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       Cotton Tenants: Three Families, p.1

           James Agee
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Cotton Tenants: Three Families


  Text © 2013 The James Agee Trust

  Photographs by Walker Evans are reprinted from the the two-volume album Photographs of Cotton Sharecropper Families, held by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

  Cover photograph: Walker Evans, Floyd Burroughs and Tingle Children,

  Hale County, Alabama, 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

  Melville House Publishing 8 Blackstock Mews

  145 Plymouth Street and Islington

  Brooklyn, NY 11201 London N4 2BT

  eISBN: 978-1-61219-213-0

  A catalog record for this title is available from the Library of Congress.


  “Despair so far invading every tissue has destroyed in these the hidden seats of the desire and of the intelligence.”

  W. H. Auden



  Title Page



  Editor’s Note

  by John Summers

  A Poet’s Brief

  by Adam Haslett


  Chapter 1: Business

  Chapter 2: Shelter

  Chapter 3: Food

  Chapter 4: Clothing

  Chapter 5: Work

  Chapter 6: Picking Season

  Chapter 7: Education

  Chapter 8: Leisure

  Chapter 9: Health

  Appendix 1: On Negroes

  Appendix 2: Landowners

  Editor’s Note

  James Agee never lacked for recognition as a poet, film critic, or screenwriter. So much more was expected of him, though. He couldn’t shake the suspicion that his talent was wasted even before his health wound down. “Nothing much to report,” he wrote in a May 11, 1955, letter. “I feel, in general, as if I were dying: a terrible slowing-down, in all ways, above all in relation to work.” When he succumbed five days later, he was forty-five. It would be three more years before his novel A Death in the Family appeared and won its enduring acclaim. It had been a long time since anyone had mentioned his obscure book about tenant farmers in Alabama, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

  “Cotton Tenants” marked Agee’s first attempt to tell the story of that momentous trip. Commissioned in the summer of 1936, only to be shelved by Fortune magazine—Agee was a staff writer—the typescript wasted away in his Greenwich Village home for nearly twenty years, a piercing fragment lodged within a collection of unread manuscripts. But Agee’s young daughter inherited both the home and the collection, and eventually (in 2003, to be specific) she cleared it out. Two years later, the James Agee Trust transferred the collection to the University of Tennessee Special Collections Library; there, all the papers were cataloged, and “Cotton Tenants” was discovered among the remains.

  Although no date appeared on the typescript, there’s no good reason to believe Agee wrote a later draft or that this isn’t the one his editors declined to publish. As far as I know, no other versions of “Cotton Tenants” exist in any archive, public or private. Nor is it possible, then, to know with certainty the story behind the two appendices, “On Negroes” and “Landowners”—both placed here exactly as found on the typescript. This pair of notes suggest, however, “the gigantic weight of physical and spiritual brutality [the Negro] has borne and is bearing” was not far from his closest perceptions.

  As soon as I became aware of the existence of the typescript (in 2010, to be specific), I did the only decent thing and asked the Agee Trust for permission to publish part of it in The Baffler. About one-third of “Cotton Tenants” first appeared in issue 19, which was released in March 2012. A partnership was then struck between The Baffler and Melville House to bring out the complete report, and the result is before you. It is published for the first time here—an act of love for the author.

  Kelly Burdick, Hugh Davis, Melissa Flashman, Lindsey Gilbert, David Herwaldt, John T. Hill, Eliza LaJoie, Michael Lofaro, Paul Sprecher, Rob Vanderlan, and David Whitford all had a hand in bringing about this publication. The photos and captions in this volume were selected from Walker Evans’s two-volume album, Photographs of Cotton Sharecropper Families, held by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

  —John Summers, The Baffler

  A Poet’s Brief


  How to attend to suffering and injustice? There is so much of it. If we move through the world with our ears and eyes open, it is all around us. It seems intractable. We need filters to prevent ourselves from being swamped, classifications to remove our experience of the pain of others to a level of endurable abstraction. By the time we become adults—if we become adults—this adaptation has taken place without our much noticing it. There are friends and family, whose suffering is ineluctable. There are people in the immediate communities, physical and virtual, that we live in whose troubles we see and talk about. And then there is the pain of distant others, people who live in places we’ve never been, news of whose suffering arrives through the media, if it arrives at all. It comes as sheer blight, implicating us we know not how. This we either attempt to ignore or treat as an “issue,” an altogether more tractable entity.

  Yet some social visionaries and brokenhearted artists, of whom James Agee was one, fail richly to make this adaptation. Their work, in the manner of Jesus strained through Marx, insists that distinctions between the suffering of intimates and the suffering of strangers are an outrage. With strenuous empathy they report or represent the hardship of the poor and the disenfranchised. The result is a kind of morally indignant anthropology. An ethnography delivered from the pulpit. Which more or less describes Cotton Tenants: Three Families, James Agee’s report on the working conditions of poor white farmers in the Deep South.

