This conversation with Hank Klibanoff, Hugh Davis, and Chip Simone took place at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 17, 2013, and was later broadcast on C-Span television.
Hank Klibanoff: At the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, here in Atlanta, Georgia, I’m thrilled to be moderating this illustrious panel tonight, and I think we’ll begin by introducing the book that we’re going to be talking about: Cotton Tenants, James Agee, Walker Evans. And after I introduce the book, I’ll introduce our guests and we’ll get started. In 1936, Fortune magazine, which was a relative babe among business magazines in this country, sent one of its staff writers, James Agee, to Hale County in west central Alabama with the assignment to tell the stories of the abject poverty and the spare lives of tenant farmers. Agee, a Tennessean by birth, educated at Harvard, was but 26-27 years old. Known mostly as a poet, a film critic, and a writer of screenplays, but he was also developing some talent as a long-form journalist, a style that Fortune’s editors liked, and he drew the assignment. At Agee’s request, Fortune paired him with a documentary photographer Agee barely knew, Walker Evans, whose previous work in the South had drawn good notice. The two of them spent two months in Hale County with three different families and the produced, but magazine standards, a mammoth and powerful piece of work: a 90-page, 30,000-word manuscript and more than 50 images.
For reasons that remain the subject of debate and speculation to this day, Fortune magazine never ran the manuscript. Five years later, Agee and Evans, to use the current parlance, repurposed the manuscript into a 471-page book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1941, five years after Fortune had turned down the manuscript. It didn’t survive. It quickly ran out of print after selling a paltry 600 copies. It won some praise, but it was criticized for its inconsistent voices, the cacophonous and clashing styles of presentation, long-winded stream of consciousness indulgences.
James Agee died in 1955 at age 45 of a heart attack. He has been described as a hard liver, an alcoholic, chain smoker, a serial marrier who lived a life of self-neglect. Sounds like a journalist. [laughter] By the time he had his happiest achievement, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiographical book, A Death in the Family, he had been dead for three years. But there was life after death for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Nearly 20 years after it failed to ignite, in 1960, it was, courageously, I might say, republished to a much different reception. The book hit American readers differently this time. It caught on, it became an iconic mainstay in the bookbag of college students all across the country. But the original manuscript had remained unpublished. It resided in Greenwich Village, in a basement in Agee’s papers for years until his daughter donated the papers to the University of Tennessee. The manuscript is now published by Melville House in conjunction with Baffler magazine. Baffler ran an excerpt in the last several months. It’s on sale here later.
I’m going to stop there. I’m going to introduce our guests who will tell you the rest of the story, and we’ll try to save some time at the end for your questions. First of all, John Summers. John is the editor of Cotton Tenants and we owe him a great deal of gratitude for the presence of the book today. The Baffler magazine is a print and digital journal of art and criticism, now in its 25th year. John and The Baffler Foundation purchased the magazine two years ago and he runs it from Cambridge, Massachusetts. John has his Ph.D. in intellectual history from the University of Rochester and is the editor of three books of cultural criticism. He was born and raised in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the Mason-Dixon line, and just to show you how he still has some geographical confusion, he claims he is very much a southerner.
John Summers: I said “almost a southerner.” [laughter]
HK: Well, that’s relative, you know, down here. Okay. Hugh Davis is associate professor of English at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. He is the author of The Making of James Agee, which came out in 2008, and he’s the editor of a new scholarly edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that will be coming out next year, I believe. Currently, he’s working on an edition of Agee’s letters. He got his bachelor’s degree at Belhaven College in Jackson, which I can tell you, having lived across the street from it, is in the shadow of Eudora Welty’s home; his master’s at the University of Alabama; and a PhD in English at the University of Tennessee, where the Agee papers are housed. His course titles make me want to sign up for his classes: Southern Literature in Black and White is one; Freaks is another; and Hillbillies, Rednecks, and Georgia Crackers: The South and its representations From the Bottom Up. Chip Simone, like so many of us, is a transplanted Atlantan from Worcester, Massachusetts. He studied under the famous Harry Callahan at RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design, and he’s been making photographs for more than five decades. Two years ago, the High Museum, here in Atlanta, brought special attention to Chip’s work in a show that exhibits 64 of his prints. The captured watershed period in his professional career: his transition, not only to digitally generated images, but also to color. You’ll know why Chip is here to discuss Walker Evans when I read you this, which he wrote: “I’m of a generation that learned expressive photography in a very parochial way. Serious photography was done in black and white; color was vulgar. The shape of the image was dictated by the format of the camera, as cropping was not acceptable. I have abandoned arbitrary rules like these and continue to open my mind to the potential of new technologies. After 35 years in the dark room, I moved into the digital realm. Digital technology not only changed the apparatus of the medium, it transformed how I absorb the visual world and profoundly changed how I express what I see.” So, these are our panelists and now we’re going to start with John. I’d love to give you the first word here. I mean, let’s talk a little bit about Fortune magazine and the 1930s. It starts on the cusp of the Depression. Henry Luce decides to keep it going, nonetheless. He had big ideas for a different kind of business journalism, and he’s hiring people like James Agee, Archibald MacLeish…
JS: Dwight Macdonald out of Yale.
