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The rhetoric of exhaustion and the exhaustion of rhetoric: Erskine Caldwell in the thirties.


The South in which Erskine Caldwell Sets his major fictional and nonfictional writings of the 1930s is a region which is literally exhausted. The land itself, always an irreducible material and political fact in Caldwell, has been worn out by nearly a century of aggressive, one-crop cash farming by planters, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers. If the South's "was not a rich soil to begin with," as Caldwell noted in You Have Seen Their Faces, his 1937 collaboration with photographer Margaret Bourke-White, "[i]t now lies barren and worthless after decades of cotton-growing": "every bale that is gathered from these hardscrabble acres" only "hastens the lands depletion." With the depletion of the land comes the corresponding depletion of those upon it, in a relationship that ironically inverts the logic outlined by Caldwell's contemporaries in Nashville. While there is a bond between the individual and the land in Caldwell's South, that is, this bond differs radically from the symbiotic one proposed by Agrarians like Andrew Lytle, who offered a panegyric upon the rich cultural life, the stubborn self-reliance, and the unique ecological consciousness of the yeoman farmer in his essay "The Hind Tit" - cataloging along the way many other homely virtues of life on the soil. Caldwell's small farmers and sharecroppers stake their futures on much the same soil, much the same way of life, extolled by Lytle, only to find themselves economically exhausted, so desperately impoverished as to be, like Jeeter Lester of Tobacco Road, absolutely penniless at times.

Moreover, they must endure the dilapidation and inevitable ruin - often as a result of their own mindlessly destructive behavior - of the few meaningful possessions they do manage to hold on to, in what Richard Gray has labelled Caldwell's grim "comedy of waste."(2) Their automobiles, powerful symbols of the American dream of personal autonomy and material prosperity in the Caldwell world, are reduced to junk with appalling speed, or gambled away in crap games (the fate of Clay Horey's "mud-spattered rattle-trap" in Journeyman). The general dilapidation even extends to the houses in which the Lester and Walden families live, the former slowly coming apart under a baseball barrage from brother Dude, the latter propped precariously by the gold-hungry Waldens over a crater into which it threatens to collapse, like a white-trash House of Usher, at any moment.

Nor is the deprivation suffered by these men and women solely, even principally, economic. "They are either already worn out physically and spiritually," Caldwell writes, "or are in the act of wearing themselves out" (YSF, p. 5). It was not in a novel but in a newspaper, the New York Post, that Caldwell described grown men "so hungry that they eat snakes and cow dung," and rural children "deformed by nature and malnutrition."(3) Likewise, the fictional Lesters of Tobacco Road linger on the edge of starvation, victims of an exhausted food supply which they have neither the means nor the inclination of replenishing. Their hunger overrides the basic moral obligations that we associate with simple human decency: in one of the novel's better-known scenes, for instance, Jeeter Lester robs his son-in-law of a bag of turnips which he then refuses to share with his own family, and his conscience pricks at him only after he has satisfied his hunger.(4) Similarly, Sister Bessie insists on offering a prayer for Jeeter's sinning ways, but not before polishing off "all the turnips Jeeter would let her have" (p. 40). Eat now, pray later: these are words to live by in the Caldwell world.

Small wonder, then, that human bodies themselves grow literally smaller and smaller, weaker and weaker, under such conditions, eventually succumbing to a pervasive inertia. Throughout his work, Caldwell often takes pains to trace the stereotypical indolence of the Southern poor-white to poverty and desperation, rather than attributing it exclusively to an inherent lack of ambition or motivation: "Somewhere in his span of life," Caldwell argues, such a man The perpetually weary Pluto Swint of God's Little Acre, who can be roused to action only by voyeuristic sexual thrills - and barely then - is the finest embodiment in Caldwell of this general lethargy. Similarly, in the same novel, Ty Ty Walden can be set in motion only when he literally grows tired of sitting still.(5) And in the final chapter of Tobacco Road, Jeeter Lester and his wife, Ada, are simply too worn out to rouse themselves from sleep when fire rages through their cabin, in an episode that reaches beyond even exhaustion to a grotesque parody of consumption.

As the example of Pluto indicates, the rampant voyeurism in Caldwell is in large part motivated by the pervasive listlessness of the characters. Not only Pluto but Ty Ty, Jeeter, and Dude all find in spying upon the sexual exploits of others a rare and therefore highly valued source of relief from the sameness and flatness of their own existence. Moreover, and perhaps more to the point in this exhausted world, watching sexual activity requires less physical exertion than actually participating in it, much as looking at material goods like furniture and paintings - or just turnips and overalls - proves the cheapest, the easiest, the most dependable, and sometimes the only means of consuming them.

