A Whimsical Review of James Agee and Walker Evans’ Book, Cotton Tenants.

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July 11, 2013 by magpiemenina

A posthumous publication, written by a reader’s favorite author and never imagined to exist, or imagined to be lost, can create a powerful sense of exhilaration and indeed inspire near manic behavior in said reader. There are few greater literary treats in the world. I experienced one of those just recently.

A Whimsical Review of Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee and Walker Evans (John Summers, editor. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2013). Also, some ramblings.

Oh glorious day! The original text for James Agee’s article for Fortune (to be illustrated with photographs by Walker Evans) – rejected by the magazine, and upon which the author would later build Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – was found among Agee’s papers at the University of Tennessee and published.

First, some background information, or, Why am I so excited?

I first read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as I took a break after undergraduate, trying to decide where to go next, academically speaking. It had been mentioned by a literature professor some years before, perhaps prompted by my devotion to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Agee and Evans (his photographer colleague) were sent on assignment from Fortune magazine to report on the lives of cotton tenants in the American South. They stayed (mostly Agee, mostly with the Gudger/Burroughs family) with three related families they met in Hale County, Alabama, in 1936. I found Agee’s work to be consuming, his long tangents into politics somewhat excluded. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he begins with people about whom the reader knows nothing and for whom the reader does not care, and in the course of the book makes them so real that it is, at times, aching to read.

Of course, there was an element of imagining in Agee’s work. There were omissions, missed signs, tragic endings different from the hopes hinted at in the book, all made painfully clear in Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson’s 1986 follow-up, And Their Children After Them. Sadly, Maharidge makes a case that the book did substantial harm in some instances to those about whom it was written, directly or through its failure to change anything in their lives after opening up larger possibilities. A few months and that was all.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has other problems. Most notably, the work, for all intents and purposes, entirely fails to address the experiences of African American tenant farmers, which is a tremendous omission. This is not remedied in Cotton Tenants (unsurprisingly, since it is the prototype for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), but Maharidge and Williamson at least make a passing attempt.

Barring the substantial issues mentioned above, it is a beautiful piece of literature and an excellent example of how literature can be used for anthropological studies when approached with caution. It played a tremendous role in redirecting my academic aspirations towards an interdisciplinary program in the form of American Studies. There is something appealing, as well, in its existence as part of an entirely unintentional trilogy. All this is to give a better idea of, and some context for, my excitement over the publication of Cotton Tenants, as well as some context for the work.

The review proper.

Cotton Tenants is not Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is far more matter-of-fact (perhaps as much as Agee is able to be) and tersely written. The names of the families are not changed, as they are in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. There is more specific information about the economics and health and healthcare as they affected the families. (In fact, I sorely wished that I had had the chapter on health while doing research in graduate school. It would have saved me a lot of time finding sources related to popular patent medicines and so-called folk medicines.) Some passages seem to have been transferred almost directly from the report to the book. Other items, receiving only brief glosses in Cotton Tenants, call to mind their more colorful description and stronger contextual placement in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

The most notable difference comes, of course, from the author’s intent. Cotton Tenants is more straightforwardly informative on tangible topics. It does not have the stories that make those people involved real to the reader. It lacks the transformative power of its more jewel-like counterpart. The only echo I found came from Evans in the form of a photograph spread showing a cotton field. (Evans’ photographs are a necessary part of Agee’s work discussed here.) All of a sudden, for a moment, I felt I could glimpse that hot, still day with crickets buzzing endlessly, the air thick with humidity, the scrubby trees seen through the haze and the heat waves rising from the clay earth, and the cotton plants rasping on thin, faded, sweat-sticky clothes made from the same, with the world stretching out all around in cotton, heat, and the simultaneous silence and cacophony. That is the kind of experience that drew me to the later work.




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