Cotton Tale

George Sessions Perry’s novel about a Central Texas tenant farmer wond a national book award in 1942. Haven’t read it? Maybe you should.

ALTHOUGH CATTLE, cactus, and cowboys define most people’s idea of the major motifs of Texas literature, a fourth c belongs at the top of that list: cotton. King Cotton. From the post—Civil War era to the middle of this century, it was cotton, not cattle, that propelled Texas’ agrarian economy. “Cattle ran a distant second to cotton,” wrote historian John Spratt in The Road to Spindletop. “In dollar value of the product, in number of persons employed, and in industrial activity generated, cotton stood alone—far in advance of all competitors.”

Years before such classics of cattle culture as Red River, Giant, and Lonesome Dove defined the state to the world, a Texas novel that wasn’t about cowboys or Longhorns or the long cattle drive north won critical acclaim; it was about a tenant farmer who worked 68 acres of rich blackland soil in what was unmistakably Milam County, some sixty miles northeast of Austin. The book, George Sessions Perry’s Hold Autumn in Your Hand, won a Texas Institute of Letters award in 1941 and an American Booksellers Award the next year and was made into a celebrated movie of 1945 titled The Southerner, directed by world-class French auteur Jean Renoir. All of this and no cowboys. Although Perry is not well known now, he cut a wide swath in his day. Texas Writers Month is an opportune time to look back at someone who ranks in the top tier of Lone Star lit.

Perry never wrote anything as good after Hold Autumn in Your Hand, but in it he created the best picture we have of a vanished way of life—a world of subsistence farming and the yearlong ritual of planting and picking cotton. In another of his books, Cities of America, Perry summed up the importance of cotton culture in pre—World War II Texas: “The mainstay of our existence, the thing on which we bet most heavily in labor and the future, was cotton, and the corn needed to empower our mules to cultivate that cotton. In those days, if boll weevils, droughts or floods destroyed the cotton, we, as a community, were destitute.” By the time he wrote that, in 1947, the end of the old means of cotton production—by hand, by tenant farmers—was inevitable; by 1950 the cost of producing a bale of cotton the old way was $45, compared with $11 and a few pennies by machine. The era of the cotton picker was doomed as certainly as “the clipper ships, the prairie schooners and the Mississippi River steamboats,” Perry noted in a 1952 article for The Saturday Evening Post, “I Hate to See Those Cotton Pickers Go.” But go they did, and no amount of Old South nostalgia would bring them back.

Hold Autumn in Your Hand, which is still in print (University of New Mexico Press), might be called “Little Farmhouse on the Blackland Prairie.” Sam Tucker is a 38-year-old barely literate sharecropper who has been farming on “sandy land” (thin, unproductive soil that produces only “nubbin’s”) or, even worse, working in a gang of agricultural peons for a big landowner named Ruston. He goes to Ruston and works out a deal to farm a small piece of rich ground that is lying fallow. Sam wants a chance to plumb the mysteries of black “gumbo,” the thick, deep blackland soil that produces the best cotton. It is a way for him to prove to himself that he is a real farmer and a good man. An added plus for Sam is that the property is on the San Gabriel River (called the San Pedro in the novel), north of Hackberry (Perry’s name for his hometown of Rockdale, located at the intersection of U.S. Highway 79, FM 908, and FM 487). When Perry lived in Rockdale, from his birth, in 1910, until the mid-fifties, the town’s population hovered around two thousand. It tripled in the early fifties, when Alcoa built a huge plant southwest of town to take advantage of deposits of lignite, a cheap energy source that had been mined at that site since the late nineteenth century. The advent of Alcoa changed everything; in another 1952 Post article, Perry called Rockdale “The Town Where It Rains Money.” Today the Alcoa plant still hums along and the population holds steady at just over five thousand.

A town man, Perry closely observed the rural folk who came to Rockdale on Saturday afternoons, and he also encountered them during the many years he spent hunting and fishing in the nearby countryside, including the very farm where the novel is set. Out of such knowledge he crafted a book chock-full of colorful rural idioms, scraps of songs, and the mores of a rawboned American peasantry. Perry’s surefooted sense of the culture rings true throughout. One character is named Clappy Finley because he has a “perennial dose of claps.” When Sam takes his cow to be bred with a neighbor’s bull under the cover of darkness, he reasons that “it was just like swipin a ride on the train. It’s goin where it’s goin anyhow.” Sam’s middle name, White, is the name of the doctor who delivered him and who was never paid for his services.

Once Ruston agrees to Sam’s proposition to farm the parcel of land on the San Gabriel, Sam, his wife, Nona, their two kids, Daisy and Jot, and Sam’s irascible grandmother move into a shack on the place and begin the yearlong cycle of what Sam thinks of as a “play-pretty year.” “Play-pretty” is just one of many phrases in the novel that puzzle the mostly suburban-bred students in my Southwestern Literature course at UT-Austin. The old rural usage refers to a toy, and breaking and farming 68 acres of intractable, sticky black soil is Sam’s idea of fun. Every day is like Christmas to Sam Tucker as long as he can be his own boss and grow his own crops. Although he has never heard of Thomas Jefferson’s works on political agronomy, he is

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