For other characters, like the mill workers of God's Little Acre, physical exhaustion combines with "too much starving" to weaken the body's defenses against disease, and the result is the pellagra so endemic in Caldwell's work, pointedly depicted as a "slow withering of ... skin and flesh," yet another form of exhaustion. Pellagra reduces Jeeter Lester's two-hundred-pound mother to a seventy-two pound scarecrow, and it also afflicts Ada Lester, "squeezing the life from her emaciated body" so relentlessly that she is surprised to wake up alive each morning (p. 65).

The physical hardships experienced by Caldwell's characters are accompanied, perhaps even exceeded, by the miserable impoverishment of their inner lives. In contrast to Faulkner's and Agee's Depressionera poor-whites, who, despite difficult physical and economic circumstances, typically harbor a rich interior life (think of the Mississippi hill people of As I Lay Dying, or the entire cast of Alabamians in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), the natives of Caldwell's world are exhausted spiritually, psychologically, even cognitively. Driven by appetite, they seem incapable of complex, or even simultaneous thoughts; or, as one early critic witheringly put it, "They do not associate ideas in the manner of civilized beings."(6) Lov Bensey of Tobacco Road is so enthralled and distracted by the sexually inviting gestures of Ellie May Lester that he literally cannot think of anything else - neither his far more attractive wife, Pearl, nor the bag of turnips Jeeter is about to steal from him: "So long as Ellie May continued to tousle his hair with her hands he would forget that he had turnips. She had made him forget everything" (p. 24). And the few displays of logic Caldwell's people do manage to summon up are almost laughably meager. Here, for instance, is how Ty Ty Walden deduces the name of the albino conjure-man he has captured in the swamp and enslaved: the man's wife asks, "What's the matter, Dave?" "[T]hat's how we came to know what his name, was," Ty Ty explains. "It's Dave" (GLA, p. 71). And here is how Darling Jill Walden explains her name: "When I was a little girl, everybody called me |Darling,' and my name is Jill. When I grew up, they still called me that. Now everyone calls me Darling Jill" (GLA, p. 82). Quod erat demonstrandum, indeed.

More often, however, characters like the Lesters and the Waldens find themselves in predicaments they can neither understand nor control, and their impotence proves not only frustrating but also, not unpredictably, exhausting. just as Ty Ty and his sons are "getting deep" in their hole, for instance - no doubt hot on the trail of gold - the sides cave in, prompting Ty Ty to hurl his pick in rage against the side of the crater. "There were times," Caldwell explains, "when he was so provoked that he would pick up a stick and flail the ground with it until he dropped exhausted" (GLA, p. 1). At such moments, attention spans grow short, tempers even shorter. All patience, and hope, threaten to yield to a numbing despair. After one of his sons has murdered another, for instance, Ty Ty feels

completely exhausted. He no longer felt strength in his muscles when he thought of the gold in the earth under his farm. He did not know where the gold was, and he did not know how he was going to be able to dig any longer without his strength. ... At that moment he felt that there was no use in ever doing anything again. (p. 183)


These brief remarks can only begin to suggest how systematically Caldwell turns to a rhetoric of exhaustion in depicting the wretched lives of Southern poor-whites in the thirties. Images and evocations of privation, despair, disease, declension, dilapidation, inertia, starvation, consumption, weariness, defeat, and what Sylvia J. Cook has called "the debasement and boredom that were the products of inequity and poverty,"(7) are everywhere in Caldwell's Depression-era work. So are the actual terms themselves, as in the following rallying cry from You Have Seen Their Faces: "Ten million persons on Southern tenant farms are living in degradation and defeat. They are beaten and subjected. They are depleted and sterile. All has been taken away from them and they have nothing" (p. 48).

