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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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“What William Faulkner implies, Erskine Caldwell records”

A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune made the comparison above, and though it feels right, I find that I don’t really know what the difference between “recording” and “implying” signifies to him. Faulkner is a great American writer, a High Modernist, and though a novel like Sanctuary comes close to producing “the South” as the lurid object of the reader’s voyeuristic gaze, it isn’t that version of William Faulkner that the reviewer is referencing. He’s talking about the Faulkner who implies a great deal with the sight of Caddy’s “soiled britches” but never quite says what that is, who makes the reader “feel more than they know,” as Hemingway once put it, precisely by not being too specific. If modernism is many different things, the “high” in High Modernism is the way what’s on the surface hints at the iceberg below.

Caldwell, by contrast, was one of the earliest mass-market paperback writers in the United States; his book jackets proudly proclaim him to be “America’s most popular writer,” and although Tobacco Road is on Modern Library’s list of “100 Best Novels in the English Language,” Caldwell geared his writing to fill the marketing niche he found himself occupying. To put it bluntly, he was a pornographer of the South.

By pornography, I mean something like what David Roediger quotes George Rawick as saying in Wages of Whiteness, describing the kinds of desires fostered or displaced by blackface minstrelsy:

…blackness came to symbolize that which the accumulating capitalists had given up, but still longed for. Increasingly adopting an ethos that attacked holidays, spurned contact with nature, saved time, bridled sexuality, separated work from the rest of life and postponed gratification, profitminded Englishmen and Americans cast Blacks as their former selves … All of the old habits so recently discarded by whites adopting capitalist values came to be fastened onto Blacks. As Rawick wonderfully puts it, Englishmen and profit-minded settlers in America “met the West African as a reformed sinner meets a comrade of his previous debaucheries.” The racist, like the reformed sinner, creates “a pornography of his former life…In order to insure that he will not slip back into the old ways or act out half-suppressed fantasies, he must see a tremendous difference between his reformed self and those whom he formerly resembled

As with blackface, the “back road” story as a genre portrays a fantasy of the South as a pre-industrial society, a place where one can still peer in and view unbridled sexuality and close-to-nature living. But it’s also a lot easier to produce High Modernist writer by comparison to a low pornographer like Caldwell, to raise the one up by lowering the other. And the typical Caldwell cover certainly does tell us that we’re about to read a work of voyeurism:

If you’ll peer with me through that hole in the fence, the following is a pretty typical sex scene from God’s Little Acre:

“Take me, Will–I can’t wait,” she said.

“You and me both,” said he.

Will got on his hands and knees and raised Darling Jill’s head until he could draw her hair from under her. He lowered her pillow, and her long brown hair hung over the bed and almost touched the floor. He looked down and saw that she had raised herself until she was almost touching him.

He awoke to hear Darling Jill screaming in his ear. He did not know how long she had been screaming. He had been oblivious to everything in the complete joy of the moment.

He raised his head wide after a while and looked into her face. She opened her eyes wide and smiled at him.

“That was wonderful, Will,” she whispered. “Do it to me again.”

Steamy stuff! But what’s interesting is how explicit Caldwell manages to be, while also being prudishly coy in showing us what’s actually happening. The language of cinema is useful here: note the way the camera both does and doesn’t cut away from the scene, for example. We have a lot of mechanical detail (what to do with Darling Jill’s hair, for example, or the precise maneuvering of the bodies vis-a-vis pillow and bed), and yet there’s also a sharp jump-cut between the instant when she raises her body and when he “awoke to hear Darling Jill screaming in his ear.” It’s an odd sex-scene that will include lines like “Take me, Will” and “Do it to me again” and yet averts its gaze from the actual sex scene itself. It can refer to “the complete joy of the moment” and then cut that moment out of the scene itself.

