Caldwell, Erskine. Tobacco Road.
All of the characters are illiterate, coarse, primitive. All are impoverished, starving, barely surviving.
Lov Bensey (possibly about 20): A common labourer, employed at the local coat chute where he loads coal on wagons. Poor, but with a regular job and wages, therefore better off than the other characters.
Pearl Lester–Bensey (13): Lov’s beautiful blond blue-eyed wife. Ada’s illegitimate daughter, conceived with a stranger passing through the region. Childlike, still fears dark nights, does not talk to anyone but her mother. Urged by Ada to run away to Augusta before she starts giving birth to children as Ada did.
Ada Lester (middle-aged): Toothless from chewing tobacco since she was eight (snuff makes hunger more bearable). Gravely ill, suffers pellagra (caused by lack of niacin in food, common where corn is a staple diet). Mother of seventeen children, twelve of them surviving. All of the children, but for Pearl, Dude and Ellie May, are married and fled to other parts of the country, the Lesters know nothing about their whereabouts or fortunes.
Jeeter Lester (middle-aged): Ada’s husband. Insufficiently supports his family by occasionally hauling poor-quality wood to Augusta in the wreck of his car (which was not accepted even at a scrapyard). Deeply attached to the soil, refuses to have have himself employed in any of the cotton mills in the town and prefers starving his family by staying at the land. Waits for God to take notice of him and relieve his suffering, believes that God intends something great for him and his extreme poverty is but a test. A great talker but a poor doer, excellent at finding excuses for not doing anything (planning but never fulfilling to have Ellie May’s lip sewn, to resume farming etc.). Sinful and lustful in nature, believes that a prayer makes God forget his sins, father of a number of illegitimate children. Until the last never gives up the hope for harvesting a good tobacco crop.
Dude Lester (16): Ada and Jeeter’s son. Vulgar, base, cruel (beats up and perhaps kills a black man after he crashes in his wagon and claims it was the Negro’s fault). Immature, childishly obsessed with horns and whistles. Unmanageable (curses and throws stones at his father), despises Jeeter for his weakness, sees him through.
Ellie May Lester (18): Ada’s and Jeeter’s daughter. Born with a harelip (Sister Bessie thinks God made her so in order to secure her from Jeeter’s lust).
Old Mother Lester: Jeeter’s mother. The most impoverished of the characters. An amazing survivor despite the inhumane treatment on the part of her family. Always the most hungry, not allowed to take food or snuff when there is some, must devise her own means of surviving. Keeps on hiding herself behind chinaberry trees and watches everything from distance (Jeeter beats her when he catches her taking some little snuff for herself). Shares similar hopes as Jeeter (builds the fire at mealtimes though there is no food).
Sister Bessie Rice (39): Widow, later Dude’s wife. Born with a deformed face, without a bone in her nose. Inherited a considerable amount of insurance money from her late husband. Self-made preacher, reproaches God for paying not enough attention to people’s needs and not stopping them from wrongdoing. Persuades Jeeter that God wants him to cut himself off when he is unable to control his lust (Jeeter never fulfils this intention).
The novel is set in Georgia some time in the inter-war period.
History of the Tobacco Road: Established by Jeeter’s grandfather seventy-five years ago. A strip of sandy land along the Savannah river. Runs parallel with the river and was made by the rolling of tobacco casks. The casks were transported from plantations by rolling on the tops of the hills so that they should not roll down into the river.
History of Jeeter Lester: Used to plant tobacco exclusively. The land was soon deprived of natural nourishment and it was necessary to add more and more artificial nourishment. The land being sandy, fertilizers were washed away by summer rains. Bad harvests made Jeeter sell the fields to Captain John Harmon who allowed Lester to stay as a sharecropper. This was ten years before the WWI. Harmon then left the failing farming business and went to Augusta. Now Lester gets no more credit for food and snuff, has no money to buy seed-tobacco and guano to fertilize the soil. He is only allowed to stay in the ruin of his house.
