James Agee submitted this previously unpublished article about tenant farmers in Alabama to Fortune Magazine, where he was a staff writer, in 1936. Fortune rejected the article, for reasons unknown, and Agee expanded it into Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was published in 1941 with photographs from Walker Evans. These excerpts represent one-third of the complete text, which The Baffler will publish in its entirety.
Line them up on their front porches, their bodies archaic in their rags as farm bodies are; line them against that grained wood which is their shelter in three rude friezes, and see, one by one, who they are: the Tingles, the Fields, the Burroughs.
There are nine Tingles: Frank, Kate, Elizabeth, Flora Bee, Newton, William, Laura Minnie Lee, Sadie, and Ida Ruth. There are six more children, but they are dead. Frank Tingle is fifty-four. Crepe forehead, monkey eyebrows, slender nearly boneless nose, vermillion gums. A face pleated and lined elaborately as a Japanese mask: its skin the color of corpsemeat. He talks swiftly and continuously as you run downstairs to keep from falling down them; says most things three times over; and clowns a good deal as many sensitive and fearful people do, in self-harmful self-protection. The eyes are shifty and sometimes crazy and never quite successfully crafty: those of a frightened fox with hound blood.
Kate, the mother of thirteen, is forty-nine; delicately made; her skin creamlike where the weather has not got at it. She is smaller than several of her children. Her legs and feet, like those of most women in this country, are beautifully shaped by shoelessness on the earth. Her eyes, which are watchful not at all for herself but for her family, are those of a small animal which expects another kick as a matter of course and which is too numbed to dodge it or even much care. She calls her children my babies. They call her mama, treat her protectively as they might a deformed child, and love her carelessly and gaily. An old photograph shows her fibre and bearing as a young woman, and perhaps it is the relinquishment of that unusual spirit, under the beating and breakage of the past two decades, that has made her now the most abandoned of all these people: more than any of them, she is lost into some solitary region of her own. She is only half sane.
Mrs. Tingle prefers field work to housework, and her eldest daughters cook most of the meals and take whatever care is taken of the house.
Elizabeth is twenty, and Flora Bee is nineteen. Most girls that age are married and mothers of at least one child. Elizabeth is stocky, and strong at her work as a man: which is just as well, because she does a good deal of man’s work. Her features and especially the wry mouth and strong chin and cheeks have something already middle-aged and over-capable about them; her mouth and eyes are desperate, for she has no presentable clothes, and is of white-trash, and sees men seldom, never perhaps on terms of courtship. Flora Bee is more lightly built, a little better-clothed, a little less rooked by work, a little less desperate. She still looks all the way like a young woman. She has a great deal of intuitive graciousness. But she too is toward the age when a girl in that country is no longer thought of as marriageable: and the life of a spinster in an impoverished farm family is so ghastly that anything will do for a substitute.
There is about the younger children, about their skin and eyes and hearing and emotions, such an unsettling burn and brilliance as slow starvation can only partially explain. They are emotionally volatile as naphtha; incredibly sensitive to friendliness. You will possibly get the feeling that they carry around in them like the slow burning of sulphur a sexual precocity which their parents fail either to discern or to realize the power and meaning of: and the idea is somewhat borne out in the tone of their play together, and in the eyes of William, who is twelve, and in the wild flirtatiousness of Laura Minnie Lee, who is ten, and in the sullenness and shyness, flared across like burning sedge with exhibitionism, of Sadie, who is nine, and in the flirting even of Ida Ruth, who is four. A stranger who shows them any friendliness, they meet and surround with the superhuman, millennial sweetness of Polynesians. They sleep mixed, and casual of nakedness. Some idea of that strangeness and obliviousness of the family which has helped to land them in the fix they are in, you may get from their treatment of Ida Ruth. She is possibly the last child they will bring into living, and she is extremely delicate. She dislikes what little food they have but loves chicken and coffee. So, steadily, they have bumped off a long string of chickens to feed her, and she drinks two or three cups of black and parboiled coffee at every meal. Her eyes shine like burning oil and almost continuously she dances with drunkenness.
The Tingles have in fact lost a certain grip on living which the Fields still hold, if feebly and without much interest, and of which the Burroughs, who are a generation younger, are still tenacious. The Tingles no longer think of what life they have in terms of something in the least controllable from season to season or even from day to day: they welter on their living as on water, from one hour to the next, flashing into brief impulse, disorganized and numbed; never quite clear, for instance, who will cook the next meal, or when. Poverty caused their carelessness; their carelessness brings them deeper poverty; disease runs in among them, free as hogs in a garden: and so the intermultiplying goes on, in steady degeneration. That they have been translated into a gayety, a freedom and fearlessness with love, and a sort of sea-floor ultimacy, which the two other families do not enjoy, is definitely worth noting: it is possible to conceive of other paths to salvation which are a little better credit to civilization, and a little less ruinous of human beings.