It is important to note, however, that the function of the rhetoric of exhaustion is basically reportorial: it presents the experience of Caldwell's Southerners from the point of view of a relatively detached, though not necessarily unsympathetic, narrator. This mode of representation has always seemed to me to grow less convincing the further we descend into the inner lives of the characters, into psychological and even spiritual realms which are more fittingly evoked or dramatized than simply narrated. It is one thing, that is, to report that a farm (or a human body) is depleted; these are, after all, claims that can be readily verified by precisely the kind of external scrutiny that the Caldwell narrator typically provides. It is, however, another thing altogether to report that a mind (or a soul) is depleted, since (unless the character in question is doing the reporting) such claims are much more difficult to verify externally. If I may invoke the distinction formulated long ago by Henry James and Percy Lubbock, psychological and spiritual exhaustion needs to be demonstrated, dramatized, shown rather than told about; and the search for an effective, credible way to convey this interior bankruptcy led Caldwell, in one of his boldest innovations as a prose stylist, to create and aggressively foreground a discursive poverty among his characters that is symptomatic of spiritual impoverishment. Caldwell, in other words, supplements the rhetoric of exhaustion with the exhaustion of rhetoric itself.

Time and time again in the novels of the thirties, Caldwell's characters bespeak their exhaustion in a redundant, boring discourse that quickly grows infuriating. Scott MacDonald has noted that repetition often serves "to intensify events and to create excitement" in Caldwell's short fiction,(8) and another critic has attempted to link it with a "lyric note,"(9) but the far more characteristic effect I am describing here is the opposite of either excitement or lyricism - as in the following conversation from Journeyman, in which Clay Horey is quizzed by his field hand Hardy on the whereabouts of Hardy's wife:

"I'm up here looking for Sugar, Mr. Clay. I wouldn't be bothering you if it wasn't for that."

"What makes you think she's up here?" Clay said.

"Mr. Clay," Hardy said, "please don't go trying to put me off. I know you ain't that kind."

"Are you looking for Sugar?"

"Mr. Clay, you know good and well I'm looking for her. Please don't go trying to put me off, Mr. Clay." . . .

"Did Sugar tell you she was coming up here, Hardy," Clay asked him.

"No, sir."

"Then what makes you think she's up here?"

"Mr. Clay, don't go trying to put me off. That white man told her to come up here."

"Did Sugar tell you he said that?"

"No, sir."

. . .

What're you aiming to do, Hardy?" Clay said.

"I came up here to get Sugar," Hardy said firmly. Clay could feel the determination in his voice.

. . .

"Now, Mr. Clay," he said, "there ain't any use in trying to put me off no longer. I don't have no hard feelings against you, and I don't want to have none. But I came up here to get Sugar and take her home. That's what I'm standing here for now, Mr. Clay." (10)

This language simply isn't going anywhere. It's as utterly immobile as the characters themselves are throughout the scene. Nor do the minor variations which are arguably present in the dialogue ("don't go trying to put me off' vs. "there ain't any use in trying to put me off," etc.) create even the slightest incremental hint of narrative energy. Clay, of course, engineers the whole exchange as a stall tactic (he's trying to avoid a scene between Hardy and Semon Dye, the preacher seducing Sugar), and as such it succeeds marvelously; indeed, the discourse stalls exactly the way an airplane would, dropping like lead out of the air. But from another point of view, the conversation is an abject failure, for Clay's temporizing is too painfully obvious to be convincing. It seems less a strategic move, in the long run, than the habitual voice of inertia. Even the characters themselves must grow tired of it all - the fruitless, interminable thrusts and parries.

There is a similar stalemate, accompanied by a similar monotony of discourse, in the early chapters of Tobacco Road, where Jeeter Lester launches into a series of impassioned, absurd diatribes against the "damn-blasted green-gutted worms" that have ruined his turnips and left him craving Lov Bensey's. Jeeter cusses out these worms at least half a dozen times (one would think he might feel at least a twinge of sympathy for his fellow parasites), his language growing more and more monotonous - barren as his turnip patch. No less grating are Ty Ty Walden's comments to his son Jim Leslie about, Jim's invalid wife:

"They tell me your wife, has got diseased," Ty Ty said, moving his chair close to his son's. ... "I sure hate to see you married to a diseased wife, son. Now just look at those two girls, there. Neither of them is diseased. Darling, Jill is all right, and so is Griselda. And Rosamund ain't diseased either. They're all nice clean girls, son, the three of them. I'd hate to have a girl in my house diseased. I'd feel so ashamed of it that I'd hide my face when people came to see me at my house. It must be pretty hard for you to have to live with a diseased woman like your wife. Why is it, any-how, that so many of these rich girls in Augusta have got the diseases, son?" (GLA, pp. 103-104)

Six repetitions of "diseased" (with a "diseases" to boot!) in the space of half a page. Clearly the key concept here extends beyond the syphilis immediately alluded to in Ty Ty's commentary. The passage itself is diseased: exhaustion has spread itself like a virus throughout Ty Ty's world, contaminating the very language he speaks.

