Friday, September 06, 2013

Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee

58 years after his death, James Agee has a new book joining his classics Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and A Death in the Family (1957). Written as an article for Fortune magazine in 1936 but never published, Cotton Tenants: Three Families is a look at Floyd Burroughs, Bud Fields, and Frank Tingle, three Depression-era white tenant farmers and their families in Hale County, Alabama. The text was thought to have been lost but was found among papers given by Agee's daughter to the University of Tennessee Special Collections Library in 2005.

From reading the editor's notes by John Summers and an introduction called "A Poet's Brief" by Adam Haslett, it sounds to me that the publishers of Cotton Tenants wanted to be very sure there was not another later version of the text before publishing. None has been found. It seems likely what is now published is what Agee intended. Haslett says no reason for Fortune's refusal to publish was ever made clear. While Agee was preparing his article, the editors eliminated the Life and Circumstances department of the magazine to which the article was bound. Anyone can speculate that the editors did not want to offend their Southern readers with Agee's hard assessment of the landed class's role in the plight of the poor.

There seemed to be no escape from the poverty that Agee described. It was no surprise that bright children faded into drab, nearly lifeless adults. The tenant farmers were people without hope.

Fortune paid for famous photographer Walker Evans to accompany Agee to Alabama in 1936. Thirty of his photographs of the farmers, their homes, and cotton fields are included with the article text to make a small but impressive book that can now serve as an introduction to the writings of Agee for a new generation of readers.

Agee, James. Cotton Tenants: Three Families. Melville House, 2013. 224p. ISBN 9781612192123.

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