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.

May 1999By Comments

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 the embodiment of Jefferson’s vision of the yeoman farmer.

The tale takes place in the dead-end days of the Great Depression. Internal evidence, such as references to “back in ’36” and the “Twin Days” (February 28 and 29), points to 1940, a leap year, as the most probable time frame. In 1940 the Depression was still playing in Milam County, and by then it must have seemed a permanent road show. The Tuckers are so “pore” they don’t have the money to buy a new skillet, and Nona has to hold hers at just the right angle to keep the grease from running out through a hole. Their diet is echt Texas poor white Depression fare: “short-varmints” such as squirrels and opossum and lots of cornbread. A pound of coffee is like manna from heaven, a ready-made cigarette an unheard-of luxury.

The novel begins as an indictment of a punishing economic system, a theme that was hardly unique at the time; the thirties had been filled with photojournalism and fiction devoted to the evils of tenant farming. James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with its memorable photos by Walker Evans, set the standard for photojournalism, just as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath did for fiction. Down in Texas, where cotton was every bit as royal as it was in the Deep South, people now long forgotten labored in the fields of fiction—writers like Dorothy Scarborough (In the Land of Cotton), Ruth Cross (The Golden Cocoon), Laura Smith Krey (And Tell of Time), and many others. In The White Scourge (1940), Edward Everett Davis, perhaps the most lurid of the cotton laureates, limned the cotton field as “the great open air slum of the South, a perennial Hades of poverty, ignorance, and social depravity.” According to Davis, whose credentials included being the dean of North Texas Agricultural College (now the University of Texas at Arlington), cotton culture consisted of a bottom-dog mongrel mix of “lowly blacks, peonized Mexicans, and moronic whites numbering into several millions.” Davis’ amateurish novel can still provoke strong reactions. The title page of one of the copies at the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin carries an irate reader’s penciled note: “Never has there been a ‘so called educated man’ that is so filled with hate and racial prejudice!”

The curious thing about Perry’s novel, however, is how quickly it abandons its criticism of tenant farming and, instead, becomes a prose paean to the agrarian ideal. A farmer, Perry writes, is “a man who feels out the darkest of mysteries with the tendrils of his imagination.” In fertile ground, corn grows “like plants in a myth.” The harvest is “the deeply satisfying thing that must come rhythmically at the end of the land cycle.” The novel is, finally, about the satisfactions of farming the good earth, contrasted with the sterile environment of another kind of labor: working on an assembly line in an automobile plant in Houston.

Throughout the novel, Houston looms as the magnet that inexorably pulls the sons of the soil away from the land and the joys of woods and fields, river and mystery, to the city and its soulless factory jobs, where one is no longer master of his time and labor. Once, before he was married, Sam had worked in a Ford factory in Houston, rubbing fenders with a compound to even out the paint. The job paid well, but there was a cost to the spirit that he could not accept: “The thing was that a man could not have the proper diet rubbing fenders. It took all that stuff out of you and didn’t put anything back.” Sam remembers this more than once during his play-pretty year, because the truth that he doesn’t want to accept is that Houston and another killing factory job are what await him. Perry’s original last chapter contained several pages of explicit, gloomy prophecy of the inevitable end of Sam’s life on the farm. One passage contrasts the beauty and bounty of the river, where Sam fishes and alongside which he hunts, with another, urban “river of steel and banana oil, a river that only took things out of you and gave nothing back except four dollars a day.” What Sam fears, in another passage, is “the robot life of an assembly line attendant.” But Perry’s publisher preferred a more upbeat ending, and these passages were deleted.

Even so, the attentive reader finds plenty of hints in the novel to suggest that the siren call of Houston’s higher wages is present and potent, and in the end will prove irresistible. The reader even begins to understand that Sam’s play-pretty year has in some ways been a childish self-indulgence having more to do with his needs than with those of his family, though Sam does all that any man could to keep his family fed and clothed and sheltered in a time when, as FDR famously said, one third of the nation fell short in each of these requirements for a decent life.

