The New York-based publishing company Melville House has scored a critical hit with its latest book, Cotton Tenants. The work was created from an unpublished manuscript of Jame Agee’s, discovered in the writer’s archives at the University of Tennesee. Agee’s writing is accompanied by photographs from Walker Evans: the two worked their way together across the landscape of America’s Great Depression, documenting the devastation wreaked by poverty on human lives.
The scenes in Cotton Tenants, stripped of their historical and geographical markers, might have been written today, by writers visiting any number of places around the world – though it’s doubtful how many would achieve Agee’s spare intensity in their reportage:
Nobody escapes malaria and its returns; and in its milder forms, such as diarrhea, nausea, headache, dizziness, sudden departures of strength, and retching of bile, everyone takes it for granted. Every so often, though, you get such a bad spell of it you mighty nigh have to quit work. Soda and Calotabs are the common remedies. The Tingles like this one, to begin a meal: a pinch of Epsom salts three times a day for nine days; skip nine days; resume; go on until relieved. About a pound generally fixes you up.
Or if you are constituted luckily, the various poisons with which your system is loaded will assemble themselves into the safety valves locally known as risings and more widely known as boils. After a while, the valve blows off. That is the signal for another rising.
- Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee, Walker Evans
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