Caldwell is simply the undisputed master of moments like these, and once attuned to them, the reader recognizes them everywhere in the novels of the thirties: in Ty Ty's penchant for exclamations like "What in the pluperfect hell!" (GLA, pp. 1, 3, 5, 13) and "Man alive!" (GLA, pp. 22, 78, 79), the latter a phrase which, repeated often enough, starts to imply its opposite; in his descriptions of Darling Jill as "crazy as hell sometimes, and about nothing" (GLA, pp. 13, 21, 77, 78); in Semon Dye's shifty mantras, "Yes and no. I am and I ain't" and "I am , I am" (J, pp. 5, 27, 32, 55); in Jeeter Lester's demands that Dude "quit chunking that durn ball against the house" (TR, pp. 10, 11, 13); in Dude's own gleeful observations that "Ellie May's horsing" while he watches her wallow in the dirt with Lov Bensey (TR, pp. 19, 21); and in the premier example of the exhaustion of rhetoric in all of Caldwell, Pluto Swint's definition of an albino: "He's one of these all-white men who look like they are made out of chalk or something just as white. An albino is one of these all-white men, Ty Ty. They're all white; hair and eyes and all, they say" (GLA, p. 5). Even the name "Ty Ty" bespeaks a certain exhaustion, an annoying repetitiousness.

It could further be argued that in the often gratuitous chapter divisions of his novels, Caldwell seeks a larger, architectonic equivalent for his master trope of exhaustion. Though chapter breaks intervene, that is, as if to interrupt the monotony, they frequently fail to indicate meaningful transitions in action or dialogue, so the same stupefying conversations, the same lifeless encounters, simply drone on. Chapter eleven of God's Little Acre, for instance, ends with the following short paragraph: "Presently Jim Leslie slumped down in the large overstuffed chair. He locked his hands under his chin and studied Griselda. Ty Ty saw that he was looking at her steadily" (p. 102). The opening line of chapter twelve is simply Ty Ty's immediate reply to the question implicit in his son's lascivious stare: "|That's Buck's wife, Griselda,' Ty Ty said" (p. 103). In much the same way, the interminable opening scene of Tobacco Road (pp. 1-35) stretches across four chapters, formal divisions which supply only the illusion of narrative progress. We could say, then, that at the level of discourse, style, and structure, exhaustion manifests itself in the Caldwell text as a troubling absence, or failure, of articulation.(11)

Students who have never read Caldwell before have little difficulty detecting the exhaustion of rhetoric in his work, but many simply attribute it to "bad writing" on the author's part. Caldwell, this argument runs, isn't being particularly clever or innovative in scenes like the ones above; he's simply run out of things to say, a problem he unfortunately compounds by trying to talk his way through it. More than one friend or colleague over the years has suggested the same thing to me. And Kenneth Burke certainly pulled no punches in pronouncing repetitiousness "Caldwell's greatest vice," in an influential 1935 essay-review on the novelist. "Sometimes when reading Caldwell," Burke confesses in exasperation, "I feel as though I were playing with my toes."(12)

Tempting as it may be to pitch one's critical tent beside Burke's, however, I am not quite comfortable dismissing Caldwell's prose as boring and pointless - or worse, as simply vapid. Nor can I see it primarily as a Gertrude Steinian salute to the repetitiousness of ordinary oral discourse, as MacDonald, for instance, has argued (p. 330). Nor does the exhaustion of rhetoric strike me as simply a stylistic tic of "ritual" or "habitual" origin, as others have suggested.(13) For one thing, Caldwell could break this "habit" of style whenever he saw fit. On occasion he opts away from the exhaustion of rhetoric, striving instead to invest his characters with a rhetoric of homely plenitude. In You Have Seen Their Faces, for instance, the quotations which appear beneath Margaret Bourke-White's photographs of sharecroppers and tenant farmers - quotations which are actually fictional, the work of Caldwell's own hand - give voice either to a sober, hard-earned, gnomic wisdom, or to a spontaneous folk poetry. To a rhetoric, that is, which is deceptively sufficient:

It looks like God can't trust people to take care of the earth any more.

There comes a time when there's nothing to do except sit.

It's getting so nowadays people don't ask how good a preacher is at preaching. They want to know how good he is at painting signs.