The distinction between “implying” and “recording” doesn’t very rigorously distinguish between Caldwell and Faulkner, but it does give us terms for what’s at stake in the difference: pornography shows, while literature tells. After all, Caldwell is explicit in a way that’s almost more graphic than actual pornography. As Dwight Garner puts it, reading Caldwell is a startling experience because of how much more explicit he is than you expect him to be:

“Caldwell’s id–his naked obsessions with sex, class, and violence–cuts the surface of every page like a dorsal fin. You can’t stop turning the pages, because you want to see how much further your jaw can drop.”

Yet Garner’s inclusion of “class” with the more conventional sex and violence is nicely symptomatic of the thing that makes Caldwell’s mass-market paperbacks something different than the average 19th century dime novel: his books are the “low” version of a “high” form. The dime novel just is what it is, but a “mass market paperback” only makes sense if the hardback novel exists as the original version. In the same way, Caldwell both implies and is implied by Faulkner.

After all, when Thomas Hardy wrote the rape scene in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, he clouded the entire scene in a demure Victorian fog; we know exactly what happens, of course, but we don’t see it, and this is important. Yet what makes this different than the careful prudishness of the moment in God’s Little Acre when the camera “cuts” away, the missing time before Will wakes up to hear Jill screaming in his ear? The difference is that we see the cut, that we expect a continuity of mimetic time and, because this expectation is broken, we experience the break as a jump-cut. It’s impossible to tell exactly at what point in Hardy’s narrative Alec actually rapes Tess; we know it happens, but we can’t locate it in time. Caldwell locates it precisely in time, asserts the obscenity of what we are (not) seeing precisely by withdrawing it from our gaze, and making clear exactly where it would go. There is no obscenity without censorship.

Of course, another explanation for that odd sex scene might simply be that Caldwell could explicitly imply but not explicitly show, if that makes sense; perhaps he was simply being careful to right go up to, but not past, the line defining pornography. But this explanation is too easy, and it also implies a clarity to what could and couldn’t be shown that does not, I think, actually obtain. It’s exactly the point that the elusiveness of pornography makes careful adherence to the (nonexistent) rule quite difficult; most of the time, no one knows what the actual rule is, and that’s exactly the point: there cannot be an objective measure of a subjective standard, and pornography is always subjective.

Take District Judge John Woolsey’s ruling (also in 1933), that James Joyce’s Ulysses could be admitted to the United States because it was not pornographic:

[I]n any case where a book is claimed to be obscene it must first be determined, whether the intent with which it was written was what is called, according to the usual phrase, pornographic, — that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity. If the conclusion is that the book is pornographic that is the end of the inquiry and forfeiture must follow. But in “Ulysses”, in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.

For Woolsey, the fact that it is not pornographic is to be found in the difference between the book’s “unusual frankness” and the absence of that frankness’s affective content. It’s one thing to be explicit; it’s another thing to invite the reader’s “leer,” or the “sensualist” reaction. Ulysses is judged to be acceptable because

[R]eading “Ulysses” in its entirety, as a book must be read on such a test as this, did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts but that its net effect on them was only that of a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women.

Ulysses doesn’t excite our mirror neurons, in other words, showing us something we can then imagine ourselves doing, and be excited by; instead, it gives us sober “commentary on the inner lives of men and women,” giving us the inner, not the outer truth of reality. In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart produces something like the same definition, famously declaring that while “perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly [describing hard-core pornography]. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” But the reason you can only know it when you see it is that only experiencing pornography allows you to test whether you get sexually excited.

Caldwell, in any case, is utterly explicit in how he tells us what happens, even while being strikingly cautious in what he is willing to show. Take this bizarre scene from his novel Tragic Ground, in which a father walks into his daughter’s room, unexpectedly finding her in bed with a man:

Spence opened the door and walked in. The shades had been drawn over the windows, and at first he could see only the dim shadow outline of the room. He went forward several steps and stopped.

“Libby?” He called apprehensively. He held his breath while he waited for her answer. “Libby?” he called again. By that time he realized he could not even hear the sound of his own voice above the music coming from the radio. He went to the nearest window and pulled back the shade. “Libby, what in the world–” he said, reaching for the radio.

Without taking his eyes from her, he found the knob and switched off the music.

“What’s going on, Libby?” he asked slowly. He went to the foot of the bad.

