A Paean to Forbearance (the Rough Draft)
By CHRISTINE HAUGHNEY
In 1936 Fortune magazine’s editors assigned a relatively unknown and disgruntled staff writer named James Agee to travel to Alabama for the summer and chronicle the lives of sharecroppers. When Agee returned, he was inspired by the subjects he had met and lived with, but frustrated by the limitations of the magazine format. His subjects, he argued, warranted far more than an article.
What readers have known for decades is that Agee used his reporting material to create his 1941 book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” a literary description of abject poverty in the South, accompanied by starkly haunting Walker Evans photographs. The original magazine article was never published, as Agee squabbled with his editors over what he felt was the exploitation and trivialization of destitute American families. In the early pages of “Famous Men,” he wrote that it was obscene for a commercial enterprise to “pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings.” What readers are about to discover now is what all the fighting was about.
On Tuesday Melville House will publish Agee’s original, unprinted 30,000-word article in book form, under the title “Cotton Tenants: Three Families.” The publication gives Agee fans a glimpse of an early draft of what became a seminal work of American literature.
“With the book, we have a much better map of him writing ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,’ “ said John Summers, who edited “Cotton Tenants” and printed an excerpt from the article in a literary journal he edits, The Baffler.
The release of the book, which includes the real names of Agee’s subjects, also reignites a decades-long debate over Agee’s decision to protect the identities of his subjects when he wrote “Famous Men.” In the ensuing years some journalists avoided publishing the real names, because descendants of the original families were ambivalent about how Agee had portrayed their lives. Others used the names, including David Whitford in his 2005 article for Fortune titled “The Most Famous Story We Never Told.”
Mort Jordan, a former journalist and filmmaker, who produced a documentary about the families in the early 1980s and used their names sparingly, drove to Moundville, Ala., last week to alert some of the descendants to the publication of “Cotton Tenants.” He said there was not much protest because “everybody knows who they are anyway.” He noted that their feelings about having their names used has changed.
The original subjects of “Famous Men,” Mr. Jordan said, “were embarrassed because it showed them living in squalor.” With time, he added, “what may have been embarrassment or a quandary had turned into a source of pride with some of them.”
Irvin Fields, whose grandfather Bud Fields was featured in the book, said he didn’t mind that the names were now being published.
“It makes me appreciate my relatives for bearing up under those circumstances and making me appreciate what I’ve got today,” Mr. Fields said in a telephone interview.
The tale of the unpublished article began in 1936 when Fortune editors grew interested in tenant farmers and assigned the task to Agee, then a staff writer in his late 20s. At the time Agee was on leave from the magazine, living in Florida and trying to repair his marriage, according to Dale Maharidge’s book “And Their Children After Them.”
Agee insisted that the magazine hire Evans, who at the time was working for a New Deal agency, according to Reeva Hunter Mandelbaum, a producer who is developing a film about Agee.
When Agee returned to New York with his reporting, he discovered that Fortune had changed its editorial approach, Ms. Mandelbaum said. Its publisher, Henry R. Luce, was under pressure to cater to investors, who might help finance his newest venture, Life magazine, she said. It is unclear exactly what Agee submitted to Fortune, but Alan Brinkley, a Columbia University professor who wrote “The Publisher,” a Luce biography, said in an e-mail: “It wasn’t Luce who didn’t publish the article. It was Agee who never produced an article that could be published in Fortune.”
Whether or not Agee delivered an article to Fortune, he did write one. Paul Sprecher, Agee’s son-in-law and overseer of the James Agee Trust, said he and his in-laws found the manuscript a decade ago while cleaning out papers in the basement of the Agee family’s Greenwich Village town house. (Agee died in 1955.) Mr. Sprecher said he “didn’t find it particularly noteworthy” and thought “it was just a draft for ‘Famous Men.’ “ At the time, he said, he was more interested in what looked like a draft of “The Night of the Hunter,” the 1955 film for which Agee wrote the screenplay.
Mr. Sprecher said that once the family donated the papers to the University of Tennessee, researchers there realized the manuscript’s significance. In 2010 Mr. Sprecher and his wife, DeeDee Agee Sprecher, met Mr. Summers at a conference and mentioned the manuscript to him.
Mr. Summers received permission to publish a 9,000-word excerpt from the article in the March 2012 issue of The Baffler. Then he collaborated with the James Agee Trust and Melville House to publish the article in book form. Mr. Summers said that his only editing changes were to incorporate the handwritten notes made by Agee on the 90-page double-spaced manuscript. In a review of “Cotton Tenants,” illustrated by Evans’s photographs, scheduled to run in Fortune’s June 10 issue, David Whitford commended a work that he had previously assumed was “unpublishable as magazine journalism.” He noted in a phone interview that the new book provides a glimpse of the ambitious and unconventional journalism being written for Fortune at the time.
“It’s an extraordinary example of what magazine journalism is capable of,” Mr. Whitford said. “That kind of journalism is just unsustainable now.”
While “Cotton Tenants” feels like a rough draft to a far more monumental venture like “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” Mr. Summers said he believed that was part of the strength of Agee’s piece.
“He’s got this kind of romantic moral outrage from what he is seeing,” Mr. Summers said.