Triptych image: Walker Evans, "Sharecropper's Family, Hale County, Alabama," 1935
IF THE CONTEMPORARY READER of nonfiction knows anything about the universe of American literature — or just its prose galaxies — she knows that James Agee and Walker Evans’s 1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is our greatest nonfictional failure and the finest book-length lyric essay ever written. Five years in the making, Agee’s book was published by Houghton Mifflin (after Harper’s dumped it as unwieldy) to scorn, praise, and sales of 600 copies before it went out of print. (Agee didn’t endure well, either. He died in 1955 of a heart attack in a New York taxicab after three marriages, alcoholism, chain-smoking, a self-acknowledged crappy diet, and brilliant forays into nearly every form of writing he tackled. He was 45.)
Famous Men’s initial clog had to do with its lateness on the scene. By 1941, many people had recovered from the Great Depression’s ruin via the New Deal’s successes and become weary of documentary fanfares for the common man: the films of Pare Lorentz, the reportage of Edmund Wilson, the photographs of Dorothea Lange. Agee’s 471-page magnum opus languished for 20 years until it was republished in 1960 and heralded as a new literary form, a kind of hyper-confessional personal journalism that forged intimacies with poverty via the author’s uncharted lyricism. Agee’s journey from the journalistic to the essayistic, from reportorial profiling to magisterial self-indulgence, is now filled out by Melville’s House’s publication of Cotton Tenants, believed to be Famous Men’s first attempt.
In 1936, James Agee was a 26-year-old poet (he had won the 1934 Yale Younger Poets Award) and a feature writer for Fortune magazine. That summer Fortune sent him to Hale County, Alabama, with photographer Walker Evans to profile tenant farmers at the height of the Great Depression. Agee and Evans chose three families with whom they lived and interacted intimately for eight weeks. Returning to Fortune, on the 52nd floor of Manhattan’s Chrysler Building, Agee sketched some 30,000 words on the families. (One biographer reports that Agee penned three articles, and Fortune rejected all three.) His long piece was neither suitably sized — though some of Agee’s earlier pieces, beloved by publisher Henry Luce, went to 15,000 words — nor given to the astringency of standard reporting. It had a poetic voice and a strident vision about modest families who survive in servitude. The Fortune editors, who maintained a bizarre mix of business advocacy and leftwing sympathy, mulled it over for a year, then abruptly killed it.
Undeterred, Agee — always in turmoil over the soul-sapping, lucrative work of writing profiles for a financial monthly — decided to build a plantation out of his two-room-shack experience. For four years, he worked to hybridize social tract, journalism, impressionistic musings, and documentary drama into a Verdi-like prose opera. He lyricized and expanded Cotton Tenants into the Promethean Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, all the while tortured by its improbability, its strangeness, blaming himself, not his subject, for his putative failure. When it was published, Lionel Trilling called the book “the most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation.”
Cotton Tenants was discovered in 2005 after Agee’s daughter donated boxes of his archive to the University of Tennessee Special Collections Library. The undated manuscript may be the piece Fortune killed. It’s a document enthrallingly multi-level: a “failed” magazine piece too lapidary and too anti-capitalist for Fortune’s prejudices, a graphic tour de force in which Agee begins experimenting with stream-of-consciousness and a polyphonic style, a précis for Famous Men.
Each page of Cotton Tenants, as Adam Haslett says in his trenchant introduction, is rife with facts rendered in declarative sentences followed by sudden swings into a jungly, plein air prose. I wonder: would these sentences be kosher in today’s Newsweek? “Frank Tingle,” a tenant farmer, “is fifty-four. Crepe forehead, monkey eyebrows, slender nearly boneless nose, vermillion gums. A face pleated and lined elaborately as a Japanese mask: its skin the color of corpsemeat.” I had an editor who removed from my work any unfavorable cast of a person’s looks, women especially. She insisted that letter writers would accuse us of racial/ethnic insensitivity, and that every subject deserves positive portraiture — nothing Goya-esque for her.
Instead, Agee accentuates his subject’s flaws: a mother is “only half sane,” a woman is “white trash,” a family has “lost a certain grip on living,” and children “carry around in them like the slow burning of sulphur a sexual precocity.” But such summations are few, and in the psychologizing of the 1930s, they are meant as facts more than judgments. The tenants’ labor — Agee’s many-page depiction of the “simple and terrible work” of cotton picking is harrowing — makes the sharecroppers different from you and me, but Agee’s intent is not to ridicule but to discern. His hyperrealist eye never airbrushes tenancy with wholesomeness or nobility. He takes it all in, down to the smoothed wood grain of the seat slats of the mule-drawn buckboard, clopping to town, bent by bulging bales of cotton. Agee makes us feel that this is how we would absorb the world were we not so preoccupied or so self-censoring.
Agee is by turns a Marxist, a sociologist, a mimic, an exaggerator, an essayist, a journalist, a profiler: he juggles each of these hats on and off. Rather than Famous Men’s prodigious length, here he’s more snappish, less ornate, judicious with all except his editorial bosses:
And a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea.
And we wonder why Fortune killed the story?
