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Cotton Tenants: Three Families Hardcover

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Cotton Tenants: Three Families + Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Melville House (May 29, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1612192122
  • ISBN-13: 978-1612192123
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.9 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #28,104 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Seven decades have passed since Agee (A Death in the Family) and Evans were commissioned by Fortune magazine to "report on working conditions of poor white farmers in the deep south." The report itself was never published, and the manuscript stayed forgotten until as late as 2003, when it was exhumed from Agee's Greenwich Village home by one of his daughters. It is a time capsule: open it and you are transported to "a brief account of what happens to human life," specifically the lives of three impoverished tenant farmers—Floyd Burroughs, Bud Fields, and Frank Tingle—and their families, captured in Agee's honest, unflinching, and brilliant prose. Readers familiar with Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men will relish what is more than "source material", and recognize, for example, many of Agee's description of the diet, shelter, and labor of an Alabama tenant family. To readers unfamiliar, this will be an unexpected pleasure. It is the minute detail of the work that brings Depression-era Alabama to life, including the colloquialisms, (Miss Mary's calling the babies "coons"), medicinal remedies (swampwillow bark for chills, cottonseed poultices for head pains, rattlesnake grease for rheumatism), and the leisure time "of people who work." Photos. (June)

From Booklist

This book is Agee’s 1936 submission to Fortune magazine for an assignment on sharecroppers in the Deep South. Rejected and unpublished, the typescript was rediscovered in 2003 by Agee’s daughter in her deceased father’s Greenwich Village home. Cotton Tenants will enter the American literary canon for different reasons than Agee’s far more developed classic on the same subject, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Here, Agee’s discerning eye, crushing bluntness, and forward-falling prose poetry urge along before dunking readers’ senses, again and again, into the families’ way of life. Disdainful of sentiment and melodrama, Agee shows no bias, revealing his subjects and skewering both oppressors and supposed reformers. History, sociology, and economics instructors will like this compact book’s quick, thorough engagement, and writing teachers can deservedly ask students, “What is it? Journalism, sermon, inadvertent economy of language, manifesto?” Yes, this nugget of . . . whatever—with an incisive preface by Adam Haslett—is meant for use. Like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it contains photos by the prestigious Evans. --Dane Carr

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Customer Reviews

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Informative and easy to read.
Patrick Reeves
A brutal tale told through the eyes of very young man and validated by the lens of a camera.
larry mclernon
"Cotton Tenants" gains much of its power from Agee's more detached, factual writing.
Tom Sanchez

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
... so says Adam Haslett, of this work which has fortuitously come to light, and been published, after more than three-quarters of a century, from the proverbial attic. It represents a collaboration of the photographer, Walker Evans, and the writer, James Agee, which was commissioned, rather amazingly, by Fortune Magazine in 1936. Less amazingly, it was "deep-sixed," by Luce's pinions, and eventually inherited by Agee's daughter. Walker Evans was one of the small band of preeminent photographers commissioned by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression to chronicle the economic and ecological (the Dust Bowl!) devastation being wrought on America's farming families. Evans died in 1975. James Agee, who died in 1955, is most famous for his brilliant and sensitive novel A Death in the Family (Penguin Classics), concerning the death of a young father in an automobile accident, in Knoxville, TN, in 1915. I've read the novel twice, separated by four decades, and have given it a "6-star" review at Amazon. Thus, when the latest work surfaced on my Vine list, considered it an essential read, and I was not disappointed.

As the sub-title indicates, this is the story of three tenant families, all white, who live in Hale County, Alabama, with its county seat of Moundsville, a bit south of Tuscaloosa. They are barely scratching out a living during the Great Depression; a very poor diet and actual hunger are a daily part of their existence. The three families are the Tingles, the Fields and the Burroughs. Evans photographs are haunting, and in one case at least, iconic. Most are taken with the subject looking straight into the eye of the camera.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
It was the summer of 1936 when Fortune magazine publisher Henry Luce sent journalist James Agee and photographer Walker Evans south to do a realistic and unembellished story about poor Alabama farmers. Agee had specifically requested Evans as the photographer; Evans received a temporary leave from his FSA job under the condition that the photographs become government property. The two spent eight weeks on assignment during that Great Depression summer, Agee writing and Evans taking black and white images with his battered view camera with its old and extremely slow lens.

Cotton Tenants: Three Families is fascinating on a number of levels. The brief Editor's Note by John Summers of the literary magazine The Baffler, which co-published this book, offers the reader a glimpse at the background behind this 224-page work. But it's 'A Poet's Brief' by Adam Haslett that adds a three-dimensional aspect to the pages that follow, with quotes from James Agee, along with some thought-provoking questions, some of which will leave the reader wondering if history isn't today repeating itself.

Right after a two-page spread of Walker Evans' photo "House, Hale County" we find a literary shifting of gears with James Agee's Introduction and his particular style of writing.

Agee has a rather stark, even terse way of beginning with these words: "The cotton belt is sixteen hundred miles wide and three hundred miles deep.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By H. Gerety VINE VOICE on June 14, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
It seems I went about things a bit backwards; I read "Cotton Tenants" before picking up a copy of "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"; I think perhaps that prejudiced me against the latter.
"Cotton Tenants" is clear-eyed, arresting, and shocking in its matter-of-fact portrayal of three cotton tenant families in 1930s Alabama. In my opinion, Agee does a pretty good job of portraying these families as human and relatable, rather than side-show caricatures. They are not perfect: they are at times prideful and senselessly violent. They are not ogres. They strive to maintain a sense of order and dignity in the midst of chaos. One family in particular is as clean as they can be given the circumstances; all the families dress up carefully in their best clothes to go to town on Saturdays.
They are people, people under duress. Looking at Walker Evans' (amazing) accompanying photographs, my husband said a lot of them reminded him of his time in Rwanda. Some of the people he saw there were ragged, but casually so. Like the tenants in these photographs, they were comfortable and unashamed.
Agee's calm, clear style here does come at the expense of some warmth towards the families; if he has a flaw in his presentation here, it is coldness. Not, perhaps, a lack of empathy exactly, but (as I imagine it) the cold anger that results from helplessness, his and theirs.

After reading "Cotton Tenants," I borrowed and skimmed a copy of "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," which seemed a bit like the former through a fun-house mirror.
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