Bud Fields, Kate Tingle’s half-brother, is fifty-nine, and prefers to say he is fifty-four. He is raising his second family. Of his first, the wife and two children are dead. Two sons work halves near Moundville; another is in a CC Camp near Bessemer. His daughter Allie Mae is married to Floyd Burroughs. His daughter Mary, eighteen, has been two years married to an elderly carpenter. Last summer they moved to Mississippi, where they will farm on halves: he couldn’t make a living in Tuscaloosa.
When Fields was fifty-one, cancer ate his wife and what money her good management had saved them into the grave. Three years after her death he married again and started farming all over, in the worst of the Depression. He married a young woman named Lily Rogers who had two common-law children by a man back in the hills. He took over one of her children, a little girl named Ruby, and they have had three more: twins, of whom one has died, and a daughter. Mrs. Fields is on her way with another child now.
Fields is slenderly built and no longer strong; a finely shaped head; pale blue eyes whose glitter, like splintered glass, is perhaps a survival of the morphine he was addicted to (and which he broke through whiskey) in the years after his wife’s death. He is easily the most intelligent of the three men, skeptical and reflective, and under other auspices would easily have become a drama critic, or at least a club wit.
His wife, Lily, comes of casual, strongly sexed, definitively poor people: a combination which automatically brings a bad reputation in that country. Her stepchildren still resent her. She seems to be unconcerned, and unhurt. She is strong as a mule and loves to plow, but her husband disapproves of women plowing.
Ruby has porcelain skin, red hair, lashless redbrown eyes. She is eight years old, observant of people, sophisticated in her deductions, sexually precocious, and deeply attached to her mother. William, who is also called Doogin, is three years old and huge for his age. The mad face of a Jewish lion cub. Deep histrionic and comic intuition and inventiveness. Lillian is a year and a half old. Silent; flesh like biscuit dough; big blank blue eyes and curly mouth set between fat cheeks. The archetypically uninteresting case of baby face.
Miss-Mary, Lily’s mother, dresses with an unusual eye for show and color; watches you out of crazy-crafty eyes, and uses language extraordinarily, calling (for instance) babies coons and chicks sings. She looks rather like a derelict member of the Cosmopolitan Club. Since her husband was killed in a crap game she has ‘made her home’ among her relatives. She is the sort of woman the children of Nice people shout after in the street.
Floyd Burroughs and Allie Mae Fields married when he was twenty and she was sixteen; about the average marrying age. They have been married eleven years and had five children: Maggie Lucile, Floyd Junior, Charles Bafford, Martha, and Othel Lee, who is called Squeaky. Martha is dead.
Floyd Burroughs is thirty-one, his features just a little exaggerated beyond that square-chiseled head which the commercial artist Leyendecker sets up as Goodlooking, his build a little stocky, his height medium. He looks bigger than he is because he stoops, as tall men do. He does not look, yet he seems, old enough to be the father of plenty of more softly bred men of his age. His eyes are a clear, ignorant and somewhat 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. He is ordinarily grave, with a ballast rather of profound unrewarded fatigue than of mentality; and gentle, not with the premeditated gentleness of the Christian but with the untraditional gentleness of a large animal. He is capable of murderous anger; and capable also of amusement, over clumsiness embarrassed by pain and over the broader kinds of sexual comedy. He likes to get drunk but can seldom afford to. Down in the creek, whenever he can get company, he swims rambunctiously, turning wild somersaults from the bank and clamping his nose in one hand as he smacks the water. His body, which would otherwise have been very conventionally handsome, is knotted into something else again by the work he was done; and his skin, alarmingly fair beyond the elbows and neck, is cratered and discolored by the food he has eaten and the vermin he has slept with.
Allie Mae is twenty-seven. She inherits the sharp, fine features and the wiry slenderness of her father’s people. In no way neurasthenic, she nevertheless takes very little interest in living. Within her natural intelligence you may discern the features of a drowned intellect. It is easier still to see the steady destruction of an all but beautiful woman; the hard, lean nature of her living has drawn the skin more closely round the bones than need be, and diet, plus the mischance of her own chemistry, has rotted the front teeth out of her upper jaw. Her arms and legs and body are not yet taken out of the shape of a slender comeliness and her walking is joyful to watch, but as she nurses her child you cannot fail to notice how shriveled and knottily veined the breast is; and her hands, when you notice them, are startling: it is as if they were a couple of sizes too large, drawn over what the keen wrists called for.
The appearance of full-blown enigma is infrequent, unexpected, and arresting; and it always deserves attention. It happens to reside in the eyes of this eldest child, Lucile, and it is doubly arresting because continuously she uses her eyes to watch into the eyes of other people, quite as calmly as death itself, and as cluelessly, too. Probably she is studying you, without either pity or unkindness, but there is no reason to be sure even of that.
Any definitive mystery is interesting to speculate over, and thoroughly useless to. These eyes, and whatever is behind them, wear a somewhat more describable creature: a wide forehead; very straight, square-bobbed blond hair that falls over the sweated face; a serene, Scandinavian cast of features, more resolute than conscious resoluteness can be; a sturdily slender, callipygous body, still childish but already subtly blown towards the new dimensions of puberty. She is ten, works in the fields, helps her mother, minds the two smaller children, goes to school, and does well there. She still swims in nothing but a pair of aged drawers, but hides her scarcely-discernable breasts within the contraction of her shoulders and upper arms; her mother still makes her dresses halfway to the hips; she is advanced in consciousness to that stage at which a child dislikes its name. Her mother and father are determined to manage it somehow so that she can go all the way through high school. She wants to be a schoolteacher, or a trained nurse.
