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Cotton Tenants: Three Families

4.05  ·  Rating Details ·  343 Ratings  ·  72 Reviews
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 tenant farming families in Hale County, Alabama at the height of the Great Depression. The book shattered journalistic and literary conventions. Critic Lionel Tri
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published May 29th 2013 by Melville House (first published January 1st 2013)
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"[Ida Ruth Tingle, age four] is possibly the last child they will bring into living, and she is extremely delicate. She dislikes what little food they have but loves chicken and coffee. So, steadily, they have bumped off a long string of chickens to feed her, and she drinks two or three cups of black and parboiled coffee at every meal. Her eyes shine like burning oil and almost continuously she dances with drunkenness."

During the summer of 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, Fortune maga
Diane S ☔
Aug 06, 2013 Diane S ☔ rated it really liked it
In the 1930's and 40's one did not have to go to another country to find people living in abject poverty, one only needed to visit the cotton belt of the good ol' USA. The plight of share croppers mostly white, but some black families, a generational poverty with no hope of ever rising above nor getting out of debt. Alabama, during the great depression, James Agee, a journalist, follows the work laden life of three families. Woman, who are worn out and look twenty years older than they should, m ...more
May 27, 2013 Grady rated it it was amazing
Reflecting on the Great Depression Era: A sensitive homage to the South

At last we are privileged to see and read the initial brilliant journalistic evaluation of the effects of the great Depression on the `tenant farmers' (also known as sharecroppers) in the South as reported by the legendary James Agee (1905 - 1955) and photographed by Walker Evans (1903 - 1975). This `lost' manuscript was Agee's original contribution to Fortune Magazine who sent him on assignment to report on the conditions of
an incredible forbes fortune magazine article, that never got printed. agee and photographer walker evans tour white 1936 cotton south to see how the economy was treating poor ass farmers. turns out they could have visited feudal ukraine or rural mexico and would have been the same picture. fdr finally got help to rural usa, via cooperative electricity, federal ag research and extension, water management, (lbj's 1965 voter rights act), built much needed FEDERAL sourced infrastructure. which we a ...more
Sep 03, 2013 Dachokie rated it it was amazing
Depressingly Poignant …

This book was reviewed as part of Amazon's Vine program which included a free advance copy of the book.

I’d seen the pictures of the somber-looking farming family assembled on a hastily-made porch throughout the years, but never gave them much thought other than assuming the pictures echoed the effects of the Great Depression in rural America. In other words, a snapshot of how bad life was during those years prior to America’s great economic salvation otherwise known as th
Dec 10, 2013 Still rated it really liked it
This short but haunting read was originally an article James Agee had written in 1936 as an assignment for Fortune Magazine.
He spent an entire summer in Moundsville, Alabama (20 something miles south of Tuscaloosa) mostly visiting with three sharecropper families.

Agee had a lot to crab about in his article -the living conditions of the sharecroppers -or, as they preferred to call themselves "tenant farmers". He raised holy hell with the editors of Fortune claiming that these families and others
May 21, 2013 Don rated it really liked it
Cotton Tenants is the story of three families struggling as tenant farmers in 1930's Alabama. It is a story of economic and social injustice but also of generational poverty. Originally the "report" was written for Fortune magazine but never published, the unconventional style of the article sited as the reason, the raw content must have been just as unconventional as the style and a factor as well. It is unconventional and it is uncomfortable to read at times.

Agee's style of writing is eloquent
May 19, 2013 Tom rated it it was amazing
(nb: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss)

"Cotton Tenants: Three Families" takes us inside the backbreaking work and soul-breaking poverty of three tenant farmers in 1936 rural Alabama. It is hard to read without a sense of incredulity that people actually lived like this from generation to generation. This is the kind of book that indelibly impresses itself on your soul.

In 1936, Fortune magazine sent staff writer James Agee and photographer Walker Eva
Steve Petherbridge
Apr 01, 2015 Steve Petherbridge rated it it was amazing
As a student of photography, essentially, this book is narrative put to the photography of Dorothea Lange, who with the onset of the Great Depression, used her camera lens to great and eminent effect to historically document the unemployed and homeless people of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, or Dirty Thirties, defining eras of early 20th Century America. Lange's skill in capturing this realism led to her employment with the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the Farm Secu ...more
Terry Curtis
Jun 10, 2013 Terry Curtis rated it really liked it
The closest comparative work I can think of is the one-act versus the full version of "View From the Bridge." Or, perhaps, to use a very Agee-esque analogy, this is to "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" when the "Eroica" piano variations are to the symphony. But still -- what was Luce, or, for that matter, any editor working for Luce, thinking? That Fortune might ever print this?
Sep 01, 2013 Heidi rated it liked it
This sad little muckraking book gives an up-close-and-personal look at three families living as tenants on cotton farms in Alabama in the 1930s. All three families have substantial struggles; one family is still hoping to pull themselves or their children out of abject poverty but the other two families have given up.

