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Cotton Tenants: Three Families [Kindle Edition]

James Agee , John Summers , Adam Haslett , Walker Evans
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book 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.”


Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 8795 KB
  • Print Length: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Melville House (4 Jun. 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00ALB4X4M
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #597,442 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Houston
Format:Hardcover
Worth reading by anyone interested in recent American History and issues of economic and social justice.

Cotton Tenants is the result of an assignment given to James Agee and photographer Walker Evans in 1936 by Fortune magazine to report on "cotton tenants" in the south- people who made their "living" by raising cotton on land owned by the landlord, and living in homes owned by the landlord. The report was never published though the well known book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Penguin Modern Classics) is a product of the same trip to the south and the notes taken on the trip.

Cotton Tenants describes the daily lives of three families: their "business" arrangement with the landlord, their shelter, their education, their clothing, ... and more. In Adam Haslett's introductory statement entitled "A Poet's Brief", it is said that "much of the details of the families' daily lives is delivered in flat declarative statements", although the statement does go on to say that Cotton Tenants also often reaches "higher poetic register." Much of Cotton Tenants was indeed flat and declarative, but that is not to say it is lacking in interest. To me the value and interest of the Cotton Tenants is in the history it presents, and in the questions it can raise. Agee himself states in his own introduction that what he is writing about is "local specializations of the huge and the ancient"- a particular form of poverty, and any 'student' of the past who wants to understand the present, anyone interested in the economics and power structure in our society today will be interested in this book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The South 25 Feb. 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Interesting read. Coming from a family from Alabama and having Parents and Grandparents that all worked and picked cotton as tenants and eventually land owners. I remember the stories of the hard times they had and the food eaten and even up into present day they are still eating the same variety of food. I still remember my Grandmother giving me a dose of 666 and believe you me you got better or at least faked feeling better as opposed to having another dose of that.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  63 reviews
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A poet's brief for the prosecution of economic and social injustice... 3 Jun. 2013
By John P. Jones III - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
... so says Adam Haslett, of this work which has fortuitously come to light, and been published, after more than three-quarters of a century, from the proverbial attic. It represents a collaboration of the photographer, Walker Evans, and the writer, James Agee, which was commissioned, rather amazingly, by Fortune Magazine in 1936. Less amazingly, it was "deep-sixed," by Luce's pinions, and eventually inherited by Agee's daughter. Walker Evans was one of the small band of preeminent photographers commissioned by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression to chronicle the economic and ecological (the Dust Bowl!) devastation being wrought on America's farming families. Evans died in 1975. James Agee, who died in 1955, is most famous for his brilliant and sensitive novel A Death in the Family (Penguin Classics), concerning the death of a young father in an automobile accident, in Knoxville, TN, in 1915. I've read the novel twice, separated by four decades, and have given it a "6-star" review at Amazon. Thus, when the latest work surfaced on my Vine list, considered it an essential read, and I was not disappointed.

As the sub-title indicates, this is the story of three tenant families, all white, who live in Hale County, Alabama, with its county seat of Moundsville, a bit south of Tuscaloosa. They are barely scratching out a living during the Great Depression; a very poor diet and actual hunger are a daily part of their existence. The three families are the Tingles, the Fields and the Burroughs. Evans photographs are haunting, and in one case at least, iconic. Most are taken with the subject looking straight into the eye of the camera. There is Frank Tingle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs. There is Elizabeth Tingle, in her tattered and patched-over dress, with the anguished expression. And the taunt, skewed lips, and stare from Allie Mae Burroughs has achieved "iconic status." A generation later, Franz Fanon would use the expression The Wretched of the Earth to describe the "lumpen- proletariat" that inhabited many a "bidonville" surrounding the major cities in colonial possessions. These three families were America's own.

Agee has the careful eye of a good sociologist; he conveys the details of the three families' daily lives without the trade's jargon, and with a devastating flat-affect. I thought of how effective Tim O'Brien was in using a similar technique in The Things They Carried. Food, clothing and shelter: the three essentials, in a chapter each, how very little of each the families had. The author also outlines the business arrangements of share-cropping, including the nuanced distintions between "tenants" and "halfers." Kate Tingle, at the age of 49, has borne 13 children, nine of whom have survived. The oldest two, Elizabeth at 20, and Flora Bee, at 19, are thought "too old" to be marriageable. As Agee says of the latter: ""But she too is toward the age when a girl in that country is no longer thought of as marriageable: and the life of a spinster in an impoverished farm family is so ghastly that anything will do for a substitute." Floyd Burroughs, at 20, had married Allie Mae, when she was 16. Allie Mae is Budd Field's daughter. Keeping it "all in the family, with the predictable genetic problems.

There are also chapters on the rhythm of work during the picking season, as well as their education opportunities, and lack of same, along with their leisure and health care. The county seat, along with its leisure activities (the movies!) is about as far away from home as most of them have ever travelled. Diseases such as hookworm (bare feet) and pellagra are common. Due to the expenses of health care, folk remedies are common. Agee has two short appendixes; one on the relationship of Negros in these agricultural communities, as well as that of the landowners. In ways, he struggles to be non-judgmental: other times he lets loose with some true zingers: "When Southern newdealers and liberals and indeed anyone critical of the South and interested in improving matters there insist how important it is that the work be done by those who Understand the Ways There they are to a certain extent dead right...But since by that understanding they also mean an understanding which will not Make Trouble: since they mean that the Race Problem should be treated sympathetically and a hundred per cent ineffectually..."

