Tobacco Road, published by Charles Scribner and Sons in 1932, was Caldwell's third novel. It was inspired by the terrible poverty he witnessed as a young man growing up in the small east Georgia town of Wrens. His father, Ira Sylvester Caldwell, who was pastor of the local Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, was also an amateur sociologist and often took his son with him to observe some of the more destitute members of the rural community. Erskine Caldwell's sympathy for these people and his outrage at the conditions in which they lived were real, and his novel was meant to be a work of social protest. But he also refused to sentimentalize their poverty or to cast his characters as inherently noble in their sufferings, as so many other protest works did.
The novel's Lester family, headed by the shiftless patriarch Jeeter, both appall and intrigue readers with their gross sexuality, casual violence, selfishness, and overall lack of decency. Living as squatters on barren land that had once belonged to their more prosperous ancestors, the Lesters have come to represent in the American public's mind the degradation inherent in extreme poverty. That Caldwell also portrays them as often-comic figures further complicates the reader's response. Tobacco Road is a call to action, but it offers no easy answers and thus has generated intense debate both in and out of the South. Many southerners denounced the novel as exaggerated and needlessly cruel and even pornographic, an affront to the gentility of the region. Northern critics, however, tended to read the book as a serious indictment of a failed economic system in need of correction. Caldwell later explained that the book was not meant to represent the entire South, but for many this work confirmed demeaning southern stereotypes.