“The Cruel Radiance of What Is” James Agee’s Introduction to Cotton Tenants
Imagine an introduction that cuts to the core of what you believe and demands you act without demanding that at all. And, imagine an insight that moves beyond race and class to how we set up society and how we treat each other. Just part of the introduction to James Agee’s Cotton Tenants does that. Fortune magazine cared about poverty in the South. It was 1936. Perhaps any magazine on economic issues had to cover poverty. Fortune sent James Agee and Walker Evans to Alabama to cover cotton farmers. That work led to a book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But the original story, which was about 30,000 words, was never published, until now. Summers of The Baffler published a short version in the magazine, and now the book is out. In an interview in The Atlantic, Summers shows how bold Agee was. In Summer’s words, “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.” What he said applied then and now. Here’s the passage:
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.
I have not digested all that is here. That may take years, and I have as yet to read the full work. For now, I focus on this point. All our chances at success and joy are based on circumstances. Are all men created equal? I know some cringe at one, maybe two words, already. But circumstances can change. Disadvantages entrenched in society can change. Men may mean more today but has far to go. How did that change happen? Was it a fear of being less than human? A feeder on others? Agee may have been crying out against systems designed to maintain disadvantage. And he indicts those who know they benefit from such a system but wish it to continue. Yet Agee did not give up his place in the world. He was a writer, film critic, screenplay author, and more. As Summers offered, “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.)” Cruel radiance of what is. That is the key for me.
Seeing the world as it is; Conrad, Hemingway, Stendahl, almost any writer who writes about writing has said that is their goal. This passage from Conrad hit me in high school and never left: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” Agee’s introduction makes me want to dive in and see what he saw. My bet is that our problems are not so different. My fear is that not much has changed. My hope is that there is a way out. Seeing what Agee and Walker saw is perhaps a start.