"Erskine Caldwell: The Journey From Tobacco Road," by Dan B. Miller. 459 pages. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $30
"Erskine Caldwell has performed "One of the greatest disappearing acts in our literary history," writes Dan Miller in the preface to this biography. As late as the early '60s, as his paperback publisher loved to proclaim, he was "The World's Best-Selling Author!" Today he's little more than an academic footnote, known mainly for his earliest novels, "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre."
Usually highly sexual for their time and often censored, Caldwell's novels made him rich. Success spoiled Caldwell. He began living the high life, signing Hollywood contracts, marrying party-loving photographer Margaret Bourke-White and coming to regard writing as just another job. He remained a good reporter, publishing books on international subjects as well as the South ZTC (often in collaboration with Bourke-White), but as a novelist he seemed unable to develop. His fiction came to resemble his paperback covers - repetitive, slapdash, cliched, pointlessly coarse. Miller is sympathetic but not indulgent toward Caldwell, chronicling both his violent personality and outrage at injustice, and realizes that Caldwell's life story is, above all, a good tale.