There is a certain stain of strangeness over Junior, too, in the slantwise way he watches you, and in troubles behind the eyes deeper than he can understand: but some of that can perhaps be explained. As the first son, he is thought highly of, particularly by his father, and is pretty badly spoiled. As the second child, the young brother of a stronger and more intelligent sister, his self-esteem receives destruction and his jealousy and hatred nourishment at every turn. He compensates in abuse of his own younger and weaker brothers and of animals; and the unconsciousness of his parents allows him a leeway in this which will probably result, a decade from now, in one of the unpredictable, desperate young men the South is full of. Junior is eight.
Charles is four. If he had genius he would be fortunate, for his psychological soil is rich in fertilizing pain. Since it seems probably that he is of subnormal intelligence, his situation is merely pitiable. He is a most remarkably unnoticeable child, pale, pretty, weak, and sad. The arrival of his still younger brother forced him out of that strong position of infancy which, thanks to the continuous bullying he receives at Junior’s hands, he worse than normally needs. He cries a great deal of the time: steadily that the crying goes unnoticed, as would the habituate noise of a nearby waterfall; he indulges in baby gibberish, and shows himself capable of normal speech only under the release of marked and affectionate attention; and he is occasionally possessed of rushes of crafty violence against his infant brother, who quite certainly he hates with all his subconscious heart.
“The reason why Squeaky is so cute is he’s so little,” his aunt Mary says. He is a few months short of two years old. A year ago last summer he quit growing; that summer’s dresses still fit him tidily. Lively, clownish and amiable, shining with dwarfish vivacity, trotting around on shriveled hind quarters, he inspires sudden love in those whose crippled insides have no need to kill or torture him.
Late in August the fields begin to whiten more rarely with late blooms and more frequently with cotton and then still thicker with cotton, like a sparkling ground starlight; and the wide tremendous light holds the earth beneath a glass vacuum and a burning glass. 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. The children and once in a while a very young or a very old man are excited and eager to start picking. It is a joy that scarcely touches most men and any women, though, and it wears off in half a morning and is gone for a year.
Picking is simple and terrible work. Skill will help you; endurance will come in handy; but neither makes it a bit easier. Over your right shoulder you have slung a long sack that trails the ground. You work with both hands as fast and steadily as you can. The trick is to get the cotton between your fingertips at its very roots on the burr in all three or four or five gores at once so that it brings out clean at one pluck: an easy job with one burr in ten, where the cotton is ready to fall; with the rest, the fibres are tight and tricky. The other trick is against this thoroughness and obligation of maximum speed, not to hurt your fingers on the burrs any worse than you can help. You would have to try hard not to break your flesh on any burr: a single raindrop is only scarcely instrumental in ironing a mountain flat. An hour’s picking, your hands are just limbered up. A week, and you are favoring your fingers. The later of the three to five times over the field, the last long weeks of the season, you might be happy to swap them for boils.
Meantime, too, you are working in sunlight that stands on you with the serene weight of deep seawater, and in heat that makes your jointed and muscled and finestructured body flow like one indiscriminate oil, and the brilliant weight of heat is piled upon you heavier and heavier all the time and the eyes are masked in stinging sweat and the head perhaps is gently tossing like a private blowtorch, and less gently pulsing with ache. Also the bag that can hold a hundred pounds is filling as you drag it from plant to plant, four to nine burrs to a plant, to be rifled swiftly, then the load shrugged along another foot or two and the white row stretched ahead to a blur and innumerably multiplied by other white rows, and bolls in the cleaned row behind you already like slow popcorn in the heat and the sack still heavier and heavier, so that it pulls you back as a beast might rather than a mere dead weight.
Also, cotton plants are low, so that in this heat and immanent weight of light and the heavying sack you are dragging, you are continuously stooped over even if you are a child, and bent very deep if you are a man or a woman. A strong back is a big help, but not even the strongest back was built for that treatment, and there combine not just at the kidneys, and the roll down the thighs and up the spine and athwart the shoulders, the ticklish weakness of gruel or water, and an aching that increases in geometric progression, and at length, in the small of the spine, a literal sensation of yielding, buckling, splintering, and breakage: and all of this, even though the mercy of nature has strengthened and hardened your flesh and anaesthetized your nerves and your powers of reflection and imagination, reaches in time the brain and the more mirrorlike nerves, and thereby makes itself much worse than before.
Later in the season you are relieved of the worst of the heat. In time, you exchange it for a coolness which many pickers like even less because it slows and chills the lubricant garment of sweat they work in, and seriously slows and stiffens the by then painfully sore fingers.
