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Let Us Now Praise James Agee

Cotton Tenants: Three Families

by James Agee and Walker Evans, edited by John Summers and with a preface by Adam Haslett
The Baffler/Melville House, 224 pp., $24.95
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Walker Evans: Crossroads Store, Post Office, Sprott, Alabama, circa 1935–1936

Amazing to think that in 1936 the editors of Fortune magazine cared enough about the hard lives of tenant farmers in the South’s Cotton Belt that they sent a reporter and a photographer to Alabama to do a story on them. One explanation is that the magazine was going through a weird period. Henry Luce, who founded Fortune as a business magazine with a target audience of tycoons and millionaires, had recently noticed the Depression. The then-widespread notion that straight-ahead, free-market capitalism did not always work had begun to make inroads upon his mind.

Fortune’s writing staff at the time included a lot of left-wing types, such as Dwight Macdonald, temporarily a self-declared Trotskyite, who imitated Trotsky’s look, even to the round glasses and goatee. Certain writers at the magazine simmered in constant low-level mutiny against capitalism, big business, corporate journalism, and Luce, the boss. James Agee, twenty-six years old, four years out of Harvard, headed the list both for mutinous sentiments and skill at his job. He was from Tennessee. A Fortune piece he did on the Tennessee Valley Authority was one of the best the magazine ever published, in the estimation of Luce himself. The editors picked Agee as the logical writer for the tenant farmer story. To accompany him they sent the photographer Walker Evans, whom Agee may have asked for specifically. He did not want to work with Margaret Bourke-White, a popular Fortune photographer who, Agee believed, stood for all that he despised.

Evans was thirty-two. The young men descended from Fortune’s offices high in the then-new Chrysler Building, stowed a lot of photographic equipment in a car, and drove west and south, ending eventually in a part of rural Alabama that was, in most respects, about as far as you could get in America from the place where they began. They found some tenant farmers (technically, two tenant farmers and one sharecropper), stayed with the family of one of them for about a month (Agee stayed with them more than did Evans, who preferred a hotel in a nearby town), and returned separately to New York. Agee wrote up the experience in a piece of about 30,000 words and turned it in. Fortune declined to publish it. The article’s length may have been one reason, along with Agee’s reluctance to rewrite. In fact, by the time Agee returned from Alabama, Fortune’s brief leftish moment had passed.

Now, seventy-seven years after the tenant farmer piece was written, it has come out as a short book. The manuscript was lost for years and previous books on the subject of Agee have only been able to speculate about it. More recently, a daughter of Agee’s found it while going through his papers. The main reason to publish it is, of course, its connection to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the much longer work that Agee made of the experience. After Luce released the original article to him Agee spent years refashioning the material into Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which appeared in 1941. It received little notice at the time but became a hit in 1960 when it was reissued.

Cotton Tenants: Three Families is so choked with Agee’s anger—at Fortune, at the misery of the Depression, at the wretchedness of the lives of the people he is writing about, at economic injustice, at himself—that you can almost see him turning blue as he writes. Here, for example, is an épater riff from the introductory part of the article:

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 nor of continuance. 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.

What were the odds that Fortune, or any business magazine, or any magazine at all to the right of the Socialist Worker, would publish a reporting piece with a warm-up sentence like that? Agee must have known that he was engaged in an “eyes-only” exercise, producing flourishes at which an editor would smile indulgently before taking out the red pencil. And yet for that same reason there’s also something beguiling about the tone—as if the writing is a conversation between the author and an intimate, his old roommate from Harvard, say, and the level of mutual understanding is such that no statement is inadmissible and the nuances and scandalous remarks remain between friends. When describing a pretty mirror in one of the families’ houses, Agee says that “certain fanciers of the antique would have nocturnal emissions” over it. In all likelihood he did not expect that to appear in the magazine.

