Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
THE LITERARY WORK
A quasi-documentary account of a visit to rural Alabama in the summer of 1936: first published in 1941.
Interspersed with documentary material on three sharecropper families during the Great Depression is a series of meditations on hospitality, the job of a reporter, rights of privacy, and sexuality.
James Agee (1909–55) was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, to Hugh and Laura Agee. His father died when Agee was 16, a traumatic event in the young man’s life. From then on, Agee felt that he identified more intensely with his father’s rural farming background than with his mother’s more educated, bourgeois sensibility. His schooling with an Episcopalian order brought out a strong religious commitment in Agee. Afterward he attended Harvard University, where he gained experience in college journalism that led to employment with Henry R. Luce’s new Fortune magazine in 1933. Agee married three times in ten years, engaging in the kind of dissolute lifestyle common to New York writers and journalists at that time, becoming over attached to drinking, smoking, and very late nights. Cultivating a distinct appearance, he commonly wore “factory-seconds sneakers and a sleazy cap” (Evans in Agee and Evans, p. vi). His independent publications began with the collection of poems Permit Me Voyage (1934). Agee published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) before going on to work for Nation magazine as a film critic, and collaborating on a number of screenplays. His novel about his father, ADeath in the Family (also in Literature and Its Times) won him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1958. Agee is also remembered for his nonfiction portrait of tenant farmers and their families in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a combination of his text and 64 photographs by Walker Evans.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Walker Evans (1903–75) went to Paris as a young man, where he was greatly influenced by the work of French photographer Eugene Atget, especially Atget’s realistic street scenes of Parisian life. Returning to the United States at the end of the 1920s, Evans gained a reputation in photography that a decade later (in 1934) secured him a job at the Farm Security Administration, a federal agency charged with helping American farmers. His post here earmarked Evans as Agee’s natural partner for an account that blends objectivity with intimacy to depict sharecropper life in Alabama.
The South and its past
The origin of southern sharecropping is rooted in the failure of the region’s state governments to modernize the economy of the South after the Civil War. Covering much of the territory from North Carolina to parts of eastern Texas, the crucially important “cotton belt” had been inextricably tied in with slavery until 1865, and afterwards the South found it difficult to transform itself into an economy based on free and mobile labor. Instead sharecropping and tenant farming became the order of the day. In exchange for seed, fertilizer, farm tools, and food and clothing for their families, sharecroppers grew what their landlord wanted and gave the landlord usually half of the harvest. Not exactly the same but similar to sharecropping, tenant farming required that tenants rent land, tools, and so forth from the local merchant and sell their crops to him. Also they had to buy goods on credit from his store. The whole arrangement cornered them into an unending cycle of debt. Although strictly speaking there is a distinction between tenant farming and sharecropping, the two terms have often been used interchangeably.
Debt-slavery, or peonage, became the rule for most of the farmers in the South, white and black, as it was for the peasants of Latin America. It was made worse in bad years, when the price of the crop did not equal the outstanding debt … so the entire labouring class of the South fell into hopelessness, ill-clothed, ill fed.
(Brogan, p. 377)
Resistance to reform was tied to another characteristic of the South: the fear that changes would upset the racial hierarchy of the region. There were many African American sharecroppers in the South, and reform proposals would have worked to their benefit also. The white farmer was often more concerned about remaining a step or two above his black neighbor on the racial ladder than about making broad-based improvements in the rural economy that would have benefitted them both.
On the other hand, many Southerners saw no alternative to sharecropping due to the fact that they had never experienced any other system, or heard anyone discuss one seriously. Practically speaking, the nature of sharecropping did not allow much time for meditating on new ideas; people felt pressed enough just focusing on their daily work and on their families. Planting and harvest seasons called for 12-hour working days, beginning at dawn, with children often being kept home from school to contribute labor. If crop prices were low, the rewards would be minimal, perhaps a total profit of $200 for the year, barely enough to survive in the 1930s.
