critical eye

Brief encounters

Short reviews of Cotton Tenants, Media Capital, and Death Zones and Darling Spies
July 1, 2013

Cotton Tenants: Three Families | By James Agee and Walker Evans, Edited by John Summers, Preface by Adam Haslett | The Baffler Magazine/Melville House | 224 pages, Hardcover $24.95

In the summer of 1936, James Agee, then a young writer for Fortune, and Walker Evans, a photographer on loan from the Farm Security Administration, went to Hale County, AL, to prepare an article on the cotton tenant system. But, for unknown reasons, Fortune rejected the ensuing story. Undaunted, Agee and Evans worked the article into a book of more than 470 pages titled, obscurely, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Published in 1941, the book sold a few hundred copies, then vanished. It reappeared in 1960, after Agee’s death. Agee’s extended, often agonized musings–and Evans’s classic photographs of tenant families and farms–won it a cult reputation that has lasted to this day.

But what of the missing piece–the article that Agee and Evans were presumably preparing for Fortune? Ten years ago, Agee’s papers were belatedly presented by his family to the University of Tennessee; they included an extended manuscript titled “Cotton Tenants.” John Summers, editor of The Baffler magazine, learned of the manuscript and won permission to publish what he believes is the article that Fortune spurned.

Cotton Tenants is only distantly a first draft of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Where Famous Men is literary, Cotton Tenants is journalistic–more direct, less focused on the qualms of the writer, and more clearly portraying the circumstances of the narrow, hard existence of the three white families chosen by Agee and Evans to typify life and labor in the cotton South. A few sentences in Cotton Tenants reappear in Famous Men, but the framing of the whole is much more focused on the economic vise that holds all–tenant and landlord alike–in its grip. It is a worthy work in its own right.

Which makes one wonder all the more how Fortune could have turned it down. It was too long, perhaps, but that could have been dealt with. Too radical? Even so, what harm could it have done the empire of Henry R. Luce? God knows.

Media Capital: Architecture and Communications in New York City | By Aurora Wallace | University of Illinois Press | 178 pages | Hardcover $80, paperback $25

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In Media Capital, Aurora Wallace of New York University contemplates the skyscraper as an expression of the imperial age of the New York press. In the latter 19th century, three of New York’s largest newspapers abandoned humble quarters in borrowed buildings and erected towers along Manhattan’s Park Row that symbolically competed with the great palaces of government, finance, and religion. First came the Times in 1858, five stories tall. Whitelaw Reid’s Tribune put up a building with a clock tower that surpassed the Times and everything else. The Times put up a taller building on its original site. Then Joseph Pulitzer topped them all with an adjacent gold-domed skyscraper for The World. But nothing is permanent in newspapers, then or now. Newspaper offices moved uptown, and the Tribune and World towers were demolished. The only surviving structure of the glory days of Park Row is the Times building, now owned by Pace University. Wallace provides informative background and intelligent discussion of the skyscraper culture, its delusions, and some of its uptown successors.

Death Zones and Darling Spies: Seven Years of Vietnam War Reporting | By Beverly Deepe Keever | University of Nebraska Press | 337 pages | Paperback $26.95

In April 1961, Beverly Deepe, four years out of Nebraska and three years out of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, set off for a trip around the world. Reaching Hong Kong, she was told by the Associated Press bureau chief, “Things are really heating up in Vietnam.” She went there and stayed for seven years, freelancing and working for Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Herald Tribune. This memoir, written more than 40 years later but crisp and well-documented, recounts without self-pity or self-aggrandizement the catastrophes of a terrible war that she covered on the ground–among them the Tet offensive of 1968, the siege of Khe Sanh, and the battle of Hue. She saves for last the revelation that Pham Xuan An, who had worked with her (and other Americans) as a kind of assistant reporter for years, was not only a hard-working journalist but a Communist spy–as she found out in 1990. Yet, she believes, An never undermined her reporting and did his share of the work. The several books on Vietnam correspondents tend not to include Beverly Deepe among the journalistic bigfoots of the war, but this book is evidence that she understood what she saw and reported it honestly.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.