Friday, May 25, 2012

God's Little Acre, by Erskine Caldwell

God's Little Acre came out in 1933 and shortly thereafter landed its author in court on obscenity charges. Today, of course, the sexual content wouldn't scandalise a nun, but it's still a great little novel.  (The photo is a still from the film, made in 1958.)  It's absurd, steamy, tragic, funny and a vividly sharp photo of the 1930s south.

Ty Ty Walden is a poor, white farmer in Georgia. Well, he would be a farmer if he planted crops on his hundred acres, but he doesn't, because he's obsessed with digging for the gold he is certain lies beneath the ground. Somewhere, somewhere on his land, there are nuggets of gold, and he is consumed with the search for them. He's got his sons digging in the ground alongside him, and occasionally the black sharecroppers who work his land join in, too.

Ty Ty's son-in-law points out that years of digging pits on the land might more profitably have been spent planting crops. Ty Ty's obsession, however, is like that of the compulsive gambling addict:  the big win is worth risking everything, even the house.
“This house is going to topple over into the hole if you dig much more in it. The house is leaning a little now. It won’t take much to tip it over.” Ty Ty looked at the pine logs that had been dragged from the woods and propped against the building. The logs were large enough and strong enough to hold the house where it was, but if it were undermined too much, it would surely fall in, and then turn over. When it did that, it would either be lying on one side in the big hole, or else it would be upside down on the bottom of it.
Being a white southerner, Ty Ty makes clear that he is unlike the black men, who prospect for gold using 'conjur' and magic. He, he insists, is a man of science. So when Pluto Swint, the fat, sweating, ineffectual  candidate for sheriff, tells him that there is an albino living in a swamp nearby, Ty Ty immediately sets off with his sons to capture the poor fellow, because everyone knows that albinos have an uncanny knack of locating gold. His lovely daughter-in-law, Griselda, questions this decision, and in the characteristically repetitive speech that Caldwell uses to brilliant effect throughout the book, Ty Ty sets her straight.
“Now you be quiet, Griselda,” Ty Ty said angrily. “You know good and well I don’t take any stock in superstition and conjur and such things. We’re going about this thing scientifically, and no fooling around with conjur. It takes a man of science to strike a lode. You’ve never heard of darkies digging up many nuggets with all their smart talk about conjur. It just can’t be done. I’m running this business scientifically clear from the start. Now you be quiet, Griselda.”
Later, son-in-law Will Thompson, an out-of-work cotton mill worker, raises similar objections about Ty Ty's obsessive-compulsive digging. It is Will who points out that the house is tipping perilously, that the land might more profitably produce cotton or watermelon, and that the albino seems more interested in Ty Ty's libidinous daughter, Darling Jill, than in divining the location of the gold.
“You just haven’t got a scientific mind, Will,” Ty Ty said sadly. “That’s the whole trouble with your talk. Now, take me. I’m scientific clear through to the marrow, and I’ve always been, and I reckon I’ll be to the end. I don’t laugh and poke fun at scientific notions like you do.”
Darling Jill. Now there's a character. She's young, pretty, precocious and utterly nymphomaniac. Sweating, pleading Pluto Swint begs her to marry him, and Darling Jill strings him along all over the southern states. She throws herself at her brother-in-law, Will Thompson, when his wife (Darling Jill's sister) has gone out to fetch some groceries. She can't keep eyes nor hands off Dave Dawson, the captured albino. Her brothers tell Ty Ty that her behaviour is unseemly, but Ty Ty loves his Darling Jill and explains (again and again and again) that 'she just goes crazy sometimes, for no reason whatsoever.'

When I was young, my father would refer to steamy novels as 'bodice-rippers'.  There's no shortage of sex in God's Little Acre, but Caldwell gives us more than flesh. The young men in Ty Ty's universe -- sons and son-in-law -- are acutely driven by animal instinct and hormones. Bodices do get ripped, and blood does get shed (much to Ty Ty's repeated cries of dismay), because men will be men. Which is to say they can't very well be distinguished from dogs fighting over a bitch in heat.
Will disliked Buck. He had disliked him from the first. He did not hate him personally, but Griselda was Buck’s wife, and Buck was always standing between them. They had already had several tussles, not over Griselda any more than for any other reason, and they were likely to have others. As long as Griselda was married to Buck, and lived with him, Will would fight him whenever he had the opportunity.
When they're not scrapping over women, the men talk about the hard times. Will loved his work as a 'linthead' in the cotton mills over the border in South Carolina, but his mill has shut down because the men won't accept the paltry wages the owners are offering. Young pretty girls have taken the jobs in some mills -- always described in repetitive praise of their cornflower-blue eyes and upturned breasts -- only to come home and be beaten by their disheartened men. Will's mill, however, remains idle as the men wander the streets and mutter about turning the power back on. Taking the mill back under their own control. Working for their survival. Turning that power back on. Pluto Swint, badgered into driving up to the mill town by Ty Ty and Darling Jill, asks Will about the present state of unemployment.
“But some of the other mills in the Valley are running,” Pluto said. “We passed five or six lighted mills when we drove over from Augusta tonight. Maybe they’ll start this one again soon.”
“Like so much hell they will, at a dollar-ten. They are running the other mills because they starved the loom-weavers into going back to work. That was before the Red Cross started passing out sacks of flour. They had to go back to work and take a dollar-ten, or starve. But, by God, we don’t have to do it in Scottsville. As long as we can get a sack of flour once in a while we can hold out. And the State is giving out yeast now. Mix a cake of yeast in a glass of water and drink it, and you feel pretty good for a while. They started giving out yeast because everybody in the Valley has got pellagra these days from too much starving. The mill can’t get us back until they shorten the hours, or cut out the stretchout, or go back to the old pay. I’ll be damned if I work nine hours a day for a dollar-ten, when those rich sons-of-bitches who own the mill ride up and down the Valley in five thousand dollar automobiles.”
Caldwell makes the frustration and impotence of the unemployed mill workers palpable, with Will's repeated insistence that he'll turn the power back on sounding like a drum beat. On the night before the men do in fact take over the mill once again, Will at last has his way with Griselda, Buck's wife, and yes -- he shreds her cotton dress with his bare hands. He gives us a classic instance of bodice-ripping, but Caldwell never lets readers forget that Will is a cotton man. He notes the lint, the warp, the woof and the texture of the fabric as he gives vent not only to his lust for Griselda but his love for his work and his rage against the mill owners.

Ty Ty repeatedly expresses his admiration for the beauty of Griselda, his beauteous daughter-in-law, to anyone who will listen, invariably ending his paean by saying, 'Why, it just makes a man want to fall down on his hands and knees and lick something.'  Griselda, after being ravished by the doomed Will Thompson, tells Ty Ty that she finally understands what he had been saying. Buck -- Ty Ty's son and Griselda's husband -- had evidently never been inspired to fall down on his hands and knees and lick anything. 

These are the cloaked, restrained words of Caldwell's choice, and still prudish readers of the 1930s were appalled. What strikes me today is not that his prose is graphic --it isn't -- but that he presents one young woman who acts upon her own libido, another who expresses awe when she finally receives sexual gratification, and the difference between men who lust after women and who genuinely and fully love them. 

Oh, and the title?  Ty Ty is a Christian of sorts, and so he sets aside one acre of his hundred and promises the fruit of that acre to God. If he were planting crops, this would be a reasonably nominal offering. His fear, however, is that he will find that elusive lode of gold on God's Little Acre and will lose the bulk of his wealth to the church. So with each new excavation, Ty Ty moves the Acre to another spot on which he's not yet dug. He's a man of science, after all.

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