Jeeter Steals Lov’s Turnips: Lov, carrying a sack of turnips, stops by his father-in-law to discuss his troubles with Pearl. His wife would not let Lov touch her, she sleeps on a pallet on the floor rather than in the bed, she hides from Lov when he is in the house. Lov knows that he is running a risk of Jeeter stealing his turnips, but Ellie May distracts him from the sack by attempting to seduce him. The sack is eventually stolen in a concerted action of the whole family. Ellie May nearly rapes Lov, pressing him to the ground with the whole weight of her body, assisted by Ada and Old Mother Lester. The coloured men who happened to pass by laugh not so much at Lov’s misery as rather at the grotesque behaviour of the Lesters.
Bessie Buys a Car for Dude: Jeeter is troubled by qualms of conscience when he runs away with the sack, hides in a nearby forest and eats most of the turnips alone. When Dude finds him, Jeeter returns to the house and lets his family have some of the loot. Jeeter gives some turnips to Sister Bessie, who prays for him and for the other Lesters, and Jeeter believes that it is the same as if he never stole anything. Bessie takes a fancy in Dude and plans to make him her new husband and a preacher. She simply announces that it is the will of God that she marry Dude, and the Lesters submit to her wish. Dude is convinced to the marriage only when Bessie buys a brand new car for him to drive. Bessie spends on the car all of the money that she inherited from her late husband. The informal wedding ceremony is held by Bessie herself. She is eager to have her wedding night, but Dude is frightened by his wife, and the marriage remains unconsummated. The lustful Jeeter offers himself to substitute Dude.
Bessie Spends a Night in a Hotel: Jeeter persuades Bessie to let him use her car for bringing wood for sale to Augusta. Within a single day, the car is crashed several times and finally severely damaged by lack of oil in the engine. Nobody buys the blackjack, so the company is forced to sell a spare tire from the car to get some money for food. The rest of the money is immediately spent on staying in a cheap hotel. In the night, Bessie is constantly chased from one room to another, in each room there is a man in the bed already. Bessie does not get much sleep, but she enjoys the stay. On the returning journey, Jeeter tries to burn the unsold wood. It is so tough that it would not catch fire even when Jeeter pours some petrol on it.
Dude Overruns Old Mother Lester: Dude and Bessie visit Jeeter’s son Tom who is reported to run a profitable cross-tie camp and be well-off. Tom refuses to provide any help to his parents and advises them to go to the county poor-farm. There is an argument between Bessie and her parents-in-law. Dude is forced to choose either Bessie or his parents. He jumps into the car and rushes away with Bessie. He accidentally hits and runs over Old Mother Lester. Nobody pays any attention to her. She is not dead immediately and later in the day she is buried by Jeeter and Lov. Lov came to announce that Pearl had run away to Augusta. Jeeter offers him Ellie May instead.
Dude Follows in Jeeter’s Footsteps: Jeeter eventually moves himself to burn over the fields in order to get rid of the weeds and start planting. He builds the fire and goes to bed. In the night the fire spreads and consumes the house with Jeeter and Ada in sleep. The next day Dude surprisingly announces, echoing Jeeter’s vain promises, that he plans to borrow a mule somewhere, get some seed-cotton and guano and start planting cotton.
– naturalistic, grotesque, ironic (Ada’s concern to be buried in a dress of a fashionable length and Jeeter’s worry to have his body safe from rats after his death prove to have been unnecessary when they die in the fire)
– the tragedy of people who are incapable or unwilling to adapt to changes of their environment (to resign at the obsolete farming methods and seek different jobs in towns)
– the power of the love to the land which overwhelms even the instinct of self-preservation (the Lesters could have been better off if they had moved from the land like their children did in order to survive)
– the material poverty related to mental poverty, the effects of poor conditions on the way of thinking and reasoning
– physical deformation and ugliness (Ellie May, Bessie, Ada’s lack of teeth) in unhealthy and defected environment
– selfishness, ruthlessness and cruelty in the impoverished and deteriorated family (Jeeter’s theft of the turnips, his eating most of them alone, Jeeter’s attitude to the his mother)
=> manifests in practice the Darwinian survival of the fittest
AuthorCaldwell, Erskine. (1903 - 1987).
Full TitleTobacco Road.
First PublishedNY: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1932.
Caldwell, Erskine. Tobacco Road. (1932). London: Falcon, 1948.