I reckon I forgot to remember how old I is.

It never felt much like Sunday to me until I plucked the guitar some.

There are comparable moments in the novels, such as Lov Bensey's prose poems to Pearl in Tobacco Road - "Seeing them long yellow curls hanging down her back used to make me cry sometimes. I'd look at her pretty hair and eyes so long that I thought I'd go crazy if I didn't touch her and see deep down into her eyes" (p. 150 or the pastoral interlude from Journeyman in which three men comment upon the view through a crack in a cow shed:

"You sit there a while, and the first thing you know, you can't get away from it. It gets a hold on a man like nothing else does. You sit there, screwing up your eye and looking at the trees or something, and you might start to thinking what a fool thing you're doing, but you don't give a cuss about that. All you care for is staying there and looking." (p. 101)

Rather than exhaustion or impoverishment, these passages seek to evoke a stubborn vitality and the deliberately humble beauty one encounters in the lyrics of country and Western songs. "[S]he wouldn't never let me come close to her," Lov says of Pearl, "and that's what made the tears fall out of my eyes, I reckon" (TR, p. 150). This is language which replenishes rather than depletes; as Semon Dye says of Tom's view, "You can look through there all day and never get tired" (J, p. 101). Even Jeeter Lester - he of the damn-blasted green-gutters - is, in the words of one critic, "given to picturesque language."(14) These examples should be enough to demonstrate that Caldwell was in conscious control of the rhetoric of his characters. He was no prisoner of involuntary stylistic reflexes.(15)

Rather than a bad habit, then, I see the exhaustion of rhetoric in Caldwell as a self-conscious experiment in style, one which, moreover, evolves directly and continuously out of Caldwell's subject matter, as Caldwell, who had little patience with innovation for its own sake, believed any such formal strategy must do. If Caldwell's achievement in fashioning this deliberately flat, mundane style has been overshadowed by subsequent developments like the much-celebrated aesthetic and metaphysic of American hard-boiled detective fiction, or the "zero degree" of style Roland Barthes admiringly attributes to the "colourless," neutral," austere prose of existentially inflected writers like Albert Camus and Philippe Solers,(16) it is nonetheless, in identifying and articulating an important, hitherto ineffable area of modern experience, an achievement of the same order of magnitude as these more widely renowned breakthroughs in style. (Indeed, the fact that Caldwell was acknowledged as a stylistic precursor by the French contingent probably helps explain his popularity and high critical reputation in France.) Moreover, the documentary accuracy of Caldwell's technique is at least in part borne out by the following passage from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in which James Agee, writing in the mid- 1930s, evokes the spiritual and rhetorical impoverishment of an Alabama sharecropper named Ricketts in a manner that strikingly suggests Caldwell's:

I told him I couldn't be a bit sure yet just where our work was going to be taking us, but I hoped we would be seeing them all some more. He said, any time, they were always right there. Then he said, any time, they were always right there. Then he laughed very loudly and said, yes sir, any time at all, they was sure God always right there. Then he laughed very loud and long and said, yes sir, they was always right there all right, any time at all, and kept on laughing while, out of the back of his eyes, he watched me. That is the pattern of almost anything Ricketts says.(17)

If Ricketts, at least as Agee presents him, seems more consciously attuned to the irony (and pathos) of his monotonous discourse than the typical Caldwell character, he would still by no means be out of place among the Waldens or the Lesters.

Caldwell's fictional and nonfictional writings of the thirties demonstrate his profound understanding of how "depressed" his Depressionera South and Southerners actually were. He well knew that the "Depression" he wrote about was more than just a historical phenomenon (a contemporary period whose end was not yet in sight), and more than just an economic phenomenon (a slump in the production and consumption of commodities). It was also, and above all, a psychological phenomenon, a state of mind characterized by the very listlessness and flatness of affect captured in the Caldwell prose style. Caldwell's characters, that is, are not only tired, hungry, and poor; they exhibit many of the symptoms of chronic, clinical depression.


