In 1941, James Agee and Walker Evans published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a four-hundred-page prose symphony about three tenant farming families in Hale County, Alabama at the height of the Great Depression. The book shattered journalistic and literary conventions. Critic Lionel Trilling called it the ìmost realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation.î
The origins of Agee and Evan's famous collaboration date back to an assignment for Fortune magazine, which sent them to Alabama in the summer of 1936 to report a story that was never published. Some have assumed that Fortune's editors shelved the story because of the unconventional style that marked Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and for years the original report was lost.
But fifty years after Ageeís death, a trove of his manuscripts turned out to include a typescript labeled ìCotton Tenants.î Once examined, the pages made it clear that Agee had in fact written a masterly, 30,000-word report for Fortune.
Seven decades have passed since Agee (A Death in the Family) and Evans were commissioned by Fortune magazine to "report on working conditions of poor white farmers in the deep south." The report itself was never published, and the manuscript stayed forgotten until as late as 2003, when it was exhumed from Agee's Greenwich Village home by one of his daughters. It is a time capsule: open it and you are transported to "a brief account of what happens to human life," specifically the lives of three impoverished tenant farmers Floyd Burroughs, Bud Fields, and Frank Tingle and their families, captured in Agee's honest, unflinching, and brilliant prose. Readers familiar with Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men will relish what is more than "source material", and recognize, for example, many of Agee's description of the diet, shelter, and labor of an Alabama tenant family. To readers unfamiliar, this will be an unexpected pleasure. It is the minute detail of the work that brings Depression-era Alabama to life, including the colloquialisms, (Miss Mary's calling the babies "coons"), medicinal remedies (swampwillow bark for chills, cottonseed poultices for head pains, rattlesnake grease for rheumatism), and the leisure time "of people who work." Photos.