Agee describes their food (never enough), their clothes (mostly flour sacks), their working conditions (like all farmers, they work hard), their education, etc. Although the childre
Aug 09, 2016 Hilary added it
Shelves: 2016-books
James Agee, a poet that graduated from Harvard University, was never to witness his account “Cotton Tenants” finally published three years ago. As a reporter for Fortune magazine in 1936 (in the midst of the Great Depression), he was recruited to stay with sharecroppers for eight weeks and record how they worked and lived. Accompanied by the photographer Walker Evans, their assignment lead to Agee’s book “Let Us Know Praise Famous Men.” Before the book was published however, Agee submitted the “ ...more
Sep 09, 2014 Mommalibrarian rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This book is a magazine article written for Fortune Magazine in 1936 and never published until this book. It was the first result of the on site research James Agee undertook in the rural south. Later he wrote now Let Us Praise Famous Men using this background. The writing style is formal, reporterly but also sometimes poetic and not in a manner that appealed to me. When the 27 year old mother and her 10 year old daughter prepare for bed he writes: "they wash their feet with modesty, they retire ...more
Susan Emmet
Apr 02, 2014 Susan Emmet rated it really liked it
I so loved "A Death In The Family" fifty years ago and am grateful to have this "prelim" to "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" which was never published for Henry Luce/Fortune magazine despite the long research and reporting and picturing done by James Agee and Walker Evans.
Agee is harsh and clear about the grinding poverty of three families who live as tenant farmers outside Moundville, Alabama during the Depression. Their work, shelter, food, clothing, education, family life, leisure time and heal
Brittany Z
Jul 18, 2016 Brittany Z rated it really liked it
In 1936, James Agee goes to Alabama to document the lives of cotton tenants for what was going to be a Fortune magazine article, but was never published. This book is a sample of his work from that visit. The description of the 3 families he chooses is rife with poverty, barrenness, sickness, and ignorance. Imagine families where people might barely read or write, are shown a picture of the president and have no idea who it is, have up to 7 children dead from sickness and the other 7 caked in la ...more
Dec 30, 2015 Patrick rated it really liked it
The magazine article that led to the full length book. I'd say it's a necessary addendum to the book; it fills in things the book ignores and the prose is much more straightforward (near-deranged ambition is how one reviewer characterized the writing in Let us Now Praise Famous Men). The book also has photos from Walker I hadn't seen. Actually, I may have short-changed the photos in my last review. Walker's photos illuminate the prose, the same way the prose aids the photos. Much of this world w ...more
Dec 22, 2013 Correen rated it really liked it

I selected this book, not because of the narrative, but rather because of the pictures by Walker Evans. The photography is beautiful and greatly enhances the reading. I also enjoyed the writing by James Agee.
It is interesting in its presentation of information about the three families. Agee provided some context for understanding the lives of the families.
Pat Murphy
Nov 01, 2015 Pat Murphy rated it really liked it
I found this book interesting. It tells about cotton farmers in the situation of renting a property that has land, and growing cotton on it for the owner. Another name is sharecropper. The tenant is expected to put out the crop, and grow his own garden if he wants to eat. Also if he can manage, he raises chickens or a pig for his meat. The poverty shown is extreme, and the lack of education as well. The story was written in the early '40s so it has different social expressions which are not acce ...more
Óscar Brox
May 11, 2014 Óscar Brox rated it really liked it
Interrumpida por su prematura muerte, la obra de James Agee siempre parece demasiado corta, marcada por sus colaboraciones cinematográficas con John Huston y Charles Laughton y por su sensible mirada sobre el microcosmos familiar. El impulso editorial llevado a cabo a principios de siglo, sin embargo, nos ha permitido escarbar en el trabajo del escritor norteamericano hasta encontrar sus raíces. Escritos sobre cine, novelas y narraciones periodísticas que, ante todo, describen un temperamento po ...more
Margaret Heller
Apr 03, 2014 Margaret Heller rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I read this while visiting North Carolina, in an area where the cotton produced by these people used to be milled (specifically Carrboro--the old cotton mill is now a shopping mall next to an organic grocery store, and my sister lives in what were mill worker homes followed by crack house followed by grad student apartments). This was a never published piece for Fortune that describes the lives of three average families--not the worst off, so it's not pure voyeurism, but it still sounds pretty b ...more
Readers of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men know it's a singular book in American literature -- it's in a small group of works (Dos Passos, William Carlos Williams, Melville) that want to completely rethink the book. Ten years after he'd published it, few had read it, and in 1950, Agee put together for James Laughlin an excerpt of the text for one of Laughlin's New Directions anthologies, along with a selection of Walker Evans' photos, only to see the text disappear again for another ten years, when ...more
Jul 06, 2013 AR rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Excellent book! It's sad to think that I have family who were likely described here. This helps my thesis research, and, more importantly, it gives me a better perspective on how hard their lives were.
Oct 20, 2014 Elizabeth rated it it was amazing
Excellent book - Agee's prose takes some getting used to, but he conveys great emotion with his writing that exceeds the typical narrative.

