The past has laid a heavy burden on the South. In legend it is the land of Scarlett O'Hara, mint juleps and slavery, the home of the Klan and backwoods sheriffs who kill uppity blacks and civil rights workers. Perhaps no stereotype is so enduring as that of the ignorant sharecropper whose dumb obstinacy, passion and, yes, even courage, are storied in the works of William Faulkner.
There was another work written in the late 1930s that added to that image of the poor, white cropper, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." The authors were poet-turned-journalist James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. In words and pictures they created a stark, often poetic book about the cotton plantation economy that survived the Civil War only by adopting a cruel tenant farming system that exploited former slaves and poor whites alike. Agee and Walker chronicled several weeks in the lives of three poor, white Alabama families, prefacing their book with the admission that they were prying into the lives of "an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings."
Now, half a century later, another writer-photographer team has revisited rural Alabama to find out what happened to the families of George Gudger, Fred Ricketts and Bud Woods. Reporter Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson do more than simply fill in the missing years. They report the collapse of the tenant farming system in their book, "And Their Children After Them."
This new work invites comparison, but comparison seems unfair because the books are so different in style. Agee was a writer who never distanced himself from his subjects, leaving much of his own feelings and self in his work. The result was not journalism, not even realism, but a form of art that expressed the poet's own sense of indignity and outrage. Agee, the Northerner, the outsider, experimented with form and content. The result was a book that, at times, defies reading and at times is compelling. Evans' pictures, stark and seemingly unframed, were powerful in their own right and offered a welcome respite from the dense thickets of Agee's powerful prose.
"And Their Children After Them," on the other hand, is a straightforward journalistic effort. It will satisfy the curiosity of those who wondered what happened to 10-year-old Maggie Louise Gudger and the others living on Hobe's Hill in 1936. Maggie Louise was then a bright, attractive youngster who told Agee her dreams; she wanted to be a teacher. Maharidge opens with a brief chronicle of Maggie Louise's dreary, sad life, the bright dreams of her youth fading into alcohol and finally suicide. Her last words were: "I've took all I can take."
Life back at the end of the road on a rundown plantation, farming poor land that belonged to others, took something out of these people. Yet they clung to that sorry place until they were evicted by a new, mechanized system of farming that no longer needed the sweat and muscle of men or mules. Journalist Maharidge reports that once there were 9 million tenant farmers in the old plantation system, but by 1986, as he traveled the Alabama back roads, most were gone. The blacks had moved north to Chicago or Detroit, the whites to wherever, but many of the Gudgers, Ricketts and Woods family members had stayed behind; and those that did leave eventually came back to the hill. Agee recorded 22 family members; Maharidge tracked down 128 descendants.
Along the way Maharidge gives us a look at Agee at work, as remembered by those the poet watched and interviewed, and he shows us what Agee overlooked, or ignored. Maharidge digs much deeper into the degradation of the Ricketts family, detailing the stark ugliness that Agee blurred through his softer, poetic focus. This is how Maharidge tells us that the Ricketts' shanty lacked plumbing: "They defecate in the weeds out back and dump the piss buckets out there too, when they get around to it."
The sudden appearance of such graphic sentences--with their curious mix of the formal with the vulgar--are distracting and add to the feeling that this is not a clearly focused work, but rather a reach that tries to grasp too much. The book's strength is found in the chronicling of what happened to the three families that Agee singled out. Along the way, Maharidge introduces other families, black as well as white, gives us a farming lesson or two, takes us up North and editorializes on the unaffordable cost of urban housing: "There is no other word but obscene to describe a situation where typical annual rents in the major cities are often double what a minimum-wage worker earns in a year."
Finally, "And Their Children After Them" returns to Hobe's Hill and the authors' conclusion: "Many members of these families were not ready to face the world that challenged them after the cotton tenant system went down." At this point journalists Maharidge and Williamson pack their bags and leave us a bit wiser perhaps, but wishing for a more unified work with a thoughtful ending.