This passage from Tobacco Road was given to my Upper 6th students today:
Erskine Caldwell – 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. He had put himself to a lot of trouble to get the turnips; it was a long and tiresome walk all the way to Fuller and back again.
The day before, Lov had heard that a man over there was selling winter turnips for fifty cents a bushel, so he had started out with half a dollar that morning to buy some. He had already walked seven and a half miles, and it was a mile and a half yet back to his house at the coal chute.
Four or five of the Lesters were standing in the yard looking at Lov when he put his sack down and stopped in front of the house. They had been watching Lov ever since he was first seen an hour before on the sand hill nearly two miles away, and now that he was actually within reach, they were prepared to stop him from carrying the turnips any farther.
Lov had his wife to feed and provide for, in addition to himself, and he was careful not to allow any of the Lesters to come too close to the sack of turnips. Usually when he came by the Lester place with turnips or sweet potatoes, or for that matter with any kind of food, he left the road half a mile from the house and made a wide circle through the fields, returning to the road a safe distance beyond. To-day, though, he had to speak to Jeeter about something of great importance, and he had ventured closer to the house than he had ever done before when carrying home turnips, or sweet potatoes.
Lov’s wife was Jeeter Lester’s youngest daughter, Pearl. She was only twelve years old the summer before when he had married her.
The Lesters watched Lov closely while he stood in the middle of the road. He had dropped the sack from his shoulder, but he held the neck of it in the rigid grasp of both hands. No one in the yard had changed his position during the past ten minutes. The next move was entirely up to Lov.
When Lov came to the house and stopped, he had a good reason for doing so; otherwise he would never have come within hailing distance. He wanted to speak to Jeeter about Pearl.
Pearl would not talk. She would not say a word, no matter how persuasive Lov tried to be, nor how angry he was; she even hid from Lov when he came home from the coal chute, and when he found her, she slipped away from his grasp and ran off into the broom-sedge out of sight. Sometimes she would even stay in the broom-sedge all night, remaining out there until Lov went to work the next morning.
Pearl had never talked, for that matter. Not because she could not but simply because she did not want to. When she was at home, before Lov had married her, she had stayed apart from the other Lesters and rarely opened her mouth from the beginning of one day to the next. Only her mother, Ada, had been able to converse with her, and even then Pearl had never used more than the barest of negatives and affirmatives in reply. But Ada was herself like that. She had begun to talk voluntarily only during the past ten years. Before then, Jeeter had had the same trouble with her that Lov was now having with Pearl.
Lov asked Pearl questions, he kicked her, he poured water over her, he threw rocks and sticks at her, and he did everything else he could think of that he thought might make her talk to him. She cried a lot, especially when she was seriously hurt, but Lov did not consider that as conversation. He wanted her to ask him if his back were sore, and when was he going to get his hair cut, and when was it going to rain again. But Pearl would not say anything.
The passage, from a text written in 1932 during the depression and dustbowl era, focuses on a male protagonist: Lov and his relationship with his wife: Pearl. The passage presents a tense stand-off with his parents-in-law, to whom he has turned in the hope of getting information about what the male-perspective narration calls ‘the trouble with’ Pearl.
The reality of the desperate poverty of the 1930s in middle America is clear from the outset. In a country which has been criss-crossed by rail and in which the model T Ford is the norm, Lov Bensey must walk. Not only that, but the vast distances he must walk are accentuated by Caldwell’s delaying of information: in the opening paragraph we learn that the walk is ‘long and tiresome’, yet it is only in the second paragraph that we are shown the truth: a 9 mile round trip, suggesting the idea that the walk is initially played down for effect. Indeed, the reader is presented with the broken idea of ‘seven and a half miles’ and ‘a mile and a half yet’ as Caldwell presents the detail of the walk as clearly as he can.
