Tuesday, November 08, 2005

In search of Erskine Caldwell

Last week my seminar class read In Search of Bisco by Erskine Caldwell, a candid, reckless, lyrical tour of the deep South in 1965, just after Selma. Bisco, a black boy, was Caldwell's childhood friend, but we are given to understand that even had Caldwell not moved away (his father was a Presbyterian minister), the wall of the Solid South would have come down between them. On pretext of searching for some clue of where Bisco ended up, while asking other questions about the region he calls "Bisco Country," Caldwell mixes it up with folks black and white, young and old, rich and poor.

Inspired by the "gumbo" culture of New Orleans, he ends the book confident that the city offers the best hope for a true emancipation:

As a result of generations of racial commingling and assimilation, New Orleans is the one place in Bisco Country where social conflict has the best opportunity of being adjudged by intelligence and sympathy rather than by the agony of physical force and vioilence. New Orleans has had its share of racial disturbances in the apst and, like other American cities in the Racial Sixties, it will be subjected to more in the future. Nevertheless, because of the sympathy and sophistication of its population, a mutually satisfactory adjustment of social and civil rights is likely to be achieved with more ease and quickness in New Orleans than elsewhere in the United States.

Thankfully in some ways, Caldwell did not live to see how wrong he was. It's an open question how accommodating the planning process for the new New Orleans is going to be toward gumbo-style mixtures.

Only two students had even heard of Caldwell, and they weren't exactly sure why. And yet Tobacco Road is on the Modern Library's list of 100 best novels of the 20th century. That's a pretty amazing fall for a man thought by William Faulkner to be one of the country's five best novelists.

No comments: