2010: 46. Tobacco Road

“Lov Bensey trudged homeward through the deep white sand of the gully-washed tobacco road with a sack of winter turnips on his back.”

Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell

       The presence of Tobacco Road on the Modern Library Top 100 novel list makes me question the validity of the entire premise of the list.*  Not to put to fine a point on it, if, say one hundred people read this book and read, oh The Handmaiden’s Tale,** it is impossible for me to imagine that even one person would say that this novel deserves that novel’s place.  I read an on-line review that called Tobacco Road, “Caldwell’s greasy hairball of a novel,” and I think that that is just about right.***

       The book is set in the rural South during the worst of the depression, and tells about some people who are living on what used to be tobacco farms, but are now collapsing shacks on someone else’s land.  The story focuses on the Lesters, the poorest, trashiest people in town - at least as Caldwell portrays them.  The dirt poor, stupid, no morals, barely human Lesters, who Caldwell portrays as circus freaks, for the literati to jeer at.  The book is ridiculous - the characters have (almost) no humanity, and circumstances just get worse and worse, until the whole thing ends (badly).  I was actually offended by the lack of humanity - and worse, it doesn’t read like its supposed to be a satire, but rather that Caldwell thought he was giving us an honest portrayal of the way the poor Southerners live.  And maybe they did live sad and dirty lives, but when I compare it to say The Grapes of Wrath, which I just re-read (also as part of this project), and how Steinbeck, for all his flaws, made his poverty-struck characters human and understandable, I can’t really understand what value Tobacco Road offers us.  I’m not prone to feministic outrage, but it makes me think pretty seriously about the “dead white man” critique of this list, when I think that this book topped anything by Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, Alice Munroe, or Doris Lessing (to name just a few) in the Modern Library selection.  Bad call, guys.

*And yes, I think I generally question the validity of such lists anyway, and when I finally finish the project I will have a great deal to say about the meaning of any top novel list, and the selection of novels on this particular list and so fort.  

** Or, To Kill A Mockingbird.  Or, Beloved.  Or, Mrs. Dalloway.  Just to pick some low hanging fruit. 

*** The review also tries to justify Tobacco Road’s place on the ML list, but I’m not buying what they’re selling on that front.

Date/Place Completed:  July 2010; D.C.

Categories:  Fiction, Modern Library Top 100

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017