Tobacco Road

A Novel by Erskine Caldwell
Foreword by Lewis Nordan

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About the book

Set during the Depression in the depleted farmlands surrounding Augusta, Georgia, Tobacco Road was first published in 1932. It is the story of the Lesters, a family of white sharecroppers so destitute that most of their creditors have given up on them. Debased by poverty to an elemental state of ignorance and selfishness, the Lesters are preoccupied by their hunger, sexual longings, and fear that they will someday descend to a lower rung on the social ladder than the black families who live near them.

About the author

Erskine Caldwell (1903–1987) was born in Newnan, Georgia. He became one of America’s most widely read, prolific, and critically debated writers, with a literary output of more than sixty titles. At the time of his death, Caldwell’s books had sold eighty million copies worldwide in more than forty languages. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1984.

For discussion

  1. In the biography Erskine Caldwell: The Journey from Tobacco Road, author Dan Miller said that Caldwell’s typical male character is “shiftless, conscienceless, incorrigibly lecherous, and possessed of a childlike innocence that blinds him to the ramifications of even his most hideous behavior.” Do you agree with this opinion? Where in the story might you find examples of Jeeter behaving this way? Can you find counter-examples?
  3. A reviewer once commented that Caldwell’s characters are so disgusting they “lose the power to compel either pity or indignation.” Other critics countered, praising Caldwell’s dark humor as something akin to the satire of Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain. Do you think his portraits too exaggerated to inspire sympathy or even anger? Do you feel a connection to any of the Lesters? Bessie? Lov?
  5. Do you feel that Caldwell respects the Southern rural poor? Is he merely mocking them, or is he striving to re-frame the stereotype of the carefree, good-humored Southerner?
  7. John Shelton Reed, a noted observer of southern culture, once said that “Caldwell himself believed he was crusading for social justice.” Is Tobacco Road more an indictment of an unfair society or an indictment of stupidity and laziness in the poor man? What of Captain John and the rich banks of Augusta? Who do you think is to blame for the decline of the Lester family into starvation and poverty?
  9. A critic once described Tobacco Road as “a compelling argument for diversified farming.” Caldwell did grow up in this region and saw the poverty first-hand. Consider Caldwell’s description of the burning over of the land as done out of tradition more than ingenuity. Is the author calling for innovation and cooperation among the starving farmers surrounding Fuller?
  11. Why do you think Caldwell made Bessie and Ellie May physically deformed? What is Caldwell trying to communicate? What do you think the strong sexuality of those characters is supposed to represent?
  13. Is there a place for love in the world we see in Tobacco Road? Ada and Jeeter seem to love their children, yet only the ones that have left them. Do you think any of their children love them? Do you see any love between the married couples of the story?
  15. God plays a central role in the lives of many of the characters, yet their understanding of religion seems superficial and hypocritical at best. Do you think Caldwell was criticizing the control organized religion has disenfranchised people’s lives? How does religion seem to help them? How is it a harmful force? Discuss the religious beliefs held by Bessie and Jeeter.
  17. Why do you think Caldwell treated death so lightly? Examples include the black man knocked from his cart by Dude driving Bessie’s car, Mother Lester run over by the same, and Ada and Jeeter burned in the fire. What do you think of Ada’s and Jeeter’s obsession with being buried in nice clothing?
  19. Repeatedly Jeeter is told to move to the city to work in the mills to support himself and his family. What is Caldwell saying by having Jeeter continually reject this path? Why is maintaining a connection with the land so important?