Cotton Tenants: Three Families
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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 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
couple of sizes too large, drawn over what the keen wrists called for. The appearance of full-blown enigma is infrequent, unexpected and arresting; and it always deserves attention. It happens to reside in the eyes of this eldest child, Lucile, and it is doubly arresting because continuously she uses her eyes to watch into the eyes of other people, quite as calmly as death itself, and as cluelessly, too. Probably she is studying you, without either pity or unkindness, but there is no reason to
fanciers of the antique would have nocturnal emissions. There is a pot of tinstemmed paper flowers. On the bedroom wall is a blunt officer’s sword in a rusted scabbard: it was supposedly used by an ancestor of the present Mrs. Fields. On another wall is a picture, from some inexplicable magazine, of little Barbara Drake and of John B. Drake III of Chicago, who at four or five has already achieved the poisonous expression which in due time may serve to abash traffic officers, panhandlers, and even
well with both your most important crops, because they need rain and sun in such disparate amounts. Cotton needs much less rain than corn: it is really a sun flower. If it is going to get a superflux of rain, that will best come before the cotton is blooming. And if it must rain during that part of the summer when a fairsized field is blooming a bale a day, it had best rain late in the evening when the blooms are shutting, not in the morning and midday. For then the bloom is blared out flat; rain
nothing has. Southern winters are wet, but the children keep pretty well: Junior was absent only sixty-five and Lucile only fifty-three days out of a possible 150-odd, and they were unexcused only eleven and nine times respectively. Twenty-three of Junior’s and a proportionate number of Lucile’s absences fell in the last two months, which are dedicated to work as well as wetness. Needed at home, Lucile missed several schooldays late in her second year, including the final examinations. Her marks
frightened him worst of all was the ether. In extreme nausea you feel like death, and he took that to mean quite literally that he was dying. No one thought to explain, and though he was advised to lie down and get over the effects no one got insistent when, not having warned his wife of any length of absence, he chose rather to get back home as fast as possible. The doctor who had taken him up dropped him still jellified with ether-nausea, at Moundville, to walk the seven miles home. Presumably