Agee's Cotton Tenants
Reading James Agee's Cotton Tenants: Three Families (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2013) tempts one to sink into a past that is the present and to allow this book to magnify the finer elements of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). The latter is Agee's great achievement. It exposes the vexed morality of his art and confirms that invading the privacy of another human being falls a yard short of being a virtue. Invasions Agee undertook to fulfill an assignment from Fortune magazine in summer 1936, with Walker Evans in tow as "counter-spy, traveling as a photographer," to investigate white tenant farming in Alabama ----those invasions hit the ground with a violent thud.
The sound reverberates unto today. Consider the quality of guilt and judgment in Agee's accomplished prose: "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 continuance. And a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only…."(Cotton Tenants 34). The vexed, formulaic morality screams from the page. Is Agee speaking of American civilization? Of American citizens who live in 2016? There is amorality afoot here. In according serious attention to human life, Agee secured his self-condemnation.
In his 1960 foreword for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans confessed that "Agee's rebellion was unquenchable, self-damaging, deeply principled, infinitely costly, and ultimately priceless." Note well the superlatives. There is a hint in such characterization of a major difference between William Faulkner and Agee as Southern modernist writers. Faulkner so desperately yearned to be a man of quality. Agee was a man who possessed qualities. Note the abyss between having and yearning to have, between exposing social amorality and hiding behind it. Noting the difference allows one to discriminate judiciously between writers of merit who have something of value yet to say to contemporary readers.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men concludes with a poem wherein Agee indicated "our fathers that begat us" were as worthy of remembering as the famous who are remembered in official histories. And in Cotton Tenants, the report Fortune magazine refused to publish in 1936, Agee had the courage to suggest
"There is in Southern white man, distributed almost as thickly as the dialect, an epidemic capability of sadism which you would have to go as far to match and whose chief basis is possibly, but only possibly, and only one among many, a fear of the Negro, deeper and more terrible than any brief accounting can suggest or explain. This flaw of sadism can turn its victims loose into extremities which the gaudiest report have only begun to suggest ." (223-234)
This infamous fear was magnificently depicted in Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, and there is some profit in seeing Agee as one of Melville's heirs. Doing so, however, inspires existential dread. The cotton tenants Agee so ruthlessly depicted in 1936 may have reproduced themselves as the classless Americans of 2016, who are "as oblivious of country and state as of national politics" (49). Dread comes home to roost. The cotton tenants of now are not merely Southern; they are "the people" --- all of them ---whom Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump so assiduously seek to bamboozle and ensnare.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. August 18, 2016