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You have heard of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Depression era book on poverty in the South by James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. The forerunner was an article assigned by Fortune magazine to a young Agee but never published. This past Tuesday it was published as a book.

There are a couple aspacts to Christine Haughney’s NY Times story on the new book that intrigue me. One is the image of a young Agee moved by the plight of the sharecroppers and indignant at the magazine’s apparent exploitation of them.

The other is  how the original subjects, and later, their children, were embarrassed and didn’t want names used, but the grandchildren are able to see the beauty in their forebears.

Writes Haughney, “In 1936 Fortune magazine’s editors assigned a relatively unknown and disgruntled staff writer named James Agee to travel to Alabama for the summer and chronicle the lives of sharecroppers. When Agee returned, he was inspired by the subjects he had met and lived with, but frustrated by the limitations of the magazine format. His subjects, he argued, warranted far more than an article.

“What readers have known for decades is that Agee used his reporting material to create his 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a literary description of abject poverty in the South, accompanied by starkly haunting Walker Evans photographs.

“The original magazine article was never published, as Agee squabbled with his editors over what he felt was the exploitation and trivialization of destitute American families. In the early pages of Famous Men, he wrote that it was obscene for a commercial enterprise to ‘pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings.’ What readers are about to discover now is what all the fighting was about.

“Melville House [is publishing] Agee’s original, unprinted 30,000-word article in book form, under the title Cotton Tenants: Three Families. The publication gives Agee fans a glimpse of an early draft of what became a seminal work of American literature.

” ‘With the book, we have a much better map of him writing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,’ said John Summers, who edited Cotton Tenants and printed an excerpt from the article in a literary journal he edits, The Baffler. …

“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.’ ” More.

A photo by Walker Evans, from “Cotton Tenants: Three Families,” via Library of Congress

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Thank you, Gwarlingo, for tweeting this. Looks like there’s hope for us all.

“All your excuses are invalid,” says Dustin Kurtz in an article at the Melville House site about “the seventy-five year old winner of a prize for emerging writers.

“The semiannual Akutagawa prize was awarded in Japan this past Wednesday, and this season’s winner was Natsuko Kuroda. The Akutagawa prize, begun in 1935, is awarded for stories published in newspapers or magazines by new or emerging authors. Kuroda is seventy-five years old.

“Her story, ‘ab Sango’ (it can be previewed and purchased here) is unusual in that it uses no pronouns for its young principle characters, and is written horizontally across the page from left to right, rather than the standard top to bottom. The result is strange and beautiful, and hints at a genealogy of Popper-esque fairy tale formulae, of mathematics or of sociology, and all of which is given subtle cultural freight by Kuroda’s horizontal lines. But again — because it bears repeating — this intriguing emerging writer is seventy-five years old.

“Kuroda is in fact the oldest writer ever to be given the Akutagawa prize, and she is nearly as old as the prize itself. Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the award’s namesake and perhaps Japan’s most celebrated story writer, famously killed himself when he was less than half her current age.

“Upon receiving the prize, Kuroda said, ‘Thank you for discovering me while I am still alive.’ ” More.

Photograph: Melville House, an independent book publisher in Brooklyn, NY.

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