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The Ends of the Earth

George O’Brien

Cotton Tenants: Three Families, by James Agee and Walker Evans, Melville House Publishing, 160 pp, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1612192123

In 1936, the writer James Agee, then on the staff of Fortune magazine, and Walker Evans, a photographer working for the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency, were sent on assignment to rural western Alabama. Their brief was to report on the conditions of sharecroppers there. The results were twofold. One was the extraordinary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But it was not published until 1941, by which time its subject could easily, if lazily, be thought to have been covered by The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Besides, 1941 was not a great year to publish a book about the cheapness of life in the land of the free. Much as it’s rightly admired, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men remains among the great unread. If a public space for it had been cleared by publication of the Fortune assignment it would have stood a better chance of garnering attention. But the article was turned down and until recently presumed lost. Now published in a handsome edition as Cotton Tenants, it’s to be hoped that it will draw attention to what Agee and Evans saw, to how they saw it, and to the kinds of reflections to which their work’s combination of aesthetic finesse and moral sympathy gives rise, a combination that remains as vivid and as telling as the day that Fortune editor spiked it.

Evans’s photographs are an integral part of the project, and are not to be regarded merely as illustrations of the text. But Evans went on to have a lengthy and complete career as one of twentieth-century America’s most distinguished photographers. So, although he is inextricably linked with it, the Cotton Tenants project is most commonly thought of as associated with Agee. This is partly because of his pursuit of passion and precision in his reportage, a quest that led not only to his detailed documentation of his material but also to investing that act of witness with qualities of perception that shone additional light on what he could hardly bear to look at. Although he had the requisite WASP credentials (educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard; member of the Episcopalian church), Agee was a son of the South. As a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, he would not have been entirely ignorant of the general backwardness of the inhabitants of the hills and hollows of the nearby Smoky Mountains. One reason he thought his Alabama trip “the best break I ever had on Fortune” may be because it not only brought him face to face with a debased economic system and the way of life that debasement entailed. It also brought him closer than he had yet been to his birthright, to the crucial and arguably typifying status the South has in what America as a nation represents. In any event, there is, in the quality of Agee’s prose, in the arresting attentiveness of his rageful regard, a certain pressure to unmask, to lay bare, to reveal, to arrive at a form of speaking that had never before been attained, certainly never in relation to the voiceless and hapless peonage of Hale County. “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” TS Eliot’s lines suggest themselves as Agee makes his journey to the interior, to a place that in the very nakedness of its impoverishment can be seen as a yardstick of modern times. And of course the mute spareness of Evans’s photographs are their own articulation of those same conditions, so much so that the shacks, the pallor, the raggedness seem to lend themselves with an almost uncanny aptness to the camera’s poetics of black and white.

The originality of this material, particularly when Agee and Evans first cast their eyes on it, is easy to overlook. Not that the Depression did not affect rural America. But its iconography of breadlines and dosshouses belong to the urban scene. The era’s overwhelming numbers of abused citizens were natives of an industrial world in crisis, not an agricultural one. To register the full weight of deprived times on the land, The Grapes of Wrath added the natural disaster of soil erosion and the Dust Bowl to the unnatural heartlessness of bankers and mortgage holders. Agee’s chosen terrain is fertile ground, however ‑ the cotton belt – where strictly on the basis of customary practices of landholding and labouring, the majority has lived at a barely sustainable level for generations. His target is not quite the unexpected and exceptional economic malaise of the day, but the persistence of a tradition, of vested interests, of a primitive regime consisting of haves and have-nots that has all the entrenched and unquestioned power of the primitive. This is an economic, social and cultural system that is as ingrained as the dirt in the pores of those at its mercy, those whose fate is to ensure that their way of life is profitable, in all senses of the term, to all but themselves.

Theirs is the system known as share-cropping, a designation that Agee rejects, believing that it obfuscates the hard and blatant fact of a tenantry utterly beholden to their landlord masters. The sharing part is effectively a lie. Seed, fertilizer and the resultant crop all belong to the landlord. The tenants have hardly evolved economically beyond the status of those indentured servants who broke the ground when America was still a colony. And the confining and oppressive character of the dominant economic relations reproduces itself in just about every aspect of tenant life, in its gruelling and repetitious labour, in a diet that is conducive only to malnutrition, in schooling that is essentially a calendar of days missed, in bare-board homes and in social isolation. The gaunt slenderness of adults is an image of life’s limits. Children’s shapeless clothes hint at more imponderable varieties of unfitness. Nothing further from Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a land peopled by sturdy yeomen can be imagined. This is a realm where outside of soil and sweat there seem to be no natural surroundings, no flora or fauna worth mentioning, a featureless place that reciprocates the inhabitants’ exhausted indifference to it. Even two of the three tenants’ names – Burroughs, Fields – inadvertently suggest how run into the ground they are. They live off an unpaved county road, which is off a state road. There is no US highway close by. The place’s very geography is a signpost to remoteness and disconnection. The nearest town – church, store, cotton-gin ‑ is Moundville, so called for the Native American burial mounds in the area. But those structures are history. The lives depicted are barren of history. For them there is nothing but land. The cotton season, planting and reaping, takes up six months of the year. The rest of the time is passed in stupefying idleness. They see nothing beyond land. They can’t afford to. The civic sphere is just about non-existent. “They are as oblivious of country and state as of national politics. In fact most people of their sort appear to feel that those structures of Government are irrelevant if not indeed inimical to them,” says Agee. Of what kind of country might they think themselves citizens? It’s not the New Deal that appears in Three Tenants, but the age-old bad deal. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Fuhgeddaboudit ...