HK: Dwight Macdonald, Margaret Bourke-White. Tell us about that period of time and, if you would, segue into Cotton Tenants and tell us about how that…
JS: Sure. I mean, I was just chewing over your idea that he treated himself so badly, in some respects, because he was a journalist. I think it was because he was a poet, which is what he started out as. And, the other interesting thing about that self conception as a journalist is that a lot of the people that Henry Luce hired onto the staff of Fortune magazine, which was founded in 1930 – he announced the new magazine the week of the stock market crash – many of them didn’t think of themselves as journalists either before or after they were with Luce. And Luce had this idea – he had founded Time magazine in 1923, and magazines were very important, period, in the ’20s as a way of guiding new college-educated opinion, especially in the rural areas. Reader’s Digest is founded at this time to hit a slightly different demographic. The New Yorker is founded at this time. The magazines in the Luce stable, which included Time, and then Fortune in 1930, and Life magazine in 1936, were a really curious hybrid. Luce, himself, had conceived of journalism as a kind of technique of simplification. He wanted to provide brisk summaries of the news in any particular week for his audience of very busy people: the striving middle classes, the upwardly mobile middle classes, a kind of type that doesn’t seem much in evidence these days anywhere. Fortune he conceived of specifically as an effort to reach business executives and managers. You have to remember, when you think about Agee’s journalism in this period, in the early ’30s, that the people that he was writing for, they were business people. There were 100,000 of them by 1935, the subscription numbers were really good. It was a very successful magazine, as with most things that Luce put his hand to. So, Agee came to Fortune magazine right out of Harvard. He graduated in May or June of 1932, and then in the summer, he got his job on the strength of a recommendation from his friend Dwight Macdonald. He was a kind of literary chum of Dwight Macdonald who later became an important New York intellectual and champion of James Agee’s work, as a matter of fact, when, as you mentioned, it had fallen into such neglect. So, Agee made his adjustments as people like Archibald MacLeish made his adjustments, and Macdonald, as well. But what happened at Fortune, right around 1932-33-34, and really extending into 1936, was, Henry Luce, who was unusual in one respect in that he believed that business in America should serve some point, there should be an end to business. It didn’t necessarily have to have a broad social end, but that there should be some point to it, which automatically distinguishes him from most of our own business spokesmen today. He had a kind of enlightened sense of what business journalism could be about.
HK: He didn’t mind criticism of business.
JS: He didn’t mind criticism of business, that’s right. And, I mean, let’s face it, when it’s 1933 and it’s 1934, it’s kind of hard to defend business. You know, he had a Henry Hoover conception of heroic business, but in the midst of the Great Depression, in the early part of the brunt of the Depression, it was almost impossible for any honest person to continue to take that line that had been conceived in the 1920s. So, Fortune and its writers, including Agee, began to confront some of the more unseemly sides of the country. So, Fortune ran pieces about the munitions industry, for example. They ran a piece about the Tennessee Valley Authority, which Agee wrote, and which Luce told him was among the best things that had ever been printed in the couple of years that Fortune had been around. So, they were broadly and pragmatically open to New Deal reforms. And I keep mentioning Dwight Macdonald because he has a particular point of entry into the Agee biography but, in this respect, it’s important. Dwight Macdonald wrote a three or four-part series on U.S. steel in 1936 for Fortune and it was a subject of a great deal of controversy around the office and with Luce. Previous to that, they had run plenty of corporate profiles. In fact, Fortune magazine, more or less, invented the corporate profile. You know, corporations, business executives in the ’20s and the early ’30s, they didn’t want anybody to particularly know what they were doing. It was a kind of caste system and it had been that way for some time, and they didn’t want anybody looking, even a friendly person. So the Luce editors would run a long, in-depth profile, and then they would show the subject of the profile the draft saying, “well, we’re going to run this.” That old trick. The profile that Macdonald was writing was a little bit hard-hitting. He tried to put an epigraph on the fourth installment by Lenin, so that was going a little bit too far.
So, there are political changes happening right around the time that Agee, in the office politics, you might say, around the time that Agee gets the assignment in the summer of ’36, and the gist is that, by the time he’s finished writing it that fall, there was a long fallout over the next 18 months at the magazine. So, we’re not quite sure why they didn’t run it, but we have a pretty good circumstantial idea.