The idiom has been overused but it is accurate: picking goes on each day from can’t to can’t: sometimes, if there’s a rush, the Tingles continue by moonlight. In the blasting heat of the first of the season unless there is a rush—to beat a rain, to make up a wagonload—it is customary to quit work an hour and a half and even two hours in the worst part of the day and sit or lie in the shade and possible draft of the hallway asleep or half asleep after dinner. This time off narrows as the weeks go by and a sense of rush and the wish to be done with it grow on the pickers and come through from the landlord. There are tenants who have no midday meal. Those we are speaking of have it. It is of course no parallel in heartiness and variety to the proud enormous dinners cooked up for harvest hands in the wheat country and accounted and painted with Zest, Gusto, and even Zowie by certain lovers of what they call the American Scene. It is the same everyday food, with perhaps a little less variety than in midsummer, hastily cooked by a woman who has hurried in exhausted from the fields a couple of jumps ahead of her family, and served in the dishes she rushily rinsed before she hurried out a couple of jumps behind them.
There has been a certain exaggeration about child labor in the cotton fields: essentially none, but stupid a little, and worth a word or two. The exaggerations have chalked up child labor as a crime a hundred percent against the landlord or his overseers. They—particularly the overseer—have some direct and a strong indirect part in it. But two facts the correspondents have overlooked. One is that it is customary as breathing (all farms, even the Jersiest and most Kulak you can imagine), for the children of the family to help with the work. That is part of the whole structure of any family that lives directly off the land. The other fact is that Southern farmers more strongly than others retain still the delineaments of the primitive family anywhere: a patri– or matriarchy (in the south it is patriarchal; in the American middle class it is matriarchal and on an uglier plane)—a patriarchy into which children are born unquestioning slaves until by their own physical or mental strength they free themselves.[*]
Still another fact that has nothing to do with the tenant system is that cotton requires more labor than most other crops and that the labor of your children is free. The economic skeleton of these three facts is plain as the skull on your throat and so solidly sustains the arguments of those who ignore it that it is odd indeed that they do ignore it.
However, there is certainly a line. Cross it, and the work children do most certainly becomes child labor. Every tenant family crosses it and the fact that few are aware of crossing it is irrelevant. In that country you speak of a family not as a family but as a force: and with good reason. Nothing brilliant is expected of a four-year-old but he will do a fair amount of picking along with the others; you cannot learn him too young. By the time he is seven he is no longer able to think of it, ever, as play. By the time he is twelve he has long outgrown any sense of privilege, pride, or novelty in plowing, too: and by that time if not before it is likely to seem logical as well as necessary that he quit school. All of the same goes for a girl. The baby meanwhile is lying in the field or rolling around in the white load of the woven-oak basket. A little older, say two, and he is picking his hat or his skirt full. There are sometimes shifts into gayety in the picking, or excitement—a race between the two children, a snake killed—but mostly it is silent, serious, and lonely work.
Floyd Burroughs is a very poor picker. When he was a child he fell in the fireplace and burnt the flesh off the flat of both hands, so his fingers are stiff and slow and the best he has ever done in a day is 150 pounds. Average for a man is nearer 250. 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. Allie Mae picks about the average for a woman—150 to 200 pounds a day. She is fast with her fingers until the work exhausts her. Lucile picks 150 pounds a day. Junior hasn’t yet got into his stride. Fields has been slowed down by poor health for several years now. His wife is strong and competent and her mother is still a good picker (and a vindictive hand with an axe) so in spite of having only one child old enough to be any use, they can get in the crop without hiring a hand. The Tingle boys are all right when their papa is on hand to make them work: otherwise they are likely just to clown and tease their sisters. Sadie is very quick. Summer before last, when she was just eight, she picked 110 pounds in a day in a race with Laura Minnie Lee. Last summer she was slowed up by runarounds that were losing her two nails (caused by the diet plus dirt and not much fun among the burrs) but she was picking steadily. Mrs. Tingle used to pick 300 and 350 pounds a day but sickness has slowed her to less than 200 now. It is possible that Mrs. Tingle is something of a fantasist, though, and indeed in all the above we must bear in mind the possibilities of Homeric brag: according to general publicity surrounding the Rust machine, 100 pounds a day is good picking.
Commonly, cotton is stored in a small structure in the field, the cotton house. None of these three families has one. The Burroughs store in one of their outbuildings; the Fields on their front porch, raising planks around it; the Tingles in their spare room.
Children enjoy playing in it, tumbling, jumping, diving, burying each other; sometimes they sleep in it, as a sort of treat. Rats like it too, to make nests in, and that draws ratsnakes. When the home scales have weighed out fourteen hundred pounds of cotton it is loaded on the high-boarded wagon and taken to gin. A man is “free” to take his cotton to whatever gin he pleases but that means generally the gin his landlord owns or has an interest in. The same goes for what store you trade at. Over and over again you hear tenants say, innocently enough too, that there’s never no use gitting a man agin ya.
