The Stark Morals of James Agee’s Depression Essay

Originally published in The Atlantic on June 19, 2013.

Cotton Tenants is your proverbial double gainer. For one thing, it gives a new dimension to Agee’s work. He tried his hand at many different things: He wrote screenplays and poetry and film criticism, he wrote a novel, he wrote Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And, yes, he also wrote magazine journalism. If you look at his collected journalism, most of it is for Time and Fortune and The Nation. We knew from his film reviews that he’d mastered that form. Now we know he’s in the first rank of magazine journalists in the U.S. too.

Secondarily, you have a political document that speaks to the current moment in obvious and important ways. A lot of it is about debt. A lot of it is about what David Graeber calls the “apparatus of hopelessness” as it’s imposed on these families. The social patterns are all different, but we’re seeing the same apparatus today with the banks. The miserable debt psychology is recognizable in this book.

So we have a genuine double gain for the culture—in political criticism and literary expression at the same time.

I knew of Agee from my studies, but my epiphany came via Letters of James Agee to Father Flye. There, he talks about becoming an anarchist in the wake of the Cotton Tenants assignment, and that led me to further interest in him. I’d been interested in the anarchist tradition in morals and aesthetics, a tradition that no one really knows anything about in this country. Agee called himself a “conservative anarchist” which is the same thing Paul Goodman called himself. C. Wright Mills, Henry Adams, Robert Lowell, William James (who had a wonderful name for what Agee was chasing: “aboriginal sensible muchness.”) They all called themselves anarchists. There’s a tradition of this kind of anarchist thought, though it’s hardly ever recognized as such.

To identify as a “conservative anarchist” is to reject all systems, including systems of concepts as they’re expressed in ideology, as forms of cultural power. Agee’s anarchism radically exalted perception over conception. He wrote a fragment once called “Now as Awareness,” in which the goal is to get you to open up your perceptions, and figure out what’s going on around you. Where another kind of writer would write an argument piece about cotton slavery, petitioning the people in power, etc., the message here is to open up your eyes, open up your head, look at what’s going on around you. The fact that what’s going on now is similar to what was going on when Agee was writing just makes it all the more powerful.

Anarchism isn’t only about government power; it has aesthetic and moral ramifications. This attitude is crucial to understanding Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee had to break apart every possible system and genre and form that he’d inherited, including the capital C concept of art, which he loathed. He could have written a sociological documentary, which was very much in fashion then, or he could have written a government report, or he could have written a reformer’s document. But Let Us Now Praise Famous Men very consciously avoids being any of these things. He had to transcend the established systems for telling this kind of this story, then to reinhabit it. That’s why it’s still available to us.

What few people remember is the history of this assignment. It was already a cliché in the summer of 1936, given by northern editors to go down and check out a southern town. It may seem to us sui generis, but it wasn’t—for Agee it would have been another northern editor sending another one of us southern boys to go down and report on the folks. The genius of Cotton Tenants lies in how Agee was able to rise above his context and to do something new in what was already a hackneyed form. It shows, too, that it was possible to get to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which is often taken as an indulgent book even by people who appreciate Agee—all that “meta,” all that putting himself in the way—only after he had already mastered this more restrained and disciplined form. We know now that in order to get there, he needed to do this first.

All this leads to one of the most intelligent things that’s ever been said about Agee’s higher aspirations as a writer and thinker. This was by Lionel Trilling—who was one of few who recognized the genius of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men originally. Trilling said that you can’t forget that the moral component of Agee’s writing is never absent from the aesthetic achievement. Opening up your perceptions, cultivating a certain kind of radical aesthetic awareness, is and must be a moral effort.

In Cotton Tenants, Agee asks the reader to share this moral burden, which is most explicitly spelled out in the introduction: “And since every possibility human life holds, or may be deprived of, of value, of wholeness, of richness, of joy, of dignity, depends all but entirely upon circumstances, the circumstances are proportionately worthy of the serious attention of anyone who dares to think of himself as a civilized human being. A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage; is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance. And a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea.”

This statement puts the reader at some pretty fucking serious risk. He’s writing a magazine article, but in order to proceed with him you must first agree with what he’s just said. And ask yourself if you agree with this incredible statement: that if you’re willing to passively benefit from the injustices of a deeply stratified society, well then you’re not really human? You’re a parasite. If you’re not to investigate the subject of your own privilege, you’re more like a bedbug, you’re more like a cancer?

Yet there are no villains in this book. Agee’s reporting people’s lives, but he’s not reporting them with any sense of scandal or sensation. There’s no specific argument for reform either—he’s not taking a position about what might or should be done to remedy this catastrophic rural poverty. There is no clear concept made of the difference between the is and the ought. There’s just a whole lot of is (the “cruel radiance of what is,” as he wrote in LUNPFM.) And yet the whole thing is drenched in the moral judgment that this passage represents.

You can think of that passage as the book’s charter. What he’s after is something close to the old concept of sympathy as expressed by Rousseau and Blake, whom Agee loved, and woven into Balzac and Zola. It’s not pity—this kind of sympathy they’re after is broader and tougher and longer lasting.

So it’s a small but faithful political act on our part, publishing Cotton Tenants. It reminds us of all the things that we’re not talking about. That’s very much part of the intention here. It would be cute if we could just look at this simply as a nice aesthetic object from Agee’s literary biography. Not to state the obvious, but we’re in a Depression—and this is a Depression-era book. We’re not in a downturn of the business cycle, we’re in a broad social crisis, and it might be terminal. And the message from Agee is: Open your eyes. Let us hope the book achieves that effect.

Someone said that when you read this book, if you read it right, you won’t come out of it the same way. Not everyone’s going to have this experience, but he did it for me.