By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

As someone who grew up in the North, the American South has always been a bit of a mystery to me. There is a pride there that I don't quite understand. For me, the mythology of America is rooted in the principals of the Founding Fathers and workers' fight for justice in the decades following the Civil War. The former group fought an
Jay Fox
imperial power to win the right to create the legal framework that would come to define the country. The latter group fought forces just as powerful to win the conditions that would allow for the creation of the modern American Middle Class and the suburb. This was the story I heard repeatedly because I grew up in a modern, Middle Class suburb. Even when I was growing to up in the 1980s and 1990s, it was still regarded as a community that represented the physical apotheosis of American life.

One historical event that my teachers didn’t spend a great deal of time on was the Civil War. Consequently, it has always felt like just a chapter in a history book for me. The only important events to come out of it were the assassination of Lincoln; the Emancipation Proclamation; and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. While it was crucial in creating this country because it freed the slaves and gave black Americans the right to vote, the idea that anyone still held any kind of resentment because of the war or the end of slavery seemed utterly ludicrous to me while I was growing up.

The attitude among many people of the South, of course, is diametrically opposed to this notion. For them, the Civil War stands as one of the single most important events in American history. While the North industrialized and became urban during the first half of the nineteenth century, the economy of the South continued to be based on agriculture and defined by the use of slave labor. As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said after most Southern states had seceded from the union but before the war had officially begun, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [as those of slavery's foes]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

About four years later that cornerstone was removed by force, which spelled doom for the backbone of the Old South. Unfortunately, the culture of white supremacy continued despite efforts taken during Reconstruction to radically alter the socioeconomic institutions of the South and racism endured as strong as ever. In many ways it became even more virulent because the South was never able to return to being the agricultural powerhouse it had been prior to the war, and the aristocracy that had dominated Southern politics throughout the Antebellum Period fell upon hard times. Poverty among sharecroppers became endemic and the region's smaller urban centers became Dickensonian hellscapes and bastions of child labor.

Meanwhile, the Old South continued to cast a long shadow, and the inhabitants of the New South continued to walk past statues and geographic features named after the aristocracy that had once ruled the region. Even when features, such as roads, weren’t named for members of the aristocracy, they continued to refer to a bygone reality.

This was the harsh reality of life in rural Georgia for the Lester family at the beginning of the Depression as told in the 1932 Erskine Caldwell novel, Tobacco Road. The road had ceased to be used “for the rolling of tobacco casks, large hogsheads in which the leaf had been packed after being cured and seasoned in the clay-chinked barns.” In fact, no tobacco was grown there any longer. No cotton was grown there, either. In fact, nothing grew along the road at all except for weeds and blackjack oak too dense to be used as firewood. Families like the Lesters, however, continued to live along the road even though they did not farm or own the land. They were remainders.

While the book is a work of fiction, Caldwell most certainly drew from experiences he had growing up in rural Georgia. It is not a flattering portrayal, nor is it presented as entirely tragic. In an odd way, it reads like a precursor to the Beverly Hillbillies' move to California, though it does away with the pleasantries about southern hospitality and generosity. The Lesters are presented as degenerates. Their neighbor, Lov, is too (he marries the Lesters’ youngest daughter, Pearl, who is twelve at the time of the wedding). So is Sister Bessie, a local preacher and “hussie” who marries the Lesters’ second youngest, Dude.

Whether the underlying cause of the Lesters' degeneracy is their poverty or vice-versa, the novel shows a debased group of humans eking out an existence by means of duplicity without any real story arc or moral. There is no catalyst that sets the wheels in motion. You can feel the stillness of their life, the growing boredom that comes from sitting idle for so many years, as events happen over the course of a few days before death unceremoniously plucks the older generation off one at a time. The story ends with the last Lester to remain attached to the land, Dude, muttering to himself about raising a crop of cotton despite the fact that modern farming techniques have made his old way of farming beyond obsolete.

Tobacco Road is not an epic in the tradition of Robert Penn Warren or William Faulkner. It is a kind of pulp fiction that is too horrible to be tragic because the Lesters are so vile. It feels like a gross satire of life in the Deep South. However, this was life for some at the time Caldwell was writing.

Because of conditions following the Civil War, many rural families (both black and white) had been pushed into a system of tenant farming or sharecropping that exacerbated poverty levels throughout the Deep South. Though the white families continued to hold some specious sense of racial superiority, they suffered almost as much as black families from a system wherein banks would advance loans to farmers that would allow them to buy cottonseed and fertilizer, and then charge interest rates that kept the farmers permanently in debt. Ultimately, most of these farmers gave up the land and moved to the nearby mill towns or the cities in the North. The farms, meanwhile, were consolidated and industrialized, thereby limiting smaller farmers’ ability to compete. Surpluses, particularly of cotton, reduced the amount farmers could sell their crops for, which accelerated the process of pushing the small-time sharecroppers into cities and towns.

This is ultimately what gives Tobacco Road its power and why it continues to be thought of as one of the great novels based in the Great Depression. It does not present a romanticized version of the South. It offers a bleak reminder of what happens when people remain fixated upon a bygone era while refusing to adapt to a changing reality. Religion, work, education, love, and death all lose their meaning because there is no sense of future, no sense of time passing. The only thing that matters is satisfying one's most base impulses, as if one is a zombie.

What the novel reveals is that the Lesters are effectively trapped by their own stubborn refusal to step out of the past, and that this tragic flaw also keeps them tied to the land of their forefathers where they are doomed to exist as superfluous members of humanity no more useful than ghosts.

Jay Fox


Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.