This background points to an important comparative truth: while the Great Depression of the 1930s ravaged American economic life across the nation, in the rural South it was happening in a society that had, to a large extent, already been in structural recession for three generations or more. The benchmarks for poverty, degree of education, amount of health care, and so on were set much lower in Alabama than in, say, Illinois or Massachusetts. Agee’s and Evans’s book is a report from a region in which the expectations of the inhabitants are minimal, almost nonexistent. When it came to a varied diet, availability of basic utilities such as running water, or access to education for children, the norms within which the southern tenant farmer lived were far removed from those of Americans in other regions. To many Americans, the South seemed to be almost a separate nation. The experiences of the Great Depression sharpened this distinction in some ways. Coming to the fore in this decade were new kinds of communication, such as photojournalism, which made information move faster and introduced the public to revealing images of life in previously unfamiliar regions of the country.
America in the Great Depression
For almost a dozen years, from the stock-market crash in 1929 until 1942, the first full year of World War II, the United States suffered the greatest economic slowdown in its history. The worst phase of this slowdown lasted from 1930 to 1934. Called the Great Depression, the slowdown arrived on the heels of the 1920s, a decade characterized by expanding consumer-purchasing potential, the meteoric rise of cinema and recorded music, and a feeling of distance from the problems of the rest of the world. Not expecting an economic collapse, the United States was ill-equipped to deal with it. The scale of the crisis proved to be overwhelming: out of a total working population of approximately 70 million, 4 million were already unemployed in 1930, and that figure would triple to 12 million within just two years. At its peak in 1933 the unemployment rate of nonagricultural workers approached 40 percent. Conditions improved somewhat by the release of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but still neared 25 percent (Nash, p. 819).
The depredation of unemployment and poverty affected not only industrial workers and their families, but also had a shocking impact on middle-class Americans, who often harbored the strongest belief in the American way of life. The shock waves began with the famous Wall Street Crash of 1929, when on Black Tuesday (October 29) over 16 million shares were sold frantically, resulting in a dizzying loss of $10 billion. As shares turned out to be not worth the paper they were printed on (that is, there were no real assets to back them up if their value was called in), the stock market disintegrated, driving many thousands of people, big investors and small, into financial ruin in a matter of hours.
The collapse of the stock market, which led to a series of crises in industry, had a devastating impact on agriculture as well. Mirroring industrial decline, agriculture suffered a drop in the demand for raw materials and produce, and prices fell. Many farmers found themselves unable to sell their crops at all or able to sell them but for less than it had cost to grow them. In the early years of the Great Depression, there was little recourse, for no federal assistance programs existed to rescue farmers and their families.
The collapse came to be widely perceived as the failure of the capitalist economic system in general, which opened the door to new alternatives. In both urban and rural areas, citizens of the 1930s became much more sympathetic to left-wing—even radical—politics and systems, including communism. This shift in attitude had an effect on the Democratic administrations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (in office 1933–45), which dared to introduce major reform projects that made the federal government a more influential player in American life. Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had been concerned about the economic crisis and unemployment, but his Republican administration (1929–33) had restricted itself to appealing to corporate leaders, asking that they voluntarily keep production and wages at reasonable levels, and refrain from firing workers as the demand for goods dropped, which went against the commercial instincts of corporate America. As far as directly relieving the needs of the jobless and their families was concerned, Hoover’s administration saw this as the task of private charities and churches. It tried also to throw some of the burden back to state and local authorities
However, the ever-widening circle of poverty and social collapse meant that American private social services were incapable of handling the sheer scale of the Depression. At the beginning of the crisis, most charity workers, as well as the unemployed themselves, subscribed to the American belief that a man ought to depend upon his own initiative and enterprise for his material status. If an able-bodied man had no work and could not feed his family, the fault was to be found in him, not in the social and economic system. The Depression prompted a significant change in this attitude. It became clear to many that federal government intervention was indispensable to combat the effects of the Depression effectively. The realization would have far-reaching consequences. From this beginning, the concept of government as national caretaker would emerge. Later people would speak of this as the start of the welfare state, the juncture at which the government began to take responsibility for creating jobs, providing direct relief from economic hardship, and so forth.
