john jeremiah sullivan has a really lovely piece over @ bookforum about the james agee’s long lost / recently published manuscript that formed the basis for let us now praise famous men. worth your time.
Recently a scholar has argued that Agee’s prose became the feminine counterpart to Evans’s masculine photos. I don’t scoff at the idea. There was definitely psychosexual tension between the two of them. Evans slept with not one but two of Agee’s wives, and at one point Agee fantasized in print that he and Evans had participated in an orgy with a few of the tenant-farm girls and one of their fathers. Evans called this laughable. But artistic collaboration is a messy business. And Agee did believe, or at least entertain the theory, that what was most essential about the South was feminine, in the chauvinistic sense by which femininity equals possibility, availability; not that which impresses but that which is impressed upon. In a draft of the book—between the magazine version and what was published as Famous Men—Agee wrote, “In all the ways in which the South is peculiar to itself and distinct from all else it lay out there ahead of me faintly shining in the night, a huge, sensitive, globular, amorphous, only faintly realized female cell.”
There’s none of that kind of talk in Cotton Tenants. You do get curious opinions, such as that African Americans were not merely equal to whites but actually a “superior race.” Not that Agee paid much attention to blacks, in either of these works, but the force of white southern guilt, which has its own deforming effects to go along with or supersede those of southern racism, was strong with him. I wish he had written more about black culture. That isn’t really a criticism—he was doing a job he’d been sent to do; the magazine wanted cotton farmers, and more and more of those were white, a shift that had taken place in the years just before Agee and Evans arrived—it’s more just an expression of regret. How marvelous it would be to read him at length on the black southern music of that period, about which we know frustratingly little, in many respects, considering it turned out to be a dominant force in twentieth-century culture. (Something that also happened in 1936: Robert Johnson walked into a hotel room in San Antonio, Texas, sat facing the corner, and recorded “Come On in My Kitchen,” which if you want to talk about moral achievements …)
There are many stories from Tennis Ct, and I wish they could all be told today.
This is not, however, the story of the one-eyed dog that everyone called Ray Charles because of the way he wagged his head around.
Nor is it the story of the Philippine nanny who mysteriously took care of a different kid every week, never repeating one ever in her career.
And this is not the story of the actress who lived in 18, the big apartment with the bus shelter out front, which had a huge advertisement with her face on it that made her think thieves and rapists would now know where she lived.
This is the story of Kahn, the tall slender boy whose skin looked like a painting done with a loose wrist. Everything about Kahn looked effortless. He seemed to coast along Tennis Ct as if carried by a cloud. And he lived on that street all his life, and every day of that time, someone was in love with Kahn.
It was either Jennifer the kleptomaniac who had a penchant for pinching undies, or Therèse the bank teller who chewed more gum than anyone in history. For a while it was Benjamin, who would glance at Kahn while pretending to wash his Miata, or little Frederick who never felt anything deeper for anyone else, not even his parents or his toys so it must be love what else could it be. And eventually everyone had their turn to pine: Rita who flossed so much she had to have surgery, Nico Guzman who hated being left-handed, both Michael and Michelle who were fraternal twins and mortal enemies, everyone.
But Kahn loved none of them. Kahn was not of this world, he seemed to be in love with the great beyond, the hereafter, the next life. Perhaps that’s what made him so desirable, and not his easy simple floating way, but that he seemed to know the future, and still he smiled.