It was the summer of 1936 when Fortune magazine publisher Henry Luce sent journalist James Agee and photographer Walker Evans south to do a realistic and unembellished story about poor Alabama farmers. Agee had specifically requested Evans as the photographer; Evans received a temporary leave from his FSA job under the condition that the photographs become government property. The two spent eight weeks on assignment during that Great Depression summer, Agee writing and Evans taking black and white images with his battered view camera with its old and extremely slow lens.
Cotton Tenants: Three Families is fascinating on a number of levels. The brief Editor's Note by John Summers of the literary magazine The Baffler, which co-published this book, offers the reader a glimpse at the background behind this 224-page work. But it's 'A Poet's Brief' by Adam Haslett that adds a three-dimensional aspect to the pages that follow, with quotes from James Agee, along with some thought-provoking questions, some of which will leave the reader wondering if history isn't today repeating itself.
Right after a two-page spread of Walker Evans' photo "House, Hale County" we find a literary shifting of gears with James Agee's Introduction and his particular style of writing.
Agee has a rather stark, even terse way of beginning with these words: "The cotton belt is sixteen hundred miles wide and three hundred miles deep." From there the reader explores the author's vision of life and poverty in rural South of this era, focusing on the extensive Burroughs family and their relatives, "that one of the three families which presents the least flagrant picture."
We soon get a visual image of the sharecropper or halvers-hand, as we read of how half of the crops, cotton, cottonseed and more are used to pay the rent. This is not like being a tenant farmer, who merely rent the land, and where a different percentage is retained. Through Agee's flat and declarative sentences, we see that only in good years did tenant farmers or sharecroppers make enough to pay what they owed, keeping both groups in indefinite debt. Both groups were allowed to remain on the rented lands for only as long as they kept working off an often growing perpetual debt.
In subsequent chapters, Agee explains the business aspect shared by these families, their living conditions, the food that they ate from their meager resources, and the clothing that they wore: "Burroughs will be wearing overalls, pronounced overhalls, and a blue workshirt. Heavy shoes if he is at work; none if he is resting." And we find that Floyd Burroughs shaved at least twice a week, with Agee offering stark yet impeccable detail of this process.
Author Agee illustrates the working conditions of these farmers, the August cotton picking season, the schooling of the farmers' children ("Of late years Alabama has Come Awake to Education."), and the leisure activities of these rural peoples, including courtship, marriages and the social relations among the three families. The health conditions under which these families lived was appalling by contemporary standards, and the author detailed them precisely, from the births of the children to their last days on earth.
There are two appendices, one dealing with the cotton tenancy of non-white families, where Agee notes, "Their babies die off like flies in autumn." The other deals with the Southern landowner, where the author observes: "He is not something done up in gum boots, a blacksnake whip and a gun." Agee describes the bigotry, the self-justification and the overall attitude the landowner had when dealing with his tenants, along with a few pages of quotes from this group. "I'll tell you the honest fact. I'm afraid of white tenants; scared that some would up and kill me one day." Agee notes that a couple other landlord agreed on this observation.
Harvard-educated James Agee had been hired by TIME publisher Henry Luce as a staff writer at his sister publication, Fortune magazine, which he had founded February 1930, four months after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The left-of-center Agee was an odd fit for the staff of the business publication created by the conservative publisher. None the less, Agee's skillful reporting for Fortune had included subjects as diverse as commercial orchids, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and cockfighting, though his progressive style of journalism (along with his Bohemian lifestyle) sometimes brought him into conflict with his editors.
It was his 1936 assignment by Fortune to write a story about the struggles of the Alabama sharecroppers where we see his most unrestrained attempts at avant-garde expression. But it was the photos by Walker Evans that made their effort stand out. Evans captured not only the scenery in black and white, but the gaunt, resilient faces of the sharecroppers that confront us directly. Some of the images appear casual, others as take on the appearance of refined family portraits, which only serves to emphasize their worn faces, ragged clothing, and oppressive poverty. What the images from Evan seem to be saying is that these sharecroppers are also worthy of respect, in spite of their alienation from economic promise.
There are thirty of these historic photos by Walker Evans in this book, and two of the most dramatic are the stark images of Floyd Burroughs and his wife, Allie Mae. This same woman, also known as Ellie Mae Burroughs was also the subject of Jerry L. Thompson's The Story of a Photograph: Walker Evans, Ellie Mae Burroughs, and the Great Depression (2012). Author Thompson, who worked as his principal assistant during the last years of Walker Evans's life, explains the name difference with that iconic photo, known to many by its title "Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife."
By a twist of journalistic fate, the editors of Fortune decided to not publish the results of the Alabama trip by Agee and Evans, so the two had it published in 1941 as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It sold only 600 copies before being remaindered; the public of the early 1940s was less interested in the Great Depression than the images and news stories of World War II. The book was to be rediscovered and subsequently republished as a classic of the Great Depression years later. It's worth noting that Agee and Evans used pseudonyms throughout the book to obscure the identity of the three tenant farmer families.
As a footnote, James Agee died in 1955 from a fatal heart attack in a New York City taxi at the age of 45, leaving his wife and children behind. In 1975 Walker Evans died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 71 at his home in Lyme, Connecticut. Allie Mae Burroughs died in 1979. As author Jerry Thompson noted in his book, "No one old enough to have a clear memory of the Burroughs farmhouse in August 1936 is still alive. Living memory of the summer visit there has vanished, along with the visitors and their hosts. Recent visitors report that the houses themselves have collapsed into the Alabama dirt."
James Agee's original manuscript for Fortune had been considered lost, but a decade ago it was found by his middle child and younger daughter, and John Summers excerpted it in The Baffler last year. Now, over three-quarters of a century later, we have it here, and in full.
With Cotton Tenants: Three Families, it's the profoundly moving photos by Walker Evans that make this new book the treasure that it is for this reader, though James Agee's stark journalism shines through far better than in his own 1941 publication, a ponderous (and often self-directed) work at best. This newly-discovered work is true slice-of-life journalism as we often found in other Agee writings over time, and the iconic images by Walker Evans frame this book perfectly. In this new edition we finally have the real names of the Alabama farmers with whom Agee and Evans encountered and broke bread with in that summer of 1936. This is a highly recommended and absorbing read for those interested in the the realities of the Great Depression, photographic history and classic journalism alike, and once read, it will stay with you. Above all, this is a new look at an almost-forgotten part of American history.