“Agee squabbled with his editors over what he felt was the exploitation and trivialization of destitute American families. What readers are about to discover now is what all the fighting was about.” —New York Times
“A masterpiece of the magazine reporter’s art. It is lucid, evocative, empathetic, deeply reported, consistently surprising, plainly argued, and illuminated, page after page, with poetic leaps of transcendent clarity.” —Fortune
“Agee’s gaze is compassionate, keen. What we see is not merely a poet looking at poverty, but one learning to navigate his gifts, who merges into everything he sees.” —NPR
WATCH a 2013 panel discussion of Cotton Tenants at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta.
James Agee never lacked for recognition as a poet, film critic, or screenwriter. So much more was expected of him, though. He couldn’t shake the suspicion that his talent was wasted even before his health wound down. “Nothing much to report,” he wrote in a May 11, 1955, letter. “I feel, in general, as if I were dying: a terrible slowing-down, in all ways, above all in relation to work.’’ When he succumbed five days later, he was forty-five. It would be three more years before his novel A Death in the Family appeared and won its enduring acclaim. It had been a long time since anyone had mentioned his obscure book about tenant farmers in Alabama, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
“Cotton Tenants” marked Agee’s first attempt to tell the story of that momentous trip. Commissioned in the summer of 1936, only to be shelved by Fortune magazine— Agee was a staff writer—the typescript wasted away in his Greenwich Village home for nearly twenty years, a piercing fragment lodged within a collection of unread manuscripts. But Agee’s young daughter inherited both the home and the collection, and eventually (in 2003, to be specific) she cleared it out. Two years later, the James Agee Trust transferred the collection to the University of Tennessee Special Collections Library; there, all the papers were cataloged, and “Cotton Tenants” stood out among the remains.
Although no date appeared on the typescript, there’s no good reason to believe Agee wrote a later draft or that this isn’t the one his editors declined to publish. As far as I know, no other versions of “Cotton Tenants” exist in any archive, public or private. Nor is it possible, to know with certainty the story behind the two appendices, “On Negroes” and “Landowners”—both placed here exactly as found on the typescript. These notes suggest, however, that “the gigantic weight of physical and spiritual brutality [the Negro] has borne and is bearing” was not far from his closest perceptions.
As soon as I became aware of the existence of the typescript (in 2010, to be specific), I did the only decent thing and asked the Agee Trust for permission to publish part of it in The Baffler. About one-third of “Cotton Tenants” first appeared in issue 19, which was released in March 2012. A partnership was then struck between The Baffler and Melville House to bring out the complete report, and the result is before you. It is published for the first time here—an act of love for the author.