  Fortune magazine commissioned the report in the summer of 1936, sending Agee and the photographer Walker Evans to Alabama, and then refused to publish it. No firm evidence has ever surfaced to suggest precisely why. One might ask, though, how any minion in Henry Luce’s magazine empire, which included Time and Life as well as Fortune, could have expected such a thing to be published.

  Agee, born in Knoxville in 1909, joined Fortune as a staff writer in 1932, straight out of Harvard, where he’d executed a parody of Luce’s slick, soul-crushing conception of journalism in the Harvard Lampoon, while at the same time getting in his digs on “that high-falutin flub-drubbery which is Harvard.” He arrived at his office on the fifty-second floor of the Chrysler Building with a reputation as a poet. (Permit Me Voyage, his first book, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award in 1934.) Luce believed poets and writers could be taught to expand on the subject of business and invested Fortune’s pages with an almost cinematic juxtaposition of words and images. The managing editor Ralph Ingersoll assigned the young poet long, intricate stories on the cultural interests of the overlords amid the ongoing Depression.

  Agee wrote of the blood sport of cockfighting (“a minor and surreptitious pleasure of the rich”), the boredom and decay of Roman aristocracy in Mussolini’s Italy (“there are parties here and parties there but they are mostly neither here nor there”), Saratoga’s summer horse racing gambol, the “U.S. Commercial Orchid,” and so on. These stories leave no doubt that business journalism can be turned into a kind of literature, or that Agee was keenly talented at the sort of long-form writing that’s become all but extinct in our own time. His 1933 story on the Tennessee Valley Authority, his first important assignment, earned him a personal commendation from Luce, who told him it was among the best Fortune writing ever printed.

  In the summer of 1936, though, when Fortune asked him to travel to Alabama
to investigate the lives of cotton tenants for the magazine’s Life and Circumstances department, he greeted the assignment with no small amount of apprehension. He convinced his editors to pair him with Walker Evans, a friend then at the Resettlement Administration, but doubted his own ability to see the story through. “Best break I ever had on Fortune,” he wrote in a June 18 letter, two days before the pair left New York for Alabama, on their epic road trip into feudal capitalism, Southern-style. “Feel terrific responsibility toward story; considerable doubts of my ability to bring it off; considerable more of Fortune’s unwillingness to use it as it seems (in theory) to me.”

  Agee’s frustration with Luce’s brand of journalism wasn’t new. “It varies with me from a sort of hard, masochistic liking without enthusiasm or trust, to direct nausea at the sight of this symbol $ and this % and this biggest and this some blank billion,” he’d written to a friend the year before his breakthrough assignment to Alabama. “But in the long run I suspect the fault, dear Fortune, is in me: that I hate any job on earth, as a job and hindrance and semisuicide.” A colleague once reported finding him dangling outside his office window.

  Agee was already developing a sense of himself as a stranger and a spy at Fortune, a poet trapped in the tower of the Chrysler Building. This double alienation—this feeling of being at home neither in the office in New York nor, it turned out, on the harsh cotton fields of Alabama—infused the trip with a great emotional tension. “The trip was very hard, and certainly one of the best things I’ve ever had happen to me,” he wrote in September, after spending two months with and among the families. “Writing what we found is a different matter. Impossible in any form and length Fortune can use; and I am now so stultified trying to do that, that I’m afraid I’ve lost the ability to make it right in my own way.”

  As Agee struggled to find a form that suited his vision—one of his drafts reached eighty pages—a new managing editor discontinued the magazine’s Life and Circumstances series. In the end, the magazine held the 30,000-word report that Agee wound up submitting for a year, then killed it. Precisely why, nobody can say for sure—there are no telltale letters from his editor, no clear proof he refused to cooperate, nothing nearly so neat and tidy from either side. Politics, no doubt, played a part. Who knows how many subversive stories of the Great Depression were killed off, or never considered, by the reign of money’s prerogatives in the respectable press. What we do know is that the many and subtle adaptations that made possible Agee’s previous and subsequent writing for the magazine failed in this case, and failed momentously.*

  The next summer, Agee rented a house in Frenchtown, New Jersey, and summed up his discontent with a position that he never surrendered. “I am essentially an anarchist,” he wrote. Introducing the book that he eventually produced, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he conveyed nothing but scorn for the cutting-edge radicals, artists, and reformers hovering around the subject of cotton tenantry, and singled out Luce-like journalism for special contempt. “The very blood and semen of journalism is a broad and successful form of lying,” he wrote. “Remove that form of lying and you no longer have journalism.” Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sold six hundred copies in its first year, a few thousand more in remainder, and went out of print. Not until 1960, five years after Agee’s death, was it republished and recognized as a classic of American literature. And not until now, seventy-seven years after he wrote it, is the report he submitted available.

