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.
In Cotton Tenants, he lists the members of all three families he is observing. The father of one family has several daughters, one of whom is married to the father of another of the families. This woman is twenty-seven, and her younger sister, Mary, is eighteen. Agee says that Mary “has been two years married to an elderly carpenter. Last summer they moved to Mississippi, where they will farm on halves: he couldn’t make a living in Tuscaloosa.” Aside from one other brief mention, Mary does not appear again in the piece.
In Famous Men, however, the Mary character, renamed Emma, provides one of the most moving stories. Agee tells us how sweet and attractive Emma is, describes her domineering, superannuated husband, and says that she desperately does not want to go back to him (she has been staying briefly with her sister, in the same family where Agee stayed). Emma is weeping on the morning of her return; her last parting with her sister’s family is poignantly conveyed. To the reader, Agee speculates that it would probably have been all for the best if Emma had slept with him—yes: with him, Agee—and with Walker Evans, and with the sister’s husband, too, just to clear the air and show her a good time before she goes back to the slavery of her marriage.
One might not have guessed all that from the few words about Mary in Cotton Tenants. Before getting in the car Emma/Mary makes a speech to Agee telling him how much she likes him and how good and kind he has been to her and her sister and her family and how they all wish him the best. It’s a lovely, plain, heartfelt speech, and one of the two longest continuous utterances of any character (besides Agee) in the book.
In the Fortune article Agee proceeds rather prosaically by dividing his subject into subhead topics: “Business,” “Shelter,” “Food,” “Clothing,” “Work,” “Picking Season,” “Education,” and so on. In Famous Men he keeps the same basic structure but veers wildly around within it as if he’s on the bumper car ride at a county fair. Near the beginning he offers a series of excoriations and disclaimers. He calls the Fortune assignment (without being too specific about it, or mentioning the name of the magazine) “curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying.” He then avers that he is only human. A passage largely addressed to “you,” i.e., the privileged, uninformed, prurient reader, does not make that “you” out to be a very commendable person. The tenant farmer’s house in which he stayed is introduced. The time is night. All the people in the book (except Agee) are asleep. They will remain asleep for the next seventy or so pages while he goes on about one thing and another.
After that, the house is described for forty-seven pages. Just when you, the not-very-commendable reader, are about to give up in exhaustion, Agee gets down on the ground, crawls around the piled-up rocks that support the house, and looks at it from below. On this side the pine boards are unweathered, still new, “blond like the floor of a turtle.” Now there’s real thoroughness—what other reporter would take time to describe the underside of somebody’s house? And when it comes to the subject of education, Agee concedes, “School was not in session while I was there.” (His and Evans’s trip took place in July and August.) Lack of data doesn’t stop him, however. Without ever attending a class or talking to a teacher or administrator, he gives a sound thrashing to what he imagines the educational system to be. His strong opinions, cluttered by the lightest sprinkling of facts, fill the twenty-three pages he devotes to the subject of education.
Whole long expanses of Famous Men are about nothing or little, and suggest the shaky improvisation of a student at exam time when he faces the bluebook’s blank pages and has neglected to do the reading. While Agee was writing Famous Men, Dwight Macdonald, who had left Fortune to become the editor of Partisan Review, sent him a questionnaire titled “Some Questions Which Face American Writers Today.” Its relation to the book is largely nonexistent, but—what the hell—Agee throws it in, along with his irritable answers to it, under a section he calls “Conversation in the Lobby.” In the notes and appendices at the end he includes, without comment, a news story about Margaret Bourke-White, presumably so that the reader will get a shudder from how bogus he considered her.
But if Famous Men is sometimes not a good book or a sensible book, it is also, inescapably, a great book. The publication of the article that was its germ makes its stature even clearer. Freed from a magazine article’s bounds, the energy that Agee aims at his target often goes flying off into space; but when it strikes something real—the way a breeze moves through trees at the edge of a cotton field, the looks men give to a woman of bad reputation in a general store—the energy is so abundant that every tiny pixel blooms. As for providing southern atmosphere, Agee does funk as funkily as anybody. Always he tries to push the writing up next to the reader past the protective filter of Art. This book is not Art, he says repeatedly—which only means that it is art of higher ambitions.