Cotton Tenants: Three Families is unedited footage, in other words. The editorial decisions that might have altered it were never made, except for the final decision not to use the piece at all. The names of the farmers and their wives and children and landlords are the actual names, not the pseudonyms Agee gave them in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Presumably the names would have been changed in the magazine; the real names are better and realer somehow. And the guy-to-guy Ivy League voice Agee was so comfortable with despite himself distanced him well from his poor subjects. An eccentric old woman tenant, the disreputable mother of an even more disreputable daughter, is described as resembling “a derelict member of the Cosmopolitan Club” (a club for mainly the well-do-to-do civic-minded women in New York City, founded in 1909 and still in existence, as I discovered online). The vegetable garden of one of the families is the size of a tennis court, we’re told, and one of the tenant farmers wears a beat-up hat “that any Dartmouth man of ten years back would forfeit at least the Freshman game with St. Anselm’s prep for.” Of those descriptions, only the tennis court analogy made it to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Fortune routinely permitted the subjects of its articles to see the articles and respond to them before publication. That would not have happened with the tenant farmers, one assumes. To begin with, most of the tenants in the article could not read. In Agee’s portrait they seem to exist far beyond the world of either the writer or the reader as he reveals the sad details of their lives. He notes the filth, the smells, the stomach-turning food, the vermin, the shabby clothes, the flies—

a whole drowsing fog of them, struggling and letching on the food, hanging from the mouths and the plastered cheeks of the children, vibrating to death in the buttermilk.

Chickens wander around on the floor of a family’s cabin pecking at the “mealy dung” deposited there by the puppy and the youngest child. Later, when Agee lists the foods in the family’s diet, he includes “an occasional chicken, a dependable part of whose diet has been human excrement.” Another family, whose house and clothing and bodies he describes as “insanely dirty,” is also characterized as “uncommonly sensitive and easily hurt.” Ouch! Illiterate or not, if the article were to be published, they were one day going to learn what he had written about them. His journalistic methods sometimes evoke those old-time operations that were done on a kitchen table without anesthetic.

But Agee loved these people, too. Even confined within the frame of a magazine article the strength of feeling comes across. When he explains how a tenant can take a season’s worth of cotton to market and end up with a low three-figure sum to last him the rest of the year—or, just as often, fall back into debt—outrage informs even the punctuation marks. The attentiveness with which this piece goes into each stage of the planting and cultivation and harvesting and ginning of cotton carries affection and respect for the people he’s observing. Fortune was about how stuff was made, so Agee gives us cotton. To grow it on marginal land (as these farmers did) was a sort of teasing of order out of entropy. Cultivation required several almost shamanic operations as the cotton plants grew. One such was called sweeping, which involved moving dirt gently onto the bases of the plants. There were four sweepings, each different from the others:

The fourth sweeping is so light a scraping that it is scarcely more than a ritual, like a barber’s last delicate moments with his own soul before he holds the mirror up to the dark side of your skull.

That is how tenderly Agee could write—guy-to-guy voice or no, in a magazine piece or anywhere.

Reading Cotton Tenants: Three Families all the way through without taking Let Us Now Praise Famous Men down from the shelf for cross-reference may be possible, but I couldn’t do it. Each book makes you curious about the other and acts as the other’s gloss. Take the question of why Agee chose to write only about white tenant farmers. At the beginning of Cotton Tenants he says:

No serious study of any aspect of cotton tenancy would be complete without mention at least of the landlord and of the Negro: one tenant in three is a Negro. But this is not their story. Any honest consideration of the Negro would crosslight and distort the issue with the problems not of a tenant but of a race: any fair discussion of landholders would involve us in economic and psychological problems which there is room only to indicate here.

This is a skillful obfuscation. Agee does, in fact, go on to talk about the relations between the white farmers and their landlords, and adds an appendix (a magazine article with an appendix?) titled “On Negroes.” The reason he left out black tenants from the main part of his story was simple: Fortune had no interest in them. Black people in poverty weren’t news, whereas white people suffering hard times would make the Depression real to the readers of Fortune.

In Famous Men Agee doesn’t bother to note this omission. He only says, of a landlord who has offered to introduce him to some tenants, “nearly all his tenants were negroes and no use to me.” But the form of the longer work gives him a chance to put some black people in anyway, and when he does—in a description of black singers, or an awkward story about how he unintentionally frightened a black couple on the road—he observes them closely and without presupposition, and the scenes are totally alive.

If you view Cotton Tenants and Famous Men as a sequence, the first seems like the dam from which the second burst: the tight-lipped guy-to-guy shorthand of the first hemorrhages into the confessions, declarations of love, passionate divagations, and occasional incoherencies of the second. A single almost throwaway sentence from the magazine piece sometimes becomes pages after fevered pages in the book. In the magazine piece, he describes a trunk in the front room of the family he is staying with; in the book, he says he waited for the family to leave, and then he not only looked at the trunk, he opened it and went through everything in it and opened drawers and cupboards and keepsake boxes and closets and rifled all of the belongings of his hosts so carefully that they didn’t suspect they’d been spied on.

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