Agee, Before He Was Famous

By age 26, James Agee had spent four years at Fortune, the glossy magazine created by Henry Luce to celebrate the American business class, filing un-bylined reportage on topics like orchid cultivation and cockfighting and the occasional skeptical item on how the new Tennessee Valley Authority was playing out. Most writers would consider it a plum job, especially in the early 1930s. But Agee, politically progressive and instinctively adversarial, was uneasy over the magazine’s thrall to the lavish life. He had ambitions worthy of a Blake or a Dostoevsky: highly personal, mythic literature meant to get “as near truth and whole truth as is humanly possible,” as he put it in a letter in early 1936.

A few months later, Agee got an assignment that spoke to his ideals. As part of Fortune’s “Life and Circumstances” series, he was to travel to Southern cotton country and live among poor working families. Agee had grown up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and he descended from Southern Appalachian farmers on his father’s side. But he’d spent years up North studying at Exeter and Harvard and living in Manhattan and was eager to scrub off some of his discomfiting Yankee privilege. Impassioned and naive, Agee and Walker Evans, the Farm Security Administration photographer he recruited to join him, arrived in the Cotton Belt with little idea of what sharecropping entailed or where the farmers might be found. The pair stumbled upon a tenant farmer named Frank Tingle in Sprott, Alabama, and never bothered to correct his impression that they were government employees in the area to help. They went with Tingle and his two neighbors, Floyd Burroughs and Bud Fields, back to the wood-board shacks where the men lived with their wives and children, in varying states just shy of servitude. Soon they all reached an agreement whereby the artistic city boys would pay for the chance to observe the farmers’ routines.

AP Images

James Agee at Harvard. 

The experience was eventually documented in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), one of the unclassifiable masterpieces of American literature and a work of profound, even exhausting, moral intensity. But that book didn’t appear until five years after Fortune killed Agee’s initial article, the text of which was presumed lost for decades, until researchers at the University of Tennessee identified the manuscript among papers donated by the Agee family in 2003.

The original article has now been co-published as Cotton Tenants: Three Families by the indie outfit Melville House and lefty provocateurs at The Baffler. In his introduction, novelist Adam Haslett argues correctly that Agee’s poetic and political impulses are better balanced in Cotton Tenants than in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; in the book, Walker Evans’s naturalistic photographs ground Agee’s lofty prose, but in the article the two share a journalistic purpose. Cotton Tenants certainly contains examples of Agee’s textured, semi-surreal language—like a description of one father picking cotton “in sunlight that stands on you with the serene weight of deep seawater, and in heat that makes your jointed and muscled and finestructured body flow like one indiscriminate oil.” But the new book is more approachable than its impressionistic cousin, short and spare where Famous Men is sweeping and diffuse. Agee’s journalism for hire is usually diminished as a footnote to his influential and charmingly personal film criticism, his screenplays for The African Queen and Night of the Hunter, and his posthumously Pulitzer-winning novel A Death in the Family—to say nothing of Famous Men’s high regard among later generations of nonfiction writers. But Cotton Tenants shows he could be plenty expressive on assignment, and this book belongs among his highest achievements.

 

Agee helped sporadically with the farming, but we know from Famous Men’s diaristic passages that he saved more of his energy for nightfall, writing while the family slept on verminous mattresses that were “such a crime against sex and the need of rest as no sadistic genius could much improve on.” Beyond its depictions of economic helplessness, Famous Men unsettles precisely because it conjures the image of a comfortable aesthete wringing inspiration from the plight with which he claims to sympathize. Agee’s solution was to be as overzealous with empathy as he was with his prose.

The surprise of Cotton Tenants, then, is its straightforwardness. The book is divided into nine thematic chapters such as “Work,” “Business,” and “Clothing,” with Evans’s photographs, some never before published, interspersed throughout the text rather than sequestered up front as they were in Famous Men.

Library of Congress

Allie Mae Burroughs, an Alabama sharecropper. 

Sharecropping (living on and working someone else’s land, paying rent and a portion of the harvest) and tenant farming (a system in which you had the luxury of owning maybe a mule, a few tools, and some seeds) had been standard Southern practice since the antebellum era. By the 1930s, fewer whites were subject to sharecropping’s lopsided arrangements than blacks, the sons and grandsons of freedmen. Agee and Evans stayed only with white farmers, though Cotton Tenants, unlike Famous Men, contains an appendix detailing the “Negro” sharecropping experience, which was even more exploitative, dangerous, and desperate than the white version. Either way, each year starts with the family in debt, and only a good crop will come close to getting them out. If weather doesn’t cooperate or if injury strikes parent or child—all children work, basically from the time they can walk—better luck next year. The families are “free” in the technical sense that they aren’t owned as property. But “very few tenants keep books,” Agee writes, and,

Of those who do, still fewer are so foolish as to bring them up for comparison with the landlord’s. It is not only that no landlord, nor influential citizen, nor any court of law, would give his accounting any credit against his landlord’s. It is, more importantly, that any questioning of the landlord’s word would create an extremely unfavorable impression. Such a tenant would not be the type of willing worker a landlord would care to keep on his place.

