(nb: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss)
“Cotton Tenants: Three Families” takes us inside the backbreaking work and soul-breaking poverty of three tenant farmers in 1936 rural Alabama. It is hard to read without a sense of incredulity that people actually lived like this from generation to generation. This is the kind of book that indelibly impresses itself on your soul.
In 1936, Fortune magazine sent staff writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans to report how the rural Southern poor lived. That the assignment came from Fortune magazine during the Great Depression beggars logic: why would a magazine devoted to wealthy capitalists commission an in-depth story about the rural poor? Was it a “there but for the Grace of God go I” sort of thing? Or more Schadenfreude, an arrogant amusement?
The question is moot, since Fortune killed the story unpublished. The results are awful and spectacular.
The awful part is how these families live. The three families in “Cotton Tenants” are the Burroughs, Tingle, and Fields clans. For three months in 1936, Agee and Evans followed them. No doubt, these two well-fed New Yorkers found the tenant farmers’ world as foreign as if they’d stepped off a boat in New Guinea. These families live in a harsh, largely joyless world. The women and children often wear clothing made from burlap flour sacks; one young boy has no shoes, and walks to school with rags tied around his feet to protect him from the cold.
Babies in cotton country had an appalling mortality rate–one family alone lost seven children. There was no Gerber baby food or nutritious formulas and cereals. Babies frequently ate bread crusts soaked in buttermilk. When the mothers nursed, their own malnutrition and nearly constant illness reduced the quality of their milk.
Sickness was common, too: diseases from malaria to hookworms to maladies so unique to the rural poor that most of us have never heard of them plagued these families. Their water came from springs of spurious quality; their food was mostly lard-based biscuits and cornbread, supplemented with sorghum, salt pork, vegetables from their dusty gardens, and fried eggs for breakfast.
During the laborious harvest, one family stored their cotton in an unused bedroom (there were massive gaps under the eaves and in the walls, rendering it useless to sleep in most of the year). As a treat, the smaller children were sometimes allowed to sleep in the cotton piles. Rats also built nests in the cotton, which led to rat snakes joining the party.
The spectacular part of this book comes from James Agee’s evocative prose, augmented by Walker Evans’s stark black & white photographs. How an award-winning poet like James Agee ended up writing for Fortune magazine, I’ll never know, but thank the book gods he did, if only for this assignment. This book’s tone is sparer than the duo’s legendary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, one of the Twentieth Century’s most-celebrated works. Both books are based on this extended visit, however “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” featured Agee’s more poetic and sensual voice. “Cotton Tenants” gains much of its power from Agee’s more detached, factual writing. The dry images of filthy, dreary life strike at the soul, with occasional lush descriptions of a chance beautiful moment offering reassurance.
Walker Evans’s photographs capture haunted faces and derelict houses. One lovely young girl’s picture stuck with me. She’s looking into the camera with sadness and distrust in her eyes. She and her clothes are filthy, but her hands seem to belong to a different body. Huge and worn, they are a hard-woman’s hands attached to a little girl’s wrists. Evans shows us the tiny bedrooms and cast-off furniture inside these shacks, and immortalizes the sad faces of children and adults, even sad looking animals.
I read the sprawling and lovely “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” for a college literature class. “Cotton Tenants” describes the same world, only with blunter verbiage. As a writer, Agee’s unique gift lay in his rich, sensual descriptions of the commonplace. His tone here is more matter-of-fact than usual, almost like a 1930’s newsreel narrator. Both books are brilliant. “Cotton Tenants,” though, feels more disturbing, because most of Agee’s sentences are simple declarative statements: these families are mind-bogglingly poor. Working that hard for next to nothing is horrible. Their lives are horrible, and their kids’ lives will probably be equally horrible.
To adapt that simpler structure to this review…
James Agee’s restrained but affectionate narrative puts us into a world that few modern Americans will ever know. Walker Evans locks images of this world into our minds with his amazing, almost-too-clear-for-comfort photographs.
Finally, “Cotton Tenants” is a book you will have a hard time forgetting.
Most Highly Recommended.