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Landlord and Tenant

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

You Have Seen Their Faces. By Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. New York: The Viking Press. $5.00. / Was a Share-Cropper. By Harry Harrison Kroll. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. $275.

The latest production of Erskine Caldwell, “You Have Seen Their Faces,” cannot be judged without reference to his other writings. His intention in this book seems to be that of arousing sympathy for Southern tenant farmers, black and white. I believe this intention is good and that nothing effective will be done to correct the bad conditions now prevailing generally throughout the South until the sympathy of the nation is aroused. At the same time, I am convinced that sympathy is not enough. There must be some real understanding, and the ideas in people’s minds must have some correspondence with actual conditions as they exist. If the pictures of tenant farmers and of poor people in the South generally, as rendered in “God’s Little Acre” and “Tobacco Road,” are authentic, then there is little which can be done by landlord or tenant, by government or God, unless, of course, Mr. Caldwell’s writings should so arouse the interest of the Deity that He would then proceed to make tenant, landlord, and land over again.

The short text of “You Have Seen Their Faces” contains much that is true, much that has been written many times before and that needs to be repeated over and over again until something effective is done. But if Mr. Caldwell in this work paints a more accurate picture of the tenant and the system in which he lives than we have been led to expect from him, this is not to say that he reproduces faithfully the colors, the true proportions, or the significant forms of those aspects of Southern life which he has chosen for his subject. It is not possible here to refer to more than a few of the aberrations in this book.

When Mr. Caldwell condemns the South for its “refusal to assimilate the blood of an alien race of another color, or to tolerate its presence,” I cannot go along with him. It is not clear that the best future for Southern people could be achieved by intermingling of blood. A good case might be made out for the opposite view. The intermingling of blood in South American countries has not resulted in a high level of culture, and it is not beyond dispute that any high state of civilization has ever resulted from such intermingling. Furthermore, there is a substantial array of facts to support the argument that better relations exist between black and white in the Southern United States than between peoples of such widely different colors and heritages anywhere else in the civilized world. One has to know only a very little about the Negro in South Africa or in French West Africa to know that the nine million Negroes in the South have a far better chance to enjoy civilized life. I doubt whether anything can be done to improve living conditions for the Negro in the Southern United States unless the advantages which he already enjoys are recognized. Nothing is to be gained by a large indefinite sympathy which wishes to improve conditions, but which does not have knowledge of conditions elsewhere as a basis for comparison, and which therefore is of necessity lacking in any definite idea of what improvement is.

The South, says Mr. Caldwell, is a worn-out agricultural empire. Nevertheless, it produced last year eighteen million bales of cotton, the largest crop in the history of the region. “Cotton,” says Mr. Caldwell, “was king, but it is not king any longer.” But in spite of this pronouncement, the price of cotton remains the dominant factor in Southern life.

Mr. Caldwell is not optimistic about the plans which have been presented for the alleviation of the South’s poverty. “What the South has most to fear,” he writes, “are well meant, but irresponsible, plans for its regeneration.” If those who have been studying Southern problems during the last ten or twenty years had formulated no better proposals than those Mr. Caldwell mentions, then I can understand how he could regard them as dangerous. “Sociologists of one school,” he writes, “stake their reputations on a plan for the sterilization of the mentally and physically unfit among the tenant farmers.” I should like to know who these sociologists are. “Another school,” he continues, “hold to the belief that educational advantages and health instruction will suffice.” He does not mention the regional planners or the Agrarians or other important schools of thought. He pooh-poohs the attribution of the South’s poverty to such causes as slavery, climate, hookworm, insect pests, and high tariffs, and puts the whole burden on the greed of Southern landlords. He asserts that no plan thus far advocated for the relief of the South will be sufficient. He follows this with these two statements: “There is no reason to believe that any plan would succeed unless it were accompanied by reeducation and supervision,” and “there are two means of bringing about a change, collective action by the tenant farmers themselves, or government control of cotton farm-ing.

I fail to find anything new or enlightening in Mr. Caldwell’s proposals. He is either woefully ignorant or he is simply indulging in the old political method of misrepresenting or inadequately representing the platforms of others, and then proposing measures which have long been familiar and are already partly in operation. But if Southern tenant farmers are at all like the Jeeter Lesters and Ty Ty Wald-ens with whom Mr. Caldwell has peopled his South, I cannot help wondering what good could come out of their collective action. Nor can much good be expected from government control if the persons controlled are of the type that Mr. Caldwell has led us to believe now populate the South.

Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs in “You Have Seen Their Faces” are as nearly perfect as any I have ever seen and they are excellently printed. However, the pictures do not confirm “the South’s despair.” On the contrary, many of them show people who seem to be healthy and happy in spite of poverty. The most extreme poverty is revealed by some, but those showing even the worst conditions may be matched many thousand times in New York City or in other metropolitan centers. A few weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon I walked by Manhattan Bridge and saw a crowd of several hundred men gathered together in a small space on the sidewalk near the bridge. I doubt whether as much misery could be found in several Southern counties as was huddled in this small space of a few hundred square feet. I do not offer this as an excuse for Southern complacency. On the contrary, I believe the South must recognize that evils of the kind Mr. Caldwell describes actually exist in this region, and must do what it can to correct them. But I do not believe anything good can be accomplished unless those who work on the problem have a balanced view of it.

Harry Harrison Kroll’s “I Was a Share-Cropper” presents an entirely different picture of the tenant farmer, and I believe a much more authentic one than Mr. Caldwell has ever imagined. Mr. Kroll’s work is autobiographical, and his recollections, I fear, have taken on a glow that is perhaps too warm and romantic. However, when you read his book, you know that events like those he describes have occurred, and that people like those in his book have lived. He is a little too inclined, I think, to place the blame for the tenant’s poverty on the tenant himself, whereas Mr. Caldwell places it all on the landlord. “I Was a Share-Cropper” is a book which will grow in favor, and which will rank with such classics as “The Time of Man.” If we ever pass out of the present era of sentimental slush, of undiscriminating sympathy on the one hand and of merriment over psychopaths on the other, Mr. Caldwell’s works will be forgotten.


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