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Cotton Tenants: Three Families
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Description

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 400-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 Evans'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 Famous Men, and for years the original report was presumed 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."

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Format:
Adobe EPUB eBook, OverDrive Read
Street Date:
06/04/2013
Language:
English
ISBN:
9781612192130

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APA Citation (style guide)

James Agee. (2013). Cotton Tenants: Three Families. Melville House.

Chicago / Turabian - Author Date Citation (style guide)

James Agee. 2013. Cotton Tenants: Three Families. Melville House.

Chicago / Turabian - Humanities Citation (style guide)

James Agee, Cotton Tenants: Three Families. Melville House, 2013.

MLA Citation (style guide)

James Agee. Cotton Tenants: Three Families. Melville House, 2013.

Note! Citation formats are based on standards as of July 2022. Citations contain only title, author, edition, publisher, and year published. Citations should be used as a guideline and should be double checked for accuracy.

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        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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publishDate
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title
Cotton Tenants
fullDescription

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 400-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 Evans'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 Famous Men, and for years the original report was presumed 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."

reviews
      • premium: False
      • source: David Denby, The New Yorker
      • content:

        "A book of wonders--an untamable American classic in the same line as Leaves of Grass and Moby-Dick."

      • premium: False
      • source: David Simon, creator of The Wire
      • content: "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is . . . a classic work, an exercise in pure, declarative humanism. It will read true forever."
      • premium: False
      • source: Dwight Macdonald
      • content: "The most copiously talented writer of my generation."
      • premium: False
      • source: Lionel Trilling
      • content: "The most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation."
      • premium: False
      • source: W. H. Auden
      • content: "The most remarkable regular event in American journalism today."
      • premium: True
      • source: Publisher's Weekly
      • content:

        Starred review from June 10, 2013
        Seven decades have passed since Agee (A Death in the Family) and Evans were commissioned by Fortune magazine to "report on working conditions of poor white farmers in the deep south." The report itself was never published, and the manuscript stayed forgotten until as late as 2003, when it was exhumed from Agee's Greenwich Village home by one of his daughters. It is a time capsule: open it and you are transported to "a brief account of what happens to human life," specifically the lives of three impoverished tenant farmers—Floyd Burroughs, Bud Fields, and Frank Tingle—and their families, captured in Agee's honest, unflinching, and brilliant prose. Readers familiar with Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men will relish what is more than "source material", and recognize, for example, many of Agee's description of the diet, shelter, and labor of an Alabama tenant family. To readers unfamiliar, this will be an unexpected pleasure. It is the minute detail of the work that brings Depression-era Alabama to life, including the colloquialisms, (Miss Mary's calling the babies "coons"), medicinal remedies (swampwillow bark for chills, cottonseed poultices for head pains, rattlesnake grease for rheumatism), and the leisure time "of people who work." Photos.

      • premium: True
      • source: Library Journal
      • content:

        Starred review from June 15, 2013

        Before journalist Agee (1909-55) and photographer Evans (1903-75) published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a 400-page blend of prose and photography documenting the lives of three tenant farming families living in Hale County, AL, at the height of the Great Depression, they completed a heavily researched precursor titled Cotton Tenants. Commissioned in 1936 by Fortune magazine, the unpublished typescript was rediscovered in 2010. Beautifully written, the work is a stark, lucid, and organized indictment of the U.S. economic system, reporting its effects on the lives of three white sharecropping families. Arranged in chapters (e.g., business, food, shelter, clothing, picking season, etc.) and illustrated throughout with Evans's photographs, the work doesn't compare to the 1941 book, as author Adam Haslett (You Are Not a Stranger Here) in the book's introduction describes it as a "poet's brief," noting Agee's level of inquiry, that if applied to today's culture, would "help burn off some of that fog, waking us from the fantasy that we can all earn or win lottery sums." VERDICT Accessible, hard-hitting, moving, and still thematically relevant. Highly recommended for all collections.--Audrey Snowden, Orrington P.L., ME

        Copyright 2013 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

      • premium: True
      • source: Booklist
      • content:

        June 1, 2013
        This book is Agee's 1936 submission to Fortune magazine for an assignment on sharecroppers in the Deep South. Rejected and unpublished, the typescript was rediscovered in 2003 by Agee's daughter in her deceased father's Greenwich Village home. Cotton Tenants will enter the American literary canon for different reasons than Agee's far more developed classic on the same subject, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Here, Agee's discerning eye, crushing bluntness, and forward-falling prose poetry urge along before dunking readers' senses, again and again, into the families' way of life. Disdainful of sentiment and melodrama, Agee shows no bias, revealing his subjects and skewering both oppressors and supposed reformers. History, sociology, and economics instructors will like this compact book's quick, thorough engagement, and writing teachers can deservedly ask students, What is it? Journalism, sermon, inadvertent economy of language, manifesto? Yes, this nugget of . . . whateverwith an incisive preface by Adam Haslettis meant for use. Like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it contains photos by the prestigious Evans.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2013, American Library Association.)

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shortDescription

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...

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      • description: History / United States / State & Local / South (AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, VA, WV)
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      • description: Literary Collections / Essays