“You Ain’t Never Seen Trouble Till You Lose a Youngun”

Life, illness, and death among the tenant farmers of 1936 Alabama, from a newly discovered book by the creators of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

William Fields, Alabama, 1936.

William Fields, Alabama, 1936.

Walker Evans/Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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.

Or if you are constituted luckily, the various poisons with which your system is loaded will assemble themselves into the safety valves locally known as risings and more widely known as boils. After a while, the valve blows off. That is the signal for another rising. Ruby, late last summer, was developing one in the fold of the elbow the size of a dollar watch. Her mother had had nine in the past month. Their arms and legs were leopardlike with violet scars. The doctor was quite jolly about it, in a way doctors have. He told them every rising was worth five dollars to them.

Sadie Tingle, Alabama, 1936.

Sadie Tingle, Alabama, 1936.

Walker Evans/Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Mrs. Tingle prefers the more violent work of the fields, in the hot sun, to housework, because so long as she is sweating and working hard in the sun the rheumatism doesn’t clamp into her joints so bad. She has also had pellagra, for the past ten years, and they have spent a great deal, they have no idea how much, trying to get it cured. The hard time she has eating we have spoken of. Three years ago she was out of her head for a long time. That was when Ida Ruth was a baby. Once she tried to kill Ida Ruth with a chunk of stovewood. She is better now and thinks it must be the powders, that is to say, the yeast. For the past year and a half she has been taking Brewer’s Yeast stirred up in molasses, milk, and water. She still has nervous spells though and they are bad. She can feel them coming on like something terrifying sneaking up behind her and then all of a sudden she sees black and yellow lights busting all around and after that she doesn’t know anything for a while.

Floyd Burroughs has spells, too, of a different kind. He falls down and foams at the mouth just like a dog and it scares Allie Mae and the children something awful. For a while he was having those spells as often as twice a week. He hasn’t had them though, since they moved to this new place, and it seems to Allie Mae like God must have been on their side and told them to move.

Allie Mae has the beginnings of a cataract. Mrs. Tingle, her aunt, has one still further advanced and treats it with camphor water. Mrs. Tingle’s mother and one of her aunts went blind with them.

Allie Mae has bad pains in the stomach from time to time, not at all the ordinary indigestion pains, that frighten her badly: her mother and her grandmother both died of cancer.

Her father Bud Fields has a skin cancer, in the right shoulder. On the surface it doesn’t look like anything but it has worked down under the collarbone and into the shoulder muscle. He had his choice of have it cut out or treated with X-rays and, in fear for his throat, chose the less tangible treatment. He spent the midsummer in silent and deep terror of death: walked and bummed his way to Moundville and thence was taken to Tuscaloosa for the X-rays; three treatments. The thing that frightened him worst of all was the ether. In extreme nausea you feel like death, and he took that to mean quite literally that he was dying. No one thought to explain, and though he was advised to lie down and get over the effects no one got insistent when, not having warned his wife of any length of absence, he chose rather to get back home as fast as possible. The doctor who had taken him up dropped him still jellified with ether-nausea, at Moundville, to walk the seven miles home.

Presumably they caught the cancer in time. He was strongly advised to do no work for two weeks, then to come back. The cotton was ready though, and he spent the days picking.

They were good to him about this cancer: the charge will be only $50, plus the Moundville doctor’s treatments and, likely as not, his transportation.

Both Burroughs and Tingle have appendix trouble. Tingle lay eight solid days under the ice cap; Floyd used it for three days, late last spring. (Mrs. Peoples came down with appendicitis late in the summer and there was another rush call for Tingle’s ice cap.) An operation would run you into debt and put you out of work: it’s wiser to freeze it and trust to luck.

Excepting Mrs. Tingle, none in the three families show any signs of pellagra: doubtless the butter and green foods are just about sufficient to stave it off. Whether or not there is hookworm, is hard to say. Charles’s anemic pallor may be a symptom of it, but Charles has been very sick. The halting of Squeaky’s growth may be a result of it; and on the other hand may be some glandular sprain. (William Fields’s abnormal size must be due to the same glandular disequilibrium which produces half the sheriffs you will see in the South.) None of the children were dirt-eaters, outside the normal course of getting down their meals.

Down around Greensboro, the county seat, where nearly all the tenants are Negroes, doctors still charge what they did in the horse-and-buggy days: a dollar a mile, not of course including services and prescriptions. The Moundville doctors have come down on their price; one charges five and the other three for a trip to Mills Hill. Why the five-dollar man can get away with it and why Moundville’s third doctor, a young man, has not yet built up much of a practice, is explicable only as many other things in the deep country are: by the power of habit. None of the three families has any clear idea what the state of their health costs them from year to year: we can only assume that it is one of the more reliable drains on the pocketbook, though even Burroughs uses doctors very little. Patent medicines are somewhat steadily used. The Fieldses have a little bottle of pills that cover a multitude of evils: green pills for the liver, white for the stomach, morphine for misery. Mrs. Fields is a great believer in the efficacy of asafetida dissolved in whiskey for almost anything from a bad cold on. Mrs. Tingle knows a great deal about home and woods remedies and exchanges knowledge and the roots of herbs with the Negroes: swampwillow bark for chills; queen’s delight for pellagra; heart leaves for heart trouble; blacksnake root for chills; cottonseed poultices for head pains; snuff poultices for pneumonia; rattlesnake grease or polecat oil for rheumatism (but best of all for that is alligator grease). She keeps a big assortment of roots and leaves on hand ready for immediate use and turns up with advice and offers all over the neighborhood the minute anybody is sick. Floyd and Allie Mae won’t take the teas; Frank Tingle won’t allow a doctor across his doorstep; the Fieldses in this matter as in most others are midway.

Invariably people work as long as they can stand up to it, and this is as much out of tradition and pride as of necessity and poverty. It is the same with death. Frank Tingle had seven uncles and every one but one died with his shoes on, and that one had one shoe on and died trying to pull on the other one. Tingle and Fields and Burroughs have all taken out burial insurance and all of them have had to let their policies lapse. People use undertakers now more than they used to; it is almost customary. The undertaker’s charge is $25, to take the corpse and bury it. It is seldom that anyone goes in for extras, such as embalming, or a headstone. Women lay out the corpse; everyone sits up with it; women, more especially the older women, wail, and tear their hair at the burial; at either end of the bare clay mound is a driven pine board, sometimes plain, sometimes sawed to the rough shape of an hourglass. Offerings are set in the clay along with ridge of the grave: a horse shoe; or a dead electric bulb; or a pretty piece of glass or china; or a china statuette of a comic bulldog; or a child’s tea set; or a Coca-Cola bottle; or mussel shells: sometimes a few flowers. When the flowers are done for, that is likely to be the end of it. Ordinarily people do not travel far during their lifetime; but they move, and abandon, often enough so that there is scarcely more feeling for the dead than for the land they have farmed or the homes they have lived in.

Excerpted from Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee, with photographs by Walker Evans. Published by Melville House.