HK: Well, he comes from a very political viewpoint. You can feel it as he’s writing it. I’d like you to show us the poet in James Agee. If you would, do a little reading here.
HK: Set it up any way you would like.
JS: Sure. I’ll read just a little bit from the beginning where Agee talks about what it is that he’s doing. I would say it’s not quite… well, you can judge for yourself and we can talk about this in the Q&A, but I would say it’s not quite a political viewpoint, but the passage that I’m about ready to read is definitely the moral charter, you might say, of the rest. […..] That’s the end of the introduction.
HK: You get a real flavor of his writing style there. I want to turn to you, Hugh, and, if you would, you know as much about James Agee as anyone else around, tell us who he was, and am I right that he, himself had conflict about doing this and about exposing these people to national criticism or national approval, whatever it would be.
Hugh Davis: Well, one of the things that Agee was trying to remedy with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is the idea that rural poverty had become, and people living in rural poverty had become, poster children for the Depression. And Walker Evans had worked for the Resettlement Administration. His job was to go out and take pictures, propagandistic pictures of poor people, and then go back and show them happy after the New Deal had intervened in their lives. And Agee was really writing against the tradition of representing people like Allie Mae Burroughs as poster children for the Depression. And that’s one of the things that he was really working against. Now, when he went to the south in 1936, his first inclination was actually to do a piece on union organizing in the south. And in fact, I have a quote from his notebooks where he describes getting the assignment, which he knew was pretty important, immediately, at Fortune. He writes: “I was intensely interested to learn all I could about the unions, especially the street communist sharecroppers’ union, and here was my chance on that, too. I knew I could get help and could get all this stuff. I intended to research and write three pieces: the first of the family; the second, a generalized piece, a big fat-assed analysis of the situation and of cotton economics and of all the governmental efforts to do something about it, which latter I was quite sure I could beautifully hang themselves on their own rope; and the third, a straight union piece, starting with the inch-by-inch process of a couple of the organizers opening up new territory, leading that right on through the night riding, et cetera, and mushrooming it into a history of both unions.”
And so, from the very beginning, the first person he called after receiving the assignment was Beth McHenry, who was a communist organizer who had worked with the International Labor Defense on the Scottsboro case in Alabama and she put him in touch with some communist organizers in Terrence City. And in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he writes, actually, he met with them several times. And in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, when he talks about meeting with people who were “also spies and enemies of our enemies,” that’s who he’s talking about.
On his first night in Alabama, he actually went to Tallapoosa Count, which is where the all-black communist sharecroppers’ unions had been founded, to hear a speech by “a negro comrade.” And so, when he went to the south, it was very much in the context of communist party organizing. Now, over the next five years, his attitudes towards communists and towards the communist party changed. But, you can see that conflict in the epigraph to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which begins with a quote from King Lear juxtaposed with a quote from the Communist Manifesto, but the footnote to the Communist Manifesto reads these words are here to mislead those who will be misled by them. And so, with Agee, you always get the point-counterpoint and the conflict, which is lain bare right there on the page.
HK: So, are you saying, then, that the families – the Tingles, the Fields, the Burroughs – are merely actors in some play he’s trying to write for the purpose of advancing your cause?
HD: One thing is, the cause is maybe not the right word because I think Agee, himself, would be hard-pressed to say what cause it is, exactly, that he’s advancing. He thought that, if he published this article in Fortune, that he would be striking a blow against the establishment, which, of course, Fortune was part of this establishment and that’s probably a big part of the reason why they didn’t publish it. But he saw himself as a spy. He was recruited by the communist party, and even though he agreed with their goals, he declined to join because he felt like, as a writer, that he could either write or he could be a revolutionary. And he couldn’t commit fully to bombing cotton depots in the south when he had books to write. And so, the cause…
JS: is unclear
HD: Right, right, right.
HK: Chip, let’s talk about Walker Evans. What tradition did he come out from, emerge from as a photographer? And what do we know about him at the time that he and Agee are connecting?
Chip Simone: Walker Evans was an erudite, well-educated, sophisticated man. He came out of the middle west, he went to Harvard, and then from Harvard, he went to Paris, to the School of Paris. And by the School of Paris, I mean that all of the lessons that Paris as a place and an experience can teach you. He hung out there. He preferred the presence of poets. He liked to read the western classic poets, but he was also exposed… he knew Picasso was present and he knew that the visual world was changing at that particular time. Modernism had begun to happen there, and he was very susceptible to that. So, he was exposed to a certain kind of new aesthetic, which, ultimately, was reflected in the way he used the camera because he saw the camera as one of the true modern art methodologies – a machine-made picture would more readily eliminate his presence from the image, or at least, people thought that. And that was part of the objective, was to make a picture that was so pure in its descriptive power that you were not distracted by the presence, the ego presence, of the artist that made it. Now, of course, I think that that’s in and of itself deceptive because his artistry was actually just there in plain sight. He knew how to keep his own shadow out of the picture, so to speak.
