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
A re-discovered masterpiece of reporting by a literary icon and a celebrated photographer.
In the summer of 1936, James Agee set out with photographer Walker Evans on assignment for Fortune magazine. Their mission was to explore the plight of sharecroppers during the height of the Great Depression. The journey fostered an extraordinary collaboration and a watershed literary event when the resulting report was turned into a book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941.
Critics and biographers have assumed that Fortune editors killed the original article, and for years the essay was presumed lost to history.
But in 2010 a manuscript of the original Fortune dispatch was discovered among papers removed from Agee’s apartment during the 1950s. And, despite the legend that had developed around the article, scholars found a masterful 30,000-word report, a refinement of the multi-part investigations that Agee had regularly filed for Fortune.
Published here for the first time, Agee’s original dispatch—accompanied by 25 of Walker Evans’ historic photos—is an unsparing record of place and of three families who worked the land at a desperate time. It remains relevant today as one the most honest explorations of poverty in America ever attempted, and as one of the most ambitious and poetic pieces of magazine writing ever attempted.
About the Author
(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 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.