Chester Himes’ If He Hollers Let Him Go and God’s Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell
It has long been contested that works of great Literature have certain qualities and that they belong to an exclusive canon of works. Value is placed upon them for a number of reasons, including their reflection of cultural or social movements, the special meaning they possess, and even their use of specific narrative elements. Up until recently, scholars and intellectuals would never dream of examining works of lower caliber with any hopes of discovering value or merit. A new movement within intellectual circles, however, has shifted focus onto so-called low-brow novels like Chester Himes’ If He Hollers Let Him Go and God’s Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell. Surprisingly enough, the works of Himes and Caldwell can be held up to the same tests as more canonical works through their appeal to ideological remnants of Romanticism and the Enlightenment, their use of literary devices to create meaning, and the narratives’ use of these devises to enhance the elements of enjoyment and pleasure in reading.
According to the history books, the era of Romanticism and the subsequent Enlightenment have long since past, but their far-reaching effects are still evident in literature written in the 20th century. The importance of human merit and worth rooted in Romantic thought has transcended the bounds of time and manifested itself in the novels of Caldwell and Himes through a preoccupation with what it means to be human. In God’s Little Acre, not only are readers prone to question whether or not the Walden family is subhuman because of their problematic behaviors, but the character of Buck remarks that “God put us in the bodies of animals and tried to make us act like people” (Caldwell 158). References to human value are much more prevalent in Himes’ novel in relation to racial justice and equality. Like the characters in God’s Little Acre, the main character of Bob Jones is reduced to a being that is subhuman, most blatantly when he is told that his alleged rape of a white female worker was comparable to “the act of an animal” (Himes 189). Over and over again, in fact, Bob copes with a profound desire to become wholly human. At one point, he says that he would endure employment at a racist and oppressive shipyard “if [he] could be a man, defined by Webster as a male human being” (Himes 144). Himes’ main character seems almost obsessed with his need to be human, constantly emphasizing that “as long as [he] was black [he’d] never be anything but half a man at best” (153), and that “all [he] ever wanted was just a little thing—just to be a man” (190).
The sense of individualism that arose from the Enlightenment is also evident in Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre. The character especially gripped by individualism pointed out that, “over here in the Valley, I’m Will Thompson…I’m Will Thompson. I’m as strong as God Almighty Himself now, and I can...