“Papa! Get out!” she said crossly when she realized he was in the room. “Go on out, Papa!”

Spence’s mouth fell open as he stared at her. She was in bed with a man who had a long purple scar on his shoulder that looked like a bayonet wound. As Spence leaned over the foot of the bed and stared at him, he was surprised to see that the man’s face looked familiar. He appeared to be about twenty-five years old, or at least several years older than Libby, who was twenty, and he had thick muscular shoulders and a broad weather-beaten face. The purple skin over the would was recently healed. He looked up at Spence and smiled friendlily. Spence stared back at him uncertainly. He did not know whether to smile at him or to scowl.

It was the first time he had ever seen Libby in bed with a man. He chewed the tip of his tongue, wondering what to say.

“Papa, please go on out!” Libby said uneasily. Spence leaned over the foot of the bed and peered searchingly at the boy’s grinning face.

“It’s Jim Howard Vance!” Spence shouted gleefully. He went around the corner of the bed in two strides. “Dogbite it if it ain’t! Where in the world did you come from, Jim boy?”

Note how carefully Caldwell orchestrates what we are able to see, and what we are not. First, we share in Spence’s unseeing: he walks into a dark room and while his eyes are still adjusting, we stare into the darkness with him, equally thwarted in our gaze. But when his eyes adjust, when opening the window shade lets in enough light, Spence takes in the scene before him without sharing that gaze with us. The words “[w]ithout taking his eyes from her” indicate that his eyes have seen something, but don’t tell us what, and the absence of that sight is made all the more unavoidable by a strikingly exact description of Jim’s naked body, from his muscular shoulders to the purple wound that draws Spence’s eyes. But if “the leer of the sensualist” is absent here–and it is, isn’t it?–that absence is a function of its displacement onto the scene of recognition where a muscular male body become Jim Howard Vance, where the gaze of the father moves on from his daughter’s naked body onto the weather-beaten face of her lover, which is described in enough detail to make clear that there is also something important that we are not seeing.

If we think of censorship in purely negative terms, none of this will be all that interesting. But if we think of the blank spots as absence, we will miss the narrative effect of their presence as erasure. The problem with conceptualizing censorship in purely negative terms is that censorship informs and directs, rather than inhibits, the manner in which a story is told. Without censorship, “Erskine Caldwell” barely even exists as an author; his high point of literary prestige was when the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice attempted to have God’s Little Acre censored, and luminaries like Malcolm Cowley and Sinclair Lewis testified on his behalf, extolling his literary virtues only because the state was attempting to censor him.

More fundamentally, note how consistently Caldwell’s covers compose the book by inviting the reader’s gaze towards something which was previously or partially hidden from sight. Without the obstruction, there is no novel:

The ease and aptness of a cinematic language for describing the ways Caldwell negotiates what he can and cannot write is just as important; as I was writing, I found it very difficult to paraphrase how the narrative works without referring to “cuts” and “cameras” and “off-screens,” which makes me wonder if Caldwell is thinking in those terms as well, if he too is “blocking out” these scenes in his mind. In any case, when we talk about the film industry in the 1930′s, we tend to talk about “pre-code” and “post-code” films as if there’s a sharp line dividing freedom from censorship. But the effort in the 1930′s to formalize A Code to Maintain Social and Community Values in the Production of Synchronized and Talking Motion Pictures was never that sharp.

For one thing, the need to avoid offending the audience was, in practical terms, less a matter of externally imposed censorship than a continuous part of the long process of self-regulation that movie-makers put themselves through as they struggled to create something that would sell. And while authors and studios might rhetorically cast themselves as the victims of repressive pressure from outside, they maintained control over their product by treating censorship like a generic convention, writing towards it the same way a scripted comedy had to be written to conform to the rules of the comedy genre. We know a movie is talking about sex, after all, when we see the coded cinematic language that indicates a break in the continuity, an erasure where the sex used to be (a classic example being the 3 seconds when Bogart and Bergman have sex).

