Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Now, two versions of a compassionate eye on poor, rural Southerners

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee's "literary description of abject poverty in the South, accompanied by starkly haunting Walker Evans photographs" was published in 1941.  Now, we have an opportunity to read what was essentially an early draft of the book. You see, Fortune Magazine had sent Agee to Alabama in 1936 to chronicle the life of sharecroppers, but the story he wrote about that investigation was never published because "Agee squabbled with his editors over what he felt was the exploitation and trivialization of destitute American families."  Indeed, early in Famous Men, Agee "wrote that it was obscene for a commercial enterprise to 'pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appalling damaged group of human beings.'" That magazine manuscript, never published by Fortune, was published yesterday as a book, "Cotton Tenants: Three Families."

Christine Haughney's story about Cotton Tenants appears in the New York Times this week under the headline, "A Paean to Forbearance (the Rough Draft)."  I like that headline's play on Agee's title (was "famous men" meant to convey irony?)--and his attitude toward his subject.  "Paean" means a song of triumph or praise, and "forbearance" means refraining from enforcement, patience or leniency.  Certainly, Agee counseled patience and leniency--as well as compassion and assistance-- toward those many would have seen simply as redeemable "white trash."  John Summers, who edited Cotton Farmers for publication, characterized the tone of the work as "a kind of romantic moral outrage at what he is seeing."

Agee's comments about the impropriety of a commercial enterprise prying into the lives of this defenseless milieu makes me wonder about the substance of the disagreement between Agee and Fortune.  What exactly had Fortune proposed to do with or to the story?

Haughney's NYT report does not use the word "rural," but both versions of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men were very much about rural America. Moundville, Alabama, the place Agee and Walker documented, straddles Hale and Tuscaloosa counties.  Moundville's current population is about 1,800.  Hale County has a population of just 15,388, but it is part of the Tuscaloosa Metropolitan area--which was no doubt not metropolitan when Agee and Walker were working there.  

Another interesting aspect of Haughney's story is her discussion of the reactions of the descendants of the three sharecropper families whose lives Agee documented.  Haughney reports, quoting Mort Jordan, a former journalist and filmmaker who produced a 1980s documentary about the families, "using their names sparingly":
The original subjects of “Famous Men,” Jordan said, “were embarrassed because it showed them living in squalor.” With time, he added, “what may have been embarrassment or a quandary had turned into a source of pride with some of them.” 
Irvin Fields, whose grandfather Bud Fields was featured in the book, said he didn’t mind that the names were now being published. 
“It makes me appreciate my relatives for bearing up under those circumstances and making me appreciate what I’ve got today,” Mr. Fields said in a telephone interview.
Jordan added, "there was not much protest because 'everybody knows who they are anyway.'"

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