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Cotton Tenants: Three Familiesby James Agee
Synopses & Reviews
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
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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