In this sense, censorship and obscentiy are both just part of the same set of genre conventions. And it’s worth noting, in this sense, that the best genre criticism doesn’t treat those conventions as a constricting, repressive mechanism, but understands the function of genre as an enabling system of signification, the conventions that gives the narrative its shape and shows us how to read them. I think the pressure of systemic censorship need to be understood the same way here: it makes the narrative what it is, a precondition for its signification rather than a limiting factor.

For this reason, calling Caldwell’s style “cinematic” must mean something quite odd. On the one hand, the way it interpellates its readers as voyeurs (via devices like those peephole covers) encourages a pose of spectacular detachment, the way that an Adorno and Horkheimer might rail against the effects of mass entertainment. Precisely because the mediating objects between are given so much prominence, the viewer is alienated from the subject such that “the South” becomes an object of scrutiny and analysis, not of identification. But the audience needs these layers of mediation precisely because the act of gazing encourages identification: if telling respects the difference between subject and object, then showing has the tendency to blur those boundaries, to draw the audience into feeling what the object of their gaze feels. Far from being determined and foreclosed by these pressures, therefore, the narrative orchestrates and navigates these two opposing desires, for distance and for intimacy, in the same ways a film like It Happened One Night (1934) is simply a string of raised and deferred expectations of sexual climax, and without which a carrot is just a carrot.

As it happens, what I would call Erskine Caldwell’s “cinematic” qualities were the thing that translated least well into the film versions of his novels. John Ford’s 1941 Tobacco Road, for example, is a disaster; all the wild stuff that Caldwell was able to do in the insane scene with the turnips (which I’m just going to let you discover on your own) utterly disappears as the film tries to turn the novel into a version of The Grapes of Wrath, and fails. And it’s a shame, too, because Ford seems like the director you’d expect to do well with this material. His best films succeed precisely because they do what Caldwell’s Tobacco Road does: carefully negotiate between the power of showing to draw the viewer in and the power of telling to hold the reader back. A premier director during the silent era, Ford was also one of the few to make the transition to talkies and thrive in the new medium. And while his silent films were (by most accounts) hampered by an over-reliance on dialogue, his talkies are notable precisely for their visual storytelling style: a good Ford film is usually good because it doesn’t tell, it shows. Or rather, because it tells by showing, there’s a dynamism within Fordian images produced by the interplay between looking at and talking about, between distancing oneself from the object of gaze and being drawn into identifying with it.

Caldwell’s best voyeuristic pornographies, it seems to me, work the same way, yet they not only manipulate the audience’s response according to this dynamic of attraction/repulsion but they do so with a bluntness that calls attention to itself. Take this delightful bit of dialogue from Tobacco Road, for example, in which a bunch of yokels comment on their sister, who appears to be in heat:

Ellie May’s acting like your old hound used to do when he got the itch,” Dude says to Lester. “Look at her scrape her bottom on the sand. That old hound used to make the same kind of sound Ellie May’s making, too. It sounds just like a little pig squealing, don’t it?

While we, the reader, are obviously being urged to gaze voyeuristically at the scene before us, our response is more likely to be a Kurtzian “The horror” than the film version (for example) was willing to allow. And yet this is both one of the most Faulknerian passages I can imagine, and also one of the least: as with Caddy in The Sound and the Fury, the operative idiom is the threat that an animal sexuality poses to Southern womanhood, and there are even black laborers standing by watching, to make the parallel complete. Yet the ludicrously heavy-handed naturalist metaphor goes so far beyond the euphemism of Caddy’s “soiled drawers” as to make the comparison almost impossible, as to specifically deny that a comparison is even appropriate. So much is here recorded, perhaps, that implication can only devolve into farce. Which is why I find myself almost preferring Caldwell than Faulkner, in scenes like this one; it’s impossible to raise this intensely offensive and wildly degrading moment of white trash porn to the level of tragedy or high drama, which is how Faulkner gets to “critique” the Southern cult of virtuous womanhood while also investing all his narrative energy in it. It would take him until the Snopes until he got that out of the system, until he caught up to where Caldwell had already been.

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