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James Agee: Cotton Tenants: Three Families

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.