Review of James Agee and Walker Evans's "Cotton Tenants: Three Families"

tags: Ron Briley, James Agee, Walker Evans, Cotton Tenants, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men



Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad.


In the summer of 1936 the business magazine Fortune operated by Henry Luce dispatched staff writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, on loan from the Farm Securities Administration, to Alabama to examine the economic plight of white cotton tenant farmers. Agee’s report was a powerful indictment of the Southern economic system, but the story was killed by the magazine. One might surmise that Fortune found the piece too critical of Southern capitalism, but researchers have been unable to locate any correspondence explaining why this indictment was rejected for publication. Although Agee’s 1936 trip to Alabama did provide important research for his 1941 book on sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the original manuscript was part of the writer’s papers discovered by his daughter in Agee’s Greenwich Village home. The James Agee Trust then transferred this collection to the University of Tennessee Special Collections Library where the typescript “Cotton Tenants” was found. In 2012, approximately one-third of the document was published in The Baffler by editor John Summers who worked with Melville House to release the complete document. The result is an attractive little volume illustrated with photographs from Walker Evans’s two-volume album, Photographs of Cotton Sharecropper Families, held by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division with an introduction by novelist Dam Haslett.

Agree was born November 27, 1909 in Knoxville, Tennessee. After his education at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University, Agee became a journalist noted for his film criticism. Although Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sold few copies when it was initially published in 1941, it is now considered a classic journalistic and artistic account of tenancy. His autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family was published after Agee’s death from a heart attack and was awarded the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Agee’s Cotton Tenants investigates the lives of three-related white families -- Floyd Burroughs, his father-in-law Bud Fields, and Field’s half-brother-in-law Frank Tingle -- in west central Alabama near the small farming community of Moundsville. Although Agee acknowledged that one in three tenant farmers was black, he believed that a discussion of racism would distract from the journalist’s critique of the Southern economic system. Also, he did not want to examine episodes of violence employed to occasionally put down dissent or union organization by tenants. Instead, Agee concentrates in Cotton Tenants on the daily drudgery in which “the population as a whole is still kept tidily in line by its own ignorance and by the certain knowledge of what happens when you step out of line, in other words by fear” (32). And in an appendix entitled “On Negroes,” Agee asserts that the theme of fear is apparent in the racism that perceived black labor as a threat to destitute tenants who cling to their white privilege.

In his description of the daily life and work of the three white families, Agee sometimes writes as an anthropologist and seems to adopt a condescending attitude toward his subjects, such as when he describes the almost animalistic sexuality of pre-adolescent children. However, Agee generally portrays the primitive lives of the tenants with realism coupled with a literary flair, as well as sense of humor. For example, when examining the families’ failure to exhibit any imagination when they are provided with a break in their grueling work routine, Agee describes them as “blank in the eyes as fish, sitting in stiff rows, speechless in their chairs, like the wives in Bluebeard’s basement, slack as meats on butchers’ hooks, more dead than death” (132). On a lighter note, Agee dryily noted that the abnormal size of William Fields “must be due to the same glandular disequilibrium which produces half the sheriffs you will ever see in the South” (199).

The bulk of Agee’s account, however, is devoted to the drudgery of daily life and labor. The ramshackle houses in which the tenants live had few furnishings and offered little protection from the elements, including the dust which always seemed to permeate the families with a lack of cleanliness. There was an absence of privacy as families sleep in the same room, and the Burroughs family did not even employ an outhouse. Instead, there was a fertile patch of land on which the family “did not bother to waste professional fertilizer” (69). The tenants selected by Agee for study were not starving and tended to eat three meals a day, but there was little variety in their diet, consisting largely of cornbread, peas, eggs, and sorghum -- all prepared with huge helpings of lard. As for clothing, overalls were the favored attire for work, while most clothes were homemade and require frequent patching to stretch their use. Shoes for the growing feet of children were a luxury few could afford, and hookworm was a parasite all too familiar for these bare feet. Agree also devotes detail to the process of cotton cultivation, describing the back-breaking work of picking cotton, which began for children as young as four years of age.

Agee’s comments upon leisure and education are perhaps even more depressing. When there was a break in the routine of cotton farming, the families had little sense of what to do with their leisure time, and their rudimentary education provided little opportunity to consider alternatives to their lives. The limits of education for the tenants are demonstrated by Agee’s comment that a young woman who was a promising student and wanted to be a teacher “will hardly be a change for the better” (168). Some solace was to be found in religion, but there's little in the way of socializing with friends. With poor sanitation and health, doctors were expensive, life expectancy was short, and Agee concludds, “Invariably people work as long as they can stand up to it, and this is as much out of tradition and pride as of necessity and poverty” (202). There's little hope for the future in the lives examined by Agee.

While Agee does not dwell upon solutions to these conditions, he makes it clear that he blames the landowners who perceive the tenants as lazy and lucky to have food, shelter, and some land to work. "A human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings," he concluded, "and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, sharing much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea” (34).

Strong words, indeed, Although some might observe that the conditions explored by Agee in Cotton Tenants no longer characterize the agricultural Sough, Adam Haslett, in his contemporary introduction to the book, maintains that global capitalism and the increasing economic gap between rich and poor in America and around the world continue to make Cotton Tenants relevant. And on a personal note, my Texas family was descended from sharecroppers. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, my family had moved out of the country into town. Although my father worked for the railroad, as a youth I picked cotton in the fields with my relatives, and Agee’s description of this labor brought back many painful memories. Although our financial condition was considerably better than the tenants described by Agee, my father who left primary school to work during the Great Depression displayed many of the attitudes explored in Cotton Tenants. He was in constant fear of returning to the type of economic deprivation described by Agee. He worked hard, spent little money on health and leisure, and died young. Instead of gazing off into the horizon on the front porch, he spent evenings staring at the television. In the Walker Evans photographs of the Burroughs, Tingle, and Fields families, I see the stoic expression of my family. Cotton Tenants still packs a punch!



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