Cotton Tenants: Three Families
by James Agee, photographs by Walker Evans
Melville House, 2013. 224 pgs. Nonfiction
James Agee and Walker Evans were commissioned in 1936 to write an article about Alabama tenant farmers for Fortune magazine. This book is that article which was not printed at the time it was written, probably because it was not the best fit for so overtly capitalistic a magazine. Whatever the reason, it is our good fortune now that the manuscript has been rediscovered and printed. Agee is one of the great prose stylists of American literature, with a meager output because of his untimely death. In this book, he reveals the plight of white tenant farmers (blacks were even worse off) who worked themselves literally to death for the landowners for whom they did all the work and went shares or chargebacks. Walker Evans' classic black and white pictures perfectly illustrate Agee's text mostly dispassionately written so as to highlight the plight of people without decent clothing, with never enough food, with no doctor available to them or their children (seven kids dead in one family). Occasionally a bitter irony breaks through Agee's austere presentation, and one feels to agree with his "thesis statement for the work": "A civilization which for any reasons 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."