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…

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