On James Agee’s Cotton Tenants

This interview by Leonard Lopate was broadcast on The Leonard Lopate Show on June 6, 2013.

Leonard Lopate: In the summer of 1936, poet, film critic, screenwriter, and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist James Agee and the great photographer Walker Evans traveled to the cotton belt to document the lives of impoverished sharecropping families on assignment for Fortune magazine. That led to their collaboration on the groundbreaking book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But Fortune never ran the original article. In 2010, the manuscript for that assignment turned up in a trove of documents found in the New York apartment Agee had lived in. It’s now being released as a book called Cotton Tenants: Three Families, published by Melville House, and I’m very delighted to welcome the book’s co-editors, novelist Adam Haslett and John Summers, editor of The Baffler magazine to our show today. Adam, have people wondered why Fortune never published the article that Agee and Evans were sent to report?

Adam Haslett: Yeah, it’s been a question all along, and, as I think John can tell you, as well, we have no documentation or letters or correspondence that really tells us exactly why. I mean, the length is one obvious thing, but it’s a bit of a mystery. John knows a lot about that period.

LL: Well, would Fortune, which represents a certain attitude about America, have found this a little too far to the Left?

John Summers: It’s possible. It’s possible. Fortune was in an interesting place in the early 30s. They were changing politically. Agee had written before for them. In fact, he wrote a story on the Tennessee Valley Authority that Henry Luce praised as the best writing that Fortune had yet published. And, in fact, Agee wrote, then, subsequently, many stories for Fortune, so it wasn’t such a clear–and–fast distinction.

LL: Well, he wrote for Luce ’cause he was film critic at Time magazine.

JS: That’s right. One of the things that we do know, though, is that it’s not true that James Agee turned in an un-publishable piece because we have it and it’s quite nice.

LL: Well, how was the manuscript discovered over 50 years after Agee’s death?

JS: Well, discovery is a bit of a difficult word in this context. I had been in touch with the James Agee estate since around 2005. There were some efforts to open up the literary community surrounding Agee at the time. And the head of the Agee Trust, Paul Sprecher, simply called me and told me about the manuscript.

LL: It was sitting there, they knew that…

JS: It had been recognized for, sort of, what it is. It wasn’t just a rough draft of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it wasn’t a treatment. It was, in fact, fully realized magazine journalism.

LL: So, did it need any editing?

JS: Well, the manuscript, the typescript, was about 90 pages. And each page, there were multiple marks, all of them Agee’s, all of them, believe it or not, legible (he had terrible handwriting). But all that I did in editing it was to follow his instructions, So, God forbid that I should edit James Agee.

AH: And then John called me to see if I would write an introduction, which I did, so I didn’t participate so much in the editing as trying to wrestle with it as a document and wonder what is the relevance of it today, for us. And what struck me was what a live and still intense and vivid account it was, and how much more than an introduction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, or, rather, a precursor. And one of the distinctions you can make is that, if Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a kind of sui generis prose symphony, this is like a poet’s brief for the prosecution of social and political injustice.

JS: Yes, that’s beautifully put.

AH: And so, I think it really does stand on its own. I think, in time, it could become the kind of classic American journalism that just never happened to never be published.

LL: But is it relevant today or is it very much about a certain time in American history?

AH: Well, no, I think it’s quite relevant. And the reason is twofold. One is that it is about a disparity of economic conditions between landlords and tenants in a system of debt that we now have a simply late capital version of, with the crisis in student debt and consumer debt and so on. So, I think the economic relations that he’s describing are simply now exist in another register. But also, he has this notion of the intuitions that allow an economic system to thrive. It’s not just that there’s a cold economic logic, as he calls it. There’s also a system of assumptions. And in our time, those assumptions have to do with the fact that debt is just natural law and every debt is a personal moral obligation as opposed to part of a system that’s rigged towards creditors.

LL: The photographs and texts follow three “representative” families—representative with quotes around it.

JS: That’s right, yeah.

LL: How were those families chosen?

AH: That’s a good question.

JS: He does talk about that, actually.

