deep south, superficially: review of caldwell’s hit job

Deep South: Memory and ObservationDeep South: Memory and Observation by Erskine Caldwell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Caldwell (1903-1987) was a reasonably well known novelist in mid-century America, whose name has slipped into the fog of history. I had never read any of his works – those that might ring a bell include Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933), which enjoyed theatrical or film releases – and find him to be a smooth, wry, mostly understated author.

Deep South is, at its best, a paean to his father Ira Sylvester, who was a roving, troubleshooting minister for a middle-of-the-road denomination titled Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church a century ago. (And plenty of trouble-rapids needed shooting.)

It begins promisingly enough:

Being a minister’s son in the Deep South in the early years of the twentieth century and growing up in a predominantly religious environment was my good fortune in life. [p.1]

Yet the book’s central riddle soon expresses itself a few pages later:

When I asked him to tell me the reason for his entering the ministry instead of being a doctor or lawyer or storekeeper, he was evasive and had little to say, probably thinking I was not old enough then to understand a full explanation. The only thing Ira Sylvester would tell me was that he had studied for the ministry because his mother had asked him to do so. [p.3]

I.S. (as Caldwell often refers to his father) never pressed his own son into any sort of religious belief, much less to study for the ministry, and consequently – such is the natural process of things – the author became agnostic himself.

Nevertheless, the thesis of the book, as elaborated at the end of the first chapter, is that

a recollection of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant religious practices of the historical ’twenties and an observation of those of the contemporary ’sixties would serve to illuminate to some degree the churchly life of the two eras of the Deep South. [p.13]

That is too bad. For by never having entered into a relation with God himself (the author admits early on that he was never baptized, an outward expression of faith), the author’s understanding of the “churchly life” is necessarily superficial.

As for myself, I consider it my great fortune to have settled in the South – despite having grown up inundated with the typical Northern prejudices towards the region – after a car trip around the profile of our great country that alerted me to the spectacular qualities of the region, and become a born-again Christian one decade ago. Nothing in my upbringing could have warned anyone of the radical changes in my life ahead. God does strange things.

The book’s profile from the 1920s is dominated, rightly so, by I.S. and his frequent run-ins with prejudice and ignorance. His portrait is lovingly and charmingly related, including the many times he needed to hold his tongue, so as to maintain the peace and keep from ejecting himself from the ministry. Instead, his actions and comportment often spoke for themselves.

Besides this loving portrait, the book’s core – and triumph – from the 1960’s are the verbatim monologues (confessions?) of numerous practitioners and townspeople who, inevitably, have religious views, as the South’s social life was then inextricably tied to local churches. I say verbatim, but that assumes the author was physically recording them.

The writer of the introduction, a then English professor at a North Caroline university named Guy Owen, sows doubt by saying the author was “no doubt adding a pinch of fiction here and there.” [p.viii]

This is an unfortunate trend, since the 1960s and before, for fiction writers to allow coloring and “fiction-truths” into their non-fiction writing – and continues to this day with so many otherwise professional journalists adding, molding, and distorting facts to fit stories into their preferred narratives. (Hence the prevalent complaints of fake news.) While no better than plagarism – still frowned up, as far as I know – this mode of deception is often justified as “getting closer to the truth,” based on today’s moral relativism, that there can exist multiple “truths” at the same time.

While these 1960s narratives are compelling, the author feels obliged to set the scene with contextual observations, often quite tendentious. In fact, I came away with the feeling the author treated his subjects (less I.S.) like lab rats, worse than a superficial reading. Yet, his authorly descriptions can be quite affecting:

Along the trains and footpaths in the ravines, out of sight of paved roads and highways, shacks and cabins tilt and sag and rot on the verge of collapse in the shadow of the green summer thatch of white oaks and black walnuts. The faces of the young people are blank with despair and the voices of the old people are saying that all is lost and tomorrow will be like yesterday and today – unless it is worse. [p.30]

Inevitably, many of the portraits include died-in-the-wool racists, heisters, and con-artists. Easy targets, no doubt. Here is the testimony of one relatively straight-arrow preacher:

Folks like to listen to me preach. They like to hear about lying and fornicating and stealing the way I talk about it. One good member told me not long ago he’d never heard a real expert before tell about sinful things the way I do. [p.46]

Humor aside, the author’s concerns are obviously less with spiritual life and more with social justice. Prof. Owen opines that “if the church had more dedicated leaders like Ira Sylvester, it would be an indispensable institution, one affecting needed social changes rather than impeding them.” [p.ix] This, unfortunately, is a fundamental misreading of Christianity. Did Jesus Christ try to overthrow tyrannical Roman rule or the institution of slavery? So-called social justice had nothing to do with his ministry.

Yet I.S. – who dedicated his life to trying to show the biblical way – correctly skewers the materialistic impulse, as prevalent in the 1920’s as it is today:

He said people were going to worship something that was either spiritual or materialistic and, if they ceased to worship God as a symbol of morality and become addicted to orgiastic religion, the younger generation might be better off being encouraged to worship totem-poles. [p.65]

Instead of “orgiastic religion” one could easily substitute “prosperity gospel” or “social justice” or rock-concert “Christian worship.”

Sadly, the book’s one font of wisdom, I.S., decides to leave his ministry by book’s end and become a teacher. His surrender is foreshadowed earlier:

He riled many people, as a result, who had been conditioned by a provincial environment and intellectually retarded by inadequate education compounded by religious fantasy. [p.164]

Encouragingly, he “never said that religion itself was at fault.” Instead, “As he saw it, exultant Protestantism in the South had degenerated into excessive emotionalism – which was the glorification of religion for religion’s sake – and that all ethical values inherent in the Bible were ignored…” [ibid] To Caldwell’s credit, these words apply equally well today.

The author contends, speaking of his father, “It could not be said that he had failed as a minister…” [p.165] I beg to differ. I.S. not only failed as a minister, but in the most important ministerial role, as a father. Unable to give a compelling reason why he entered into the ministry in the first place – by the end it is revealed by an uncle that, indeed, it was simply his mother’s desires which compelled him – he neglected his son’s spiritual development while exposing him (based on the book’s selection) to a freak-show of mutant churches.

I try not to supplement book reviews with tidbits of the author’s bio, but in this case felt compelled to read more about Erskine Caldwell whom, Prof. Owen in the introduction claims, William Faulkner “ranked among our half-dozen greatest novelists.” [p.xi]

He married four times and, according to Wikipedia, “won. . .critical acclaim, but his advocacy of eugenics and the sterilization of Georgia’s poor whites became less popular following World War II.”

One cannot imagine that Ira Sylvester would have ever considered such a policy, but then the sins (including of omission) of the father live on, and sometimes flower, into the next generation.

Deep South, Memory and Observation (1966), Univ. of Georgia Press, 1980 edition

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About ben

Ben Batchelder has traveled some of the world's most remote roads. Nothing in his background, from a degree in Visual & Environmental Studies at Harvard to an MBA from Wharton, adequately prepared him for the experiences. Yet he persists, for through such journeys life unfolds. Having published four books that map the inner and exterior geographies of meaningful travel, he is a mountain man in Minas Gerais, Brazil who comes down to the sea at Miami Beach, Florida. His second travel yarn, To Belém & Back, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. For more, visit

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