I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized The Ends of the Earth

The Ends of the Earth

George O’Brien
Cotton Tenants: Three Families, by James Agee and Walker Evans, Melville House Publishing, 160 pp, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1612192123 In 1936, the writer James Agee, then on the staff of Fortune magazine, and Walker Evans, a photographer working for the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency, were sent on assignment to rural western Alabama. Their brief was to report on the conditions of sharecroppers there. The results were twofold. One was the extraordinary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But it was not published until 1941, by which time its subject could easily, if lazily, be thought to have been covered by The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Besides, 1941 was not a great year to publish a book about the cheapness of life in the land of the free. Much as it’s rightly admired, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men remains among the great unread. If a public space for it had been cleared by publication of the Fortune assignment it would have stood a better chance of garnering attention. But the article was turned down and until recently presumed lost. Now published in a handsome edition as Cotton Tenants, it’s to be hoped that it will draw attention to what Agee and Evans saw, to how they saw it, and to the kinds of reflections to which their work’s combination of aesthetic finesse and moral sympathy gives rise, a combination that remains as vivid and as telling as the day that Fortune editor spiked it. Evans’s photographs are an integral part of the project, and are not to be regarded merely as illustrations of the text. But Evans went on to have a lengthy and complete career as one of twentieth-century America’s most distinguished photographers. So, although he is inextricably linked with it, the Cotton Tenants project is most commonly thought of as associated with Agee. This is partly because of his pursuit of passion and precision in his reportage, a quest that led not only to his detailed documentation of his material but also to investing that act of witness with qualities of perception that shone additional light on what he could hardly bear to look at. Although he had the requisite WASP credentials (educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard; member of the Episcopalian church), Agee was a son of the South. As a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, he would not have been entirely ignorant of the general backwardness of the inhabitants of the hills and hollows of the nearby…

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