The Strange Power of Nate Shaw (01/08/75)


In 1906, Nate Shaw, twenty-one, the illiterate son of former slaves, set out to raise his first cotton crop as a sharecropper in Tukabahchee County, Alabama. Sixty-three years later Theodore Rosengarten came South to investigate a long-forgotten organization called the Alabama Share­croppers Union. Shaw had joined the Union in the early ’30s. In 1932 he had stood for the Union against a gang of sheriffs sent to take over a friend’s property. And he paid for his stand with twelve years in prison.

The two men met and talked and instead of facts for his studies Rosengarten came away with the same confusion of awe, respect, horror and love that James Agee and Walker Evans found in the ’30s when they went to Alabama to prepare a straightforward account of the daily life of white tenant farmers for Fortune magazine.

Agee wrote Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Rosengarten has let Nate Shaw speak for himself. Editing more than a hundred hours of Shaw’s spoken autobiography covering his early boyhood to the ’70s—and editing those conversations with a sensitivity, grace, and imagination that are as rare as the story he was told—is monumental. Rosengarten has given us a book that I think will be read and read again for as long a time as any book ever published in this country.

For All God’s Dangers is a titanic book; it is many books. It is an account of the life of a small farmer, full of the details of crops, weather, harvests, markets, the day-to-day struggles to get life out of the land. It is perhaps the richest illustration we have ever had of the old idea of America as “a good poor man’s country.” All God’s Dangers is the history of racism in America told by a man who dedicated himself early to surviving it and triumphing over it. It is a book of politics, courtship, genealogy, family life, honor, religion, work, civility, resentment, love, philosophy, and violence. It is a good long story that can keep you up half the night, reading spellbound as Shaw reconstructs every detail of a horse-trade or an attempt to cheat him or his work hauling logs. More than anything else, all 560 pages are the testament of a man who never accepted the limits he was expected to live within, and who, with this book, has finally escaped those limits for all time.

Shaw was not an ordinary man and he never understood himself to be one. He cannot be reduced to a type, a symbol, or a cause. He wanted as much out of life as he could desire and earn. He worked, loved, raised children, prospered. He suffered his oppression, but even in prison he found the space to set himself apart, to live a life that was not only decent but memorable. He thought about what he did and what was done to him, so that when he finally told his story he knew not only exactly what he was talking about but that his story was worth telling: that it was unique, and meant to be heard. Thus the tale comes off the pages without apology, full of struc­ture, suspense, order, clarity and drama, as if Nate Shaw had long ago determined not to quit this life without leaving a piece of his own behind.

All God’s Dangers is a book of strange power. I can’t explain why I found Shaw’s climax to a long account of his days hauling logs—“I loved that work”—so overwhelming, so beautiful. Similarly, I found Shaw’s description of his ambitions—“I considered many a scheme to profit my farmin’ in the limits of what a farmer could do; hit or miss, it gived me great pleasure to try out myself.”—more exciting and more ominous than the pages devoted to his shootouts with the sheriffs. Shaw speaks as if there was not a trivial moment in his life; as if there was neither an event, nor a relationship, that he touched without looking into it for its meaning and its mystery.

Shaw could say, as an old man, after making his first trip North to visit his children and pronouncing the North better than the world he knew, “I feel a certain loyalty to the state of Alabama: I was born and raised here and I have sowed my labor the earth and lived to reap only a part of it, not all that was mine by human right. It’s too late for me to realize it now, all that I put in to this state. I stays on if it gives ’em satisfaction for me to leave and I stays on because it’s mine.”

Nate Shaw died just over a year ago, at the age of eighty-eight. Nothing I can write in the space I have could do more than suggest the tragedy and the delight of his book; books of this stature arrive once or twice in a generation, if that. So you can read this book to your children, or you can wait for the day that they will be reading it to you.

City, January 8, 1975

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