David Whitford, The Most Famous Story We Never Told

In this article, written for Fortune Magazine in 2005, Whitford revisits Hale County (again!!) 69 years later and talks to some of the surviving members of the three tenant families. What is really great about this article is that Whitford allows the subjects to speak for themselves, and even includes some of their slang and grammatical errors so we can almost hear the Southern drawl in their voices.

According to Whitford, Agee insisted on Evans being his partner and the photographer was on loan from the FSA. Two months into the assignment, Agee (“a great deal more communist than not”) decided that the material on the families was “…too subversive for Fortune and possibly bigger than any magazine could hold, and more important than his career.” For this reason, it is asserted, Agee refused to edit the first draft of his article, and thus deliberately saw to it that it never got published: “Half unconsciously, and half consciously, Agee saw to it that it would not get into FORTUNE,” Evans later said. The point is that it had been previously assumed the blame lay with the magazine’s editors, who it was claimed had refused point blank to publish the article.

Part of the controversy seems to lie in the fact that the pair were not completely honest with the families, combined with their not returning (or returning anything) to the families whose lives they exposed to the eyes of the nation. The families were even scorned by those of another class, who “…considered them white trash, beneath contempt. “They were the worst possible representatives of the South in people’s minds,” says Curb. “Of course that’s the big irony, because that’s what Agee was trying to tell people they were not.”” Which is slightly different from Bourke-White’s condescending approach.

Unfortunately, the magazine article was never published, and there remains resentment: Charles Burroughs and his family got squat. “We never even got one of the damn books,” he says. “They should have had enough respect to come back afterwards. I know I would have. At least send a copy of the book.” Part of the problem lies in the fact that the men were seen as outsiders, as spies (Agee even refers to himself as “a spy, travelling as a journalist” in the book (1960, xxii)): [they] stayed for weeks, and while the family was working in the fields, snooped around in dresser drawers and under beds, and took notes, and took pictures, and shared what they had taken with all the world.

Whitford describes how the three families were initially met and approached by Agee and Evans:

The heads of the three families–Frank Tingle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs, their surnames disguised as Ricketts, Woods, and Gudger in the book–were visiting the county seat, looking for government assistance and discovering that as sharecroppers, they did not qualify. Evans and Agee met them at the Confederate statue outside the courthouse and offered to drive them home.

Was the photo taken at the time of the first meeting or set up afterwards? It would be nice to think that it was the first shot taken, but as we know, Evans was not averse to choreographing his images. He then describes an encounter with Laura Tingle (Ricketts), one of the girls photographed extensively by Evans:

“I really wished they hadn’t a showed up. I just wished they hadn’t a showed up. After they published that book. They called my mama a liar and ever’thin’ like that. I didn’t like it.” She snickers again. “They told a lot of things that was wrong. They just said they was making pictures. They didn’t say they was reporters.”

Irvin Fields, who was born in 1938, grandson of Bud Fields:

“Some of the pictures you saw of my grandfather… looked like these people need a bath, looked like they need to get clothes on and dress appropriately, you know? Especially to take a picture. But these people were not very much recovered from the Civil War at that time. They were struggling for a living. What little bit of living that they had, they dug it out of the ground. In Hale County.”

Describing the conditions the sharecroppers lived under, he speaks of boys wearing their sisters’ hand-me-downs, kids going to bed with empty stomachs and his own father crying when he didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. He also witnessed the settling-up time of the year, after the harvest:

“The landowner had the pencil and he had the books. The landowner would say, ‘Well, you didn’t make it this time Bill, you still owe me about $200. Maybe you can make it next year.'”

He likens the conditions to slavery; the tenants were enslaved to the landowner and unable to move due to debt and lack of education. One way of escape was the military: “I guess that’s one of the reasons they didn’t have a problem filling the ranks with people from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi.” He makes reference to the blacks, who were in the same situation, but as Whitford points out, Agee’s editors wanted him and Evans to focus on white families: “That they found their subjects in Hale County was more than a little perverse. Most of the county’s people, and an even higher percentage of the poor people, were and are African American.” Another fact which is hidden in the final publication!

Phil Burroughs, grandson of Floyd, talking about his father’s attitude to the book:

“…to be honest with you, I think he had a right to be [angry about it]. I honestly do. You were looking at people that were struggling to put food on the table, you know? It was a simple life. They didn’t have anything. Everybody wants something. That’s probably the American dream. Everybody wants something. So it kind of left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. Maybe that’s hard for a lot of people to understand, but it absolutely did. It made him upset, it really did. They were cast in a light that they couldn’t do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant. How would you feel if somebody cast your folks, your parents, or your grandparents in that light? Even though I know they were real poor, no doubt about that, but they weren’t ignorant, and they definitely weren’t lazy.””