I have to take issue with the preface (not Agee's). It tried to draw parallels with the current state of the economy to this book - I was incredulous -the poverty that existed then was true poverty - no good access to medical care, inaequate food and shelter, even inadequate water supply - only a self abosrbed Millenial or a proto-socialist boomer would have
Jan 03, 2014 Aviann rated it liked it
This was a fascinating book. James Agee conducted a research report of white cotton tenants in Alabama during the '30s, however the report has just been rediscovered and printed. Throughout the book, I felt as though I were back reading a book for college. It is exactly the sort of book which might be assigned to help explain cultural conditions alongside more fictional reads. Certainly the book was eye opening as to how rough it really was to be a cotton tenant. And this report didn't even expl ...more
Jan 29, 2014 John rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, society
Just published after @60 years - written for a Fortune magazine article by a young James Agee - subsequent winner of a Pulitzer Prize - with photographs by Walker Evans. It describes living conditions for three white tenant families in Alabama in the 30's - a rather disturbing view of a way of life that doesn't exist anymore - but might be analagous to present times in terms of an underclass without education and trapped in poverty.
After you read the article you will understand why Fortune did n
Jul 26, 2013 Janet rated it really liked it
Forget everything you think you know about what it is to be poor. Commissioned by Fortune magazine in 1936, Agee’s unflinching study of three sharecropping families living in rural Alabama is relentlessly grim. This is generational poverty so ingrained that it has distilled what it is to be human down to its lowest common denominator; poverty so profound that little more than opposable thumbs and the ability to stand upright differentiate them from dumb animals. A treatise dispelling any romanti ...more
Nov 30, 2013 Scot rated it it was amazing
This is a delightful find—the rejected manuscript from the trip Fortune magazine sent their staff writer James Agee on in 1936, accompanied by the gifted photographer Walker Evans, to document and describe the life of poor white sharecroppers in Alabama. Five years later, considerably modified, revised, and expanded, it would be published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. That work, hard to classify, shifting genres, challenging the reader, sometimes celebratory and sometimes bitter, really did n ...more
Bob H
Dec 04, 2014 Bob H rated it it was amazing
Shelves: social-history
Cotton Tenants, a lost manuscript of the James Agee/Walker Evans collaboration, sees light at last. Some of the material, the Agee/Evans study of three tenant-farmer families for Fortune magazine, covers similar ground as their well-known Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Cotton Tenants is much more than that, and we are fortunate that it has survived. This new books is a close-up, meticulous report of these people in this patch of rural Alabama in 1936, a snapshot in words and photos.

One key differ
Susan Olesen
Nov 18, 2013 Susan Olesen rated it liked it
Agee researched his topic between 1935 and 1941, profiling three white sharecropper families in Alabama, one fairly surviving, one middling, and one at the end of extreme poverty. He wrote the article for Fortune magazine, but for whatever reason it was never published, lost in his papers, and was only rediscovered in 2010. He came across his fair share of stereotypes: the laziness, the extreme ignorance, the unrepentant filth, the torn clothes made of feed sacks, the child laborers, the high mo ...more
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An American author, journalist, poet, screenwriter and film critic. In the 1940s, he was one of the most influential film critics in the U.S. His autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957), won the author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, at Highland Avenue and 15th Street (renamed James Agee Street in 1999) to Hugh James Agee and Laura Whitman Tyler.
More about James Agee...

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“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.” 19 likes
“She is possibly the last child they will bring into living, and she is extremely delicate. She dislikes what little food they have but loves chicken and coffee. So, steadily, they have bumped off a long string of chickens to feed her, and she drinks two or three cups of black and parboiled coffee at every meal. Her eyes shine like burning oil and almost continuously she dances with drunkenness.” 1 likes
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