LL: I mean, because they are representative. He sees them as representative.

AH: That’s right.

JS: He does and he doesn’t. One of the interesting things that Adam says in his introduction is that there’s no scandal here. There’s no sensationalism. There’s no what Agee calls a conflagrant example of the underlying patterns that he’s trying to disclose. So, he may call them representative, but he wouldn’t—maybe the proper word is typical.

LL: Well, where did they fall in the class structure of the South at the time?

AH: Very close to the bottom. I think one of the interesting things…

LL: He called them white trash. You can’t do that anymore.

AH: One of the interesting things that Melville House and John did with the editing of this is put a couple of appendix in at the end and one is about the plight of black farmers because, and he says, of course their condition is even worth than that which they’re representing here. And so I think they are in a position of the lowest on the economic totem pole within the white South.

LL: Well, there is a Walker Evans photograph of black children, but that doesn’t seem to be something that they were thinking very much about at the time.

AH: Well, no, he’s explicit that he’s not taking on that larger question of race relations in the South, though he does have an incredible line towards the end about the sadism of the relationship between white landowners and their black tenants.

LL: Had Agee written anything like this before?

JS: No, no. And he had lots of apprehension about the assignment. There’s a couple…

LL: So, he was sent to do this.

JS: That’s right, yeah.

LL: There wasn’t something he said, I must report on this important problem in America.

JS: Well, the fact is that northern journalists going down to the South to report back to their northern readers was already a hackneyed assignment by the time Agee got his. It had been going on for some time. But that it was going on in Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine, a business magazine, was…it lent it a political tension. Agee thought it was a great opportunity. He said it was the best assignment he’d ever gotten.

LL: Well, Walker Evans had taken photographs like these before.

JS: That’s right.

LL: Now, the photographs that are in this book, some of them not published before, how come they didn’t make it into Let Us Now Praise Famous Men? This is pretty great photographs here.

JS: These are wonderful photographs. That’s right. I mean, would that we knew more about what happened between this 1936 assignment and the publication of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. But there’s surprisingly little documentary evidence, perhaps because Agee was a staff writer and most of this business was transacted orally within the building—he was at the Chrysler building.

LL: We’re talking with John Summers and Adam Haslett about Cotton Tenants: Three Families, a collaboration of James Agee and Walker Evans. Did Agee’s former writing, such as his screenplays for The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter prepare him for such an ambitious—well, he wrote some of those afterward—but I mean, did his other writings prepare him for this sort of thing?

AH: I think that what comes through in reading this and what a lot of readers might find interesting in the contrast to a lot of contemporary journalism is the poetic force of the language. I mean, it’s by no means as broad and metaphysical as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but it is…in many ways that restraint makes it a text that sings with a kind of poetic intensity in his descriptions of land and the people. But it’s with a political force to it. So, when I say it’s a poet’s brief for the prosecution of social injustice, it is something that’s meant to be preached, in a way. It’s journalism that’s a kind of indignant moral anthropology.

LL: Was that something new in American journalism, where the goal, at least theoretically, has always been to be objective?

JS: Well, there were the muckraking press of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century is the obvious precursors for what Agee’s doing in that larger political sense.

AH: I think the point that John made earlier is that here it’s complicated enough that there isn’t simply a villain that you’re going after in the form of the landowners. Because he’s such a good writer, there’s this combination of writerly intelligence and political acumen that leads to something much greater than the sum of the parts.

LL: Did his style influence other journalists?

JS: Well, his style…remember…yes, it did, of course it influenced journalists who were good, themselves, or thought of themselves as some new journalism movement in the 1960s.

LL: That was a previous new journalism movement.

JS: That’s right, yes. But Agee’s work was for a small community of people in the 40s and the 50s. He didn’t have broad influence until after he died and after Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was re-published in 1960, in particular.

LL: And then A Death in the Family. I was assigned that for a college writing class. I guess our teacher wanted to see how you could write a simple thing about watering a lawn and make it into literature.

