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With All My Might: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Erskine Caldwell (Peachtree: $19.95; 332 pp., illustrated)

February 22, 1987|Alden Whitman | Whitman is the editor of "American Reformers," a biographical dictionary

Of American writers of this century, Erskine Caldwell can lay an excellent claim to being one of the most prolific and widely read, as well as influential in his prime. His 55 volumes of fiction and nonfiction, many of them about the rural South, have sold 80 million copies in 40 languages. One of them, "God's Little Acre," a story of a family's improbable search for gold, has alone sold more than 8 million copies, chiefly in paperback. Its protagonists, Ty Walden and his family, may be as well known as Jeeter Lester and his kin, the sharecroppers of "Tobacco Road," the novel that rocketed Caldwell to recognition in 1932.

By the decade's end, Caldwell's fame was also anchored in "You Have Seen Their Faces," a book of text and photographs of the Depression South he wrote with Margaret Bourke-White, the celebrated photographer and later his second wife.

What set these books apart were their unaffected storytelling and their social realism, which caught the literary and popular spirit of the times with such fidelity that, for example, a stage adaptation of "Tobacco Road" ran a record 7,000 performances on Broadway.

Now 83 and living with his fourth wife in Arizona, Caldwell recalls some of these triumphs in a much muted anecdotal autobiography, "With All My Might." He says he knew at age 19 that he had no desire to change the world, "nevermarriage to Margaret Bourke-White and his subsequent life.

One never learns why his first marriage broke up, nor what became of his children, nor also of his politics. As for his union with Bourke-White, he suggests it flew apart because of her career commitments, but a recent biography of her, while not disputing this, pictures Caldwell as an often irascible and temperamental person. If he was given to long and moody silences, there is no hint of that in this book.

The only concession he makes to his faults is a brief passage in which he says without elaboration, "Some of the less than kind accusations over the years (have) been that I was hardheaded, perverse, single-minded, stubborn, selfish, and took delight in inflicting mental cruelty on other persons by insisting on having my own way without compromise. True it was, the compulsion to write with all my might had become an obsession that was driving me to success or failure . . . at the cost of endangering my own happiness and probably the happiness of anyone close to me."

At least with his fourth wife, he seems to have found an understanding companion for the last quarter century.

From childhood, Caldwell had sand in his shoes, and once he could afford it, his adult life was filled with travels. Indeed, he rarely had a home in one place for very long until quite recently. Part of this wanderlust helped him find material for his stories, and part seems to have been either an itch for travel, or to receive accolades in Europe and Japan for his work. His bare-bones accounts of his sojourns and journeys, including one to the Soviet Union with Margaret Bourke-White, sound as if he has put them into print from diaries because they are too arid to show appreciation of place or people.

"With All My Might" is a disappointing once-over-lightly glimpse of a long and potentially absorbing life. Perhaps Caldwell put all his notable compassion and insightfulness into his fiction and has none left for his own story.

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