The children take turns riding in, bale by bale and year by year: they are likely to be cleaned up as for Saturday afternoon, and they are happy and excited. And there is for that matter a happiness and excitement, and a raw, festal quality about it, this one of the tremendous slow parade of muledrawn, crawling wagons, creaking under the year’s bloodsweated and prayed-over work, on all roads drawn in, from the slender red roads of all the South and onto the Southern highways, a wagon every few hundred yards, crested now with a white and now with a black family, all towards these little trembling lodes that are the gins, and all and in each private heart towards that climax of one more year’s work which yields so little at best, and nothing so often, and worse to so many hundreds of thousands.
The gin, too, the wagons in line, the people waiting on the wagons, the suspendered whiteshirted men on the platform, the emblematic sweep of the greatshouldered iron beam scales cradling gently in the dark doorway, the insignia of justice, the landlords in their shirtsleeves at the gin or relaxed in swivels beside the painted safes in their little offices, the leafers drawn there to have their batteries recharged with the vicarious violence that is in process in the bare and weedy outskirts of the bare and brutal town—all that also in its hard, slack, sullen way, is dancelike and triumphal. The big blank surfaces of ribbed tin, bright and sick as gas in the sunlight, square their darkness round a shuddering racket that is a mystery to these we speak of.
All it means to a tenant is this: he gets his ticket and his bale number; waits his turn in line; drives under as they rise the ginhead; they let him down the suction pipe; he cradles its voracity down through the crest and round and round his stack of cotton till the last lint has leapt up from the wagonbed. Wandering loose out back, his son may happen upon the tin and ghostly interior of the seed shed, against whose roof and rafters a pipe extends a steady sleet of seed and upon all whose interior surfaces and all the air, a dry nightmare fleece trembles like the fake snows of Christmas movies. Out in front he can see the last of the cotton snowlike relaxing in pulses down a space of dark into the compress.
The bale is lifted like a Roxy organ, the presses unlatched, numbered brass tag attached, the ties fastened: it hangs in the light breathing of the scales. A little is slivered from it; the staple length is taken. (Of the type raised in this vicinity it is seven-eighths of an inch to an inch.) The ginning charge per scale varies a little; hangs around $4. On anything exceeding 550 pounds there is an extra charge of a cent a pound; for this overweight strains the press. There are plenty of buyers on hand, ranging between Vergil Davis who clerks in the town’s biggest general store (the Moundville Mercantile, popularly known as Davis’s) through leg men for Southern mills. A half-cropper has little to say about the sales; a renter a fair amount. The cotton may be sold right off the platform; and may wait on, for better prices, late into December. If it waits it may be stored in the Government warehouse; it may be left outdoors. Alone among Moundville landlords the Tidmore brothers have a warehouse of their own, and they charge their tenants no storage. The tenant gets nothing on his cotton until settling-up time, at the end of the season; the landlord’s first cotton-money by invariable custom pays off his fertilizer bill. What the tenant does get bale by bale is the money on his share of the cottonseed, on which his living depends. A landlord sometimes makes a joking feint of withholding that money against outstanding debts and, somewhat less often, carries out the joke. But generally the tenant’s business of that day ends as he leaves his landlord with six dollars or so in his pocket. The exodus from town is even more formal than the parade in was. It has taken almost exactly eighteen minutes to gin each bale (once the waiting was over), and each tenant has done almost exactly the same amount of business afterward; and the tenants’ empty, light-grinding wagons are distributed along the roads in a likewise exact conjunction of time and space apart: the time consumed by ginning plays business; the space apart which, in that time, any mule traverses at his classic somnambulist pace. It is as if the people drawn in full and sucked dry were restored, sown at large upon the breadth of their country, precisely as by some impersonal mechanic hand.
That happens as many times as you have picked a bale; the field is gone over three to five times; the height of the ginning season, when wagons are on the road before the least crack of daylight and the gin is still racketing after dark, is in early October. After this comes hog-killing; and the milling of the corn and sorghum you have planted to come ready late; and specific consideration of whether or not to move to another man; the sky descends; the air becomes like dark glass; the ground hardened; the clay honeycombs with frost; the odors of pork and woodsmoke sharpen all over the country; and winter is on.
Possibly the most important thing to a human being, once he is alive and possessed of the means of sustaining life, is that he should do the work he cares most to do and is best capable of doing. If there is anything else of quite such importance to him (always barring the Higher Affections) it would fall under the head of Leisure, and how best to use and enjoy it. Every detail of circumstance and nearly every detail of so-called education reduces freedom in choice of occupation to an all but nonexistent margin, for people such as the Burroughs. Thanks to the same circumstances and education they have about the least chance imaginable of so much as dreaming what work they would be capable of, and would best like to do, if any breadth of choice were possible. It is therefore comfortable to realize that they have, anyhow, a great deal of leisure. Six months of the year there is little farm work to do; every Saturday, except in a rush, work stops at noon and everyone goes to Moundville; Sunday is always a day of rest, and often even during work time, as we have seen, there are eases in the day.
But when we say leisure we are thinking of all social relations, and of the enjoyment of life. We would be the first to admit that taking America by the leisure of its people is, if anything, more grim than the work, but our subject here is the leisure of the tenant farmer: a subject difficult to write of journalistically, since it is so nearly an abstraction.