He did not see himself as a documentary photographer, but he liked to work in the style of documentary photography. He felt that the camera couldn’t possible, and I think Agee was in agreement with him, that the camera could not possibly be so indifferent, so objective, because the things that you point the camera at, which is really the skill of the photographer in this particular case, is what makes the picture. It’s not… the process of photography is the process of selection of the subject. And his pictures are so fully realized. Now, this wasn’t always the case, of course, and he was a fairly young guy. He did his first photo essay work in Havana a few years before this. But he had begun working throughout the south. And by the time he got to Hale County, he was already in the south for at least a year. And he photographed in Tennessee and in Alabama and in Georgia. He made one of my favorite pictures, was done about a mile from here on Edgewood Avenue. I wish there was a title to it but it’s a wonderful picture with a movie poster of Carole Lombard with a black eye on it, but it was done nearby. And he photographed in New Orleans and he photographed in Savannah, and I think, by the time he got to Hale County, he had already developed a sense of what the south looked like. And when I tried to glean from what else I read was how much time Agee spent in the south, if any, beside this trip to Alabama, whereas Evans had been here, in total, almost two years. So a lot of the work that you see from Famous Men, it is very similar to what he had done in other parts of the state. So I think he had already settled on a methodology and an aesthetic for doing that. But he felt that the things that he chose, carefully, to include in the photographs had their own almost spiritual power to them. And that by selecting the images carefully, they transcended the subjects and were elevated to a higher level of significance.
HK: Give me a sense of the technology of the time. What did a camera look like in the early ’30s? Was it a big box camera?
CS: Well, the camera at that point, by the time he came here… he essentially used two kinds of cameras: a roll film camera, which would have been a handheld camera…
CS: … not as small as a 35-millimeter camera, and give you a negative, maybe, an individual roll film negative, about so big; and the eight by ten-inch camera, which was a real machine. This may be not exactly right, but it was wooden a Chicago-made camera. I used one, myself, for 10 years. So they are very warm and friendly, actually. It’s the mechanical device as a totem, and people were drawn to it and not threatened by it, as a rule. But it was large, cumbersome, and slow. So, his pictures were very deliberate and the work that he did was very studied. Now, as it turns out, as a child, he collected postcards, so there’s been some scuttlebutt in recent years as to how much influence he had from photographs of places that other people had taken that he had studied for all of his childhood. And we don’t know how that adds or detracts from his reputation, but he was very selective, and had an affinity for the graphical element, the quotidian handmade object, which he felt was reflective of the culture that was present in any given environment. And he had no interest, and he state so. He didn’t want to know either the economic situation or the political situation. He felt that would really get in the way and obstruct the purity of his intention.
HK: One thing I’m curious about, and you all should also feel free to chime in on this, we heard, sort of, the point of view or the angle that James Agee was coming from and presenting the families. Walker Evans, also, was he merely trying to reflect what he saw, or do you think he was serving as a provocateur?
CS: I think he was trying to ennoble what he saw, and one of the things about the big camera is that it’s apparently formalizing. It’s a deliberate process. It comes as a, sort of, soft, collapsed object that you then set up and batten down. And, in the process of doing that, you have to make certain decisions, aesthetic decisions, as to where to place it and how to compose images. And it’s inherently formal, particularly in architectural use. So, the churches, the buildings that he photographed, as dilapidated as they may have been, frequently had structural integrity. At least there was gravitas to the object as described in the photograph. And I think he treated people primarily the same way. Not with exactly the same kind of treatment. If you go back, historically, to one of his heroes, Eugene O’Shea, the French Parisian photographer, and Evans talks about his indebtedness to that and also to Paul Strand, another American photographer who worked with large format, very direct frontal work, unpretentious kind of work, making the place of the emphasis not on the artistry but on the strength of the subject, itself.
HK: So, John, I’m curious. Did you feel that there was this perfect harmony between the writing and the photography, or that they worked as contrast together?
JS: Well, the other model we had was, the only model we had was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which is where the photos are arranged differently than here. We didn’t try in this edition to achieve this same kind of harmony. Perhaps we should have, but we didn’t. This book… we’re not sure what would have happened if it would have been published as a magazine article, what would have become of the photos, how they would have been arranged, whether they would have had captions, and so on. So we were working slightly in the dark in terms of producing this book. So, I understand that they do, and I appreciate it. It’s not something, though, that we gave too much attention to in this book.
