Agricultural Tenancy in 1930s America

Kimberly A. Bloomer

Roaring Twenties. Great Depression. Drought. New Deal. These words relate not to isolated phenomena but to factors in a complex interrelationship that conspired against agricultural tenancy in 1930s America. James Agee, journalist, and Evans, photographer, created an involved and empathic description of this interaction in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a record of their experiences living with the bare facts of tenancy--farming land and living in a house owned by another. It also captured the emotional reality of tenant farmers' lives. Agee and Evans reconstructed the personal perspectives of three families faced with agricultural depression and drought and unrelieved by New Deal policies intended to help those lowest on the economic ladder.

At first it seemed odd for the images of the "Roaring Twenties" to be united with depression tenant farmers, yet there was a congruity between the two. World War I and the business prosperity of the 1920s directly contributed to later agricultural hardship. The families visited by Agee and Walker attested to this relationship. The war had been the height of agricultural prosperity: prices were high, and production was better than ever before. Woods earned $1300 above costs in one year, and Ricketts had optimistically gone into debt for a team of mules because times had been so good. Such prosperity and high production created long-term difficulties, however, following the war. During the 1920s, agricultural prices plummeted because of a continued war-time production rate without war-time demand. The resulting cheap supply of farm products benefitted the decade's business boom by making urban income more attractive and by reducing dependence on one's own agricultural output. Lower prices meant lower income for the small farmer. During the Twenties, Ricketts sank deeply into debt, losing his cows and barely keeping two mules. Woods' income decreased substantially, clearing only $50 in a good year and often winding up in debt to the land owner. Gudger, having a younger family, did not have even the earlier prosperity and did well living just hand-to-mouth.

Reduced financial prosperity was not the only legacy of the 1920s. Evans' photographs of the cotton fields illuminated the toll taken on the soil. Low prices resulted in asking more of the land than it was capable of providing. The fields in the photos were overworked, dry, and subject to erosion. No conservation measures were shown in these shots--few trees and no patterns of planting were present to prevent loss of topsoil. To this, Agee added the outline of farming without attempts at crop rotation and only feeble efforts at fertilization. When drought struck the region during the Depression, the trouble only worsened. Much had been lost to erosion, and vital nutrients had been leached from the rest by overuse. The "Roaring Twenties" had bequeathed a legacy of land abuse, and the Depression forced the tenants to pay the price of earlier mismanagement, tightening agricultural credit. Since there had been no decade of prosperity in agriculture to buffer the effects of a poor economy, the farm sector was especially hard hit first with debts and then with foreclosures. Even small independent farmers were driven from their lands. Ricketts' house stood testament to this trend, for it had belonged to a small land owner run out by foreclosure.

Harder to see was how the tenant families had been affected, for they had had little to lose anyway. The Depression took its toll on them as well. In fact, these families symbolized what had gradually happened to the nation as a whole during the Depression years. While the worst agricultural devastation had targeted the Great Plains, Alabama had also felt the pain of drought. As Gudger told Agee, corn required heavy rainfall. Cotton needed less, but even rain at the wrong time of day carried the potential to destroy the cotton before harvest. Rarely did both crops prosper in the same year due to nature's fickleness. As a result, the survival of the three families was mostly beyond their control. Their resignation to this fact echoed the greater national feeling that people were merely pawns and helpless at the hands of greater forces.

The bitterness and hopelessness of this resignation were deeply etched on the faces caught on film. The adults looked beaten, defeated; the children showed no expectation for anything better. The little mantle, bravely wearing tattered tissue paper, clearly showed this loss of faith in the future. The tissue had been Mrs. Gudger's last effort to make the house "look pretty," but Agee said that she had become convinced that nothing could help the place. Gradually, then, it appeared that these families had lost every aspect of their lives to the control of another. The weather was beyond their control, they owned neither land nor house, and their livestock was either in debt or lost to pay off debt.

That this was true was further clarified by the authors in their sensitivity to their subjects. Agee and Evans had not wanted to create an expose that threw the lives of the three families open, unprotected, to the public. Instead, they gave the tenants the dignity to reveal only what they wished, down to selecting their own poses for the photographs. Without such control, the last remnant of self-respect would have been torn from these people, for they could not have influenced even how others would perceive them. This premeditated protection illuminated, almost better than the book itself, the severe vulnerability of the tenants. A Wall Street banker could have protected himself against such exposure, but the tenant families had not other places to hide. Their lives were so nearly completely beyond their command that Agee and Evans felt it necessary to ensure them some measure of control.

At this point, something seemed amiss. After all, this account was of 1936. Had not the New Deal already begun to alleviate the depths of hopelessness and despair created by the Depression? The tenant farmers seemed to represent the deep uncertainty of the early Thirties, true, but FDR's New Deal had not done much to reduce privation for the southern tenants. As the authors found, Works Progress Administration jobs were off-limits because tenants were employed. The Resettlement Administration aided migratory workers, but tenants still had homes. In fact, the efforts of the New Deal directly worked against the success of tenant farming. The "plow under" mentioned by Gudger was part of the plan to reduce supply in order to increase prices. While it gave Gudger some money for the short-term ($125), the long-term intent of such policy was to make tenant farming less profitable. In addition, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration made use of the "suitcase owners" described by Agee. The Gudgers, Woods, and Ricketts were likely to be forced off their land in the near future by mechanized farming. Loans for tractors and other machinery were available at low cost to the owners and made it more economical to keep a few men at day labor instead of maintaining large numbers of tenant farmers year round. Such owners had not shied from the task of taking land by foreclosure to expand their profits, and it was unlikely that they would fail to take this next step in improving efficiency and income. Hopelessness and helplessness, therefore, remained the norm for the tenants visited by Agee and Evans, for the government action that had helped the nation's prospects had done nothing for them and much to harm them.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men provided an unusual perspective on the 1930s, revealing much about Southern tenant farmers during the Great Depression. By creating a portrait of three families, through prose and photographs, Agee and Evans demonstrated that tenant farmers faced hardships that resulted not only from agricultural depression and drought, but also from government programs ostensibly intended to alleviate their distress.