The lovely, poetic title of Perry’s novel refers not to cotton but to the produce from a vegetable garden. The Tuckers live so far out in the sticks they haven’t heard of canning and preserving vegetables, and a crisis is precipitated when the youngest child, Jot, grows ill with “spring sickness,” or pellagra, a vitamin deficiency that ravaged poor families in the thirties. Later, his sister, Daisy, who attends school and has listened to the remedy prescribed by the county home-demonstration agent, tells her family of a way to prevent pellagra. The solution is fresh vegetables, and the Tuckers learn that a garden of vegetables, preserved in jars, allows one to realize, as Sam imagines it, “the dream . . . of holding autumn in his hand throughout the winter.” Sam’s dream is almost destroyed by his bad neighbor, Henry Devers, who out of envy and pure meanness lets his animals loose in Sam’s garden. Sam wins the day, however, by trading bragging rights on the giant catfish he has caught for the vegetables in Henry’s garden.

Although Sam is victorious on that front, his cotton crop is destroyed. Among all the disastrous things that can happen to a cotton crop, the two worst are not enough rain and too much rain at the wrong time. In the novel Sam has wonderful cotton, a bale an acre, until the rains come and the river floods the fields.

The farm that gave Perry the biggest success of his career had a peculiar hold on his imagination. In a book he later wrote about farming he spoke of how he “envied Sam Tucker” and wished to “undergo the same rigors.” With money from the novel and the film, Perry satisfied his “thirst for personal agronomy” by buying the “little Hold Autumn farm” as well as a larger farm about a mile away, on Brushy Creek. But ironically, instead of growing crops, he had the farms converted to grazing land and stocked them with Hereford cattle.

In Rockdale today Perry’s memory is kept green by old-timers who were neighbors of his, like Mildred Harris Baker, and pals such as former mayor and Ford dealer W. P. “Red” Hogan, who sold automobiles to Perry and hunted quail with him. Thanks to the efforts of Mark Brady, a dynamic history teacher at Rockdale High School (where Perry himself posted an unimpressive record), Perry looms large in the town’s civic consciousness. Back in 1992, Brady and his honors history class petitioned for the historical marker that stands in front of the Lucy Hill Patterson Memorial Library, at 201 Ackerman Street, conducting oral-history interviews with those who knew Perry and writing the text for the marker. Within an easy walk of the marker is the house at 339 Green Street where Perry and his wife, Claire Hodges Perry, lived in the thirties, during the lean years of his apprenticeship to the craft of writing.

Traces of the old agrarian economy are evident everywhere in modern Rockdale. The county fair, held every October, is still a big deal, and the Premium Food Preservation Awards, a competition for home-canned foods, offers ten adult and four youth prizes. The October 8, 1998, edition of the weekly Rockdale Reporter carried an article on “pig showmanship” written by an extension agent aptly named Joel Pigg and an amazing story about a local catfish that was found to contain the remains of a baby deer.

The historical marker ends with a phrase that must puzzle some people: “before his death in 1956—57.” But in fact the exact date of Perry’s death is unknown. A life that had been made increasingly difficult by acute arthritis, depression, and a nervous breakdown had a sad ending. Perry and his wife were living in their vacation home in Guilford, Connecticut, when, on December 13, 1956, he vanished. After two months of  extensive search efforts Perry’s body was found, dressed only in socks, in a river about two miles from his home. Not long before his disappearance Perry had told friends, “The best thing I can do in this depressed state is jump into the river and swim to the North Pole or run into the woods until I drop.” The discovery of his body made the front page of the Dallas Morning News.

Last October, Bill Cooke, the owner of the Rockdale Reporter, and I spent part of a sunny afternoon searching for the Hold Autumn farm. Leaving Rockdale on FM 908, at the north edge of town, we drove past the cemetery where Perry and his wife are buried. Continuing on for about five and a half miles, through a picturesque countryside marked by clumps of post oak and fields where fat cattle grazed, we crossed an unmarked bridge over Brushy Creek, then kept going for two and a half miles until we got to the place where County Road 432, a gravel road, runs into FM 908 from the left. The parcel of land just off FM 908 to the right is now covered with grass, and it is bordered on the north side by a line of dense brush and tall trees that conceals the San Gabriel River as it winds its way eastward.

As near as we could tell, the Hold Autumn farm was just here, between the river and the road. But like Perry, you have to use your imagination to conjure it the way it was in his novel.

Don Graham compiled an oral history of the filming of The Last Picture Show for the February issue of TEXAS MONTHLY.

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