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tobacco road

Tobacco Road (novel)

This article is about the novel. For the film see Tobacco Road (1941). For the play see Tobacco Road'' (1933).

Tobacco Road is a 1932 novel by Erskine Caldwell about Georgia sharecroppers. It was dramatized for Broadway by Jack Kirkland in 1933, and ran for a then-astounding eight years (3,182 performances). A 1941 film version, deliberately played mainly for laughs, was directed by John Ford, and the storyline was considerably altered.

Plot introduction

Tobacco Road is set in Georgia during the worst years of the Great Depression. It depicts a family of poor white tenant farmers, the Lesters, as one of the many small Southern cotton farmers estranged by the industrialization of production and the migration into cities. The main character of the novel is Jeeter Lester, an ignorant and sinful man who is redeemed by his love of the land and his faith in the fertility and the promise of soil.

Plot summary

The novel begins with Lov Bensey, a friend of the Lesters, walking to his home at the train yard coal chute. He has walked seven and a half miles to get a sack of winter turnips for fifty cents; which is half of his daily wage. On his way home he stops by the Lesters to talk to Jeeter about Jeeter's twelve year old daughter Pearl, who is married to Lov. While Lov is talking to Jeeter the book introduces the reader to sixteen year-old Dude, the youngest of the Lester boys; Ada, Jeeter’s wife; Grandma Lester; and Ellie Mae, an eighteen year old girl with a grotesque harelip. The entire family, acting in complete desperation, works to steal the turnips from Lov, who then becomes nauseated by the sight and leaves for home.

At this point the preacher Bessie emerges on the scene. Sister Bessie, like Ellie Mae, also has a deformity of the face. Bessie’s nose contains no bone, and so when looking straight at her face one can see straight into her nostrils, like a pig. Despite this, Jeeter is still attracted to her. She does some preaching and praying for everyone’s sins, and then proposes marriage to Dude. However, Dude is more interested in her offer of letting him drive the new automobile which she promises to purchase, than in actually getting married to her. Bessie then goes home to ask God whether or not she and Dude should get married.

Jeeter has lived on the same plot of land since he was born, and even though his standard of living continued to decline until he and his family began to starve, Jeeter stubbornly refused to move to the city to make a better life for himself by working in a cotton mill. Such a life, he attested, would be impossible for him to live.

Alongside Jeeter’s preoccupation with farming the land was his preoccupation with his own imminent death. Ada as well was fixated on her death, but their morbidity did not take the form of lamentation or self-pity. Ada’s main concern was that she was not buried in her tattered, old, out-of-style calico dress, while Jeeter’s main concern was that his body would not be left in the old corn storage shed where it would be eaten by rats. He held a terrible phobia of rats ever since he saw his dead father’s face half-eaten by them on the day of his funeral. Neither of these two characters had any doubts that they were going to die sometime soon, and it was not their present life but their lifeless bodies which they cared about the most. It is as if they realized that their way of life was already dead, and their primary concern became not the preservation of that life but its appearance during burial.

After Bessie returns the next day she exclaims that God has given his approval for the marriage between her and Dude to proceed. The two then start the long walk to the Fuller so that they could purchase the new Ford, for the purpose of traveling around the country and preaching. Once they are in the auto showroom, the salesmen take advantage of Bessie's rural naiveté to pull off a quick and profitable sale, while at the same time constantly making fun of her deformed nose. The couple then head off to get their marriage certificate and are harassed by the county official, who reprimands Bessie for attempting to marry a boy of sixteen years. Finally, they get the marriage license, and the anxious Dude gets to drive the automobile again.

Over the course of the next two days, the automobile slowly gets wrecked more and more. First there is an accident with a wagon in which they end up killing the black driver, and then Dude drives into a stump. The seats get trashed by Jeeter’s blackjack wood, which he attempts to sell in the city, and the engine becomes irreparably damaged by being run without sufficient oil. On top of this, the spare tire is sold for three dollars in order to pay for gasoline, food, and a night at a hotel where Bessie becomes prostituted by the manager from room to room. After all of this occurs, Bessie refuses to let Jeeter ride in the car anymore, which makes him upset to the point of kicking her off the land. Ada and Jeeter then proceed to beat Bessie and poke her with sticks until she and Dude take off in the car.

In the process of fleeing from Ada and Jeeter’s onslaught, Dude had backed right over Grandma Lester, and she lay mashed into the dirt road, almost dead. Lov runs down to see Jeeter, and asks him if he knows what happened to Pearl, Lov’s 12-year-old wife, who had run away to the city to be free of both Lov and the bleak and desperate country life surrounding her. Jeeter notes that more than a few of his daughters have run away to the city. After this discussion about the girls running away, the two notice Grandma’s corpse and drag her into the field to dig her grave and bury her.

Lov departs and Caldwell reflects on Jeeter’s position as a tenant farmer in the South. Even though Jeeter, like so many others around him, had the urge to plant a crop during this time of the year, there was nothing he could do. His landlord was an absentee and had abandoned Jeeter and the rest of those who had lived on his land and given him shares of their crop in exchange for credit for seeds and fertilizer. The stores in the city would not grant any more credit to Jeeter or any of the other farmers because it was too risky and there were too many asking for it.

On this sad note the novel concludes, as Jeeter and Ada sleep, they are killed in the fire which spreads to their house, and which Jeeter created to burn off the hedge, in the hopes of being able to somehow gain enough credit to farm the land that spring.

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