‘Cotton Tenants: Three Families,’ by James Agee

In the summer of 1936, the editors of Fortune magazine sent a 26-year-old poet and journalist named James Agee to Alabama to report on the struggles of poor white sharecroppers in America’s Cotton Belt. With photographer Walker Evans, Agee spent two months living among three families and chronicling a way of life “so continuously and entirely consumed into the effort merely and barely to sustain itself; so profoundly deprived and harmed and atrophied in the courses of that effort, that it can be called life at all only by biological courtesy.”

Agee shaped the material he gathered into a 400-page book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” now considered a landmark of literary nonfiction. The original magazine article he was to have written never appeared, however, and Agee himself left few clues as to its fate. “The trip was very hard, and certainly one of the best things I’ve ever had happen to me,” he wrote at the time. “Writing what we found is a different matter. Impossible in any form and length Fortune can use; and I am now so stultified trying to do that, that I’m afraid I’ve lost the ability to make it right in my own way.”

(Melville House) - “Cotton Tenants: Three Families” by James Agee, photographs by Walker Evans

Now, more than 50 years after Agee’s death in 1955 — of a heart attack at the age of 45 — a 30,000-word manuscript has been discovered among his papers and published as “Cotton Tenants: Three Families.” The book’s editor, John Summers of Baffler magazine, is careful to say that he can’t be sure if this is the original submission to Fortune: “There’s no good reason to believe Agee wrote a later draft,” he says, but it’s possible. In either case, what we find here is a beautifully written and fully realized account of Agee’s time in Alabama, a more accessible curtain raiser to the “prose symphony” of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” “Cotton Tenants” provides “a good deal more than source material,” writes novelist Adam Haslett in an informative preface. “Agee’s aim is to excite the reader’s outrage by describing the particular disadvantages of tenant farmers in meticulous detail.” At the same time, the reader sees Agee evolving as a writer as his sense of “morally indignant anthropology” takes hold.

The broad strokes of Agee’s life are well known. The writer “never lacked for recognition as a poet, film critic, or screenwriter,” Summers tells us in an editor’s note, but at the time of his early death, there was an undercurrent of unfulfilled promise. It would be three years before his autobiographical novel, “A Death in the Family,” appeared, winning a posthumous Pulitzer and securing Agee’s place in the literary pantheon. “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” also had a slow path to recognition, selling only a few hundred copies on its initial publication in 1941. He had left Fortune by that time, and it is tempting to say he was the architect of his own difficulties there, his piece on the Alabama sharecroppers being simply too radical for the stuffed shirts at publisher Henry Luce’s magazine empire. The truth appears to have been more complicated.

From the opening pages of “Cotton Tenants,” it’s clear that Agee had an ax to grind: “A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage . . . is worthy neither of the name or of continuance,” he declares. “And a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea.”

This must surely have raised some editorial eyebrows at Fortune, and as Agee himself wrote to a friend: “I suspect the fault, dear Fortune, is in me.”

Much of what appears in “Cotton Tenants” was eventually expanded and elaborated upon in “Famous Men,” and Agee’s many admirers will enjoy contrasting the two different takes on the material. In the later book, Agee chose to mask the identities of his subjects out of an understandable concern for their privacy. He did not trouble to do so in this earlier version, and some of the best passages find him describing the three families with a startling, poetic immediacy: “Frank Tingle is fifty-four. Crepe forehead, monkey eyebrows, slender nearly boneless nose, vermillion gums. A face pleated and lined elaborately as a Japanese mask; its skin the color of corpsemeat.”

In recent years, there have been several occasions when a famous writer’s “lost manuscript” has suddenly surfaced, with decidedly mixed results.

It is a pleasure to report that Agee’s work is entirely deserving of our praise. The stark, haunting photographs by Walker Evans, some of which had never been published, embody what critic Hilton Kramer called “the moral and aesthetic texture” of the era. “Cotton Tenants” demonstrates the pleasure to be found, as Agee writes in these pages, when someone does “the work he cares most to do and is best capable of doing.”

Stashower is the author of “The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War.”

COTTON TENANTS

Three Families

By James Agee and Walker Evans

Melville House. 224 pp. $24.95

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