  Cotton Tenants, published here for the first time, is a good deal more than source material for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. At first blush, it is tempting to view what follows in this way because much of the physical description and some of the organizing principles of the report are carried through into the book. But the two works are very different. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a four-hundred-page sui generis prose symphony on the themes of poverty, rural life, and human existence. Cotton Tenants is a poet’s brief for the prosecution of economic and social injustice. The former, as Agee himself tells us, is meant to be sung; the latter, preached.

  And the message is unsettling: “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.” Those who are willing to benefit from the disadvantage of others are “human being[s] by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea.” Agee’s aim is to excite the reader’s outrage by describing the particular disadvantages of tenant farmers in meticulous detail. He begins with their economic plight: they are trapped on their land in a credit system that makes it next to impossible to pay back the debts they keep racking up to their landlords for rent, manure, seed, and the money to feed and clothe themselves. With bad weather, a year’s labor can leave them with more debt than they began with.

  Agee anatomizes these arrangements through the prisms of food, shelter, clothing, work, leisure, education, and a typical Saturday trip to the nearest town. At the time he went to Alabama with Agee, Walker Evans was working for the Resettlement Administration, whose director, Roy Stryker, had described part of his agency’s goal as “introducing America to Americans.” And this is the documentary approach the report takes, introducing the subscribers of Fortune to the Burroughs, Tingle, and Fields families, as if to a country they didn’t know existed.

  Much of the detail of the families’ daily lives is delivered in flat, declarative sentences. But a full page rarely goes by without at some point rising into a higher, poetic register. On a summer afternoon, a woman rests “beneath a flyswarmed floursack, and her children convolve in any chance stage between heat-enchanted silence and rampant cruelty against each other or the animals.” The families go to Moundville on Saturday, “drawn in out of the slow and laborious depths of the country, along the withered vine of their red roadsteads and along the sedanswept blue slags of highway, on mule, on mule-drawn wagon and by foot hanging together, each family, like filings delicately aligned by a hidden magnet.” Just as Evans’s photographs did, Agee’s words make the quotidian epic. The gently concussive rhythms and repetitions, the seemingly immemorial, even involuntary, motions (filings to a magnet), provide the musical underpinning to the explicit theme of people caught in a circle of work and debt over which they have little or no power.

  But why, seventy-seven years later, should we spend time reading a piece of rejected journalism about a vanished world? The agricultural arrangements it describes are gone; the extreme material poverty and malnutrition it documents are no longer widespread conditions in the American South; and the patterns of social life it captures are a thing of the past.

  One answer lies in the example it sets for the scope and tenor of journalistic inquiry. What follows is an unapologetic attack on a hidebound class system, an attack firmly grounded in the lived particulars of those near the bottom of the order. Yet it is not simply a piece of muckraking. There is no specific scandal or perfidy personified by an evil landlord. At the outset, Agee makes clear (partly to fit the series in Fortune for which the piece had been commissioned) that the families he’s describing are not the worst cases, but representative ones; the worst cases, he says, would distract through voyeurism. Shock stuns the mind, and by that very action can often engender lassitude. We gaze in horror and then turn away in what becomes a kind of sentimental entertainment. The way out of this trap is to link the lives described with the system that creates their conditions. To give an analysis of politics that’s firmly grounded in the actual results of politics. This involves more than “providing context,” as the standard journalistic nostrum puts it. It requires combining political intelligence with writerly intelligence—that is, the apprehension of human character and creaturely habit.

  Here is Agee:

  The essential structure of the South is, of course, economic: cold and inevitable as the laws of chemistry. But that is not how the machine is run. The machi
ne is run on intuition, and the structures of intuition are delicate and subtle as they can be only in a society which is not merely one thing but two: a dizzy mixture of feudalism and of capitalism in its latter stages.

  Yes, there is a system, and it can be outlined in the abstract, but to understand how and why it persists you have to understand the “structures of intuition,” the daily modes of being, the fears and aspirations that allow it to continue, that permit dehumanization to be perceived as natural law. The small-time capitalism of the landlords maintains itself partly on the vestiges of feudal deference given by farmers stuck on their land. This uneasy relationship is managed by the shared intuition of white supremacy. The white farmers Agee profiles may be poor, but there are always black farmers who are poorer and more abjectly treated than they are. It’s part of the structure of sentiments that helps to hold the economic hierarchy in place.

  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 story 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.

  Global competition plays its part in this equation, serving as a seemingly permanent brake on workers’ ability to demand higher wages. It also points up the need for journalists to cover the forms of indentured servitude and the “dizzy mixture of feudalism and of capitalism in its latter stages” that are still very much alive, from Chinese factories to Indian sweatshops to labor camps in Abu Dhabi, and that are more directly related than ever to our own gaping divide in wealth and well-being.

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