Literary momentum surges behind his breathless sentences, with his Joycean compound coinages (“lovedelighting skin,” “slowdrawling talks”), romantic, windy cadences like Thomas Wolfe’s, and long biblical anaphoras. The device of describing his human subjects in the condition of being asleep, so as to render them more sympathetic and kindred to the reader, recalls a similar nighttime passage in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” (Agee’s mother was said to be related to Whitman.) And the title Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which he took from verses in Ecclesiasticus, a book of the Apocrypha, is one of the best book titles of all time. I’ve found that people who haven’t read the book and aren’t even sure it’s by Agee can roll the title quickly off their tongues.
Many fiction writers and most writers of nonfiction start out in journalism. Agee’s book demonstrated that it was possible to take the structure of a journalistic piece, kick away the slats, open the writing out, and do something big and exciting and literary. It is hard to imagine most of the great nonfiction books of the 1960s and 1970s without the form-changing precedent of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
The relative simplicity of Cotton Tenants reminds us that Agee was writing about actual people in actual poverty. Poor people are hard to write about. Often a reporter learns about specific people only because they have agreed to accept him and be generous to him, as the families in Cotton Tenants were to Agee. But if someone gives you food with flies all over it or a bed hopping with fleas and bedbugs, the reader will need to know; and to those you are writing about, your reportorial candor will seem cruel ingratitude. This basic problem of journalism grows more painful and difficult with a widening of the distance between incomes. Worse, once the writer has overcome or overlooked his feelings of guilt and produced a manuscript, he may find that nobody wants to read about the depressing problems of poor people. Better, then, to skip the subject entirely.
No timid, prudent, or career-minded considerations deterred Agee, who plunged into the examination of his subjects’ lives despite the guilt that troubled him. In Famous Men he refers over and over to himself as a spy and confesses that he is betraying people who showed him kindness. But as it turned out, his guilt was a bill that Agee never had to pay. By drinking himself to death at the age of forty-five, in 1955, well before Famous Men achieved its fame, he avoided recriminations from the book’s subjects. Every one of the tenant farmers he wrote about outlived him.
Like many great works of nonfiction, Famous Men left the opportunity for sequels (or prequels, such as Cotton Tenants). In July and August of 1986, fifty years after Agee and Evans’s trip, another writer-photographer pair went back to Alabama and looked up survivors and descendants of the original tenant families. The book that resulted, And Their Children After Them, by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1990. It looks at what happened to the main subjects of Famous Men—for example, Maggie Louise, a bright and interesting ten-year-old in 1936, in whom Agee had seen great promise. She did not become a nurse or a teacher as she had hoped, but married at fifteen, got pregnant soon after, fell into alcoholism and other problems, and in her late forties drank rat poison and died. Happier was Fred Ricketts, the father in the “insanely dirty” family, who later bore out suspicions of his deviousness and creepiness by fathering his oldest daughter’s child. The mother/sister and son/brother were found to be living in squalid contentment in 1986. By then Ricketts, the father/granddad, had passed away, but not without learning of Agee’s book and feeling pleased to have been certified as a famous man.
Some of the people who appeared as children in Famous Men remained so angry about the book that they refused to talk about it in 1986. More often the reaction of the surviving subjects was mixed. Cotton tenancy had ended by then, undone by mechanization, foreign competition, artificial fabrics, and the civil rights movement. Emma/Mary, whose leave-taking scene is so important in Famous Men, endured a life about as unfortunate as Agee had predicted for her, but still she did not change from the sweet person he described. She kept a journal, which for honesty and faithfulness and charm of expression deserves to be published itself someday. Of Agee and his book, she said:
There’s a whole lot in there that’s true, and a whole lot that isn’t true. He was a mess. My goodness, I could turn around and write a book on him.
Her good nature and resilience make you think that maybe she and Agee should’ve got together after all. Emma/Mary might’ve been a match for him.
Sitting behind the whole story is the persistence of economic injustice. Uncovering and depicting it were the motives for Agee and Evans’s journey in the first place. In the introduction to Cotton Tenants, Adam Haslett, a novelist, writes with Agee-like passion about similar injustice today, and about the fact that debt still holds many Americans just as it held the tenant farmers. (Aggregate student loan debt in the US now outstrips consumer credit card debt, he reminds us.) Agee and Evans—and Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks, and even the maligned Margaret Bourke-White, and dozens of now-forgotten young writers and photojournalists—found the Depression so saddening that they had to take it on in their work. Cotton Tenants shows Agee holding Fortune to its commitment and refusing to look away from poverty and suffering, regardless of the unpromising nature of the project. The article he produced was an intriguing outtake, a do-over. That he hung on to transform it into a work of art is an inspiring thing.