The leading theorists of the psychoanalytic mechanism of the condition all agree that depression is, in a fundamental sense, a form of exhaustion. According to the model proposed by Freud in "Mourning and Melancholia," and subsequently developed and refined by Edward Bibring and David L. Rubinfine, the real or perceived loss of a loved (libidinally cathected) object is at first experienced by the forsaken subject in terms of the frustration of its needs and wishes, a frustration which, when prolonged, leads to anxiety and anger. When, in turn, this anger proves incapable of restoring the subject to the earlier, wished-for state of things, the characteristic symptoms of clinical depression set in: feelings of helplessness, a tendency to reproach the self for its inadequacy, and, not least of all, the drawing away of cathectic energies from the ego, "emptying [it] until it is totally impoverished."(18) This impoverishment is also referred to by Freud and others as inhibition: "inhibition of all activity," "general inhibition," "complete motor inhibition," or "an inhibition of functions including the interest in the external world."(19) And Bibring has instructively spoken of it as the "exhaustion of ego libido due to an unsolvable conflict" (p. 19). Depression, in other words, is exhaustion from inner rage at one's helplessness, one's inability to satisfy one's own wishes and needs.

If the first and foremost "good object" in psychoanalytic theory is the mother (or, technically, the mother's breast, whose absence starts us on the long road to individuation and adulthood, and, at the same time, becomes the necessary precondition, though not the sufficient cause, of depression), the object whose loss seems most profoundly to infuse the Caldwell world with its characteristic senses of trauma and lethargy is the motherland, which is technically still there, of course, but which can no longer offer Caldwell's characters the sustenance which was once, and would ideally still be, its principal function in an agrarian society. Caldwell's first psychoanalytic critic, Lawrence Kubie, pointed out the general absence of important or effectual mothers in God's Little Acre, but the many weak, missing, or dead mothers in the work of the thirties are but types of a more primordial lost matrix, rather than, as Kubie implies in his analysis, the other way around.(20) Here, then, with the land, is where not only the economic analysis but the psychoanalysis of depression in Caldwell must begin.

A number of striking resemblances between the Caldwell character's relationship to the land and the depressive's relationship to the lost love-object can be established by a few brief references to Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, the texts in which the analogy is most forcefully articulated. First of all, there is the matter of denial. Since depression stems from a nostalgic wish for unity with the lost object, it requires the denial of the unsatisfactory or unpleasant characteristics associated with that object, the insistence that the object is indeed still desirable, still satisfactory (Rubinfine, p. 416). This is precisely what Jeeter Lester does in devoting rhapsody after loving rhapsody to the land which can no longer sustain him or support his family. It also accounts for Ty Ty Walden's perverse and repeated assertions that the fallow fields around him harbor gold. Though he, like Jeeter, is confronted on every side with evidence of its impoverishment or outright indifference, his faith in the land remains unshaken.

Of course, Jeeter never plants the redemptive cotton crop he stubbornly dreams of, and Ty Ty never strikes his mother (!) lode. This too is characteristic of the depressive, who, when his goals prove unrealizable, "gives up, not the goals, but pursuing them, since this proves to be useless; he is tired" (Bibring, p. 34). To give up the goals, of course, would be to admit the ultimate irretrievability, or the undesirability, of the object - an option the depressive of course finds intolerable. Thus the tendency of the Caldwell character to "never get around" to his big plans, since getting around to them would only expose how utterly unrealistic they are and have been all along: Jeeter and Ty Ty, in other words, may be able to summon the energy to dream the patently impossible dream, but they lack the energy to pursue it to fruition.

Moreover, Abraham has suggested that the motor inhibition of depressives is a sign "that strong motor impulses have had to be made harmless" - that, in the wake of the object's defection, the subject represses the aggressive impulses inspired by betrayal.(21) If this observation helps to explain the listlessness which afflicts so many of Caldwell's characters, we can also catch an occasional glimpse in their behavior of repressed hostility returning: in Ty Ty's habit of flailing at the earth with stick or hoe, for instance, or Jeeter's of burning the land over every spring. The irony, of course, is that, for both men, acting out aggressive impulses proves just as exhausting as inhibiting them - so exhausting, in Jeeter's case, as to prove indirectly fatal. And finally, though the analogy can only be sketched briefly here, the episodes of lurid sexuality and savage violence which break out like summer storms across the Caldwell landscape (and which seem to be the only events capable of rousing Caldwell's characters from their lethargy), may be productively viewed as the work of libidinal energy liberated in mania, the excess of uninhibited behavior which alternates with depression proper in the cyclothymic form of the disease.(22)

The rhetoric of exhaustion and the exhaustion of rhetoric in Caldwell thus offer us what amounts to a literary pathology of (the) depression in its social, economic, and psychic manifestations. Beneath the simple surfaces and monotonous cadences of Caldwell's prose lies a deceptively complex account of poor-white experience in the rural South of the Depression years, an account just as complex, in its own way, as Faulkner's or Agee's. This, finally, is the paradox of Caldwell in the thirties: in his peculiar flatness lies his richness.

