Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As in all beast fables, Agee’s animals have human characteristics, and his tale really is not about cows but people. The mother cow is given motherly qualities of bemusement, concern, and solicitude, while her children are inquisitive, impatient, and naïve. The One Who Came Back is heroic, tenacious, and suffering, while The Man with the Hammer is all that is cruel and inhuman in human nature. Agee begins the story like a fairy tale (“The calf ran up the little hill as fast as he could.”), but by the end, we have listened to a horror story as harrowing as that of Dachau, site of the notorious Nazi concentration camp of World War II. The daughter’s simple-minded question at the tale’s end, “What’s a train?” indicates that nothing of the story’s import has gotten through to her.

Agee’s style ranges from the poetic descriptions of the hillside and of the moving cattle herd to the brutal descriptions of the cattle train and slaughterhouse, told from the cattle’s point of view. Readers are made to feel what the cattle feel, see what they see, and experience what befalls them, as though they are part of them. In a sense they are, for they too will fall to The Man with the Hammer, the nameless killer that will take the life of man and cow alike. The nobility of everyone, Agee says, is in humankind’s feeble attempt to rise above mortality and suffering—to endure.