Yet the book—and Agee says as much in his introduction—began its life as journalism, in the form of an article for Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine, of all places. Agee, a staff writer, and Evans, “borrowed” from the Resettlement Administration, had traveled to Alabama’s Hale County on assignment in 1936, and there, they met and stayed with the families Fields, Burroughs, and Tingle (later disguised, in Famous Men, as Ricketts, Woods, and Gudger). Fortune ended up killing the piece, Agee expanded it into a book, and that, until recently, was that.
But now we have Cotton Tenants: Three Families, courtesy of the revitalized Baffler magazine and Melville House, which have, with the Agee Trust, resurrected the original 30,000-word report that Agee wrote for Fortune and published it along with a selection of Evans’ photographs. An ardent admirer of Agee’s, John Summers, who helms the Baffler and edited the new book, first learned of the manuscript’s existence in 2010. He had recently left academia, where he’d been a lecturer in 20th-century American cultural history at Harvard, and taken over the Baffler magazine. “Suddenly I was in a position not just to write essays about Agee, which I had done, but to publish Agee,” Summers says. “So that was a nice gratuitous convergence of circumstances.”
The meeting of Agee and The Baffler (“the journal that blunts the cutting edge”) seemed apt to Summers as well for what might be called its politics—the magazine encourages the same form of conscious yet artful journalism that Agee, as a writer for Fortune and later Time, did so well. And rather than a magazine like Fortune bringing this book out, Summers says, “It was a nonprofit, independent magazine, that’s closer to the text and closer to the culture of the writing.” A 9,000-word excerpt of the piece ran in Issue 19 of The Baffler in March of last year, the first issue of the magazine’s new iteration. Agee’s words inaugurated a column called “Ancestors.”
It was clear to him from the 90-page typescript, Summers says, that Agee must have turned the piece in to Fortune. “It was done,” he explains. And so the editing process, according to Summers, was easy—in fact, Agee had done most of the work himself. “On every page, there were jottings or instructions or sublinear crossings-out,” Summers recalls. “They were all Agee’s, and editing the manuscript, pretty much all I did was follow his instructions.”
Cotton Tenants won’t add anything revolutionary to the picture of Agee as a writer—some of the text, like descriptions and the use of a textbook passage as organizing principle, will be recognizable from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—but it is a wonderful piece of writing on its own. The forceful prose is recognizably Agee’s. Written in his typical high style—a style Evans described as having “Elizabethan colors”—it picks out, thing by thing, what exactly Agee saw, making, as novelist Adam Haslett notes in his excellent introduction to the book, “the quotidian epic.”
Occasionally, Agee will even adopt the vernacular of his subjects, merging their voices into his own in a radical gesture of empathy. Despite the approach being largely documentary, there are moments of lyricism as well: Families on their way to the cotton gin travel “the withered vine of their red roadsteads and along the sedanswept blue slags of highway,” like “filings delicately aligned by a hidden magnet.” But detail and lyricism do not exist for themselves alone: They aim to excite the reader’s outrage at the wrecked human lives Agee describes. “A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage is worthy neither of the name or of continuance,” Agee writes, and those who profit from the disadvantage of others are human beings “by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea.”
It’s easy to imagine passages like this being responsible for Fortune’s not publishing the article, but the real reason isn’t known. Common wisdom long had it that—judging by Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—Agee’s tone was too elaborate, his style something other than what a mainstream magazine might find reasonable in its pages. But now that Cotton Tenants has been found, the theory no longer holds water. “Importantly, we know now that it couldn’t have been because it was baroque and full of meta-analysis and flight, the things that are characteristic of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. That can’t be the case because it’s not here,” Summers says.
Instead, the reason may indeed have been political, or else it may have been merely a symptom of the ordinary caprice of the magazine world—the department for which the piece was commissioned, called “Life and Circumstance,” was axed before Agee turned it in. It may be that simple, or it may not. “A related speculation that comes from Walker Evans is that Agee wrote it in order to be rejected,” Summers adds, intriguingly—though Evans seems to be the only person to have believed it. Granted, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee does evince a marked distaste for the journalistic form, calling it “a broad and successful form of lying,” among other things. And Cotton Tenants is interesting in this sense as well—for here he is doing journalism. “We know that he knew what he was talking about,” Summers says. “It’s not that he tried to write a relatively conventional magazine piece and then decided that it couldn’t be done or shouldn’t be done. He wrote it, and not only did he write it, he mastered the form.”
Besides bringing to light a new aspect of Agee’s literary biography, Cotton Tenants, as Haslett’s introduction so well points out, speaks eloquently to our moment as well. “Not only are we in another great depression like the ‘30s,” Summers says, “and we are of course in a depression, we’re not in a recession—we’re also having an incredible problem with debt, which takes up some of the best passages in the book, the way that debt traps a person existentially as well as economically. So it’s politically relevant to anybody reading the newspapers, or what remains of them.”
This new pairing of Agee’s prose and Evans’s photographs—both offering their subjects visibility and the kind of baseline dignity that visibility conveys—is an example of what documentary journalism can do as an organ of social justice. As Agee writes, near the book’s end: “The essential structure of the South is, of course, economic: cold and inevitable as the laws of chemistry. But that is not how the machine is run. The machine is run on intuition, and the structures of intuition are delicate and subtle as they can be only in a society that is not one thing but two: a dizzy mixture of feudalism and of capitalism in its later stages.” Agee’s invitation to view economics through this instinctive lens—which is to say, through the human lens—is surely one the contemporary world would do well to accept.
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Believer, the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Slate, among other publications.
Pictured above is John Summer photographed by Robert Birnbaum.