Agee’s approach in Cotton Tenants (which he refined and elaborated upon in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) seems at first glance to be as basic as the conditions themselves. His keynote is taken from the opening sentence of ten-year-old Lucile Burroughs’s third-grade geography book. The text of this instructional opus is almost offensively childish. The world is our home: that’s the first point it makes. From there it goes on to stress the significance of food, shelter and clothing and that most people’s lives are given over to acquiring these items. “Let us imagine that we are far out in the fields,’” the book says, setting a scene to illustrate its message. Such an overture is not likely to stimulate the imaginations of the kids to whom the words are directed. Lucile Burroughs knows very well what it is to be in the middle of a field, early in the morning, ill-clad and hungry. But what she’s being taught has no bearing on who or what she is. Instead, she’s being given a lesson in remoteness and displacement; it’s both beyond her and beneath her.

Agee’s approach has a different focus, of course. He takes notions of home, settlement, belonging and attachment, as well as modes of and prospects for survival. He examines the availability of essentials, understanding these to include health, leisure and work as a perceived value, personally, socially and culturally. (The context may be different, but it is quite sobering to be reminded that, seventy-five years or so on, this sense of value still has to make a case for itself, and under conditions that don’t seem all that more propitious than those of Agee’s day). The difference is basically in his fidelity both to what he sees and how he reacts to it – in the fact that he has a reaction to it. If Evans’s pictures print the unvarnished, undeniable, unmediated look of things, Agee’s words are in the nature of enlargements. His is the big screen, not so much in the optical sense (though he was a pioneering film critic and wrote the scripts of both The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter) but in what he makes of all the surfaces he takes in. Everything counts: the grain of materials, the blemished bodies, techniques of ploughing and picking, the “dumb chill” and the “shaking chill”, the tendency in tenant speech towards “surrealism”. Take his description of Floyd Burroughs. “His eyes are a clear, ignorant, and somewhere dangerous yellow, quietly studying you. He moves slowly and strongly, in a gait shaped to broken land, and like many people who cannot read or write he handles words with a clumsy economy and beauty, as if they were farm animals drawing open difficult land.” “Somewhere”, “beauty”, “drawing open”, these surprising terms are typical of the ore with which Agee loads sentences that, syntactically, are structured along basic reporter-efficient lines. In his anthropology of emptiness he brings the poetic out, affirming all he sees instead of writing it off, as the common view of hillbillies, Okies and the like wants to. He looks in, not away.

So, following, but naturally complicating, the schoolbook’s topics, Three Tenants depicts the character and availability of the essentials, food, shelter, clothing, work, to which it also adds views of the ever topical necessities of health care and education, as well as of leisure, such as it is. (Interestingly, there’s not a lot about religion. If the tenants had any marked enthusiasm for it Agee would have reported it. Clearly, since they don’t really live in a community the prospect of supporting a pastor doesn’t arise. It’s not too difficult to imagine how, say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” might play among them.) There are also two brief appendices, opening out the range of the report. One is “On Negroes”. Introducing his material, Agee mentions this group in passing, noting its demographic significance in the sharecropper’s world, and then adding “But this is not their story”, because focusing on a black family would add the further complication of race to the psycho-economic portrait being undertaken. In many respects, though, this is their story. Blacks, too, belong to the same class as the three families spotlighted, and being regarded as such might equally be regarded as a way of overcoming the racial barrier and eliminating the tinge (inadvertent or not) of a “separate-but-equal” attitude in that introductory comment. The appendix does rectify things to some extent, though, and makes no bones about not only the particular depth of degradation to which blacks are subjected, not least “by whites who by the force of circumstance are anywhere near as low in the social scale as he”.

