Twenty-five years ago Erskine Caldwell wrote an oversexed novel called God's Little Acre that sold more than eight million copies and was banned in Boston, among other places. Hollywood recently decided that a new generation of Americans was ready for a wide-screen, narrow-mind treatment of the book and will release it the end of May. In honor of this step forward, the author, his wife, and two agents dropped in on Boston recently.
"This is a business trip," he said, "but I don't like to call it publicity; I prefer to use the word 'promotion.' Yes, we did cut a few feet of the movie in deference to the Legion of Decency. They were going to give it a C-rating. C for Condemned."
The author, a tall, stocky, heavily-freckled man of 54, hastened to add that the whole movie was made in good taste, and now has a B-rating from the Legion. "I supervised the filming myself," he said, reassuringly. He had not been happy with the way Hollywood treated Tobacco Road, still touring socialminded little theaters on a double bill with Grapes of Wrath.
Caldwell looks like a non-Ivy League football coach, though he was wearing a neat grey suit, light tie, and crew cut for his visit. He smoked nearly all the time. He has almost no accent, "but I can drop back into a Southern accent whenever I want to."
God's Little Acre was written in six weeks in Maine, geographically and temperamentally as far from his Georgia characters as he could have gotten. Of the book he says, "It's just a story; anybody can interpret it any way they want to, but I was just trying to tell a story. I studied economics and sociology, but I don't put them into my stories." Caldwell makes no claims to sophistication, except if by sophistication, you mean being more aware of the situation around you, having an expanded knowledge of people. We use a plain table service."
"I try to read one book by each of the young writers, just to keep in the swim. I think I've read all the first books written by Hemingway, Wolfe, Faulkner, Dreiser, and Wylie." No one influenced his style, however. Like Topsy, it just growed. "I don't know how I got it, I just can't write any other way now. When I was sixteen, I started experimenting with words. Then I got a job on the Atlanta Journal, police reporter. It taught me to write something every day, and now I put in a nine-to-five day, except when I'm travelling." Caldwell tries to get out a book a year, but the movie has put him behind schedule. "I watched the tests of the actresses mostly; I'm not interested much in the actors."
Caldwell acknowledges that the situation of twenty-five years ago has changed. "But each of my novels is contemporary for the year in which it is written. People themselves are softer now." Caldwell sees his job as a writer as making him into a sort of vocal mirror. "I just try to reflect life. I'm not trying to prove anything. A writer, though, does have to interpret, too. I try to do it, try to illuminate a little bit, enlighten." When looking for a character, he looks for the one thing which makes him different, the part of him that's original. "I hope I have everything in a story, and sure, that means sex. It's one of the most important things in life, after all."
Caldwell, for all his disclaimers of polish, is smooth. He is also contained. "Symbolism--I've heard that word." "Henry James--I remember hearing his name or reading it in school." "What Southern mythology?" At "The University" (of Virginia) he didn't pay much attention to the requirements, but was in graduate courses in English, economics, and sociology by his junior year. He never graduated.
He has come a long way since Atlanta, or his birthplace in Wrens, Georgia. "I was a poor boy in a poor family (his father was a minister) and I knew what it was to be hungry." Things are different now. "I like to have a new typewriter for every story." America is different now, too. "In my day, a beginning writer didn't have the temptations of today, advertising and television. If you can live without any money for about ten years until you get something published, then you've made it, you're a writer."
Caldwell, though, hasn't sold his soul to Hollywood, or anything else. Writing is his living, and professionalism doesn't appear to have changed his approach. He's done thirty novels, a number of short stories, and one movie. He doesn't seem anxious to do many more, unless they're from his own novels, and he is only asked to supervise.
One has to admire a man who has made fiction a profession, who can turn out a novel in six weeks to ten months, even if he lacks artistry or conviction. If he can tell a story--and Caldwell can--he's entertaining. "I wouldn't try to tell anyone how to become a writer or try to influence anyone's style, but I hope that my example is occasionally an inspiration." Caldwell's approach is disarmingly bland and frank. He's not an old lecher, and he's probably a lot softer than he was in the Depression years, but he still really doesn't know "anything about advertising or promotion." And it's all rather admirable.