'You're a Parasite': The Stark Morals of James Agee's Great Depression Essay

Cotton Tenants, the long-lost magazine story that led to And Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, finally sees publication—at a time when its message seems more urgent than ever.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

In 1936, Fortune magazine sent James Agee and Walker Evans--then young men, 26 and 32 years old--to report on Alabaman cotton farmers. These well-bred southern boys turned art-crowd New Yorkers lived for two months alongside indebted sharecroppers. John Jeremiah Sullivan suggests that Evans mostly stayed in a local motel, but Agee immersed himself: He lived in three different families' houses, so small that father, mother, and children slept in the same room. Despite the lengths their reporter took to get the story, Fortune never ran the piece.

Until recently, our only record of their trip was the book Evans and Agee published in 1941. Today a beloved classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is one of the wildest and least conventional books of the 20th century. It begins wordlessly, with a series of 31 of Evans's luminous photographs, set even before the copyright page: thin farm people with deep stares and shredded clothes, spare wooden huts hung with dangling pans, a small-town center all brick and awnings and Coca-cola ads. We're given a full visual tour before the verbal one.

Then follows a storm. Agee whirls together a series of forms and fragments, including poetry, a Marxist epigraph subverted in a lengthy footnote, a dramatis personae, a page reproduced from a children's textbook, and a Preface (which Agee gamely invites the reader to skip). Wheeling and undercutting this way for over 400 pages, it's the kind of book no magazine would ever excerpt. And so scholars and Agee fans assumed that the Fortune piece was of the same unpublishable stuff--or that Agee never finished it. But they could only speculate.

In 2010, the Agee Trust discovered a 90-page typescript called Cotton Tenants among his collected papers. They reached out to John Summers, editor of literary magazine The Baffler,who had made previous queries about the status of Agee's unpublished work. It was the Fortune story, untouched and stunningly complete. "When I first read it, I could see right away how wonderful it was," Summers told me. "And it's fucking done. It's a completed typescript, with his own title, his appendices, and his handwritten editorial directions on every page."

This month, The Baffler and Melville House teamed up to publish Agee's long-lost story, with an introduction by Adam Haslett and Summers as its editor. Cotton Tenants: Three Families, unlike its freewheeling descendant, displays all the qualities that characterize great magazine journalism. It presents, wholesale, a world. It is straightforward and brutally concise. It does not elide its subject's moral or cultural complexities. And because Fortune's editors could not have mistaken Cotton Tenants's quality or journalistic value, two factors must have put them off: its length, and its uncompromising moral stance. Agee refuses to let the reader sit passively in the posture of armchair poverty tourist; he manages to show us real human lives, then implicates the reader, and himself, in real human pain.

John Summers spoke to me by phone and email. We discussed this story's enduring cultural relevance, the foundations of Agee's political attitudes, and the passage that embodies Cotton Tenants's moral charter.

John Summers: Cotton Tenants is your proverbial double gainer. For one thing, it gives a new dimension to Agee's work. He tried his hand at many different things: He wrote screenplays and poetry and film criticism, he wrote a novel, he wrote Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And, yes, he also wrote magazine journalism. If you look at his collected journalism, most of it is for Time and Fortune and The Nation. We knew from his film reviews that he'd mastered that form. Now we know he's in the first rank of magazine journalists in the U.S. too.

Secondarily, you have a political document that speaks to the current moment in obvious and important ways. A lot of it is about debt. A lot of it is about what [The Baffler's contributing editor] David Graeber calls the "apparatus of hopelessness" as it's imposed on these families. The social patterns are all different, but we're seeing the same apparatus today with the banks. The miserable debt psychology is recognizable in this book.

So we have a genuine double gain for the culture--in political criticism and literary expression at the same time.

I knew of Agee from my studies, but my epiphany came via Letters of James Agee to Father Flye. There, he talks about becoming an anarchist in the wake of the Cotton Tenants assignment, and that led me to further interest in him. I'd been interested in the anarchist tradition in morals and aesthetics, a tradition that no one really knows anything about in this country. Agee called himself a "conservative anarchist" which is the same thing Paul Goodman called himself. C. Wright Mills, Henry Adams, Robert Lowell, William James (who had a wonderful name for what Agee was chasing: "aboriginal sensible muchness.") They all called themselves anarchists. There's a tradition of this kind of anarchist thought, though it's hardly ever recognized as such.

To identify as a "conservative anarchist" is to reject all systems, including systems of concepts as they're expressed in ideology, as forms of cultural power. Agee's anarchism radically exalted perception over conception. He wrote a fragment once called "Now as Awareness," in which the goal is to get you to open up your perceptions, and figure out what's going on around you. Where another kind of writer would write an argument piece about cotton slavery, petitioning the people in power, etc., the message here is to open up your eyes, open up your head, look at what's going on around you. The fact that what's going on now is similar to what was going on when Agee was writing just makes it all the more powerful.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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