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Cotton tenants : three families /

On assignment for "Fortune" magazine in 1936, Agee and Evans set out to explore the plight of sharecroppers during the Great Depression. Published for the first time, Agee's original dispatch (accompanied by 25 of Evans' historic photos) is an unsparing record of three families at a desperate time. Full description

Main Author:
Other Authors: Evans, Walker, 1903-1975.
Format: Book
Language: English
Published: Melville House, 2013
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In the summer of 1936, James Agee set out with photographer Walker Evans on an assignment for Fortune magazine. Their mission was to explore the plight of sharecroppers during 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. 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.


John SummersAdam Haslett
Editor's Notep. 9
A Poet's Briefp. 13
Introductionp. 30
Chapter 1Businessp. 38
Chapter 2Shelterp. 67
Chapter 3Foodp. 83
Chapter 4Clothingp. 103
Chapter 5Workp. 126
Chapter 6Picking Seasonp. 138
Chapter 7Educationp. 155
Chapter 8Leisurep. 169
Chapter 9Healthp. 191
Appendix 1On Negroesp. 205
Appendix 2Landownersp. 213

Review by Booklist Review

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 Rejected and unpublished, the typescript was rediscovered in 2003 by Agee's daughter in her deceased father's Greenwich Village home.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 . . . whatever with an incisive preface by Adam Haslett is meant for use. Like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it contains photos by the prestigious Evans.--Carr, Dane Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Review by Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on November 27, 1909 and educated at Harvard, James Agee crowded versatile literary activity into his short and troubled life. In addition to two novels, he wrote short stories, essays, poetry, and screenplays; he worked professionally as a journalist and film critic. Appropriately, he is best remembered for a work that combines several genres and literary approaches. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a documentary report on sharecropper life accompanied by vividly realistic photographs by Walker Evans, has been called "a great Moby Dick of a book" (New York Times Book Review). It may be considered an important precursor of the so-called nonfiction novel that was to gain prominence during the 1960s.

The Morning Watch (1954), a novel in the tradition of portraits of artists-to-be, and A Death in the Family, a moving account of domestic life based on the loss of Agee's father belong to more conventional types of fiction. The 1960 dramatization of All the Way Home by Tad Mosel, won a Pulitizer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award; it was also cited by Life as the "Best American Play of the Season." Agee's work for the screen included his scripts for The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. Agee on Film (1958-60) consists of a gathering of reviews and comments as well as five scripts.

Prior to Laurence Bergreen's well-received 1984 biography of Agee, the principal source of information about his life was Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, a collection of seventy letters written by Agee to his instructor at St. Andrew's School and trusted friend throughout his life. The letters show Agee most often in a reflective, self-condemning mood. The final letters, written from the hospital where he was battling daily heart attacks, are touching, as are his sad reflections on the work he yet wanted to do.

Agee died in New York of a heart attack on May 16, 1955. He was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for A Death in the Family.

(Bowker Author Biography)

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