From The Archive
James Agee
No. 23  August 2013

Landowners

  

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An excerpt from James Agee’s Cotton Tenants (1936), published by Melville House and The Baffler.

The essential structure of the South is, of course, economic: cold and inevitable
as the laws of chemistry. But that is not how the machine is run. The machine is run on intuition, and the structures of intuition are delicate and subtle as they can be only in a society which is not merely one thing but two: a dizzy mixture of feudalism and of capitalism in its latter stages.

Moreover, everyone born in the South, and no one born outside it, has a nose for this intensely specialized chemistry of local intuition: so that relationships between landlord and tenants are settled and crystallized, as a rule, quietly and even inarticulately. A tenant knows to a hair’s breadth just when and where he is out of line and just how to get back on it. Usually he does get back on it, and there is no further “trouble.” If he doesn’t, there is the whole natural system of boycott. And if these things fail there is, quite naturally, violence.

Because so much goes by intuition and the power of custom, and because the trap the tenant is caught in is not only as huge as the structure of his civilization but as intimate as every breath he draws, the general inter-class tone or taste of air in the South is peculiarly tranquil. It is a tranquility both real and deceptive. It is real, and importantly real, simply because it exists. It is deceptive because of what it takes the place of, and hides.
It takes the place of, and hides, and is essentially more terrible than, a “terrorism” which becomes necessary only when the enormous, all but hypnotic strength of the tranquility has failed to suffice. The “terrorism” becomes necessary not through moustache-twirling and fiendish deliberation but once again very simply and inevitably and chemically, by intuition and by reflex. It is perfectly irrelevant to law and it goes as far as either as it “needs” or “happens” to. A given landlord may or may not take active physical part in it but you may be sure he countenances it: you may be sure there is not one in any hundred who would think twice about countenancing or, for that matter, instigating it. 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 reports have only begun to suggest.

Trouble begins in the galled spots. That, too, is where organizers come; and, later, the sympathizers, the investigators, the reporters. By the time the latter get there all hell has broken loose and there is nothing pretty about it. Through ignorance and shock and rage fully as much as through bias, the reporters take what they find as representative of the South as a whole.

What they find is, to be sure, not a circumstance on what in the course of time seems likely to happen in the South as a whole. But what they find is also not true of the general South as the South is today, and day by day. And if the truth is not only more interesting and more complex but also more valuable than falsehood, then the truth had better be recognized.

James Agee was an American poet, novelist, film critic, screenwriter, and magazine journalist who died in 1955. Agee's Cotton Tenants was published by The Baffler and Melville House in 2013.

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