There are virtually none of the narcotics to which almost any more prosperous class is addicted. There are very, very few newspapers or magazines. What there are, are saved. The covers and pretty pictures are pasted on the walls; the children save and look at the comic sections over and over. Frank Tingle alone among them enjoys reading. He reads pulps, when he gets them, from kiver to kiver, and he sometimes reads a copy of the Progressive Farmer. Some years back, Floyd bought a fifty-dollar Grafanola on the installment plan. (Judging by the music played at five and ten counters in the county seats, the white preference is for sweet as against hot, disliked as nigger music, and still more for whines like Lonely Days in Texas.) There are no radios. There are few cars, and they are invariably Model-Ts. None of them has the famous rustic pleasure of hewing closely to the Party Line. The infiltration of all that has to do with the outside world is slow, verbal, and distorted in transit.
Perhaps we may as well mention here what we lately referred to as the Higher Affections. It is almost but not quite safe to say that there is no such thing in that vicinity except, occasionally, in the phases of courtship and the early phases of marriage. We must make these qualifications. The Tingles, much more cut off from people than the others (by their “lowness” in the scale) appear to have an actual and active, mutual and fully distributed affection at least and sometimes love for each other. Fields and his wife, though he refers to her in her presence as this-woman-here, show signs of really enjoying each other. Mrs. Burroughs is very fond of her father and of her sister Mary, proud and fond of her daughter, and devoted to her youngest child as if he were the only thing that kept her alive, which perhaps he is. Floyd is fond and proud of his eldest son. But lovelessness is nevertheless overwhelmingly the impression you would get, and your impression would be confirmed in detail in the course of time. You can find the same, you may say, almost anywhere you look. We say only that the chances for good are at their slenderest in contexts such as we are here speaking of.
Friend is a word you will hear seldom, too. People don’t have friends: they have kinfolks, and neighbors, and former neighbors, and acquaintances, many of whom they would without reflection make great efforts and sacrifices for; they get along with them more or less amiably.
The habitual expression of face and of gesture is serious, slow, and somewhat sad.
Children play routine games of marbles, crack-the-whip, hide-and-seek. There are also spontaneous games with dogs. A solitary such as Charles makes up gibberish by the hour that shows an idiot genius for rhythmic variety. Older children begin to show the painful restiveness of a maturing mind that has nothing to mature on, and of a sexual hunger that has no way to feed itself. The leisures of adolescence are particularly disturbing to watch; and their power alone to bore to frenzy would explain early marriages if nothing else did.
The social relations among the three families are limited. During easy parts of weekdays Mrs. Fields, with her children in tow, may visit Mrs. Burroughs, or vice versa, and they sit on the porch and drawl at each other. When the men are at work away from home, or looking for work, they have a somewhat richer social exchange than this: more people are seen in more variety; there is a loosening of tongues under the sunlight and a searching in the reflection of a morning’s events during a lunch period.
At home, most of the family talk is during meals. There is just the hard substance of the day and direct future in it. Junior went out to the cotton house and there was a ratsnake jist a-dabbin at him, or, that black kitten went and had fits and he died. The children, especially the little girls, sometimes spend overnight together: and the presence of a guest cheers everyone a good deal, though usually the pleasure is scarcely articulate. Very occasionally whole families will visit each other overnight. There was a good time two years ago the Burroughs still like to remember, when Bud was still living over in the swamp and his daughter Mary was home (one of the two times she has left her husband for good.) They all went over and all of them but Allie Mae and Lily got drunk. Mary, she was just sloppy-drunk, she was so drunk she didn’t know she was in the world. That same sort of party mixed with non-relatives and with a fiddle and dancing added, is called a frolic. Frolics are not frequent among the white people, even when a good many of them live near together, and out this lonesome road none of the families has been on one for years. Thanksgiving and Christmas and Fourth of July are always big times. Last Fourth of July all the white people out that road had a picnic, and it was a good time for everyone until Mr. Peoples’s nineteen-year-old idiot epileptic son throwed a fit and spoiled the fun.
It must be remembered of course that the six months of nominal leisure are somewhat qualified: they offer the derelict leisure of unemployment.
The two big leisure days, dependably, each week, are Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, everyone goes to Moundville.
Whether Moundville need be “described” is a problem. It is a town on the small side of small and the mean (not tough, just mean) side of mean. Such towns have been nailed into the reading lobe of the American brain perhaps beyond need of further hammering. Barring church, however, it offers the people we are speaking of their total experience of what social students like to call communal life: it is market place and metropolis to them and to miles of countryside. Moreover, it is that swatch of civilization which people of that countryside directly support: for nearly everyone—that is, Everyone—in town owns at least a little piece of land, and most landowners have some business interest in Moundville. So perhaps a few notes are in order.
