Cotton Tenants by James Agee and Walker Evans
James Agee was a protean genius, mastering every form he tried, whether poetry, film criticism, the novel, screenwriting, or journalism. But in his greatest work, the monumental Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he broke free of traditional forms altogether to create a true literary one-off.
Famous Men came out of a 1936 Fortune magazine assignment, for which Agee and photographer Walker Evans were to document the lives of impoverished sharecroppers in the American South. This experience was eventually turned into a 400-page mish-mash of prolonged philosophising, factual reportage, and biblical prose-poetry, accompanied by Evans's starkly beautiful black-and-white photography.
Before Famous Men, though, there was the magazine essay itself. Entitled Cotton Tenants, it was never published, and, until Agee's daughter found it by chance, was considered lost. Biographers assumed that it was in the style of Famous Men, and was therefore rejected for being too unorthodox.
Well, they were only half right: it is unorthodox, but it certainly isn't in the epic style of Famous Men. Instead, Cotton Tenants is a compact and clear-eyed work, detailing the desperate situation of the Southern sharecroppers with sober detachment. It's so perfect an account of social and economic injustice that it has a timeless quality: although written over 70 years ago, it seems to have lost none of its force or relevance. [Kristian Doyle]