This walk takes place on the ‘deep white sand’ of the tobacco road (not capitalised, presumably because it does not have the status of a formal highway) which is also ‘gully washed’. The lack of formal infrastructure is suggestive of a land in decline, in much the same way as the opening chapters of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath present Oklahoman farm lands as being barren and without clear form. However this is stronger. Despite the huge advances of technology and wealth seen in the urban environment in the 20th century, such advances have clearly not reached this outpost of humanity, which seems to have changed little since the Pioneer days.
The sense of space and emptiness is heightened when we read that the antagonists, the Lesters, have watched Lov for the last two miles of his walk. The omniscient narrator draws attention first to the size of this family – ‘four or five’ stand outside, suggesting many more within – and then to the barren nature of the landscape – ‘sand hill(s)’ are not suggestive of good farming country and one wonders how the families came to be settled in this area in the first place.
Lov has travelled to find food. The idea of ‘turnips’ is referenced regularly in the opening paragraphs, stressing the importance of the idea to the characters in the ‘drama’. Lov is weighed down and fully aware of the threat posed by the Lesters. In a passage reminiscent of many a scene in a Western – the stereotypical genre of life in the Mid West and the West- Lov guards his turnips almost as if they are currency or gold. We learn that having watched him for an hour (suggesting that they have little work to do), the Lesters are now ‘prepared to stop him’ and to steal this produce. Clearly the drought and the conditions of the dustbowl era have reduced all to a state of desperation – Caldwell emphasises the degree to which Lov would generally avoid this farm by the use of the adjectives ‘wide’ and ‘safe’ when referring to the journey he would usually take.
His careful attitude is seen in the ‘rigid’ grip he maintains on his sack, held by the neck, as though it were an animal which might escape. Further to this, the tension is increased as Caldwell ends the sixth paragraph with two short sentences. The first holds time still for 10 minutes, the second places the onus firmly on Lov to avoid disaster and the reader is fascinated to find out how this might happen. At this point, the last character is introduced: Pearl. Named after a jewel of great price and also the product of the closed Oyster, Lov’s wife is the catalyst for his journey. At first we read Lov as a caring husband keen to ‘provide for his wife’ however in the short fifth paragraph something sinister emerges. Pearl, daughter of Jeeter Lester, was only twelve years old when she married Lov. Again, the sense of a dislocation of time is achieved. Perhaps in the earliest days of the pioneer this might have been acceptable, but in the 20th century, such a taboo-breaking marriage would have seemed appalling. It seems clear that the Lesters, happy to be rid of an extra mouth to feed have passed Pearl off onto a local farmer who has no idea how to look after the young girl.
Lov has hoped for a wife, one to give him comfort and to talk to him about his woes -the tricolon is clear: ‘his back…, his hair cut and when it was going to rain again’ and rises in its crescendo to the key idea of the rain. In the 1930s the drought which denuded vast areas of the Southern Mid West is evidently an issue for this family.
However Lov’s treatment of his child bride is shocking. Writing in an asyndetic list to magnify each and every action, Caldwell lists the violent abuse which Lov uses in his frustration and ignorance to try to make his wife talk: ‘kicked her, poured water over her, threw rocks and sticks…’ Clearly Lov has no idea how to engage with this girl who in turn seems to have inherited what seems to be a medical reluctance to talk from her mother. However, rather than showing love and affection, he brutalises the girl who responds like an animal by hiding in the ‘broom-sedge’ all night after having ‘slipped away’ from his grasp (something he will not let happen to his turnips). The short sentence ‘Pearl would not talk’ suggests that as the novel progresses this will become a clear focus of the writing.
Caldwell is presenting here a world which has declined. The hope in adversity which typifies so much American Literature is utterly absent, replaced by an almost dystopian vision of emptiness and cruelty. This is a Darwinian world in which only the fittest will survive. The ideals of the original American Dream seem to be lost forever in this passage which captures the essential emotion of so many left destitute and without hope in the manner of the Joads and other itinerant workers seen in Steinbeck’s trilogy of depression novels.