What Agee is trying to capture is the quotidian and the summary lives of the tenants, an all-in, embracive rendering, panoramic as Brueghel while typecasting like Ben Shahn. Current nonfictionists and feature writers (few of that lot left) are whisper-chummy with their subjects; they characterize via anecdotes to display their earned trust. They put people in motion, probe feelings, and hope self-disclosure ensues. Agee, however, enters with moccasins; he pans his lens slowly, he lingers on, and amplifies his quarry. He seeks in Cotton Tenants what he later calls in Famous Men an object’s “‘private,’ singular terms.” We, in turn, infer a wide range of emotions from the sounds, scents, and sights of the clothes, walls, porches, paths, expressions, cupboards, dawn, buggies, snakes. The character of person or place emerges from Agee’s unmerciful gaze:
The pinewood, its grain stormplaned, stormsilvered, and sharp in the eye as razors, is lovelier than watered silk; a fact which is not appreciated by those whose bare feet smooth its floors and whose bodies revolve through living among the frail cards it lifts against the weather, and whose lives are trapped in it.
Agee’s imagination seems imprinted by the sensory whole of what he observes, and he retains much, especially of an object’s configuration or a person’s demeanor, as a syntactic expression. This, I believe, is his double-tack: he is a motion picture camera, first filming the details of a scene or an image, and, later, as he writes, he is a musician who improvises or plays off the “tune,” the cast of words his sensory memory recalls. He riffs on or spins out that cast, reproducing its luster and converting it into something new as he goes. (His exquisite “Knoxville: Summer 1915” reveals how haunted he is by “time and [the] weightiness” of memory, which vitalize the essay.) Agee was not the originator of this obsessively descriptive approach. Yet he pushed it further — much as Kandinsky extended and refined abstraction in painting — than any journalist I know.
In our era, when live video scuttles the interpretive agency of the reporter, Agee’s prose is an anomaly. But when he writes of the tenant farmers — their human “flesh stewed" in the odors of "pinewood, woodsmoke, pork, lardsmoke, corn, lampsmoke, and sweat [...] beyond the reach of bathing; the odor stands out of the fibers of newlaundered clothes” — such sensory detail is beyond the reach of photo and film. So is his description of a bed sheet “whose texture of coarseness is of an unwashed floursack, a quilt, a mercerized salmon-colored spread” or what he calls the “the affection of flies": "a whole drowsing fog of them, struggling and letching on the food, hanging from the mouths and the plastered cheeks of the children, vibrating to death in the buttermilk.” This is why the smells and tastes, the sounds and motion — which Evans’ photographs only suggest, in this short book or as preface to Famous Men — find a perfect accord with Agee’s drawn-out style.
How satisfying it is to read pre-video writing: I love Agee’s ornate, antediluvian prose, in part, because it contrasts with Evans’ photos (some appear here for the first time) — those depthless close-ups, troubled by simplicity: a clapboard house, roasted by the sun; a pair of work boots with the soreness of its wearers rivered in every crease; a woman of 25 who looks twice as old, her desperation as innocent as it is tragic. Cotton tenant families worn, wearied, bent by the cycles of life: birth, foraging, work, reproduction, dying.
As a result, when Agee renders vernacular speech, warmly or with irony, and Evans captures an adolescent girl stooped over, picking cotton, their companioned forms lend each other their forces — the prose becomes more static and mesmeric, the photos more animated and tale-telling.
Mostly, Agee sides with the tenant, whose “unfavorable circumstances” are inescapable, “under the steady raining of which he stands up the years into his distorted shape.” Agee includes “Negroes” (of the South’s tenant class, one in three are black and are five times more numerous than whites in Hale County) and landowners, whose sharecropping system he patiently explains. Humanizing these “oppressors,” Agee lets them speak for themselves, albeit pre-amped by his mimicking.
The landowner, Agee limns, is not “done up in gum boots, a blacksnake whip, and a gun.” Rather, he “is, strange as it may seem, a provincial, bigoted, powerful, and essentially innocent human being,” whose beliefs “justify him, in his eyes, in his position and livelihood.” “Within his structure of belief he has room to be ‘good’ and ‘honest’ or ‘evil’ and ‘ruthless’ or just an indifferent mixture.” Agee says this Southern overseer is “several degrees more personal and, even more just and friendly” to the sharecroppers than the up-North manufacturer is to his employees. To tenants, landowners grant “land to farm, a house to live in, food to eat and plenty of it, clothes to cover their nakedness.” Tenants are loaned money, given furniture and schooling — though kids are pulled out to pick cotton every September. And, according to the owners, the tenants are their own worst enemy. They save no money, spend too much on liquor, and, if white, are many more degrees dependent on the boss man than their black counterparts are.
Such good men, the landowners — and Agee characterizes them via their bigoted language, a tad parodic, but rhythmically true. “I can tell you if you lined up a hundred of them [the white tenants] in a row that was bad off and sure enough found out about them you’d find ninety-nine of them was bad off through nobody’s fault but their own, because they was ignorant, and because they was shifluss.” Neither is that last word’s spelling unintended, nor the sentence flow fancified, nor the irony inapt. Agee’s genius lies in his many made and near-missed attempts, letting words spill out and scroll on and landscape a panorama of what he sees, and hears, and estimates the flesh of language might — just might — incarnate.
After all, he’s trying to get it all right and all in — the sensory fullness such polyvalent experience has set him to. And to think Cotton Tenants was one-fifth of what Famous Men became. Agee may be our foundational maximalist, the progenitor of Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace, the writers who contend in the uncontainable tome with the irreconcilable styles and the transgressive careening, the writer’s ego-share and subject-sympathy, of the people they profile.
Thomas Larson has been a staff writer for the San Diego Reader for fourteen years. His books include The Memoir and the Memoirist and The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”