A Mother’s Tale by James Agee, 1958
The magic trick:
Using cows to teach humans about their lives
You might be surprised to learn that today’s SSMT feature involves the anthropomorphism of cows. You might be even more surprised to learn that the anthropomorphism of said cows results in an incredibly philosophical and emotionally engaging story.
When you get talking cows, you have to think to yourself, “OK, cool, talking cows. So why did the author pick that? Why did he decide this was the best way to make his point?” The best answer I could come up with is it gives the reader a little bit of an alien point of view. We are able to see something we take for granted in our lives – in this case, the process that puts beef on our dinner table – in a new light. We are able to learn something new about an everyday aspect of our lives. If it was the same story from the human point of view, or even from a static third-person, descriptive point of view, we wouldn’t get the same lessons as we do here.
Further, we are then able to process that point of view and easily compare it to other more-human scenarios. Wherever your mind wants to go – the African slave trade, Native Americans, the Holocaust, etc. It’s there for you to think about.
And that’s quite a trick on Agee’s part.
“What he told was what I have just told you. But his purpose was away beyond just the telling. When they asked questions, no matter how curious or suspicious or idle or foolish, he leaned, toward the last, to answer them with all the patience he could and in all the detail he could remember. He even invited them to examine his wounded heels and the pulsing wound in his head as closely as they pleased. He even begged them to, for he knew that before everything else, he must be believed. For unless we could believe him, wherever could we find any reason, or enough courage, to do the hard and dreadful things he told us we must do! “It was only these things, he cared about. Only for these, he came back.”
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Thanks for posting something by Agee, even though it’s his only story worthy of the other writers on this site. This famous allegory/horror story reminds us of Kafka and expresses similar contradictions: the hopelessness of the individual against the “man with the hammer” and yet the survival instinct of the “one who got away”. Horrible to contemplate but a lesson in bravery for mankind and cow-kind, alike. Today Agee’s only remembered as one of the best film reviewers, but his novel A DEATH IN THE FAMILY once won a Pulitzer (though it’s forgotten now) and his essay “Knoxville, Summer 1915” is one of the most perfect pieces of American prose…ever.
I couldn’t quite crack this one. I’ll have to check out his other work, particularly if that essay is perfection!