The second appendix deals with landowners, “the keystone” to southern social and economic reality and, you would think, an easy figure to caricature. Rather than do that, however, Agee indicates what true believers landlords are in their system, perversely “innocent” in his obliviousness to his practices and to the moral and political inertia by which these are sustained. “It is safe to say,” says Agee, “that the average landlord’s relationship with and, even, treatment of his tenants is, on the purely human and consciously moral plane, several degrees more personal and, even more just and friendly, than the relationship between, say, the average manufacturer and his employees.” And it’s not news that the intervention of the machine between master and man, and the power relations that derive from the master’s and the man’s different, or perhaps opposed, perception of the machine articulate a stark and impersonal expression of the social contract. At the same time, the degree of intimacy and complicity existing between landlord and tenant is so unquestioningly and comprehensively paternalistic – “I want to ask you what they’d do without us” is a typical landlord statement – that it too degrades the mutuality of interest on which structures of equity and justice may be established. To the landlord, the tenant is essentially no more than that, a unit in an economic set-up in which he has no say. Because he lives locally and knows the tenants by name, he can disguise with pleasantries and hand-outs the level at which the human being within the designation “tenant” is obliged to exist. He can even think of the hand-outs as well-meaning and helpful, though they are actually further occasions of indebtedness. And the whole arrangement has been consecrated to such an extent by time and usage that it needs no more than its own inertia to keep it going. Agee terms the human dimension of this inertia “intuition”, an unspoken understanding by both parties on the place each of them occupies, “so that relationships between landlord and tenant are settled and crystallized, as a rule, quietly and even inarticulately”. The social atmosphere, as a result, is tranquility that possesses “hypnotic strength” (the “sleepiness” that we know in Ireland to be the pale skin of repression and denial), the only alternative to which, according to Agee, is “terrorism”, a term that is intended to connote a response that is all the more lethal for being the only conceivable way that those in charge can conceive of continuing to have what they hold.

The strangely abusive neighbourliness, the oddity of small-time baronial feudalism that adapts or coerces market forces into the inelastic framework of socio-historical conditions, the realisation that “the intellect and the emotions are quite irrelevant to lives such as our three families are leading”, these and so many other Agee findings are undoubtedly revelatory. But there is a sense too that the author struggled with their alien character. Undoubtedly, as Adam Haslett points out in his prefatory essay “A Poet’s Brief”, Cotton Tenants is “an unapologetic attack on a hidebound class system”. And Agee certainly is obviously liberal, reform-minded, progressive (“A Communist by sympathy and conviction” indeed in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men). But seeing either book in the light of such outlooks is a reductive view that overrides the appreciation of textures and the sense of being that vivify the author’s sympathy and apprehension. And actually Haslett is quite aware that it’s more interesting to consider how the aesthetic can in itself be a political expression, a method of freeing the materials from their mere meanness and allowing them to be seen in their entirety. There’s Agee’s regular mentioning of light, for instance, as a quality that inheres in the humblest object and as a medium that can attest to that object’s integrity: “The pinewood, its grain stormplaned, stormsilvered, and sharp in the eye as razors, is lovelier than watered silk, a fact which is not appreciated by those whose bare feet smooth its floors and whose bodies revolved through living among the frail cards that it lifts against the weather.” The household doesn’t catch that sheen. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. And of course Walker Evans, too, contributes to that same ethic of envisaging and making visible.

The book’s illustrative gestures seem all the more urgent because those in the toils of the sys-tem are so yoked to their condition. This reality is perhaps the most difficult to accept, and may be the reason that Agee takes such pains to put us properly in the picture, and himself as well. Change, remedy, the lottery of life typified by the hurdy-gurdy of the urban scene, are not so much missing in Hale County as unknown. The world seems ironclad, immutable, one year discernible from another by the fate of the crop, the debt paid off or newly acquired, a child’s death, an adolescent’s marriage, the unsurprising and largely joyless round. Repetition and sameness are additional forms of poverty. The psychological consequences of such an existential regime are a kind of soul-theft, as corrosive and unremitting as the crop-devouring worms and weevils out there in the fields. It’s no wonder Agee turned to Ecclesiastes not just for the title of the big book but to register its querulous, questioning, spirit, a spirit that arises from the realisation in Cotton Tenants that “since every possibility human life holds, or may be deprived of, of value, of wholeness, or richness, of joy, of dignity, depends all but entirely upon circumstances, the circumstances are proportionately worthy of the serious attention of anyone who dares to think of himself as a civilized human being”.

From Moby Dick to 2001: A Space Odyssey, from Leaves of Grass to Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series to Angels in America, the strong pull of epic carries the American imagination along, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men –the first, and only one, of three projected volumes ‑ is certainly part of that turbulent current. It’s no surprise that the editor of Cotton Tenants calls Agee’s Alabama venture “an epic road trip”, because in many ways that is what the American epic essentially is. But more than a physical, geographical journey is in question. More often than not, it’s a journey into restlessness, a venture into displacement, emptiness, violence, difference, both a going back as well as a heading onward, one disguised as the other, often formally innovative even when the interest is in origins and essentials. It’s worth having Cotton Tenants in its own right, of course. But its publication is doubly welcome as a prelude to those larger questions that inhere in its successor’s epic scope and which Let Us Now Praise Famous Men heroically faced as “an effort in human actuality” – a quest, that is, to retrieve, to expose, to attest, and to issue a public reminder in doing so of the special qualities of citizenship that are in the artist’s gift.
4/11/2013

George O’Brien’s The Irish Novel 1960-2010 has recently been issued in paperback.

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