Whitford mentions one of the spinoffs from the Agee/Evans collaboration – the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘And Their Children After Them‘ which explored the lives of the generation after the original publication:

 

It was also viewed with not a little consternation by the family members:

“Confirming the widespread resentment engendered in her family by the unwanted public attention, Diane believes the 1989 publication of And Their Children After Them—a Pulitzer Prize–winning follow-up by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson—revived the feelings of exploitation and maltreatment that had just begun to fade 50 years after the release of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

Again, some of the first hand speech is wonderful and full of character:

“That book,” Doug says, caused “a lot of bad blood” in his family. “That writer, Jimmy what’s-his-name,” never told the family he was writing a book, “exploited” them for profit, and “humiliated” them by laying bare the difficult reality of their lives.

Well, the fact that he never told them he was writing a book can be forgiven since at that time he wasn’t planning on writing a book but a magazine article. Nevertheless, “Doug is not swayed when I tell him the book sprang from a never-published magazine article and generated significant sales only after Agee’s premature death.” The original book was first published in 1941, by which time WW2 had begun and there was a different focus and dialogue circulating.

An Atlantic article, ‘Let Us Now Trash Famous Authors‘ Christina Davidson revisits the surviving family members and records their testimony: “Dottie, the youngest child of Floyd and Allie Mae Burroughs, didn’t cooperate on what the family refers to simply as “the second book.” By the time Maharidge and Williamson came around, Dottie had tired of journalists, researchers, and filmmakers turning up in Moundville looking for “Gudgers.” Her family seemed to have become a big business from which only strangers ever profited.”

Again, there appears to be two camps – those who say there was nothing to be ashamed of because the family bore themselves with dignity, and those who claim it was some kind of prying or humiliation:

“It’s not anything I’m ashamed of,” Dottie says after some thought, “because my family worked hard. They were honest. They lived off what they did.” What bothers her most is that Agee and Evans didn’t tell her parents that their lives would become a book. “Momma and Daddy didn’t know what they was doing. They was trying to help ’em out. And they just wanted to write about how poor Momma and Daddy was.”

The article explains that Evans probably used his connection with the FSA to gain entry, and the simple folk believed that the pair was working under the auspices of the government, assuming that by allowing them to document their lives, they would somehow be able to improve their lot (this is similar to the way that Lange is alleged to have manipulated the migrant mother into posing for her, since she assumed Lange’s photo would somehow alleviate her plight). But here is the crunch:

While the Burroughs family worked in the field, Agee and Evans stayed back at the house. The family assumed they were simply lazy, but later learned from the book that the “spies” spent their days poking through drawers to record every spool of thread, scrap of fabric, and clip of newsprint they discovered within. “That was invading their privacy,” Dottie concludes emphatically. “They shouldn’t have done that.”

And this is true, as we know Agee meticulously inventoried the items in the sharecroppers’ humble abodes, and Evans shamelessly photographed their bare interiors. “Even if he didn’t condescend, Agee opened the Burroughs home to the peering eyes of countless outsiders, who could be inclined to pass judgment. And he never asked permission before inviting the whole world to witness their struggle.” And passing judgement is what really happened, especially since the words he wrote were illustrated with photographs to prove the veracity of what he was reporting!

The text of Agee’s original article has been recovered and published, and part of it has been made available online by The Baffler. Although Agee claimed that the text was subversive for any magazine, I would say that the largest difference between this and the ultimate text for the book is in the way the tenant families are described. Here there is no respect, and very little dignity left in the people that character his writing:

“The eyes are shifty and sometimes crazy and never quite successfully crafty: those of a frightened fox with hound blood.”

“Her eyes… 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 is only half sane”

“She is the sort of woman the children of Nice people shout after in the street.”

“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.”

“…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.”

Obviously this kind of description was at odds with the eventual title of the book, and thus changed or omitted in the final draft. Agee describes the lives of the tenant farmers in great detail, and obviously from a leftist-militant point of view. He paints a portrait of their lives as being one of hardship, almost slavery, backbreaking work and very little joy or hope. These are not dignified people who are doing their best to survive, but little better than dumb animals, with little interaction, entertainment or spiritual sustenance.

“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.”

This is quite obviously not the case for these sharecroppers and their families.

“The habitual expression of face and of gesture is serious, slow, and somewhat sad.”

Since the families have little money and few prospects, their fate is one of a bleak future, devoid of hope or chances to make anything better of their lives. The children are portrayed as being somewhat feral, possibly the result of malnutrition, and displaying overt sexual precocity, which combined with boredom lead to inevitable early marriages: “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.” These folk are denied education and opportunity, they are illiterate and slow-witted. There is actually a reference to the fact that the population of Hale county was predominantly black, which was removed from the book:

“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.”

Although Agee is quick to defend their faith, he also makes it clear that these folk are not as religious as you’d expect; and he then explains their belief in god:

“…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.”

The final words of the passage that begins “Let us now praise famous men” ends thus:

“Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.”

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