“Tobacco Road” by Erskine Caldwell


The experience of Native Americans facing the Great Depression is seldom put into context. This book review explores the novel Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell published in 1932 by the University of Georgia Press (Caldwell 1932). The author’s goals in writing the books were to expose rural America’s socio-economic challenges and possible cases of moral negligence. Caldwell picks Great Depression and negligence in rural families due to their impact on the history of the global economy. Tobacco Road depicts the life of the Lester family from Georgia, United States, facing the consequences of financial distress resulting from the Great Depression (Caldwell 1932). The book chronicles violence and hypersexuality associated with poverty distress in the American South. Tobacco Road portrays the desperation in the Lester family as a consequence of carelessness.

The Author’s Goal

Caldwell’s primary goal was to explore the impact of the Great Depression on the life of carefree Americans living in rural settings who were unprepared for the financial disruption. The author also exposes the unaccountability that characterized rural Americans during the 1930s (Cooper 2020). Caldwell explores the themes using the Lester family, imprisoned by the Great Depression’s terrible economic circumstances. The family’s low interest in intellectualism and destructive promiscuity also contributed to their financial distress (Okie 2020). The experience of the Lester family resonates with current rural America as it provides a historical perspective of what it would mean for a community to be unprepared to handle financial disasters.

A Brief Summary

In a fictitious depiction of Caldwell’s childhood, Tobacco Road exposes the Lesters, rural Georgia’s impoverished and horniest family that fails to fit the traditional white family in America. Jeeter, the father of the Lester household on Tobacco Road, is a battered sharecropper who becomes financially challenged to the extent that he could not purchase the goods he needed (Piazzoni and Fabio 2020). His family subsists on fat-back peels and maize meal in their decaying shanty. Ada, his spouse, is dying of pellagra, while Dude, their sixteen-year-old son, is a socially dysfunctional halfwit (Caldwell 1932). Ellie May, their voluptuous eighteen-year-old daughter, does have a hideous exaggerated lip that makes her lips appear bloody (Caldwell 1932). The family makes little effort to conform to the basic standards of a morally upright family.

A Critical Assessment of Tobacco Road

The experience of the Lester family provides insights into the economic distress that characterized the homes of the American people during the Great Depression. In history, the Great Depression was a devastating global economic recession that started in the United States in the 1930s and later spread through the world economies (Bromwich 2021). In most nations, the Great Depression began in 1929 and continued into the late 1930s (Gontarski 2020). From Tobacco Roads perspective, one of the triggers was that the intellectual inclinations of the 1920s were quickly abandoned, leading to kakistocracy. The author notes that artists and critics no longer complained about America being a mechanical, regimented, illiberal society ruled by Babbitt, prudes, and narrow-minded unscrupulous traders. Such under-dealings characterized the business trends in America in 1930, triggering the Great Depression.

The Author’s Central Argument

Caldwell’s central arguments focus on poverty as a moral issue that can directly impact the prospects of any community. Tobacco Road reflects on the lives of Lester’s family, portraying them as dirty and impoverished people who were unconscious of their obligation to society. In the narrative, grandfather Lester once owned a magnificent tobacco plantation, but most assets were sold to creditors due to the property. The author describes the family’s financial distress noting that their unpainted home was sinking, and every time it rained, sections of the ceiling collapsed. Tobacco Road portrays the Lesters as a family in distress, uncharacteristically an American home.

The Author’s Perspective

Caldwell insists on the family’s predicaments as self-inflicted, describing them as strange white characters who appeared from the backwoods of Georgia, impoverished and illiterate, with unconventional names for white Americans. Tobacco Road is presented as a tragedy that forewarns communities that neglect responsibility for social growth and community sobriety in judgment (Burka 2021). From the author’s perceptive, the reference to the Great Depression in 1930 America symbolizes any catastrophe that is likely to disrupt financial stability (Travis 2020). Today, the Great Depression could be compared to the global COVID-19 pandemic that caught many families by surprise (Subramanian 2019). Caldwell insists on high moral standards as a prerequisite for economic stability within any community.

The Author’s Evidence

Caldwell highlights specific characters that showed open disdain for high moral standards. Tobacco Road depicts the Lester family members as uncivilized and morally corrupted. In the narrative, the Lesters lose sobriety, which exposes them to hunger and economic distress during the Great Depression (Okie and Becca 2019). For instance, Dude marries a flirtatious lady more than double his age to take advantage of the riches such as her new car (Caldwell 1932). Whenever the couple attempted to consummate their marriage, the rest of Lester’s family would disrupt their privacy. Jeeter tries to have sexual relations with his daughter-in-law and, ostensibly, his daughters (Caldwell 1932). The dude carelessly runs over a black man off the streets, murdering him, and is solely concerned about the car’s damage (Caldwell 1932). Caldwell’s characters lack the etiquette associated with civilized beings as they emerge as just too insensitive and vile.

Caldwell also depicts the Lester family as people without control of their image in a public setting. For instance, Tobacco Road’s narrative describes the family as underfed and sexually repressed. The family’s public emotions and frequent outbursts astounded an unaware American audience. Caldwell concentrates on the Lester family to elaborate on the starvation and depravity in the Deep South in America (Schinko 2018). The distress that befell the family emerges as an essential lesson to communities to uphold higher moral standards and economic decency in any civilized setting.


Tobacco Road is a depression-era novel that exposes the life and times of rural Americans under economic distress. The protagonists’ powerlessness practically predetermines their terrible limitations to alter their course of events. Caldwell’s deft use of dialect and straightforward language elevates the novel to the highest level of literary realism in current American literature. The book is insightful as it draws attention to dreadful situations in rural America. Tobacco Road is recommended to historians and civil rights activists who want to gain more insights into people’s lives in rural America. Today, Tobacco Road is valuable as it finds relevance in the pandemic-related economic disruption. Reading Tobacco Road is important considering that it provides insights into managing the current economic turbulence. The book recommends that society acts with higher moral standards and a sense of financial awareness to avert a similar crisis.


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Burka, Paul. 2021. “The Education of Laura Bush.University of Texas Press 3(1):36-46. Web.

Caldwell, Erskine. 1932. “Tobacco Road.” University of Georgia Press 2(3):1-192.

Cooper, Simon. 2020. “The Bastard as Art Object Bastardised: Erskine Caldwell’s Fine Art of Standing Still.Palgrave Macmillan 3(5):169-211. Web.

Gontarski, S. E. “T-shirt Modernism and The Performance of Masculinity: The Theatrical Refashionings of Tennessee Williams and William Inge.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 76 (4):1-28.

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Piazzoni, Irene, and Fabio Guidali. 2020. “Modern American Literature in Italian Magazines During the 1930s.The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 11(1): 52-70. Web.

Schinko, Carsten. 2018. “Class and Poverty in Southern Literature.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature 3(7): 1-15. Web.

Subramanian, S. 2019. “Deprivation in the Midst of Affluence.” Springer, Singapore 3(5): 79-81. Web.

Travis, Molly Abel. 2020. “A tree full of hillbillies: grotesque humor in Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf.” Safundi 21 (1): 54-68. Web.

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