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James Agee's legacy changes with discovery of new text

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(Read caption) James Agee's manuscript for one of his most famous works, 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,' may have had more conventional beginnings than previously believed.

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This week, with the publication of James Agee’s “Cotton Tenants: Three Families,” literary sleuth John Summers is trying to correct a small but important part of Agee’s literary history.

Agee, who died in 1955 at age 45, is perhaps best known as the author of  “A Death in the Family,” a beautiful, posthumously published novel based largely on the author’s early loss of his father.

But Agee (pronounced Ay-gee) is also famous for one of the most curious incidents in American letters – an episode that the new release of Agee’s long-forgotten “Cotton Tenants” is aimed at clarifying.

In 1936, Fortune magazine publisher Henry Luce sent Agee and photographer Walker Evans to do a slice-of-life story about poor Alabama farmers. But Fortune rejected the story, which eventually led to “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” a book that combined Agee’s cryptic, stream-of-conscious narrative with Evans’ haunting pictures of Depression-era families to become a landmark of social documentary.

Over a couple of generations, while reading “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” even many of Agee’s admirers had little doubt about why Fortune rejected Agee’s peculiar material. Asked to write about “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” several years ago, essayist Phillip Lopate said that the book “is often glibly spoken of as a classic, but if it is, it must be one of the most unread and unreadable classics, which educated people would rather compliment than endure.”

But in 2010, Summers, who edits The Baffler literary journal, became aware of an Agee typescript that seemed, based on circumstantial evidence, to be the original – and only known version – of the piece that Fortune had declined to publish. Interestingly, the typescript contains a much more conventional account of Agee’s Alabama travels than the story within “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

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