(1) Erskine caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, You Have seen Their Faces [YSF] (New York: Modern Age Books, 1937), pp. 3, 18.

became frustrated. He felt defeated. He felt the despair and dejection that comes with defeat. He was made aware of the limitations of life imposed upon those unfortunate enough to be made slaves of sharecropping. . . . He became wasteful and careless. (YSF, p. 19) (2) R. J. Gray, "Southwestern Humor, Erskine Caldwell, and the Comedy of Frustration," in Critical Essays on Erskine Caldwell, ed. Scott MacDonald (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981), p. 305. (3) Erskine Caldwell, "Georgia Poverty-Swept, Says Caldwell," in Critical Essays, p. 97. (4) Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road [TR] (1932; rpt. New York: Signet, 1962), p. 36. (5) Erskine Caldwell, God's Little Acre [GLA] (1933; rpt. New York: Signet, 1961), p. 23. (6) Joseph Warren Beach, "Erskine Caldwell: The Comic Catharsis," in Critical Essays, p. 188. (7) Sylvia J. Cook, "Caldwell's Fiction: Growing Towards Trash?" Southern Quarterly, 27 (Spring 1989), 54. (8) Scott MacDonald, "Repetition as Technique in the Short Stories of Erskine Caldwell," in Critical Essays,p. 334. (9) Vincent Hall, "Poor Whites" (review of Tobacco Road), in Critical Essays, p. 9, (10) Erskine Caldwell, Journeyman [J] (1935; rpt. Penguin, 1947), p. 22. (11) MacDonald also comments on this strategy in his introduction to the Critical Essays volume, but he can find "no apparent reason" for it "except, perhaps, that Caldwell assumes his readers need a breather." See Critical Essays, p. xxiii. (12) Kenneth Burke, "Erskine Caldwell: Maker of Grotesques," in Critical Essays, p. 173. (13) See for instance Cook, "Caldwell's Fiction," p. 55; MacDonald, "Repetition and Technique," p. 330; and Guy Owen, "Foreword" to Erskine Caldwell, Deep South: Memory and Observation (1968; rpt. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980), p. ix. Caldwell himself is rather shifty on this subject. When asked by an interviewer whether the use of repetition in dialogue was a way "to portray th[e] character more clearly" or to create "an incantation effect," Caldwell replied cagily, "That's just the way he would act. ... That's just his nature to say it." See Richard B. Sale, "An Interview in Florida with Erskine Caldwell," in MacDonald, Critical Essays, p. 284. (14) Malcolm Cowley, "The Two Erskine Caldwells," in Critical Essays, p. 198. (15) Sylvia Cook makes the related point that "it is only by reading Caldwell's nonfiction that one becomes aware of the extent to which the fictional voice and tone is consciously, rather than genuinely, naive" ("Erskine Caldwell's Nonfiction," in Critical Essays, p. 390). (16) Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (1953), trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968). (17) James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941; rpt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), p. 388. (18) Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917), The Standard Edition, 14:253. For the model of depression offered here I am also indebted to Freud, Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926), ed. James Strachey, trans. Alix Strachey (New York: Norton, 1959); Edward Bibring, "The Mechanism of Depression," in Affective Disorders: Psychoanalytic Contributions to Their Study, ed. Phyllis Greenacre (New York: International Universities Press, 1953), pp. 13-48; David L. Rubinfine, "Notes on a Theory of Depression," Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 37, no. 3 (1968), 400-417; and the correspondence on depression between Freud and his colleague Karl Abraham in A Psychoanalytic Dialogue: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham, 1907-1926, ed. Hilda C. Abraham and Ernst L. Freud, trans. Bernard March and Hilda C. Abraham (New York: Basic Books, 1965), pp. 116-119, 215-223, 328-331. (19) See Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia," p. 244; Freud, Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, p. 7; Abraham to Freud, A Psychoanalytic Dialogue, p. 216; and Bibring, p. 15. (20) See Lawrence Kubie, "God's Little Acre: An Analysis," in Critical Essays, pp. 162-164. (21) Abraham to Freud, A Psychoanalytic Dialogue, p. 216. (22) Commonly known as manic-depression. See Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia,"p. 255.
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Author:Watson, Jay
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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