Population around 500. Autoplates bearing the legend: “Heart of the Cotton Belt.” A quarter of a mile off a State Highway. Hard by the biggest Mounds in Alabama, within which are the bones of diminutive Mongolians 3,500 years dead, now being exhumed at bargain cost by the boys in CCC Camp Baltsell. Served by the Southern Railway. Three big corrugated tin gins owned and operated by combines of landowners. Low tin shed: cotton warehouses. A planing mill run by Joseph Mills, who has been prematurely logging in the vicinity for the past fifteen years and for whom Floyd and Tingle work. Mrs. Wiggins’s Hotel and Café. Out front, a Negress jouncing the Wiggin baby in an elastic swing or, of a Saturday afternoon, middle-class (but not quite Class) housewives in clean best ginghams, watching the crowd, commenting, pulling their dresses loose from their skins. Two drug stores, run by the town’s two senior doctors, serving gigantic quantities of Coca Cola and selling sadistic pulps to the men, ovarian pulps to the women, and patent medicines to all comers. Three general stores owned by the landowners in combine, their wares general as only the wares of southern country stores can be. A Yellow Front store, one of a chain, specializing in groceries. A hardware store. A filling station. (Others out at the highway.) A mule market. A biggish new clean brick church with saintless windows that resemble an amalgam of oysters in need of fresh air: a landowners’ church: Methodis or Babtis, what difference does it make. The homes of landowners: squarebuilt, in fair trim, set in bushy lawns on which are wooden animals; graded down to muggy houses which, if women, would not have shaved their underarms. Nothing Greek-revival. A colossally filthy, or in fairer words perfectly ordinary, Niggertown.
Saturdays: On the depot platform and the porch of the refrigerator shed lounge two identical groups: town boys of fifteen to twenty in the light pants, light shirt and eyeshade or new straw which make the uniform of their kind and class; twitching with curbed sexuality and a less curbed violence: tinder for every crime from the seduction of Negresses to lynching. In front of the hotel: the fat-sterned mamas of the hamlet, sweating their sour cosmetics into dough. At the curbs enjoying curb service, or coursing the two blocks of business street quietly, over and over, in daddy’s chivrolet coach, daughters of the landed gentry, girls who can only be described as bitchy. In the stores or threading the walks: the landowners and merchants, shirtsleeved, hatted, sweating with extreme busyness or taking time off for a stroll and a dope. In vacant grounds behind the low buildings, crowded and silent, the empty wagons, the mules twitching their hides against the flies. In the stores and on the walks and all over the streets: the tremendous shy and nearly silent swarm of whites and of negroes drawn in out of the slow and laborious depths of the country, along the withered vine of their red roadsteads and along the sedanswept blue slags of highway, on mule, on mule-drawn wagon and by foot hanging together, each family, like filings delicately aligned by a hidden magnet, doing their scraps of trading, meeting acquaintances and relatives otherwise seldom seen, and jawing a little, with no demonstration even of pleasure, far less of fake effusiveness; shy even here and even here a little stunned by the urbanity of it all: alien to it: not at all of it: looked down on, a little contemptuously, by it: threaded steadily by a man upon whose belt-sustained overdose of bowels perches, toylike yet businesslike, a pistol in a black holster.
Among all these are the Burroughs and the Fields and a quota and sometimes all of the Tingles: They have come in crowded in one wagon, usually Tingle’s. They buy their lard and flour and light groceries and, if there is money left, some gingersnaps or some peanut-shaped, banana-flavored candy for the children; or a couple of yards of printed cotton: or, very occasionally, the men will sneak into a blind tiger and buy half a pint of corn, which they drink swiftly in the blinding heat and under whose influence their conduct is unpredictable. (They have a sense of guilt about drinking and consequently a viciously kiddish sense of joy about it; though they drink far less badly than the acned young men on the depot platform.)
Once in a great while a movie is shown on Saturday, in the Moundville School. That is all that need be said, because few of the parents and none of the children we are speaking of have ever seen one. Of course to many tenants, near the next bigger size of town, movies are less unfamiliar. Their Saturday fare may as well be mentioned, then: A Western always; a serial imitative of the adventures of Tarzan; a short comedy or musical about middle-class city life or Times Square. Occasionally a problem drama about the difficulties of being rich and looking like Miriam Hopkins, or a comedy of manners with dialogue which is a bad imitation at fourth remove of the dialogue of Philip Barry.
Every so often, Gypsies come through. It causes a certain amount of interest out in the country because they are mistaken for Injuns. Last summer a merry-go-round (pronounced with the accent on go) set up in the vacant lot next to the combined mayor’s office and jail: beautifully sculpted horses painted in delirious colors; good primitive oils concealing the core of machinery; a jim crow sign in gold letters on red; mechanized Wurlitzer horns gaily blowing tunes of fifteen years old. Burroughs and Tingle got drunk and took rides. (Many adult Negroes, perfectly sober, rode too.) Maybe there will be another one next summer. There is one running all the time up in Tuscaloosa but that is so far off (twenty-five miles) that, for instance none of the Burroughs children had ever seen it until last summer.
