James Agee and the Photo-Essay Book: “Cotton Tenants. Three Families” (1936*-2013)/ “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941)

  • Cinzia Scarpino Università degli Studi di Milano


In 1936, James Agee and Walker Evans started a documentary reportage on white tenant farming in Alabama on assignment for Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine. The 30,000-word article that was ultimately sent to Fortune—“Cotton Tenants. Three Families”—was rejected by the editors. Agee decided to expand his report into what would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the 400-page “anti-documentary” book that was to shatter all the journalistic and literary conventions of the genre. Only in 2013, James Agee’s manuscript of the original 1936 piece rejected by Fortune was published by Melville House, thus offering a valuable insight into the evolution of Agee’s documentary aesthetics and, more generally, the short trajectory of the photo-essay book. This essay will therefore try to consider how Agee’s position vis-à-vis journalistic liberal corporatism and documentary New Dealism changes in the five years separating the two texts, particularly in relation to the bourgeois bias underlying the voyeuristic nature of the genre; how these changes affect the narrative modes devised to render the voices of the tenants by adjusting or disrupting the mold of the participant-observer method; and, finally, what implications do these changes have in terms of social inclusiveness of the subjects represented.


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