FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Bottom Feeders

by CHARLES R. LARSON

If memory serves, my first encounter with James Agee was sometime in 1957 when the Book Find Club published the author’s posthumous novel, A Death in the Family.  The novel was so successful (it won the Pulitzer Prize) that the Club reissued Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  That account of Southern tenant farmers (along with Walker Evans haunting photographs) had originally been published in 1941 but sold few copies.  Famous Men was an expanded version of an exhaustive article that Agee had originally written for Fortune five years earlier.  The manuscript for the magazine article was recently discovered and (again with numerous photographs by Evans) has been published as Cotton Tenants: Three Families. A convoluted publication record, and a sense of déjà vu for me at least because I read the first two titles when they were Book Find Club selections.  Unfortunately, the books—now quite rare in those editions—were tossed in a subsequent move.

Of the magazine article, David Whitford observed in a June 10th issue of Fortune this year: “In June 1936 this magazine sent staff writer James Agee and his chosen photographer, Walker Evans, to Hale County, Ala., to report on the lives of cotton sharecroppers during the Depression.  Agee and Evans were gone all summer, their progress and whereabouts a mystery for long stretches to their editors in New York, and when they finally returned, and Agee filed his piece, months later, Fortune rejected it.”

Why Henry Luce (the quasi-“enlightened editor”) of Fortune canned the article is understandable.  In no way can Cotton Tenants be considered compatible with Democracy; it’s a damning picture of Capitalism, of the masses who are little more than cannon fodder for the rich as was amply demonstrated in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  Finally brought to publication in 2013, Cotton Tenants begs the question: why do the poor (and today the middle class) put up with a totally rigged economic system that increasingly throws more money at the rich?  Why aren’t there riots in the street?   Where is the American Spring?

Adam Haslett in his cutting Preface to Agee’s book refers to the writer as a man who practiced “a kind of morally indignant anthropology.  An ethnography delivered from the pulpit.”  Later. Haslett brings the issue closer to home: “Cotton Tenants presses us to ask two questions.  What, precisely are the economic mechanisms that enforce our own class hierarchies?  And what are the ‘structures of intuition’ that serve as the social glue of the system?  Providing the answers is the task of engaged journalism to tell us the Cotton Tenants 300dpistory of our own economic collapse and the pain it continues to cause.  It is not difficult to see the outlines.  Real wages for the working class have been declining for forty years.  The increases in ‘efficiency’ and ‘labor productivity’ celebrated by economists have become a transfer mechanism from the poor and middle class to the owners of capital.  Wage earners work longer for less; investors reap the rewards.”

Agee himself says it even more damningly in his introduction: “A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage; is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance.  And a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea.”  Parasites all.

I’d be surprised if Henry Luce ever read that passage.  The editors who pulled the plug on the article must have protected him from that.  But that’s no excuse for the continued wretched response today.  The Conservatives in Congress?  Barack Obama?  I’m beginning to wonder if anyone besides Elizabeth Warren is paying attention to anything about the poor and the middle class.

The cotton tenants Agee focused on in Moundsville, Alabama, were not even the worst off.  All three families were white.  Agee said he wanted to describe three middle-of-the road situations, not the worst in either extreme.  Still, they’ve been beaten down so long that they largely accept their lot.  They can’t question their landlord, because to do so would make their situation even worse.  In the first chapter (“Business”), Agee makes it clear that they are lucky if there’s any money left over for them at the end of the year, once they’ve paid off their debts (seeds, fertilizer, advances for medical complications, and so on).  If they are fortunate in the part of they year after harvest, they get brief periods of employment at $1.25 a day.

Repeatedly, Agee describes some of them as having lost their grip on living, with “very little interest in living,” possessing drowned intellects.  In a much later section about education—and this may be the most frightening aspect of the book—Agee writes, “One is that the intellect and the emotions are quite irrelevant to lives such as our three families are leading; so that education is likewise irrelevant to their lives.  Another is that such education as they are exposed to is capable of doing more harm than good. Another is that they are peculiarly ill-equipped for self-education.” I doubt if I have ever read anything quite so hopeless.

