic representation required by realism. The challenge, politically, is to place the character’s actions in a clearly oppressive social context and to anchor them with enough humanity so that we ultimately laugh with them, not at them (Brecht provides theoretical insight here, which I will explore toward the end of the chapter). Caldwell does not ultimately produce "de-cerebrated frogs". His characters have too much agency to feel sorry for, too many kernels of wisdom to dismiss as stupid, too many flaws to fully identify with, and too much humanity to reject outright – and this general, representational dynamic also explains the appeal of these characters to Depression-generation audiences. It does not entirely explain the novel's success, however.
Marketing the Proletarian Novel: God's Little Acre and the Contexts of its Reception
Caldwell's work did not achieve its massive sales figures during the Depression itself; as Barbara Foley has noted, book sales during the Depression were generally very bad (103-106). The popularity of his novels did not really take off until the 1940s, when two things occurred: they were released in 25 cent, paperback editions, and, as important, he began to market them (Klevar 270-271, 279). Caldwell was perhaps the only "proletarian" novelist who actively promoted his book in collaboration with mainstream publishers, giving lectures which were also billed as book-signing events. He also consented to pulp fiction paperback covers. One Signet edition from 1951 shows three women gazing at the viewer alluringly as an old man, presumably Ty Ty, stretches his arm in front of them as if to keep onlookers at bay. Many of the paperback covers of Caldwell's work published in the 1940s marketed his work as both cheap entertainment and social realism at the same time, as if guiding the reader to expect the mixture of realism and magic inside the jacket. The cover artwork for the 1948 Penguin edition of Tragic Ground, for example, shows an attractive woman smoking a cigarette in the foreground; behind her we can see poor row houses through a hole in a tattered curtain, suggesting that the reader will be afforded a curious mixture of mass cultural eroticism and Popular Front sociology (see illustration at the beginning of the paper). The cover of the 1949 Signet edition of Sure Hand of God, to take a similar example, features a man, hidden by the night, looking through a window into a well-lit room at an attractive woman in a nightgown. Amazingly, the writing on the back cover begins "Literary recognition comes slowly in this country for writers who don't cater to best-selling formulas", and goes to tell us that Caldwell studied sociology at the University of Virginia and had lectured on Southern Tenant Farmers at the New School of Social Research (see Figure 3). The literary world saw more of the pop culture and less of the sociology, however, and Caldwell was consequently shunned by many literati in the 1940s and 1950s for what was deemed the blatant commercialization of his work (280, 282).
Another reason for the popularity of God's Little Acre was that a suitable context for its reception had been paved by the social struggles of the era.. Following Michael Denning, who observed that individual readings of texts must be set in motion by popular movements and larger narratives to bring out a particular, progressive interpretation, Popular Front social movements had established a 'common sense' for both understanding and using the novel's positive politics, particularly in Northern cities – a politics based on worker's rights, the critique of wealth, anti-lynching, and anti-fascism. And finally, and perhaps most uniquely, its eroticism and its humor yoked pleasure to these politics, particularly for its male readers. Strikes, racism, the brutality of working class life – all the themes a political novel of the 1930s and 40s was expected to cover -- seemed to demand the most serious tones imaginable. In this milieu, a story that cover these themes and attempted to entertaining stands out indeed – one could even argue that God's Little Acre marked an attempt to strike a compromise between proletarian literature and consumer culture.
God's Little Acre: The Blockbuster That Wasn't
Turning to the question of film, we should ask why such a popular narrative formula for conveying Popular Front sensibilities, one that adapted itself so easily to consumer culture in print, failed to nearly approach the epic status of Gone with the Wind. We cannot explain this fact by simply claiming that Hollywood's political conservatism kept it off the screen; the left presence in Hollywood during the 1930s and 40s, while not dominant, was rather strong – strong enough to get many films with Popular Front politics produced (Grapes of Wrath is but one example). The fear of censorship amongst Hollywood producers could be one explanation – the novel had been brought up on pornography charges across the country, even in Boston, Chicago, and New York state, though these charges were dropped in most places. The left's profound ambiguity about both the novel and Caldwell's blatant commercialism had more to do with it – though the left formed a minority of Hollywood’s personnel at best, they would have been the ones most likely to push the project within the culture industry.10 Their lack of enthusiasm would have been fatal.
While the plot, characters, and tone failed to pass the left's definition of properly 'political' literature, another reason the film failed to approach the level of the success enjoyed by novel lies not in the politics of its representations, but in the form of those representations, which I’ll illustrate with a scene from the film. The sequence depicts Dave the albino divining for gold, seemingly pulled by some mysterious force in his divining rod, while light, happy music accompanies the cheers and hollers of everyone on the Walden farm who follow close at his heels. The scene quickly grows solemn once Dave has selected the location to dig, a spot right next to the house and directly under a cross that marks the location of "God's Little Acre" (the sacred place Ty Ty has set aside to leave undisturbed). The music becomes serious as Ty Ty ruminates on God's will, moves the cross to the river, and waits for God to strike him down for his blasphemy. We return to comic mode as a banjo begins, marking the scene as both slightly funny and distinctly Southern. A smile returns to Ty Ty's face as he remarks, "Glory be". Such rapid shifts from comic to solemn were very much in the spirit of Erskine Caldwell, who, incidentally, had a substantial advisory role in the making of the film. Commenting on his narrative style, he once remarked, "I don't consider myself a humorist in any way. What can be humorous one moment can be very sad the next. It all depends upon the circumstances" (Arnold 202). These shifts work nicely in the novel, partially because the writing is subtle enough to leave the reader unsure whether to take a given scene as comic or tragic, as literary or as cheap entertainment. Such ambiguity does not translate well onto screen, however – in the film of God's Little Acre, comedy and solemnity are separated into distinct, sequential moments, as the director Anthony Mann forces the viewer toward one mood or the other through musical selections which clearly brackets off light and dark modes. What made the novel a success, in other words, made the film a failure.
Paperback Dialectics and the Politics of Dreaming
The question remains as to whether it was necessary for the proletarian novel to depart from dialectics to achieve popular success. Dialectics and U.S. popular culture are not mutually exclusive, I would argue. A recurrent critique of Marxist literary criticism toward naturalism was that it was too bleak, its dark resolutions ultimately denying the characters agency and hence the possibility of social change. Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet Union's first Commissar of Education, represents this tendency best in a 1933 lecture on socialist realism. Naturalism, he argued, was essentially an aesthetic form of the petty bourgeois, a class unsatisfied with life under the "big bourgeois", which described only the negative side of capitalist life without offering any model of redemption. Consequently, he labeled it “negative realism” as opposed to the "affirmative realism" of the pre-1848 bourgeois (329). Lukács articulates this notion even better in the Historical Novel, where he argues that grim naturalism locked the reader into the immediacy of events, thus denies the reader a window into rich context, dynamism, and transcendence (212). The Marxist notion of typicality, on the other hand, was preferred by left critics because it entailed a sense of transformation, which carried with it a hope for a better world. The Marxist rejection of the "unhappy end" of negative realism in favor of a narrative of hope ironically placed Marxian critics on common ground with those in the culture industries, a common ground which could be seen most clearly in the use of the "conversion narrative" by both groups. The dialectical process of 'becoming' could be and sometimes was fitted to the conversion narrative, a structure familiar to U.S. audiences from Protestant traditions. In the narrative of conversion, the protagonist comes to "see the light" of God or class conscious after traveling down a number of false paths. All of this is not to say that the increasingly upbeat tone of American consumer culture (embodied by the 'happy end') made American consumerism properly dialectical. Rather, it is to point out the ways in which dialectics could be fitted to cultural forms familiar to U.S. audiences.
Ironically, Gone with the Wind illustrates how a dialectical novel could achieve popular success in the U.S., as it is much more in line with Marxian literary forms than God's Little Acre. Mitchell's narrative followed most of the conventions of 19th century realism Lukács advocates in The Historical Novel, which, though it was not available in English until after the 1940s, synthesized in elevated form aesthetic standards in use by U.S. critics of the 1930s. In line with Lukács ideal historical novel, Mitchell's story shows major historical crises in terms of how they affect the everyday life of its protagonists, it leaves major historical figures marginal, it foregrounds the conflicts of the age by showing the opposing parties (in this case, the nostalgic antebellum elite, the forward-looking new elite, and the villains associated with Reconstruction) so that dialectical negations are made visible, it shows the nobility of past social formations while highlighting the necessity of their decline, and, to be sure, it sets its characters within a shifting, concretely articulated historical context. Perhaps most important, it places at its center Scarlett, a flawed, dynamic, 'middling' figure whose gumption, not allowed to express itself in the antebellum social formation, is allowed to find full expression in the new historical epoch the novel chronicles, illustrating an emergent 'type' that rises from the negation of the previous era. That a novel with such politics could come close to Lukacs’ aesthetics should come as no surprise; his model for realism is Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (ironically, very popular amongst Southern slave-holders) and a host of other reactionary novels the explicit politics of which he found abhorrent. Had Scarlett only aligned her gumption with Reconstruction, we would have certainly had a novel receiving high praise in The New Masses and in the Writer's Congresses of the international left. But then it most certainly would not have held the organic place in Southern culture that it has managed to cling to for over a half century.