Sunday is the day of rest. Children are welcome to play, and sometimes a man gets quietly drunk, but it is a day of rest. People go to church some, less regularly perhaps than you might think, and pay each other visits, kin-to-kin mostly. A chicken is killed, in honor. While the women are fixing it and getting dinner ready, the men sit on the porch and talk or smoke or chew; the little girls retire into a lowvoiced and mysterious semi-privacy; the boys jab at the dirt with sticks or knives. While the men are eating dinner, the women wait on them and brush flies away. While the women and children are eating, the men sit and talk. Later they get up and go quietly around the fields, or examine a bee-gum, or lean over the rail of a hogpen. The women drift away in pairs, or with a child, into the woods, and come back quietly to sit on the porch and talk. When the men come back and take the chairs they go in and sit on the bed. There is no point in recording the talk. It is endless, unhurried, unembarrassed by silence, of neighbors, crops, stock, sickness, cooking, scandal, hunting, death, fortune, misfortune, types of fertilizer, a leaking roof, government jobs, the chance of a job, childbearing, the weather, all depending on the sex of the talkers and the length of distance and time they have been apart. There is very little communication between the women and the men.
Somewhat unusually isolated, these three families have less “company” than the average. Bud Fields sees his two sons fairly often; Burroughs, his mother and a sister in Moundville on Saturdays (she is married to Fields’s son Edward); Tingle, less often, his brother, who lives four miles back of them out the road: but the radius is small, and seldom exceeded.
There aren’t enough white people in the neighborhood to support a church, so these three families are deprived of what in another place would be the only full-blown social spiritual and esthetic event in their lives. The meetings in deep country go on for hours and intensify, during the dead weeks before picking, into revivals.
So they make it up the best way they can. Up till the year before last they held meetings in Tingle’s home, in the spare room where he stores his cotton. Everyone looked forward to the meetings and everyone came, including a number of tough and scornful outsiders. As time wore on the meetings got too rough. Finally the Tidmores gave them permission to use an abandoned one-room nigger-shack a little piece down the road. For no reason that anyone understands, there has been no trouble since.
The meetings are held Wednesday and Friday evenings except when work is at a rush, and every Sunday right after early dinner. No one specially regrets missing a weeknight meeting, but everyone looks forward to the Sundays except Fields, who is “not a religious man.” None of them are especially religious for that matter, except over the weather and in fear of death, but they would all be deeply shocked if you expressed any doubt about the existence and nature of God; they care a great deal about the singing and, to a person who has nothing on earth and is done with hoping, it is an obvious and, when necessary, a profound and cathartic comfort to be sure that in the long run all is for the best and the poor man will be taken care of. They are of different sects but the depth of country and tradition makes them all much alike in action and tone. These meetings are non-sectarian, and it causes no one any apparent discomfort.
After a certain amount of preliminary singing, Tingle or a neighbor named Peoples asks each person present to quote a verse of the Bible. “TheLordgivethandtheLordhathtakenaway blessedbethenameoftheLord.” One child said “Let not your heart be troubled” (a favorite verse); the next said “Jesus wept”: and well he might.
After that the leader reads a chapter from the New Testament and expounds it, verse by verse; and after that the singing resumes in good earnest, everyone crowded behind the torn forty year-old hymnal. The hymns are of the Moody-Sankey tradition crossed with the subtler and more swinging intervals and rhythms of the Southern poor whites. They are sung with violence by the leaders; hummed or growled by the more shy. The leaders are Frank Tingle and his two eldest daughters. Tingle picked up sight-reading in one night at singing-school and has a somewhat fallible talent for harmony and improvisation. His voice is a loud bugling bay and it brackets the whole male register. His daughters, who have learned the tunes and most of the words by heart, strain and tighten their naturally pleasant voices continually, in hopeless competition with him. They are expert and responsible in starting off the new verse the instant the old one is done with. His two boys likewise break their unchanged throats. His two smaller girls sing slenderly like violins, and fall into silences of shyness over the sound of their own voices. All the hymns are long, five and six verses plus chorus; they all have a pitch and roll to them; the words are emotional, full of guilt, self-pity, and the certitude of ultimate love and rest: and wiry and shrill and lacking in the massiveness it needs, the singing nevertheless achieves the beginnings of its purpose. Nearly everyone gets warmed up and sings louder, the lilt and swing and improvisation become less inhibited, and a kind of ticklish, intensely sexual laughter and triumph begins to work at the mouth and to shine on the eyes.
Only it never quite breaks loose even from the shame that poisons it, and it leaves them shy or masklike or concealing in jokes.
People come in and go out as they like; smoke at the doorway. There is no formal end to the service. The children and men drift out, then the wives: for the last half hour only Tingle and his two girls and Mrs. Tingle (moved, serious and nearly silent in her deep black) are left in the shack.
It is seldom they have a sermon. A year ago last fall a Nazarene preacher named Mr. Eddie Sellers, from up above Tuscaloosa, preached them two in successive days, and taught them a new hymn he had written. He really satisfied them, and they still remember him with deep gratitude.
[*] Deeper in the Southern mountains these lines are proportionally more sternly drawn. Southerners of twenty years back can remember vividly how, along the millhouse streets, deep country couples who had raised a brood to working age and brought them to market sat on their sterns on porch after porch while their children, at the spindles, brought in the bacon or, rather, sowbelly.