Many thanks to Agee's daughter for permitting this most perceptive depiction and analysis of tenant farming life, before the age of mechanization, in the Deep South during the Depression, to see the light of day. Students graduating today, with enormous debt-loads, should appreciate how debt was used in another era for social control. 5-stars, plus.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cotton Tenants: A new look at an almost-forgotten part of American history 7 Jun. 2013
By John Williamson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
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.

6/6/2013
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clear-eyed, spare, and honest. 15 Jun. 2013
By H. Gerety - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
It seems I went about things a bit backwards; I read "Cotton Tenants" before picking up a copy of "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"; I think perhaps that prejudiced me against the latter.
"Cotton Tenants" is clear-eyed, arresting, and shocking in its matter-of-fact portrayal of three cotton tenant families in 1930s Alabama. In my opinion, Agee does a pretty good job of portraying these families as human and relatable, rather than side-show caricatures. They are not perfect: they are at times prideful and senselessly violent. They are not ogres. They strive to maintain a sense of order and dignity in the midst of chaos. One family in particular is as clean as they can be given the circumstances; all the families dress up carefully in their best clothes to go to town on Saturdays.
They are people, people under duress. Looking at Walker Evans' (amazing) accompanying photographs, my husband said a lot of them reminded him of his time in Rwanda. Some of the people he saw there were ragged, but casually so. Like the tenants in these photographs, they were comfortable and unashamed.
Agee's calm, clear style here does come at the expense of some warmth towards the families; if he has a flaw in his presentation here, it is coldness. Not, perhaps, a lack of empathy exactly, but (as I imagine it) the cold anger that results from helplessness, his and theirs.

After reading "Cotton Tenants," I borrowed and skimmed a copy of "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," which seemed a bit like the former through a fun-house mirror. The first is relatively spare and matter-of-fact; the latter is ornate, feverish, and at times extremely uncomfortable (for example, Agee's attraction to one family's unhappily married daughter) and easily side-tracked (the interesting but unrelated section on the journalists' questionnaire). Evans wrote that Agee did much of his writing all through the night; that's exactly how "Famous Men" feels. Perhaps it's because I read "Tenants" first, but I prefer it - Agee does use a lot of gratuitously sexual turns of phrase (the roosters' eyes "blue with autoeroticism," for example), but besides that the writing is honest, unadorned, and undistracted.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting in parts, but a tedious read. 9 July 2013
By Gary Dean - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I can see why Fortune didn't publish this ... it was simply too long and tedious. As someone who is from Alabama and whose grandparents grew up in this environment, I appreciate the detail provided about what life was like for their contemporaries. I felt like the author grew somewhat contemptuous of his subject's ignorance and general predicament toward the latter half of the book. I think a more sympathetic tone would make it an enjoyable read. My general take away is we have no idea what hard work is -- working to survive day to day -- food, shelter, clothing.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Uncomfortable reading 6 Jun. 2013
By mojosmom - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South is James Agee's and Walker Evans' famous book about white sharecroppers* in Hale County, Alabama. It was the outgrowth of a report they did for Fortune magazine, a report which was not published, for reasons that are not certain, and that had long been thought lost. This is that report. It is blunt and unsparing. It is an indictment of the agricultural, social and political systems of the South that kept hard-working people living in appalling conditions, poorly nourished, undereducated, and eternally in debt to those whose land they tilled.

This is a straight-forward telling. It is not prettified or fictionalized. In this report, unlike their book, the families are given their true names. The descriptions of their daily lives, the rhythm of their months and years, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the work they do, are terse, almost list-like, but all the more compelling for that.

Yet Agee's words still astonish. Read his description of the cotton fields ready for picking, look how he juxtaposes an image of light with an image of ugliness : "Late in August the fields begin to whiten more rarely with late blooms and more frequently with cotton and then still thicker with cotton, like a sparkling ground starlight; and the wide tremendous light holds the earth beneath a glass vacuum and a burning glass. The bolls are rusty green, are bronze, are split and burst and splayed open in a loose vomit of cotton . . . There is a great deal of beauty about a single burr and the cotton slobbering from it and about a whole field opening." The same is true of Evans' photographs. These faces lined with hardship, with work and starvation, still have in them a delicacy, a reflection of all that is human. Look at the photos of Floyd Burroughs and his wife, Allie May, look at their eyes. There is a sadness in his, a worn-out-ness, while hers still have a hint of the beauty she must once have been, a hint of humor, too.

We mustn't read this as history, though it was written more than 70 years ago. Things have improved, no doubt, for people like the Burroughs and the Fields and the Tingles. But our cities could use a team like Agee & Evans to document the social and economic injustices that have not been eradicated, but seem only to have become urban rather than rural. I call this "uncomfortable reading" because, if we are honest, we know that we cannot say "that's over and done with", and we must confront the failures of our current age.

* a note on this. Agee & Evans deliberately chose to focus write about white families, because, as Agee says, "Any honest consideration of the Negro would crosslight and distort the issue with the problems not of a tenant but of a race . . ."
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