Caldwel's novel, I have argued, takes a different aesthetic path than dialectics – that of the magical. If it is true, as Burke suggests, that Caldwell’s plots "are guided by the logic of dreams" (McDonald 53), we should ask ourselves about the efficacy of deploying dream logic toward political ends. A brief glimpse at Walter Benjamin's Arcades project is highly useful in this regard. In his writings on the Arcades, as Susan Buck-Morss brilliantly articulates in The Dialectic of Seeing, Benjamin was unique amongst the Frankfurt School in that he took mass culture seriously; that is to say, not simply as a locus of false consciousness, but as "the source of the collective energy to overcome it" (253). To him, modernity had re-enchanted Western societies through mass culture, the sum total of which constituted a dream world. Subjects moved through the endless, confusing array of commodities in the 19th Paris arcades he investigated as if in a collective dream, a dream which contained within it utopian longings. The problem, to be sure, was that the collective needed to realize it was dreaming; it needed to awaken in order to actualize the ideas of the good life radiated by the enticing profusion of objects - objects that could never life up to their promises. The goal of any emancipatory project, to Benjamin, was to free mass cultural artifacts from the spell of capitalism, rescuing their power of enchantment for the purposes of social awakening. This was to be done through 'dialectical images': images which spoke a language familiar to those accustomed to 'reading' commodities, but yet exposed their broken promises at the same time.
So what does this have to do with Caldwell? I would not go so far as to say that Caldwell's novels offer up dialectical images on par with Benjamin's "Angel of History", but I would suggest that the Arcades Project helps us to theorize emancipatory aesthetics deeply lodged in the logic of mass culture. God's Little Acre was a commodity that circulated amongst many others in U.S. popular culture, but as a commodity, it contained within it figures which helped the collective awaken, luring them into a dream which questioned class and racial structures in U.S. everyday life.
Ultimately, Caldwell's dream aesthetics come closer to Bertolt Brecht than to Georg Lukács and official proletarian realism, but not simply because Brecht represented the opposite pole to the latter in the aesthetic debates of the mid-century left. Rather, Brecht and Caldwell departed from these prescriptions for political art in parallel ways. Brecht’s critique of 'realism' as the term was employed in Soviet circles was that it was too narrow, reserving the term (and hence official approval) only for works that resembled the 19th century realism of Balzac and Tolstoy. To the contrary, Brecht argued that "realism is not a matter of form", but a function of the work's ability to lay bare causal networks and expose the dominant ideology (Willett 109, 114). The title of realism, in other words, was to be bestowed upon works with a particular political affiliation, not with a particular structure. The aesthetic that could most effectively enact these politics was one which met the audience halfway, "taking over their own forms of expression and enriching them", (108) which in Brechtian practice meant couching one's critiques within the familiar form of the popular musical. This newer more flexible realism was to preserve the fun and enjoyment of popular culture, while self-reflexively calling attention to the function of entertainment under capitalism. The means of performing this critique of both capitalism and its cultural apparatus was the famous "alienation effect", in which the audience was prevented from identifying with the characters through a variety of techniques of script-writing and stagecraft.11
Caldwell was definitely not the theoritician of his craft that Brecht was, nor did the mass cultural elements in his work form a self-reflexive critique of the culture industries. Caldwell's unselfconsciousness of the method he had created is nicely illustrated in his biography by Klevar, which revealed his deep anger toward critics who claimed that his work was not strict realism (these critiques, Klevar argues, were what drove him to document his narratives of the South with the naturalistic authority of the photograph in You Have Seen their Faces, a photo-essay collection with his second wife Margaret Bourke-White (159, 169). And, one gets the distinct sense that some of the mass cultural elements of his work – particularly the sensational sexuality – are there not as part of a larger social critique, but because of the author’s own desires. But despite the lack of self-reflexivity in much of Caldwell's novel, he does produce a kind of alienation effect between character and reader, based on the avoidance of deep characterization, humor, and the absurd scenes in which he sets them in motion. And though his use of mass cultural enjoyment does not show the constructed nature of desire under capitalism ("productive enjoyment", as Brecht might call it (Willett 89)), it nonetheless drew many readers into a critique of capitalist social relations and Southern racial formations. As I have argued, the humor Caldwell projects onto Ty Ty's absurd quest for gold, juxtaposed with Will's class conscious battle with mill owners in the city, works to produce this critique. Ty Ty's ogling of Griselda does not.