HK: Well, talk about, if you would, Agee’s writing style, both out of the period that he was writing, why it didn’t resonate for Americans when it came out in 1941, but did 20 years later. What would you say?
JS: Well, looking at this typescript at first, it was apparent that it was recognizably James Agee because it was… I mean, if you’ve read any of Agee, you have maybe a sense of just the beauty of his prose and that, sort of, grabs you and makes you feel grateful, even a sense of love for the author. That’s been my experience and I think it’s a fairly widespread experience with Agee once you find the right point of entry. I mean, the thing about Agee’s writing that I find most remarkable in light of his reputation is its versatility. He really was able to write in very different formal structures and prove himself a master, whether that was a screenplay or whether it was poetry or, in this case, whether it’s magazine journalism. It’s very important and perhaps slightly confusing if you don’t remember that “Cotton Tenants” is a magazine article. It’s 30,000 words. We’re bringing it forward to you as a book for lots of reasons, but it was intended as a magazine article. When I first read it, the first thing I thought, or the second thing I thought after “wow, this is James Agee” was, “boy, this is really good!” Like, it’s fully realized journalism. So, I don’t think Agee particularly thought of himself as a journalist. It certainly wasn’t among the most important of his self-images. But the book shows that he was a master of magazine journalism. He was able to fully realize a 30,000-word essay.
HK: Hugh, would you say that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is merely an extended adaptation of “Cotton Tenants” or much more?
HD: I would say it’s much much more. Pretty much everything in “Cotton Tenants” made its way into Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in one way or another, but what’s missing are the long rapturous meditations on everything under the sun. Agee says that cotton tenantry is only the nominal subject of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The real subject is certain normal predicaments of human divinity, is what he’s trying to capture. And, yeah, it goes through all sorts of permutations. I do want to come back to Chip’s statement that Walker Evans was trying to ennoble the sharecroppers in his photographs, which is certainly true. I mean, you can see the pain in Allie Mae Burroughs’ face, and you can tell that she knows how she’s being represented, and you can tell that she has bad teeth even though her mouth is not open. And it hurts, it hurts for her to become this poster-child for poverty. But one thing that’s interesting is, Agee, for all of his protestations on behalf of the sharecroppers, never really lets them speak for themselves. There are only a very few moments when they even are given their own voice. Similarly, Evans has the photograph where, the first day they were there, Evans was snapping pictures of the sharecroppers. The Burroughs heard about it and went home, bathed, put on their best clothes, and came over to have their portrait taken. And there was a very nice portrait of the Burroughs family, their hair is all combed, they’re clean, they’re wearing nice clothes, they’re smiling, and they’re standing there and it’s a nice standard family portrait. That portrait is not in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The Burroughs wanted to be represented as a clean, happy family. And Agee writes about Allie Mae Burroughs’ attempts to make the house pretty, to have this, sort of, middle-class decency, but that was denied. That was denied them in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. So one of the tensions in that book is between the representation, which Agee knows is flawed, and the human beings that are behind it.
HK: Interesting. Chip?
CS: They may not have been that, however, That may have been there artifice, and, at that period of time, most Americans were unaccustomed to being photographed. Today, people rehearse their poses. I mean, you know that if you have a Facebook page, all of your friends look like this, right? [laughter] I mean, they all do, in every picture, they all look the same. But in those days, being photographed was somewhat of an uncommon experience. There’s a wonderful photographer named Mike Disfarmer, who had a studio in Iowa, some of the most stunningly beautiful ordinary photographs of farm community people, who didn’t seem to have a sense of what was really happening. They just stood there and presented themselves to the camera. And I think that people like Evans would have preferred that interaction than to one where they were trying to gussy themselves up and become something other than they were.
HK: So, I have one question that baffles me. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, when Walker Evans writes the foreword or the introduction, and he writes it about James Agee, and the one thing he says is that, in 1938, a New York publisher agreed to publish the expanded version of the manuscript “on condition that certain words be deleted which are illegal in Massachusetts” [laughter]. And I’m thinking, what possible words could have been illegal in Massachusetts and were not illegal everywhere else? Do we know anything about that?
JS: Everything’s legal in Massachusetts now.
HK: That’s what I would have thought. Even then, I would’ve thought.
HD: The unexpurgated version of that passage is going to be in my edition. They’re the words that you would think.
HK: They are? OK. So let me ask, Hugh, just go back to how do you explain that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men just didn’t catch on the first time and it did the second time?
HD: Well, for one thing, it was published in August of 1941 and people had Depression fatigue by that time. The Farm Security Administration photographs had been published, the famous Dorothea Lange photographs had been published, books like You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, and people were sick of it and couldn’t see it anymore. That’s part of what Let Us Now Praise Famous is, it’s to make you see these people again for the first time. The other problem, of course, is that World War II – America entered World War II in December of 1941. Once America was in World War II, nobody cared about sharecroppers anymore.
HK: Plus, in 1960, we were just a very different ???, right?
HD: Now, in 1960… as you said in your introduction, Agee died in 1955, Death in the Family was published in 1958, won the Pulitzer in 1958. Then, Agee had this resurgence of interest. His movie reviews were published, his screenplays were published. In 1960, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was reissued, and in 1962, his letters to Father Flye were published. And so, suddenly, he was getting a lot of attention. Now, what’s interesting about Agee, though, is he was just as famous for what he didn’t write because he was seen as an artist who had failed to produce the work that was expected of him. But people took that kind of failure and said the reason that he had failed to produce what was expected of him was because he wouldn’t compromise his principles. That he had too much integrity to, sort of, bow to the system and the system, then, had destroyed him. And so, people saw him as this sort of romantic, noble failure. But, as one critic of the time put it, he was someone who was willing to live without armor. And so, I think especially young people who read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in the early ’60s were very drawn to that idea of integrity and living without compromise and living without armor. I have a quote here from Casey Hayden who was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was part of Freedom Summer 1963, and this is what she wrote about, this quote is in my new edition, what she wrote about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, she said, “I carried this book around with two work shirts and the one pair of jeans the same size as my old bible for which it was a replacement. We passed it around like cigarettes, like bread and wine.”
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was a type of bible for the freedom riders who came south to register black voters. And part of it was that it offered them a window into the mind of the south. You know, it’s about the same people who were trying to lynch them in Mississippi, and I think part of it was that these young idealistic college students wanted to understand these people not as abstractions, not as enemies, but as human beings, and that’s exactly what Agee accomplishes. The other thing I think that they were drawn to was that it showed them how to live without armor. It showed them how to live according to their principles without compromise. And, you know, I teach Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, or try to, to my freshmen and they hate it. But I don’t care [laughter] because there are a couple every semester who get it, and it’s worth it. It’s worth it. And Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, as many of you know, is a book that either you can’t get past the first few pages or it changes your life. And, you know, I think in the early ’60s, there were people who wanted that change, who were eager for that change, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men really spoke to that.
JS: It is true, but with an addendum. The book itself was a commercial and, more or less, a critical flop, but his reputation – he did live in New York and he did have friends and some of them talked to him. People like Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, Paul Goodman. These are New York intellectual figures in the ’40s and the ’50s that were very much aware of what Agee and Evans had accomplished in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and kept, in some small way, his reputation alive. In fact, in 1944, Dwight Macdonald published or made available backstock from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men through his magazine called politics for subscribers. So there was a small flame in that period that connects the struggle in the late ’30s and early ’40s to the ’60s, I think.
HK: I want to go to the audience. So if you would raise your hand and we’ll have the microphone come to you. Don’t be shy. I know we all have questions.
JS: Be vulnerable.
HK: That’s right. [laughter] And while I’m waiting for someone to raise their hand, I just want to mention that, if you have an interest in this and you clearly do or you wouldn’t be here, it’s worth knowing that we’re about to see a major resurgence, or at least the opportunity for there to be a major resurgence of interest both in Agee and in Evans. There’s a whole slew of other books that are coming out, am I right about that? Hugh?
HD: The University of Tennessee Press is publishing an 11-volume scholarly edition of Agee’s complete works. And A Death in the Family, the restored edition of A Death in the Family came out in 2007, the complete journalism will be published this fall, my edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is coming out in the spring and it will include a corrected version of the 1941 text, the 1941 photographs, and the 1960 photographs and about 600 pages of manuscript material, including unpublished chapters, drafts, outlines. It’ll have a fully annotated version of “Cotton Tenants” and correspondence, including two letters from Floyd Burroughs and Elizabeth Tingle, two of the original sharecroppers who finally will have their voice. That’ll be out. And other volumes will include three volumes of screenplays, including the original script for “Night of the Hunter,” movie reviews, short fiction, poetry, and letters. And so, yeah, in the next few years, there will be…
HK: Ample opportunity to immerse yourself in the lives. Any questions here? Over here, sir. And while he’s walking, tell us the current state, the Fields, Tingle, and Burroughs families are aware that this book is out, am I right, that the manuscript is out?
JS: I think there was a quotation from Bud Fields’ grandson, I think it was, about the book, yeah.
HK: He was pleased that it’s out and thought it brought honor to the family, even while describing the very difficult circumstances in which they lived.
JS: Yeah, that’s right.
HK: Yes, over here.
Audience member 1: I’d like to make a brief statement before a question. I lived, from 1936 to 1941, on a 125-acre farm three miles east of Avondale Estates, now a residential. We had a black tenant farmer and all summer long, my brother one year younger than I worked with this black tenant farmer, and on weekends and sometimes after school. We raised horses, two horses, a mule, cows, pigs, goats, the whole animal farm portion, chickens… and sold produce to Emory Hospital. The maid worked in the big house and the tenant farmer farmed. We didn’t farm cotton. My question is, was there any research at all of the black tenant farmer?
HD: Well, Agee was sent, explicitly, by Fortune to find a representative family of white sharecroppers. And in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, you’ll notice the first couple of chapters when the book proper starts, the first two are about encounters with some black sharecroppers who are brought in to sing for him and Evans. And then there’s another where he goes to, Evans and Agee have stopped to photograph a church and a black couple walks by. They go to ask them who can let them in the church, and when Agee approaches them from behind, they run. And so, the first couple of chapters of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee is very aware of the fact that there are six million black sharecroppers in the south and he’s not supposed to notice. And so that’s in there, that’s part of his ???. And then of course, in “Cotton Tenants,” there’s an appendix on black sharecroppers, which…
JS: Yeah, it’s called “On Negroes.” And there’s also, there are two appendixes. One is “On Negroes” and the other is called “On Landowners.” So there’s a few paragraphs. There’s not much, but there’s sort of what he calls, kind of, notes at random. So that’s here.
HK: But that wasn’t the intent of the assignment, originally.
HD: And in this passage, he says, all right, think about these destitute sharecroppers who don’t have anything, the white sharecroppers. Take away the mule, take away the cow, take away the pig. Take away the meat and take away the shoes. And then, we’ll start talking about the black sharecropper.
HK: Right. They just have so much less. There was another question. Yes, back here.
Audience member 2: You said that Agee specifically asked for Evans to go on the assignment with him even though he didn’t really know him very well. Can you speak to why he might have wanted Evans, and can you also speak to what their relationship became once they did work together?
CS: Evans was on assignment for the Farm Security Administration at that time. So Agee asked to get him in on the project and he was borrowed from the FSA. So Evans was not working for Fortune at that time. Apparently, Agee had a dislike for people like Margaret Bourke-White, who he thought were too pretentious in the work that they did, and Evans had already developed a reputation as being a forthright straight shooter, literally. I mean, his work, at a certain level, was almost like snap shooting. There was no attempt to manipulate the viewer through sentiment or other things like that. And that’s apparently a quality that Agee really despised.
JS: And Margaret Bourke-White was a regular photographer at Fortune. In fact, probably the dominant photographer.
CS: Yeah, Margaret Bourke-White, well, for Time-Life she may have had the photograph on the first issue of Life magazine, as a matter of fact, if I recall.
JS: Yeah. Yeah.
CS: But that’s what I came across is that he didn’t like that kind of photography and he was aware that Evans didn’t do it that way. Now, Evans later wrote that he didn’t really think of what they did as a collaboration. That they both went there and had their own thing to do. And when Famous Men came around, they reached an accord as to how it would be joined. And as such, the first edition of Famous Men had 50 pages of photographs, one picture per page, uncaptioned so that the viewer had to experience, work a little harder, because there was no caption. But after going through these 50 images in a very specific sequence because it was important to Evans how his work was laid out, how the story unfolded, so to speak, and then when you got through to the end of those 50 images, you then came to the introduction to Famous Men. So they saw separate roles but related roles. You are prepared, kind of, at an emotional and visceral level by the photographs, and of course, you would come back because they were alluded to in the writing, it was the people you were reading about, it was the houses you were reading about, it was all that stuff. But first and foremost, they wanted you, in the purest sense, to look at the photographs.
HK: We have another question. Over here, yes. Here we go, sir.
Audience member 3: Considering we’ve just passed through an almost equal economic time as the Great Depression, and how brilliantly it was depicted later on, we have now migrant worker situations, we have also all sorts of situations that relate to very similar situations, is there, and I’ll be brief here, is there an Agee working today, writing about this?
JS: Well, let’s hope so. I think one of the things that it’s reasonable to hope for from this book and from Hugh’s work and Chip’s work is that, in keeping these two men and their work before the public, cultivating a public for it today, from this someone will remember the importance of doing this. There’s certainly not the business part of it anymore. There doesn’t seem to be many magazines left, apart from The Baffler, but we publish long essays, there are some, of course. So, this is the ambivalence that one feels, to go back to Henry Luce, you know, who hired poets to write journalism and paid them and gave them offices. You know, I mean, Agee had an office in the Chrysler building. And there was an audience, a presumed audience, for the work. The offices are gone. The audience is disorganized, I don’t think it’s gone. And the resources, the media magnets, they’re chasing clicks and links online now, they’re not much interested in this. So, it’s a very good question.
HK: I might amplify somewhat on that. I think I failed to introduce myself earlier. I’m Hank Klibanoff and I spent 36 years in the newspaper business and I now teach journalism at Emory. And I wrote a book on the history of news coverage of the civil rights movement in the south. And that’s just by way of giving you some bona fides to say that I think we are in a state, currently, where news organizations are not, by and large, allowing reporters to do what we might call immersion journalism. But, I’m not despairing because I have seen where there has been a real uptick in the number of online news organizations, some of them that were once newspaper based, some them that were not, that are increasingly interested in long-form journalism, increasingly informed in immersion journalism. But if you say, so, how are we covering the state of the immigrant in America today? I would say that we are covering the politics of it very well, we sort of know what’s going on in the senate subcommittee of the judiciary committee. But, do we know what’s going on in their lives? Are we living with them and telling their stories? And the answer is no. And I think that’s sort of a national problem, I mean it’s not just down here. But we don’t see reporters in the fields, afraid. We don’t see them with the teenager who’s scared to death he or she will get stopped, and, as Jessica Colotl did in this town, and without a proper driver’s license. And we don’t see them suddenly texting their parents, be careful, I got caught on a traffic violation, they might be coming after you. We don’t see that. I think we will. I am hopeful we will get back to that. I think online has multiple opportunities for deep reporting, and I look forward to seeing more of that.
JS: One of the problems is, who’s interested in reading about poor people? I mean, it’s one thing to read about poor people as they were poor in 1936 through James Agee’s prose, but I know of a project in Washington that’s explicitly trying to cultivate reporters for reporting the social crisis that’s right now enveloping the entire country, and then to try to take their stories and get them placed in major media. The reports that come back from the editors at the major media are almost universally, “but can you take the poverty out?” It’s a little bit uncomfortable. I mean, it’s important to remember that this is very much a book about poor people.
HK: We have another question over here. Yes, ma’am.
Audience member 4: Full disclosure, my four grandparents were sharecroppers in Alabama and Mississippi in the ’30s and the ’40s. And my parents were sharecroppers in Mississippi in the ’40s and the ’50s. I’m interested in the finding of the article amongst his papers. Was it a composed article or was it prose and photography?
JS: It was just the article.
AM4: Just the article?
JS: Just the article, that’s right.
AM4: Whence came the photography? That’s one question. And then my other question is, was Agee and Agee, alone, given the assignment and then he hired or selected the photographer and instructed him? And once they were on the job in Alabama, did they collaborate specifically about what they wanted photographed, when?
JS: Well, I think Chip has addressed the question of collaboration. Do you want to elaborate?
CS: I think they worked separately. Agee chose to live with the families, Evans stayed in a motel, which was very telling. But he also was more interested in keeping a distance. He thought it was important to do the kind of work, and he was somewhat of a reserved guy, as I understand it, less likely to be in the trenches. And his career as an artist, which was foremost in his mind, I think, because two years after the photographs were made in Alabama, 1936, Evans was the first photographer ever to have a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and that was in 1938, which included some of the Hale County photographs. So those works of photography were elevated almost immediately into the high-art realm at the pinnacle of art temples in our country.
HK: If I might, I want to give John the last word, and I think we’re down to the last word, a minute or so on encountering the manuscript, itself. It’s a typescript, right?
HK: With his hand… you know it was his handwriting, it’s a distinctive, awful handwriting, if I’m not mistaken.
JS: It was, yes. But what was remarkable about this project, from our perspective, was that it was recognizable Agee, it was recognizable not Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It was, as I said earlier, it was a different genre. It wasn’t a book, it was a magazine essay. But also the third really impressive reason to do this project, it was sort of easy, you know? Because it was done. I didn’t have to go in and try to do a lot of guesswork. The scrawl was there. There were marks on every page of 92, I think, total photocopied pages, is that right? And there were 90, you know, 150 or so marks, but they were all fairly legible and so the editing process was really nothing more than just following Agee’s instructions. So it was, discovery is not quite the right word, it was more a question of, because the manuscript had been around, it was more a question of what have we forgotten to ask about? So we remembered, we all remembered James Agee and Walker Evans.
HK: So what you have here is the last word from James Agee of what he wanted the manuscript to say.
JS: As a magazine article.
HK: Right, as a magazine article. I mean, because it’s got his got his own hand editing on it.
JS: Yes, that’s right. God forbid I should edit James Agee [laughter].
HK: Thank you very much. This has been wonderful. Chip Simone, I want to thank you so much for this. And Hugh Davis and John Summers. I’m Hank Klibanoff. It’s been wonderful. Thank you all very much and we’ll see you out in the lobby.