Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cotton Tenants: Three Families

There's a new book out, entitled Cotton Tenants: Three Families, which is James Agee's original article for "Fortune" magazine that was rejected and then grew into the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I may have more to say on it later, but I'd like to make one note here:

James Curtis' book reviewed here makes the suggestion that Walker Evans placed a cheap alarm clock of his own on the mantel for a photograph, and accuses Evans of fakery. This claim is repeated and investigated by Errol Morris in his recent book, Believing is Seeing. Both books repeat the claim that Agee's text does not mention the alarm clock as evidence that it did not belong to the tenant farmers, and that therefore, well, where did it come from?

Both books are wrong, the clock is mentioned in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men albeit somewhat obliquely. It makes reference to a noise marking time a time that is two hours fast (or slow, the reference is unclear). This is fairly easy to miss, but the fact that this reference is there suggests that neither Curtis not Morris bothered to seriously check the claim that the clock is not mentioned. Morris goes rather far, identifying the exact brand of clock on the picture, dates during which is could have been bought new, and what it would have cost. He doesn't bother to read the damned book though.

In Cotton Tenants we find a footnote that states unambiguously that the families described in the book each owned a cheap alarm clock, which they kept religiously wound, but which did not tell anything like the correct time, being a couple of hours off.

In short, Curtis and Morris are both simply spinning a web of speculation, based on something one of Curtis' students told Curtis (that the clock was not mentioned in the book -- what the student clearly meant was "I checked the inventory of the things on the mantel on such and such a page and there's no clock" and not "I read the book with a modicum of care to see if the clock was cited, and it was not").

I find this sort of sloppy work irritating, and am bitterly pleased that Agee happened to write such a perfectly clear and direct footnote, rubbing these scholarly noses in their crummy work from beyond the grave, as it were.

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