JS: It’s interesting you mention that novel because this really is the answer to your earlier question about what prepared him for this. He was, of course, born in Knoxville. He was a southerner, born in 1909. And he came north, and he worked, you know, he went to school at Harvard, and he executed this parody of Henry Luce’s new style in journalism. So, Luce, therefore, hired him on the advice of Dwight Macdonald.

LL: Were they sent down there together as a decision by editors, or did they like collaborating?

AH: Well, there was a section of the magazine called Life and Circumstances that Fortune wanted him to cover, and then it was Agee who actually requested Evans be the photographer that he take with him.

LL: His descriptions are so acute. How much time did he spend with the families that they were writing about?

JS: I believe he was there for two months.

LL: And was he affected by it? Do we know whether this changed some attitudes in him?

JS: Well, I don’t know that it changed his attitudes. I think that…he felt that probably his attitudes at the time were ill-formed enough that they needed forming. And I think he took this assignment with a kind of openness that is, in large measure, responsible for what he was able to achieve.

LL: He writes about race. He mentions that the landowners preferred to have black families working for them.

AH: Well, I think that’s part of this structure of intuition that I was talking about, which is that he says at some point that the culture he’s writing about is a dizzying mix of feudalism and capitalism in its later stages. And I think that’s the relevance for the book today, is that he’s showing the way that a journalist can analyze a circumstance of great economic disparity with not just a set of numbers or statistics, which we’re all very familiar with, but a kind of descriptive power that gives it moral force.

LL: Well, did he interact with them or did he try to be like an anthropologist?

AH: Yes! No, indeed. I mean he lived right in beside them and spent most of each day with them. And some of the descriptions of picking cotton and what their hands looked like at the end of a cotton picking season and all of that is incredibly vivid and it sort of commands the reader’s attention in a way that a newspaper article or, even, a lot of longform journalism today just simply doesn’t.

LL: The journalist Dale Maharidge and the photographer Michael Williamson went back to find these families and their descendants in the late 1980s, and their book, and their children after them, won a Pulitzer price in 1990. Had their lives turned out to be as grim as Agee had predicted?

JS: Well, I think yes and no. I think one of the questions that Agee is trying to get at is the extent to which these families have internalized their condition, which he felt was, more or less, catastrophic. And I think that it’s…you know, there were some complaints about the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that it had represented the lives of these three families in a fairly harsh light, as if they had been prisoners of their entirely, and lacking a sort of self-consciousness. And there, in part, was a reflection of the kind of shame that Agee writes about in a very beautiful and important way in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that’s more or less absent from this much more truncated report. But we were happy to learn that the descendants of the Fields family were very happy to see that this book was being published, Cotton Tenants. And in this way, I think, there’s progress about recognizing the, kind of, shared burdens that we’re under.

LL: We posted a wonderful slideshow of some of Walker Evans’ photos on our show page at wnyc.org. We see, on one of them, we see a general store. Would that be the sharecroppers main source of supplies?

AH: These are questions that time transport might only answer. In terms of the experience that they might have had down there. I think what’s relevant as an economic system, it certainly would have been true of a general store, is that there’s the phenomenon of people being paid on script. I mean, essentially, they get credit at a store to get their supplies in order to plant their cotton and feed their family and clothe their family. And then, they are, essentially, in hock before they’ve even earned money to the landlord much in the way, I might add for its relevance, that a student today comes out with a mortgage on their head before they get out of college with the debt that they’re subsumed under. And today, it’s much more abstract and you don’t know your landlord. It’s a multinational bank.

LL: The reason I asked that is I’m assuming that they sharecroppers were also in debt to the store owner, as well as to the landowner.

AH: Precisely.

LL: People who know something about photography will recognize many of the family that Walker Evans photographed in this book from some of the other photographs he took for the Farm Securities Administration. They are amazing photographs. I don’t know whether they were seen as revolutionary at the time, but…

JS: And you have them on the website. LL: And we have some on the website so people can get a sense of what we’re talking about. And my great thanks to both of you for being here to talk about Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee and Walker Evans. My guests have been Adam Haslett and John Summers. The book is published by Melville House.