James Agee, a poet that graduated from Harvard University, was never to witness his account “Cotton Tenants” finally published three years ago. As a reporter for Fortune magazine in 1936 (in the midst of the Great Depression), he was recruited to stay with sharecroppers for eight weeks and record how they worked and lived. Accompanied by the photographer Walker Evans, their assignment lead to Agee’s book “Let Us Know Praise Famous Men.” Before the book was published however, Agee submitted the “Cotton Tenants” essay to Fortune magazine. His document was a richly detailed account of the daily lives of three sharecropping families accompanied by Walker’s photographs. The article was originally rejected and not published until 2013.
Having lived with and been in close contact with these three families, Agee’s account is surprisingly distant in style. He writes as if he is a fly on the wall. His tone is neutral and the content is rich descriptions of the families. The text is divided into chapters that focus on different aspects of their lives: business, education, shelter, leisure, clothes, and so on. It’s as if he was a researcher studying the behaviors of a unique species.
Despite Agee’s lush detail of aesthetics, there are several aspects of the southern sharecropper experience that he left out. One notable omission from his account is dialogue. It is clear that Agee is trying to take a neutral stance and avoid bias or sounding political or condescending, which could explain this decision. Another is not addressing the experience of freed slaves-now sharecroppers. However, he does address in the introduction that to write of the African American experience during this time would mean a whole new book entirely.
Although it is clear that Agee desperately seeks to remain neutral in his account, the descriptions of poverty, child labor, and the squalor the tenants lived in make it impossible for the reader to not feel a sense of empathy for the family. Despite avoiding political activism, “Cotton Tenants” manages to expose the dire state white sharecroppers were caught in. As readers, we can’t hear the stories the families tell, but we get an almost voyeuristic look into the exact layout of their houses, down to the oil-stained tablecloths where they gather for dinner. We can almost taste the grimy lard soaked sorghum that most of their meals consist of. We can almost feel callouses develop on our hands as we learn the grueling labor of picking cotton. We aren’t let in on the conversations, but Agee stimulates the other senses with such attention to detail that the reader is left saturated with the sharecropper’s experiences. Agee doesn’t tell, he shows, which makes him an effective storyteller and this account an overall insightful and engaging account.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars