Book Review Thursday: Cotton Tenants by James Agee

cotton tenantsThis book was published over fifty years after author James Agee’s death.  In 2003 the manuscript was discovered by his daughter in his Greenwich Village home.

In 1936, Agee worked for Fortune Magazine and had been assigned the task of writing a piece about sharecropper families in the Deep South.  He and photographer Walker Evans spent about a month living with and observing three cotton tenant families.  Ultimately, Agee’s 30,000 word essay was rejected by the magazine and was never published, until now.

However, eventually Agee’s findings from his original article assignment were published in a book called “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941).  “Cotton Tenants” could be considered just his scribblings and notes or just a magazine article, but that would be an injustice.

First of all, this was a serious subject.  The three subjects of the original article – Floyd Burroughs, Bud Fields and Frank Tingle and their families — lived in abject poverty.  That might seem a depressing subject, but the first thing that came to my mind as I began reading the book was that this manuscript wasn’t mere words but prose – poetic and lyrical almost.  James Agee connected with these familes.

From Chapter 1 Business:

‘I’d be askeered to move any fur place frm Maounvul: I don’t know how I’d live.  You see I’m knowed there.’  All three families have moved around some; but none of them as ever moved beyond call of Moundville… The most money he [Burroughs] ever cleared was $140, in the flow-under year.  He made seven bales, more than twice his average, which is around three, and they sold at twelve cents a pound, and he got $25 from the Government on the bale he plowed under.

…. And one good reason they have children thick and fast is that the children are badly needed to help in the fields… Tingle quit voting when the Prohibition went through.  Fields pays his poll tax… He votes only when there is a Republican to vote for…

… 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… But you get up into the poorest levels of the middle class before you run into anyone who will insist that Rowsavelt has done a lot for the poor man….

Fields does, though, know who the President is.  The name is Rosenfelt.  He has nothing agin him but he wouldn’t talk to him, because he is a highfalutin man.  Fields is easily the best-informed and most naturally intelligent of the three.

From Chapter 2 Shelter:

There is no backhouse.  Out to the left of the house, where summer cotton offers concealment, there is a specifically fertile patch on which Burroughs did not bother to waste professional fertilizer.  Jokes about mail order catalogues are not in order, because people with so little money do not order by mail.  They buy what they can when they can at the local stores, and for sanitary purposes they use leaves, sticks and corncobs.

From Chapter 3 Food:

Next day, breakfast is this: black coffee, fried eggs, hot biscuit, butter, fry, sorghum; buttermilk for the children.  Dinner is this: peas, cornbread, sorghum.  Some one of a half dozen vegetables; buttermilk for the children.  Supper is this: dinner warmed over, plus maybe meat, plus maybe another vegetable; buttermilk for the children.  The day after that, breakfast is just the same.  So is dinner.  So is supper.

From Chapter 4 Clothing:

Burroughs will be wearing overalls, pronounced overhalls, and a blue workshirt.  Heavy shoes if he is at work; none if he is resting…. He has three or four changes of work clothes, and puts on a clean outfit every Monday morning or Saturday noon.  They are in several stages of wear: none of them are new, and won’t be till fall, when and if there is money…

…. Saturday morning if there is time, and if not, then certainly on Sunday, Burroughs shaves.  When he is unemployed he shaves twice a week.  His equipment is a brokenhandled mug with rosebuds wreathing it, a sliver of toilet soap, a rundown tencent varnish brush, a straight razor, a strop made of an old belt, and a clear cheap mirror in a wire frame.  Like all country men, he looks bashful and naked after he has shaved.

From Chapter 5 Work:

Meantime there are enemies.  Bitterweed, ragweed, Johnsongrass; the weevil, the army worm; the slippery chances of the sky…. Army worms are devils.  The biggest of them are the size of your little finger.  They eat leaves and squares and young bolls.  You get a light crop of them at first.  They web up in the leaves and become flies; the flies lay eggs; the eggs become army worms by the million and you can hear the rustling of their eating like a brushfire ….

…. It isn’t therefore at all surprising that the religious faith of tenants is clearest and deepest in their prayers for a good season (a good rain) or for sunlight: weather is the least controllable essential in their uncontrollable lives.

From Chapter 6 Picking Season:

The bolls are rusty green, are bronze, are split and burst and splayed open in a loose vomit of cotton.  The split bolls are now burrs, hard and edged as chiseled wood, pointed as thorns, three-, four-, and five-celled.  There is a great deal of beauty about a single burr and the cotton slobbering from it and about a whole field opening…. Picking is simple and terrible work.  Skill will help you; endurance will come in handy; but neither makes it a bit easier…..

…. [Floyd Burroughs] His back hurts him badly, too, so he usually picks on his knees, the way other pickers rest; and a man walking on his knees down a white shudder of heat is something for painters of peasants to look into.

Chapter 9 Health:

How late in her pregnancy a woman works around the house and in the fields and how soon she gets back to work again depends on her health and how much grit she has… A granny-woman charges five dollars for delivery, a doctor twenty-five.  The Burroughses are flat-footed in their preference for doctors.  The Fieldses and Tingles have used both: which, depending on haste, state of mind, and the willingness to take on the debt…..

The best thing to break a chill is quinine.  Three Sixes is good, too, and if you haven’t got the money for quinine or 666 there is bitterweed:  make a tea of nine of the yellow flowers and drink it …. There are three kinds of chill, the dumb chill, the shaking chill, and the congestive chill.  The dumb chill is the mildest; that’s what you generally get…..

…. (Williams Fields’s abnormal size must be due to the same glandular disequilibrium which produces half the sheriffs you will see in the South.)….

…. [in regards to home remedies] heart leaves for heart trouble, blacksnake root for chills; cottonseed poultices for head pains; snuff poultices for pneumonia; rattlesnake grease or polecat oil for rheumatism (but best of all for that is alligator grease)….

…. Ordinarily people do not travel far during their lifetime; but they move, and abandon, often enough so that there is scarcely more feeling for the dead than for the land they have farmed or the homes they have lived in.

I wondered why the essay was rejected by the magazine.  Editors have the final vote about whether an article is published.  Perhaps the original article for Fortune Magazine was rejected because it wasn’t merely a report – maybe the editors realized that Agee had actually been deeply affected by the lives of the three tenant families – maybe they were looking for something more objective and less subjective.  Perhaps the story he wrote was convicting in a way and something that a magazine named “Fortune Magazine” just didn’t want to acknowledge.

Whatever the reason for its first rejection, I’m happy that his daughter found the manuscript and published it.  Included in the book are several of Walter Evans’ stunning photographs.  A wonderful book with a deep and thoughtful insight into the lives of hard-working cotton tenants of Moundville, Alabama.

Rating:  ★★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2013.


1 Comment

  1. Good story…


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