The Painful Legacy of King Cotton

Photo by Michael Williamson, from And Their Children After Them

Henry Luce had intended his Fortune magazine to be a Vogue for American industry, showcasing it at its most impressive and powerful, so he needed skilled photographers. At the top of the list was Margaret Bourke-White, known then for her striking photos of steel mills and hydroelectric dams. Further on down was Walker Evans, who in 1936 took an assignment after working with the Farm Security Administration: He and writer James Agee would travel to Hale County, Alabama, for an article on the poverty of sharecropper and tenant-farmer families during the Dust Bowl.

After several weeks, Agee and Evans located three families (the Gudgers, the Woodses, and the Rickettses, all pseudonyms), and turned in a 30,000-word article that Fortune declined to run. Agee’s own ambitions for the piece grew into Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the details of life among the rural poor, illustrated with Evans’s photographs. It finally saw print in 1941— by which time the Great Depression was nearly over, the Second World War was underway, and similar books by Erskine Caldwell, John Steinbeck, and even Margaret Bourke-White had come and gone. Its reputation grew in part because Evans’s photos became useful emblems when teaching about the Great Depression, and Agee later won a Pulitzer for A Death in the Family. Aaron Copeland composed the opera The Tender Land after reading it. And there’s a moment when the Gudger family says their good-nights that must have informed the TV show The Waltons.

Agee’s writing reflects a lot of the work performed under the various New Deal projects, which put artists and writers to work capturing America. One chapter might be a list of daily details and possessions; another might be a description of a school or family gathering; another might be Agee worrying that he’s an interloper who’s spying on these simple lives of hardscrabble dignity. For many readers, most of whom discovered the book after the Second World War and during the prosperity of the following thirty years, Agee and Evans’s book was a document of a very different time. Even the fact that Agee’s three families were white acquired some significance as the civil rights movement brought attention to the lives of black Southerners: at the time, the vast majority of tenant farmers, like the book’s characters, were white.

Fifty years later, in 1989, Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson decided to follow in Agee and Evans’s footsteps… to a point. The title’s original quote may have been “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us,” but Maharidge and Williamson continued the phrase with And Their Children After Them. They began their own book with Maggie Louise Gudger, the ten-year-old girl who’d enchanted Agee with her dream of becoming a teacher: we witness her suicide in front of her children. As this 30th-anniversary edition ends, they’ve revisited the Gudger family in the 21st century, inviting us to look at the country that capital is still creating.

As iconic as Agee and Walker’s book has become, Maharidge and Williamson brought invaluable historical perspective to this project, which won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1990. Their opening chapter is a succinct, comprehensive survey of how capitalism shaped the South. The cotton gin made cotton a viable cash crop, its economic benefits palpable for landowners. Vast plantations took over smaller farms like an antebellum Archer-Daniels-Midland. Rural whites became an underclass because they were isolated, long unable to underbid their labor against actual slaves. After the Civil War, as African Americans moved out of the South and poor whites moved to the cities, the cotton industry needed cheap labor to pick the stuff. So a system of tenant farming and sharecropping was instituted. Landowners offered to rent land to aspiring farmers, but keep them on the hook for equipment, supplies, shelter, and everything else. In 1936, this system collapsed when John Rust invented a machine that could actually pick cotton. (Rust was a populist who’d hoped his machine would free tenant farmers from labor, and tried to limit his patents so that only those farmers would benefit. It didn’t work. International Harvester quickly developed better machines, and Rust’s efforts to provide financial trusts for farmers came to nothing.)

And while Agee had to confine himself to a portrait of how his families lived at that time, And Their Children After Them can tell their stories over the years between 1936 and 1989 … including comments about what was perceived as their snobbery and coldheartedness. This irritated a number of 1989 reviewers who thought the two were being blasphemed.

It may be possible to read Famous Men as an account of a way of life erased by progress, and Agee’s optimism for his subjects’ future might encourage that. But some of the towns Agee and Evans visited in 1936 were virtually unchanged as late as the 1980s. Industrial farming took over the cotton industry and, while a few holdovers stuck to their land and farms, making futile efforts at switching to other crops, their siblings and descendants moved on.

The melancholy and loneliness that suffuse Maharidge and Williamson’s account overwhelms even the spots of progress. There’s substantial material improvement—education, plumbing, lateral career moves from farming to trucking, emigration to the nearby cities. Some even got into college. But for the most part, this is a chronicle of sadness, struggle, poverty, and tragedy. Most of the people Agee and Evans captured have moved on, found new lives, or died: The 2019 coda is less about the surviving interviewees than it is about the authors’ own ruminations about the area, including attempts to sell a screenplay about the project in the early 1990s. One wishes that they could have continued their work more fully, with an examination of poverty as it currently exists in the South. Or even just Alabama—a “right to work” state with the worst poverty in the developed world.

Still, a bit of hope comes into this close-to-final paragraph:

“Before Michael and I left the couple, I had one last question for Detsy. We’d chosen to use pseudonyms in part to riff off of Agee, but also to protect the children of the sharecropping families. We made that decision for them. I wanted to give Detsy agency. What did she desire? ‘I want my real name,’ Detsy replied, fast. ‘I’m proud of what we come up through.’”