cotton tenants

A re-discovered masterpiece of reporting by a literary icon and a celebrated photographer

In 1941, James Agee and Walker Evans published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a four-hundred-page “prose symphony” about three sharecropping families in Hale County, Alabama at the height of the Great Depression. The book shattered journalistic and literary conventions and was, according to critic Lionel Trilling, the “most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation.”

But before Agee and Evans collaborated on their now-classic book, they began reporting in Alabama on assignment for Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine. Critics and biographers have assumed that Fortune editors killed their original magazine dispatch, which was presumed to be in the radically artistic style of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and for years the original report was lost.

But decades after his death, Agee’s young daughter, who inherited his home and archive, recently discovered a typescript labeled “Cotton Tenants” amongst a trove of unread manuscripts. Once examined, it was clear that Agee had in fact written a masterful 30,000-word report for Fortune.

Published here for the first time, Agee’s original report – accompanied by thirty of Walker Evans’ historic photos, some never before published – is an unsparing record of place and of three families who worked the land at a desperate time. It remains relevant today as one the most honest explorations of poverty in America ever attempted, and as a foundational document of long-form reporting. It is, according to novelist Adam Haslett, “a poet’s brief for the prosecution of economic and social injustice.”

Praise for James Agee and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

“The most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation.” -Lionel Trilling

“The most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.” -W. H. Auden

James Agee, Cotton Tenants:Three Families

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