The Burroughs family, sharecroppers with whom Agee spent the majority of his Alabama stay, are a particularly dire case. Thanks to a childhood hand injury, Floyd Burroughs can pick only 150 pounds of cotton a day, a little over half the average for a grown man. His wife is the primary breadwinner, earning them their monotonous and malnourishing diet of sorghum, lard, corn, and bitter, grainy coffee. Of the even worse-fed Tingle family, Agee writes:

Outside of an occasional chicken, a dependable part of whose diet has been human excrement, there is never any meat except pork, and never any pork except salt pork, and never more than a dab of that at a time, and often not even a dab.

Early in the book, Agee states that it’s his intention to focus on the small aspects of poverty rather than the most sorrowful tales of woe. “If the life of the tenant,” he writes, “is as bad as it has been painted—and it is worse—it will show its evil less keenly, essentially and comprehensively in the fate of the worst-treated than in that steady dripping of daily detail which effaces the lives even of the relatively ‘well’ treated.” So he grants hygiene the same attention as farming:

Saturday morning if there is time, and if not, then certainly on Sunday, Burroughs shaves. When he is unemployed he shaves twice a week. His equipment is a brokenhandled mug with rosebuds wreathing it, a sliver of toilet soap, a rundown tencent varnish brush, a straight razor, a strop made of an old belt, and a clear cheap mirror on a wire frame.

If this sounds like itemizing, the cumulative effect is close to profound. In a consumer society, dignity rests on one’s ability to consume, and Agee wanted his audience—Fortune’s audience—to see how much dignity an American could summon in the face of material lack.

 

That shaving description appears in Famous Men, minimally altered but surrounded by endless other domestic litanies. The later book is an encyclopedia of tactile and emotional experiences, an “exhaustive … reproduction and analysis of personal experience, including the phrases and problems of writing and communication,” according to Agee’s notes of the time. It is certainly about the poor, and powerfully so, but mostly it’s about James Agee.

Hard to blame him. The four and a half years during which Cotton Tenants ballooned into Famous Men were chaotic even by his restless standards. He quit Fortune—to focus on poetry and fiction, the evidence suggests, not because the unwieldy manuscript for Cotton Tenants never made it into print. He ended his joyless first marriage and began his torrid second; moved to then-rural Frenchtown, New Jersey; began experiencing hallucinatory visions from stress; facilitated a sexual relationship between Evans and his new wife, nearly suffering a nervous breakdown after watching them in bed together; took a job as a book reviewer for Time; became a father; and ended his second marriage. In the midst of all that, he turned 30 and graduated from overactive drinker to genuine alcoholic.

The sharecropper story was the constant in Agee’s life for this agonizing period. When he was feeling overwhelmed, he clung to memories of the trip and his literary designs for describing it, though as he became further removed, his subject changed from the families to his recollections. In the book, he states his ambition to tell the reader, “at all leisure, and in all detail, whatever there is to tell: of where I am, of what I perceive.”

Given that Famous Men is closer to an experimental memoir than most journalism published before or since (“I am not at all trying to lay out a thesis, far less to substantiate or to solve. I do not consider myself qualified,” he announces more than halfway through), its overlay of righteous fervor often feels wearing, even manipulative. On a purely literary level, this hardly matters; Famous Men’s combination of stylistic brio and personal fury is what makes it unique in American literature. It’s a stylistic astonishment, just not so useful as a document of the Great Depression. Over the decades, multiple writers have revisited the Alabama setting and talked to the farmers’ descendants. Ambivalence reigns; family members remain proud but protective of their relatives’ unglamorous place in literary and photographic history. Author William T. Vollmann summarized the book’s contradictions when he described it as “an elitist expression of egalitarian longings … despite its fierce intellectualism it is essentially an outcry of childlike love, the love which impels a child to embrace a stranger’s legs.”

Perhaps because of this conflicted tone, it took decades for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to find its audience. It was initially published just months before America entered World War II. The daily news was more transfixing than Agee’s operatic depiction of peasants, especially since the South was starting to ramp up industrial production. The landowner class was becoming a factory-owner class, and Agee’s book was on its way to being history before it had a chance to be journalism.

Agee’s death in 1955, when he was 45, prompted a renewed cult of interest in his work. A 1960 reissue gave Famous Men the reputation of an unknown classic, and by decade’s end the book was considered a forerunner to the New Journalism movement, which borrowed Agee’s loquacious reporter’s voice and unabashedly personal relationship to his topic.

Agee’s prequel seems just as well suited to our current political and literary culture—a model for scene-driven advocacy reporting at a time that brims with examples, from West, Texas, to Bangladesh, of human life subjugated to economic profit. When Agee does preview the higher rhetorical register that would take over in Famous Men, it feels deserved and appropriate since his images are otherwise allowed to speak for themselves:

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. … 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.

It won’t approach Famous Men’s literary influence, but Cotton Tenants stands as James Agee’s more powerful depiction of poverty and the moral lapse that perpetuates it. We can’t have too many artful reminders of this failure, and few are as artful as this.

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