"the damages of circumstance are by no means peculiar to the cotton tenant"  


James Agee’s Cotton Tenants (The Baffler and Melville House, 2013) is a foundation document about a once feudal American South, about how economics and politics keep a stranglehold on quality of life and how the intuitive “Understanding of the Ways” meant accepting every restriction and boundary. In the “The Man Who Fell to Earth ” (Nicholas Roeg, 1976), sleek space alien David Bowie cruises in a black stretch limo backwards in time. Accompanied by a score of throttling banjo breaks, he rides past mesmerized hillbilly clans (circa the 1800’s) martenbonneted, cob pipe smoking American primitives who are gentry in comparison to the sharecroppers in Agee’s book.

In Hale County, Alabama, the landlord provided land, the house, outbuildings (if any), a water supply and a garden plot so that a tenant could bread and feed his family. Landlords also provided seed, fertilizer, instructions on what to plant where and how, and a mule and feed for the duration of summer planting. The halver (as in 1⁄2) paid his rent with his labor and the labor of his whole family—with half the cotton seed, half the corn and frequently, with some of the vegetables grown for his meager sustenance. (If a tenant owned his own tools and mule, he was called a third or a fourth.) When not actually sowing or picking cotton, he, along with hundreds of other tenant farmers, looked for work in sawmills or as a handyman. Sharecropper families were basically slaves unless they were out of debt, which was practically impossible given the desperate cycle of loans and credit. The landlord held the cash and the red (clay-filled) land, and whoever held that kept the Keys to the Kingdom of a system preserved in the Understanding of the Ways.

Agee is brilliant, snide and fateful on economics and politics, but he is absolutely best at compassion. The tenant families (their real names are changed for privacy) are the Fields, the Burroughs and the Tingles, 22 souls in all. Agee and Walker Evans befriended them on a project commissioned but never published by Fortune Magazine. In Agee’s writing and Evans’ photographs, affection and respect lift off the pages and you can practically run your fingers through the timbre of delicacy, the deference they must have embodied in order to gain such wild reaches of trust, the confidence of farmers and their families who were essentially closed sets completely unused to outsiders. 

Cotton Tenants is a more crystalline form of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), with fewer of the famous Walker Evans photos, a frustration, for you start looking madly for images of Charles, Elizabeth, Kate, because Agee has made you fall in love and breathe in tandem with him and everyone about whom he writes. (The manuscript was discovered when Agee’s daughter, Andrea, cleaned out her father’s apartment in Greenwich Village.) For me, Agee was like some obvious wine I’d never gotten to. As a young adult there was no way I could have appreciated Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with more than generic good will...certainly not with real empathy, though perhaps with some of the trained- to-gentleness of the “pre-meditated Christian”—an interesting dig with which Agee castigates himself (and whoever else), in contrast to the naïf gentleness of Floyd, the head of the Burroughs Family. Worse, I might have appreciated it with something more noxious, like a wrong-headed pity. Pity: “kindly sorrow evoked by the suffering, distress, or misfortune of another....”

Agee is best at people. He’ll do desperation and he’ll do beauty. He threads his own being through the needle’s eye of farm families subsisting in tenancies that starve the daylights out of them to an extent that to call what remains “life” is in his words biological courtesy. He shuns glibness and irony but he’s still a sophisticated and cynical cosmopolite describing some geegaw in a tenant’s house as so charming a chunk of Americana as to give certain fanciers of the antique, nightly emissions—then pursue inventory with rusty swords, a tainted water supply, a vicious cow and the starving trembling kitten who becomes a motif of the book...the diet of cornbread, biscuit, sorghum, lard grease, buttermilk, field peas, molasses, grease, field peas, cornbread, biscuit, sorghum, etc. And reprise the flies vibrating to death in the buttermilk. A family can count on three meals a day except in the winter when they can’t be sure of anything. Agee says somebody has bare feet like roots. He says adults windlass at each other out of deep wells of fatigue and water tastes sad on the mouth. He says breakfast so early by lamplight is like silent meals in monasteries, and his reportage, even at its most sanguine and surgical (maybe especially then), is a velvet femme wonderland of lyric deluxe—soul and sensuousness, leisure and despair.

The Fields, the Burroughs, and the Tingles live in houses the Big Bad Wolf would not waste breath on. Rain comes through the roof and slants in the planks of wall and at night you can watch the stars in bed. Mrs. Burroughs hard scrubs her floors dedicatedly, but The Tingles have given up and over to unspeakable filth, even though they dutifully wash their feet every night before bed. Inside chickens peck at baby excrement and melon seeds. Dogs are fed cornbread from the table but the cats are on their own. A pig staggers in a hungry daze trying to eat the tail of the aforementioned trembling and starving kitten. Clothes are made out of flour sacks or sheeting and hats against the sun are luminous— woven from the silver husks of corn. Skies, read for weather on which survival depends, are never found poetic or beautiful. White cotton tenants were mostly sorrowful seeming...without the joy or Fahrenheit sexuality and playfulness of the black cotton tenants, who had it worst of all. 

Reading Cotton Tenants made it urgent to know what became of these three families and following generations. Though King Cotton wrecked the soil and moved west before it vanished, poverty remains and I wanted to know how these people fared through time. A 1986 publication “And Their Children After Them,” by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, follows the families of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I opened it to the story of Maggie Louise Gudger, who in Cotton Tenants is named Lucile Burroughs. Maggie Louise is especially promising and bright and her parents’ hope for her is that she’ll escape the poverty cudgel by becoming a nurse or a teacher. In 1936 she was 10 years old. She had a sweetly mentoring relationship with Agee, who, as she recollected, walked her out into the twilight and lifted her onto a shed at his shoulder level so they could talk. He told her all about New York and the world beyond Hale County, and as night came on, they pondered the stars in the sky. But Maggie Louise never escaped poverty. She married young, got divorced, married again. Her beloved second husband died. She drank heavily and made a couple of attempts at suicide. Her family put her in an institution which helped for a time, but later, in a state of apparent euphoria, she drank a bottle of rat poison and died...in 1971 at the age of 45. Agee, too, had died at age 45, of a heart attack.

Because of Agee’s “piece of spiritual burglary,” as he harshly called it in a letter to Father Flye (January 13, 1939), I’m able to conjure Floyd Burroughs shaving with a broken mug wreathed with roses. I’m practically able to raise the dead. I think how magical it is to be able to hydrate the skimpy froth Floyd slathers his face with and envision Allie Mae, his wife, in a hat worn on her shy graven head with sorrowful, clumsy, and ridiculous grace. Reading around again in the Agee materials I can almost re-animate Agee himself, howling down the halls of St Andrews for Mountain Boys, tormenting his conscience thru Harvard Yard, Hollywood Hills, and down the seersucker hallways of Fortune Magazine to any pot of whisky or gold. 




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