Monday, August 04, 2014

Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry

In their 1945 film The Southerner director Jean Renoir and screenwriter Hugo Butler drew their vision of the American South directly from the George Sessions Perry novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, published in 1941, and winner of the National Book Award.  The film follows the novel closely, though it simplifies the plot and reduces the cast of characters--most of the novel’s main characters are in the film.  The novel focuses on a sharecropper named Sam Tucker and his family.  Sam has tired of sharecropping and wants to try to make a go of it on a 66-acre plot of land that belongs to another farmer in East Texas, the setting of the story.  Told episodically, the novel describes how Sam moves his family, his first encounters with neighbors, the sickness of his youngest son from pellagra, the sowing of his crops, conflicts with a neighbor who allows his cows and hogs to run through Sam’s garden, and Sam’s ambitions to catch a large catfish.  In the novel, Sam is a distinctive individual, but he’s also cast as an example of a larger class of small farmers facing harsh economic and environmental conditions.  There’s a mild sentimentalism to the novel, and one is tempted to compare it with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939).  In the novel, Sam is no virtuous exemplar.  He operates by his own codes, whether or not they comply with the world around him.  But in general, I think, he is portrayed as a hardworking and virtuous man dedicated to farming and to earning his way.  He’s the model of the emblematic Jeffersonian farmer.  You can imagine him set in contrast against the sky in a Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton painting, or a John Ford film (and, as it happened, a Jean Renoir film).  He’s also the descendant, by a generation or two, of the Southern frontiersman, who carries on the tradition and individualistic values of his progenitors.  He hunts squirrels, fishes, gets into fights, gets drunk, considers lost property (such as a fishing net) his own, resists the entreaties of a local prostitute because of his love for his wife, cares about his children, makes good on his promises and debts, and so on.  (If his attempt at independent farming should fail, these traditions and values, the things he represents, are at risk).  He’s a little too good to be true, but in that sense he’s what an emblem of something larger than himself should be.  In fairly similar form the episodes of the novel find their way into Renoir’s film.  Both novel and film portray farming as a desirable alternative to factory work and city life.  The novel gives a more detailed, realistic accounting of the lives of poor dirt farmers than the film. It also casts the plight of the poor dirt farmers in a political context, comparing their plight to that of migrant workers in California, after the fashion of The Grapes of Wrath.  In the original ending of the novel, which Perry was dissuaded from using by his publisher, Sam Tucker gives up after a year of farming and decides to go to work for the factory in the city.[1]  The version of the novel that was published give no hint that Sam Tucker would ever give up. 

[1] Maxine C. Hairston, “Afterword,” Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry. Albuquerque, NM: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1975.  Novel originally published in 1941.


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