Other sections cover in minute detail issues of shelter (poor), food (poor), clothing (poor), health (poor)—even leisure (very little besides going into the town on Saturdays and sporadic church attendance on Sundays).  A few random quotations about diet will suffice.  The cornbread that plays such an extensive part of their diet is often as “appetizing, and as heavy as wet cement.” Vegetables are typically “cooked far beyond greenness to a deep olivecolored death.”  “Everything, in fact, fired, boiled, or baked, is heavily seasoned with lard, and flows lard from every pore.  So, after a meal or two, do you.”  “Consider seriously the favorableness of this food as a diet for an unborn and for a suckling infant; for a child; for an adolescent; for an adult; and consider seriously whether it is not remarkable to the point of nausea that a plant nurtured in such soil should manage to live not in any full health nor in any fulfillment of its form, but at all.”

Agee was writing about a cotton belt “sixteen hundred miles wide and three hundred miles deep.  Sixty per cent of those whose lives depend directly on the cotton raised there, between eight and a half million men, women, and children, own no land and no home but are cotton tenants.”  Picking cotton, harvesting it, is “terrible work”   Ditto life: terrible.

The photos by Walker Evans (thirty of them included here) call out for equal response, but I’ll leave that to you.

James Agee: Cotton Tenants: Three Families

Photos by Walker Evans.

Melville House, 224 pp., $24.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 09, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nasty As They Wanna Be
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Second Gilded Age: Overcoming the Rule of Billionaires and Militarists
Andrew Levine
Trump’s Chumps: Victims of the Old Bait and Switch
Erin McCarley
American Nazis and the Fight for US History
Lewis Lapham
Hostile Takeover
Joshua Frank
This Week at CounterPunch: More Hollow Smears and Baseless Accusations
Paul Street
The Democrats Do Their Job, Again
Vijay Prashad
The Cuban Revolution: Defying Imperialism From Its Backyard
Michael Hudson - Sharmini Peries
Orwellian Economics
Mark Ames
The Anonymous Blacklist Promoted by the Washington Post Has Apparent Ties to Ukrainian Fascism and CIA Spying
Conn Hallinan
India & Pakistan: the Unthinkable
Andrew Smolski
Third Coast Pillory: Nativism on the Left – A Realer Smith
Joshua Sperber
Trump in the Age of Identity Politics
Brandy Baker
Jill Stein Sees Russia From Her House
Katheryne Schulz
Report from Santiago de Cuba: Celebrating Fidel’s Rebellious Life
Nelson Valdes
Fidel and the Good People
Norman Solomon
McCarthy’s Smiling Ghost: Democrats Point the Finger at Russia
Renee Parsons
The Snowflake Nation and Trump on Immigration
Margaret Kimberley
Black Fear of Trump
Michael J. Sainato
A Pruitt Running Through It: Trump Kills Nearly Useless EPA With Nomination of Oil Industry Hack
Ron Jacobs
Surviving Hate and Death—The AIDS Crisis in 1980s USA
David Swanson
Virginia’s Constitution Needs Improving
Louis Proyect
Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness
Paul Atwood
War Has Been, is, and Will be the American Way of Life…Unless?
John Wight
Syria and the Bodyguard of Lies
Richard Hardigan
Anti-Semitism Awareness Act: Senate Bill Criminalizes Criticism of Israel
Kathy Kelly
See How We Live
David Macaray
Trump Picks his Secretary of Labor. Ho-Hum.
Howard Lisnoff
Interview with a Political Organizer
Yves Engler
BDS and Anti-Semitism
Martha Durkee-Neuman
Millennial Organizers Want to See An Intersectional Understanding Of Gun Violence
Adam Parsons
Home Truths About the Climate Emergency
Brian Cloughley
The Decline and Fall of Britain
Eamonn Fingleton
U.S. China Policy: Is Obama Schizoid?
Graham Peebles
Worldwide Air Pollution is Making us Ill
Joseph Natoli
Fake News is Subjective?
Andre Vltchek
Tough-Talking Philippine President Duterte
Binoy Kampmark
Total Surveillance: Snooping in the United Kingdom
Guillermo R. Gil
Vivirse la película: Willful Opposition to the Fiscal Control Board in Puerto Rico
Patrick Bond
South Africa’s Junk Credit Rating was Avoided, But at the Cost of Junk Analysis
Clancy Sigal
Investigate the Protesters! A Trial Balloon Filled With Poison Gas
Charles R. Larson
Review:  Helon Habila’s The Chibok Girls: the Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria
December 08, 2016
John W. Whitehead
Power to the People: John Lennon’s Legacy Lives On
Mike Whitney
Rolling Back the Empire: Washington’s Proxy-Army Faces Decisive Defeat in Aleppo
Ellen Brown
“We’ll Look at Everything:” More Thoughts on Trump’s $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail