Cotton Tenants: Three Families

Agee went on assignment for Fortune magazine in 1936 to write this 30,000 word essay, taking his pal Walker Evans along for the months-long investigation. Fortune shelved his piece, and it remained unpublished until the Baffler took up the cause after the manuscript showed up a few years ago. This was the starter piece that ended up as his famous Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evans’ photos show the stark reality of sharecropping in Alabama in the 1930s: bare walls, broken down furniture, frayed frocks. Agee handles the families with delicacy, describing their meals, their sleeping arrangements, their clothing, their education, with respect but also incredulity. He catalogues their silences, the children’s oversexed energy, the flour sacks turned into clothing, the necessity of rationing food throughout the year. After detailing the food the families ate, Agee writes:

The human organism, however, is remarkably tenacious of life, and miraculously adapted to it. In the course of adapting, it may be forced to sacrifice a few side-issues, such as the capability of thinking, of feeling emotion, or of discerning any possibilities of joy or goodness in living: but it lives.