The following is an
excerpt from novelist and short story writer Adam Haslett's introduction to Cotton Tenants: Three Families
by James Agee, with photographs by Walker Evans, which will be published
by Melville House on June 4. Cotton Tenants is a recently discovered work of reporting, the first dispatch to come
out of Agee and Evans' momentous reporting trip to Alabama during the summer of
1936. The report, which closely analyzes tenant farmers working during the
great depression, was commissioned by Fortune magazine, though it was never published. Agee and Evans later
collaborated on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a classic of American literature, cited by the New York Public
Library as one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century and
called the "most realistic and most important moral effort of our American
generation" by critic Lionel Trilling.
A Poet's Brief
How to attend
to suffering and injustice? There is so much of it. If we move through the
world with our ears and eyes open, it is all around us. It seems intractable.
We need filters to prevent ourselves from being swamped, classifications to
remove our experience of the pain of others to a level of endurable
abstraction. By the time we become adults this adaptation has taken place
without our much noticing it. There are friends and family, whose suffering is
ineluctable. There are people in our immediate communities whose troubles we
see and talk about. And then there is the pain of distant others, news of whose
suffering arrives through the media, if it arrives at all. It comes as sheer
blight, implicating us we know not how. This we either attempt to ignore or
treat as an "issue," an altogether more tractable entity.
Yet some social visionaries and brokenhearted
artists, of whom James Agee was one, fail richly to make this adaptation. Their
work, in the manner of Jesus strained through Marx, insists that distinctions
between the suffering of intimates and the suffering of strangers are an
outrage. With strenuous empathy they report or represent the hardship of the
poor and the disenfranchised. The result is a kind of morally indignant
anthropology. An ethnography delivered from the pulpit. Which more or less
describes Cotton Tenants:
Three Families, James Agee's report on the working conditions of poor white
farmers in the Deep South.
Fortune magazine commissioned the report in the summer of 1936, sending
Agee and the photographer Walker Evans to Alabama, and then refused to publish
it. No firm evidence has ever surfaced to suggest precisely why.
"The trip was very hard, and certainly one of
the best things I've ever had happen to me," he wrote in September, after
spending two months with and among the families. "Writing what we found is a
different matter. Impossible in any form and length Fortune can use; and I am now so
stultified trying to do that, that I'm afraid I've lost the ability to make it
right in my own way." But make it right
he did. Five years later he and Evans
published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. At the time it sold six
hundred copies. Not until 1960, five years after Agee's death, was it
republished and recognized as a classic of American literature. And not until
now, seventy-seven years after he wrote it, is the original report he submitted
to Fortune available.
Cotton Tenants, now published for the first time, is a good deal more than
source material for Let Us Now
Praise Famous Men. The latter is a four-hundred-page sui generis prose
symphony on the themes of poverty, rural life, and human existence. Cotton Tenants is a poet's brief for the prosecution
of economic and social injustice. The former, as Agee himself tells us, is
meant to be sung; the latter, preached.
And the message is unsettling: "A
civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a
civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage; is
worthy neither of the name nor of continuance." Agee's aim is to excite the
reader's outrage by describing the particular disadvantages of tenant farmers
in meticulous detail.
But why, seventy-seven years later,
should we spend time reading a piece of rejected journalism about a vanished
world of tenant farming? One answer lies
in the example it sets for the scope and tenor of journalistic inquiry. The families Agee describes are not the worst
cases, but representative ones; the worst would distract through voyeurism.
Shock stuns the mind, and by that very action can often engender lassitude. The way out of this trap is to link the lives
described with the system that creates their conditions. To give an analysis of
politics that's firmly grounded in the actual results of politics. Cotton Tenants presses us to ask two questions: What,
precisely, are the economic mechanisms that enforce our own class hierarchies?
And what are the "structures of intuition," as Agee calls them, that serve as
the social glue of the system? It is not
difficult to see the economic outlines. Real wages for the working class have
been declining for forty years. The increases in "efficiency" and "labor
productivity" celebrated by economists have become a transfer mechanism from
the poor and middle class to the owners of capital. Wage earners work longer
for less; investors reap the rewards.
And what are the "the structures of
intuition" that keep the system running?
We could begin with mass identification with the rich and the famous.
Ours has long been a lottery culture, in which we are"”all of us"”protorich.
Aspirational marketing fogs our brains and hides reality. But perhaps now more
people previously loyal to the system are beginning to understand how rigged it
is. Close and thorough description of people's actual circumstances in the
manner of Agee's long-form report from Alabama, applied to our own time, would
doubtless help burn off some of that fog, waking us from the fantasy that we
can all earn or win lottery sums. Of such conscience-stricken journalism the
aim isn't to depress anyone's ambition; it's to understand how the world
functions. There will always be exceptions to the rules. But if we don't
understand the rules, we can't change them. That goes for the cruelties of
capitalism as well as the sentiments that grant it the appearance of common