The following is an excerpt from Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee, with photographs by Walker Evans, just published by Melville House. Cotton Tenants is a recently discovered work of reporting, the first dispatch to come out of Agee and Evans’ reporting trip to Alabama during the height of the Depression. Agee and Evans later collaborated on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, cited by the New York Public Library as one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century.
Cotton Tenants marks Agee’s first attempt to tell the story of the extreme poverty he found among the tenant farmers, focusing on three families in west central Alabama: “of Floyd Burroughs, and of Bud Fields his father-in-law, and of Fields’s half-brother-in-law Frank Tingle.” Commissioned in the summer of 1936 for Fortune magazine, only to be killed by Agee's editors, the typescript wasted away in his Greenwich Village home for decades after his death in 1955, a piercing fragment lodged within a collection of manuscripts. But Agee’s daughter inherited both the home and the collection, and eventually the James Agee Trust transferred the collection to the University of Tennessee; there, all the papers were cataloged, and Cotton Tenants was discovered among the remains. The manuscript first appeared in part in the Baffler last year.
—John Summers, editor of the Baffler
How late in her pregnancy a woman works around the house and in the fields and how soon she gets back to work again depends on her health and how much grit she has. Since that is the code she believes in and lives up to the answer is, she works as late and soon as she can stand to, which is likely to mean later and sooner than she should.
A granny-woman charges five dollars for delivery, a doctor twenty-five. The Burroughses are flatfooted in their preference for doctors. The Fieldses and Tingles have used both: which, depending on haste, state of mind, and the willingness to take on the debt. (With no phones and town seven miles off, getting a doctor takes a while.) Fields prefers a doctor though: you never can tell when things will go wrong. The Tingles don’t much believe in doctors for anything; they prefer woods-cures.
Of the seven children the Tingles have lost, one lived to be four, and pulled a kettle of scalding water over on him. (Such accidents, with milder results, are not infrequent in large families with distracted mothers.) One lived to be five and ate some bad bologna sausage one night and was dead before morning. The rest died within their first year. One died of colitis. From what people said of it another must have died of infantile paralysis. The rest, they don’t know what they died of, the doctor never told them. William Fields’s twin died winter before last, of pneumonia. Last winter William was very sick, too. He got choking spells and his face got as black as a shoe. The doctor has told them that unless his tonsils are removed he may not live through another winter. They don’t know whether or not to believe him; meantime there are other expenses already incurred that they can’t afford as it is. The Burroughses’ daughter Martha Ann was six months old when she died. The doctor found out what it was but there was nothing he could do about it. It was an abscess behind the eye.
Floyd says, “You ain’t never seen trouble till you lose a youngun.”
If you bring a child through its first year or two though, its chances are a lot better. Charles had a terrible siege of pneumonia last winter; his skin is still the color of skimmed milk; but he lived through it. He also lived through the chills that came on in the spring, but that was easier. Everyone gets the chills. You know when one is coming on when your back feels like it is going to break. The best thing to break a chill is quinine. Three Sixes is good, too, and if you haven’t got the money for quinine or 666 there is bitterweed: make a tea of nine of the yellow flowers and drink it. Elizabeth boiled up twenty-seven of them in a dose and it done her might a good. There are three kinds of chill, the dumb chill, the shaking chill, and the congestive chill. The dumb chill is mildest; that’s what you generally get. The shaking chill is much worse. Mary Fields had such a bad one that even when she was held down on the bed the bed rattled on the floor. The congestive chill, Frank Tingle has had. His face got as black as a wool hat and everyone, including the doctor, thought sure he would die. A man only lives through three of them, and he has had two.
Nobody escapes malaria and its returns; and in its milder forms, such as diarrhea, nausea, headache, dizziness, sudden departures of strength, and retching of bile, everyone takes it for granted. Every so often, though, you get such a bad spell of it you mighty nigh have to quit work. Soda and Calotabs are the common remedies. The Tingles like this one, to begin a meal: a pinch of Epsom salts three times a day for nine days; skip nine days; resume; go on until relieved. About a pound generally fixes you up.