Cotton Tenants: Three Families

Cotton Tenants: Three Families

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by James Agee
     
 

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A re-discovered masterpiece of reporting by a literary icon and a celebrated photographer

In 1941, James Agee and Walker Evans published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a four-hundred-page prose symphony about three tenant farming families in Hale County, Alabama at the height of the Great Depression. The book shattered journalistic and literary

Overview

A re-discovered masterpiece of reporting by a literary icon and a celebrated photographer

In 1941, James Agee and Walker Evans published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a four-hundred-page prose symphony about three tenant farming families in Hale County, Alabama at the height of the Great Depression. The book shattered journalistic and literary conventions. Critic Lionel Trilling called it the “most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation.”

The origins of Agee and Evan's famous collaboration date back to an assignment for Fortune magazine, which sent them to Alabama in the summer of 1936 to report a story that was never published. Some have assumed that Fortune's editors shelved the story because of the unconventional style that marked Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and for years the original report was lost.

But fifty years after Agee’s death, a trove of his manuscripts turned out to include a typescript labeled “Cotton Tenants.” Once examined, the pages made it clear that Agee had in fact written a masterly, 30,000-word report for Fortune.

Published here for the first time, and accompanied by thirty of Walker Evans’s historic photos, Cotton Tenants is an eloquent report of three families struggling through desperate times. Indeed, Agee’s dispatch remains relevant as one of the most honest explorations of poverty in America ever attempted and as a foundational document of long-form reporting. As the novelist Adam Haslett writes in an introduction, it is “a poet’s brief for the prosecution of economic and social injustice.”

Co-Published with The Baffler magazine

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A masterpiece of the magazine reporter’s art. It is lucid, evocative, empathetic, deeply reported, consistently surprising, plainly argued, and illuminated, page after page, with poetic leaps of transcendent clarity.”Fortune

"Agee squabbled with his editors over what he felt was the exploitation and trivialization of destitute American families…. What readers are about to discover now is what all the fighting was about.” —The New York Times

Cotton Tenants reads with the spare and measured beauty of a writer who knows that under the social circumstances he can only allow himself so much. It is a deeply moving work…Cotton Tenants is fresh and painful reading.” The Awl 

"That’s the first thing to be said about this essay: Fortune was crazy not to run it. It was a failure of nerve, and a lost chance at running one of the great magazine pieces from that era.”—John Jeremiah Sullivan, Bookforum

"An all-in, embracive rendering, panoramic as Brueghel while typecasting like Ben Shahn . . . Agee may be our foundational maximalist, the progenitor of Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace.”—The Los Angeles Review of Books

"A paragon of lyrical realism, the book is a legend. . .Agee writes with clinical, angry precision.” The Boston Globe 

"Agee’s discerning eye, crushing bluntness, and forward-falling prose poetry urge along before dunking readers’ senses, again and again, into the families’ way of life. Disdainful of sentiment and melodrama, Agee shows no bias, revealing his subjects and skewering both oppressors and supposed reformers.” Booklist

Praise for James Agee and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

“A book of wonders—an untamable American classic in the same line as Leaves of Grass and Moby-Dick.” —David Denby, The New Yorker

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is . . . a classic work, an exercise in pure, declarative humanism. It will read true forever.” —David Simon, creator of The Wire

“The most copiously talented writer of my generation.” —Dwight Macdonald

“The most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation.” —Lionel Trilling

“The most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.” —W. H. Auden

From the Hardcover edition.

Publishers Weekly
Seven decades have passed since Agee (A Death in the Family) and Evans were commissioned by Fortune magazine to "report on working conditions of poor white farmers in the deep south." The report itself was never published, and the manuscript stayed forgotten until as late as 2003, when it was exhumed from Agee's Greenwich Village home by one of his daughters. It is a time capsule: open it and you are transported to "a brief account of what happens to human life," specifically the lives of three impoverished tenant farmers—Floyd Burroughs, Bud Fields, and Frank Tingle—and their families, captured in Agee's honest, unflinching, and brilliant prose. Readers familiar with Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men will relish what is more than "source material", and recognize, for example, many of Agee's description of the diet, shelter, and labor of an Alabama tenant family. To readers unfamiliar, this will be an unexpected pleasure. It is the minute detail of the work that brings Depression-era Alabama to life, including the colloquialisms, (Miss Mary's calling the babies "coons"), medicinal remedies (swampwillow bark for chills, cottonseed poultices for head pains, rattlesnake grease for rheumatism), and the leisure time "of people who work." Photos. (June)
Library Journal
Before journalist Agee (1909–55) and photographer Evans (1903–75) published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a 400-page blend of prose and photography documenting the lives of three tenant farming families living in Hale County, AL, at the height of the Great Depression, they completed a heavily researched precursor titled Cotton Tenants. Commissioned in 1936 by Fortune magazine, the unpublished typescript was rediscovered in 2010. Beautifully written, the work is a stark, lucid, and organized indictment of the U.S. economic system, reporting its effects on the lives of three white sharecropping families. Arranged in chapters (e.g., business, food, shelter, clothing, picking season, etc.) and illustrated throughout with Evans's photographs, the work doesn't compare to the 1941 book, as author Adam Haslett (You Are Not a Stranger Here) in the book's introduction describes it as a "poet's brief," noting Agee's level of inquiry, that if applied to today's culture, would "help burn off some of that fog, waking us from the fantasy that we can all earn or win lottery sums." VERDICT Accessible, hard-hitting, moving, and still thematically relevant. Highly recommended for all collections.—Audrey Snowden, Orrington P.L., ME

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781612193984
Publisher:
Melville House Publishing
Publication date:
09/30/2014
Pages:
224
Sales rank:
822,120
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.00(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“The most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation.” —Lionel Trilling

“The most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.” —W. H. Auden

Meet the Author

JAMES AGEE (1909–55) was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and was hired as a staff writer at Fortune in 1932. Two years later, his collection of poetry, Permit Me Voyage, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. His book about Alabama tenant farmers during the Great Depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, appeared in 1941. Agee was later renowned for his film criticism, which appeared regularly in The Nation and Time, and for co-writing the screenplays for The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. He died two years before his major work of fiction, A Death in the Family, was published and won the Pulitzer Prize.

Photographer WALKER EVANS (1903–75) was on loan from the Resettlement Administration when he began collaborating with James Agee. He joined the staff of Time in 1945 and shortly afterward became an editor at Fortune, where he stayed for the next two decades. In 1964, he became a professor at the Yale University School of Art, teaching until his death in 1975.

ADAM HASLETT (introduction) is the author of Union Atlantic and You Are Not a Stranger Here.

JOHN SUMMERS (editor) is the editor in chief of The Baffler.

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Cotton Tenants: Three Families 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
dleet18 More than 1 year ago
Agee's writing style is absolutely spellbinding. Lyrical. Lilting. He captures his subjects and surroundings with a photographers eye. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's almost impossible to overstate how achingly fresh and important this book felt. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
AuthorAnn More than 1 year ago
I was so looking forward to this book and as of now haven't gotten very far into it. It's hard to read and follow. The structure of the sentences and arguments is tortured. No wonder the magazine didn't publish it. Needs a good and sympathetic editor.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hey:)