Among the great and near-great American writers of the 20th century, James Agee had one of the most curious careers and a singularly eclectic body of work. After graduating from Harvard, he went to work for Henry Luce’s media empire, reporting on a variety of subjects for Fortune and Time, and for a while serving as the latter publication’s film critic and book reviewer. He published one volume of poetry (his poems were set superbly to music by Samuel Barber) and wrote the screenplays for two of the most admired movies of the 1950s, The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. But the two works that have enshrined him in the literary canon are the lyrical autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, published posthumously and awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the text for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the monumental book about Alabama sharecroppers with photographs by Walker Evans.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was a commercial failure when it was published in 1941, selling only 600 copies before the rest were remaindered, and was only recognized as a classic after it was reissued in 1960, five years after Agee’s death from a heart attack at the age of 45. The ill-fated book had an equally troubled pedigree: It grew out of an assignment that Agee and Evans were sent on by Fortune in 1936, but for reasons lost to journalism history, the story was killed. The original typescript was found many years later among the papers Agee’s daughter had transferred to the University of Tennessee’s Special Collections Library. One-third of it was published in the journal The Baffler in 2012. The full 30,000-word manuscript, along with some of Evans’ evocative photos, now appears in book form under Agee’s original title, Cotton Tenants: Three Families.
James Agee’s look at the lives of Depression-era tenant farmers still resonates today.
It is perhaps not much of a mystery why this story never made it into the pages of Fortune, a business magazine bankrolled by the famously conservative Luce. For while this chronicle of the lives of dirt-poor Southern farmers may not seem particularly subversive to modern readers, the desperate poverty it depicts could have spurred sympathy for the policies of Luce’s nemesis, FDR, and his hated New Deal.
Agee’s narrative, though, is not blatantly political, but rather sociology as filtered through a poet’s eyes. No agenda-driven political writer could have crafted such exquisite sentences as, “Meanwhile the flies are wakening more and more thickly and meanwhile, too, the dogs and cats have assembled under the table, in postures which would do honor to any Bethlehem stable painting of the Holy Family,” or, “Unbridled hunger by summer means less to put up for the winter; by winter, less to satisfy it that much sooner. The tenant’s life is a mirrormaze of such little choices between two losses.” The purity of Agee’s observations and the powerful grace of his prose are in perfect harmony.
No less an American genius, Walker Evans was as much a poet of the visual as Agee was of the word, and each of the 30 photographs included here is a little masterpiece. The somber but never self-pitying faces of the adults, the artlessness of the sparely dressed children, the hardscrabble landscape, the domestic still lives of this shockingly rudimentary way of life: Evans’ camera catches all with deceptively simple candor. He, like Agee, knew that with such raw material, there was no need to editorialize.