The novel of God's Little Acre, while its politics were most decidedly limited, offered an opportunity to establish a Popular Front reading of Southern society within American mass culture. Its failure to cohere in film assured its fleeting, generational popularity in a culture increasingly dominated by the visual. A Southern landscape populated by weeping willows and ruined plantations, heroic planters and hapless freedmen, consequently would provide a more memorable set of images than one peopled by tragic mill workers and exploitative yeoman farmers, whose stories ironically commented on "poor white" stereotypes. Had God's Little Acre been a blockbuster, however, we would have also been left with a monumental record of political limitation; in particular, a profound failure to question what constitutes masculinity and femininity. Further – it is uncertain whether Caldwell's dangerous dance with poor white stereotypes would have made audiences any wiser in gauging Southern social relations. Perhaps the real legacy of God's Little Acre, and the core of its didactic value for the left today, lies in its compromise between realism, mass culture, and progressive politics that a critical examination of its possibilities reveals.
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1.In particular, "Gone with the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath as Hollywood Histories of the Depression" by Thomas Pauly (1982), and "'My Dear I Don't Give a Damn': Scarlett O'Hara and the Great Depression", by Marian Morton (1980).
.As of 1965, these 6 Caldwell novels and their sales figures were God's Little Acre (8 million sold), Tragic Ground (4.8 million), Journeyman (3.9 million), Trouble in July (3.5 million), Georgia Boy (3.5 million), and Tobacco Road (3.4 million) (Hackett 12-14). All of these were published between 1932 and 1944.
3.My research has found only two sustained critical examinations of Caldwell's work over the past 10 years. These include Daughters of the Depression (1995) by Laura Hapke, "Poverty, Sterilization, and Eugenics in Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road" (2002) by Karen Keeley.
4.I will be occasionally referring to Caldwell's other best-selling novels in this chapter, but I am concentrating on God's Little Acre for a number of reasons. First, because it was the most popular of his books by far. Second, the same representational dynamic I will be discussing in this paper was also valid for most of his other popular stories as well. As Klever notes, Caldwell was justifiably accused by his critics of repeating the same basic storyline and same set of characters in each of his novels (...). One can find a rough counterpart to Ty Ty in God's Little Acre, for example, in Spence Douthit in Tragic Ground, Jeeter Lester in Tobacco Road, the narrator's "old man" in Georgia Boy, and Clay Horey in Journeyman.
5. Examples of this tendency include Daughters of the Depression by Laura Hapke (1995), "Gone with the Wind, and Good Riddance", by Charles Rowan Beye (1993), Scarlett's Women: Gone with the Wind and its Female Fans by Helen Taylor (1989), "My Dear, I Don't Give a Damn", by Marian Morton (1980), "A Reappraisal of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind" by Dieter Meindl (1980)
6. Examples include "The Trouble with Scarlett" by Hayden Maginnis (1995), "Gone with the Wind and the Southern Cultural Awakening" by Darden Asbury Pyron (1986), and "Gone with the Wind and Grapes of Wrath as Hollywood Histories of the Depression" by Thomas Pauly (1982).
7.Mitchell provides us with a rare moment of transparency between character and author in a 'thank you' letter to one of her favorable reviewers: "[Prissy] aggravated me unendurably while I was writing her and, when Scarlett slapped her, it was really Margaret Mitchell yielding to an overwhelming urge. . . " (Harwell 85).
8.Mitchell wrote all but three chapters of the novel's first draft from 1926 to 1929. As Pyron's biography has shown, however, she relentlessly revised it during the 1930s until its publication in 1936, adding the material on the Ku Klux Klan around 1933 (280, 288). The constant revisions make it difficult to classify the final version as a product of either 1920s or 1930s.
9.George Lukacs articulated this aesthetic most clearly in The Historical Novel (1936), but this was not available in English until after the 1930s and 40s had passed. Nonetheless, Barbara Foley illustrates how a very similar mode of criticism, taken from Soviet theory, was used by U.S. critics on the Left (63-85).
10. The work of Denning in The Cultural Front (1997) and Buhle and Wagner in Radical Hollywood (2002) imply that Hollywood was 'red' to the core, and that the left was indeed the dominant force within the film industry in the 1930s and 1940s. Closer analyses of the nuts and bolts struggles to unionize screen actors and screenwriters, however, suggest that leftist writers, directors, and actors, while a definite presence in Hollywood, were always embattled with more conservative peers that, at the very least, equalled them in number. The latter analysis is offered by David Prindle in The Politics of Glamour (1988) and Nancy Schwartz in The Hollywood Writers' Wars (1982).
11. My reading of Brecht is informed by the sum total of his essays in two compilations of his theoretical writings: Brecht on Theatre, edited by John Willett, and Über Realismus edited by Werner Hecht.