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. Haslett titled his into "A Poet's Brief" because he views Cotton Tenants as "a poets brief for the prosecution of economic and social justice", and in it he says that "you don't have to look hard to see how our own credit system, administered not by small-time land lords but by banks, credit rating companies, and collections agencies has established an impersonal, financial capital variant of the debt trap that Agee described seventy six years ago."
In addition to the text, not to be overlooked are the Walker Evans photographs- only a handful of the many taken on the trip, which are separately published, but those that appear go well with the text.
The physical book itself is a nice size to hold and read - about 5 1/2 inches wide, 7 inches long, light weight but decent quality paper, a decent size print (NOT tiny) and easy to carry round.