Book Review - Let us now praise James Agee, again

A newly discovered manuscript gives insight to his rejected masterwork

Wednesday June 12, 2013 04:00 am EDT

The story of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men's path to publishing, however you might regard it, is perhaps one of the great tales of questionable editorial taste. James Agee, a young and ambitious writer, took an assignment from Fortune magazine to spend time with and write about poor white sharecroppers in the company of photographer Walker Evans.

As the myth goes, the magazine rejected the feature and Agee went on to publish the work as a book that would be considered one of the most important literary works of the 20th century. When the Oxford American polled a group of critics and scholars in 2009, they overwhelmingly voted it "The Best Southern Nonfiction of All Time." A new book published by Melville House and available now, Cotton Tenants appears to be a recently discovered draft of the rejected feature that never ran in Fortune.

Without having read the feature that Agee submitted to Fortune, readers were left to assume its rejection had something to do with Agee's prose style. Depending on your attitude, you might think that the Fortune editors must have been a bunch of tasteless morons to not recognize — and publish — one of the great works of our time. If you're the more forgiving type, you might pity the editor of a finance magazine who had to deal with prose as tricky, lyrical, and elusive as Agee's.

Take, for example, the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. For starters, it is hard to say exactly when the book begins, because it has as many lists and epigraphs and character lists and other errata in the opening pages as Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. (It wouldn't be wrong to call this a Southern Moby-Dick.) But when the prose finally gets going, it looks like this by the third sentence:

"It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of "honest journalism" (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money, and for a reputation for crusading and ..."

Still with me? About halfway through that third sentence of Famous Men, one starts to understand why this maybe wasn't the best fit for Fortune. The surprise of this newly discovered manuscript is how different Agee's approach was for the magazine. Take the equivalent third sentence of Cotton Tenants, for example. It goes like this:

"This article is an account of three families of them, chosen with all possible care to represent the whole."

It does not require the work of a literary scholar to determine that this is a rather different — and more immediately understandable — approach to the story. As the New York Times recently noted, if you open up the latest issue of Fortune magazine, you'll find a rather nice review of it.

Cotton Tenants by James Agee with photographs by Walker Evans. Melville House. $24.95. 224 pp.

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