Roosevelt put into operation a set of policies and ideas known as the New Deal, initiating one of the most significant moments of change in modern American history. Taking a ground-breaking step in peacetime, the Roosevelt administration began to promote specific job-creation measures for the unemployed in general and for specific groups, such as farmers. Going even further, it set up federal agencies with budgets to manage the job-creation measures for target groups. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) engaged in public works, repair, and construction; the Federal Theater Project tried to find positions for unemployed actors, stage construction; the Federal Theater Project performed a similar service for authors. Reflecting Roosevelt’s belief that the environment had something to do with the economy, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) set people to work in forestry, flood control, and wildlife preservation—giving thousands of teenage boys from poverty-stricken families their first taste of life outside a city. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the largest publicly owned utility in the nation, also put people to work supplying electric power to even very isolated areas of the Upper South. Providing for the elderly, the Social Security Act introduced the concept of employment-based social insurance to the United States, establishing a minimal financial safety-net for retirees. Perhaps most pertinently to the subjects of Let U.S. Now Praise Famous Men, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) sought to roll back the wave of mortgage foreclosures and stem the proliferation of empty farmhouses afflicting rural America.
The New Deal and the South
One of the FSA projects that met with mixed success was the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). Passed in 1933, this legislation aimed at stabilizing farm incomes by various methods, in particular by controlling overproduction of certain crops to keep prices high enough for farmers to survive. The objective was to limit the production of staple products like wheat, cotton, and tobacco by paying farmers to decrease the number of acres being cultivated. It was a policy that caused a storm of protest—the federal government had
LUCE AND FORTUNE
Henry R. Luce was, after William Randolph Hearst, one of the most influential editors and publishers in American history. He founded Time magazine in 1923, whose flashy style and aggressive reporting would make it one of the leading news magazines in the world. To appeal to a different readership, the business community, Luce founded Fortune magazine in 1930. Fortune adopted an unusual editorial polity, hiring writers who had no background in industrial or economic reporting to research and write on business, thus bringing perspectives to its text that other business magazines could not offer. Writers for Fortune in the early days included poet Archibald MacLonald, critic and journalist Dwight MacDonald, and, of course, james Agee.
millions of pigs slaughtered and cotton acres destroyed while millions of Americans struggled to put clothes on their backs and food in their mouths.
In 1936 the Supreme Court declared the Agricultural Adjustment Act unconstitutional, but elements of the act survived, managing to somewhat alleviate the situation in which farmers found themselves. There was no wide-scale improvement, however, since many of the law’s provisions failed to deal with the problems of the sharecropper system so pervasive in the South. In Alabama in 1935, 64 percent of all farmers in the state were tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Though they grappled with low, highly unpredictable income levels, the law regarded them as self-employed persons, which made them ineligible for assistance programs designed for unemployed wage earners. Further suffering resulted from another unintentionally harmful policy. To reduce a glut of cotton and other staples, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 paid farmers to take land out of production, and the land they withdrew was often that worked by sharecroppers, who were thus deprived of the little means they had to earn an income.
It was not just the Depression of the 1930s that put tenant farmers of the cotton belt in such dire straits, though. Their status even prior to the Depression was awfully grim. Also there had been a fack of economic development in the southern states over the 70 years since the Civil War. The infrastructure in the region was poor—it lacked schools, surfaced roads, and other key supports commonly found in American daily life, which could be explained by the very limited tax base in many of the counties across the South. The South adapted as best it could, hiring out forced convict labor to landowners at harvest time, for example, and putting convicts to work building roads. These strategies attracted criticism from outsiders, who saw them as a brutal sort of regionalism. But many Southerners regarded such arrangements as the only alternative to no public works at all.
Thanks to photojournalism, at this precise moment, one part of the nation began to more clearly see another. Outside regions became better able to appreciate the plight of the rural South. The economic crisis of the 1930s led to the sudden growth of documentary reportage and photography. It was a trend fueled in part by the rise of new media (ambitious, popular photo magazines like Life), which had the resources to employ talented staff writers and photographers. Like others in their day, the early media moguls recognized that America was a diverse, complex society, and that many people in the more prosperous regions knew little about life elsewhere—in the rural South, for example. As one historian puts it:
[T]he literature of the Depression years turned from preoccupation with individual consciousness to reconsider men and women in their relation to society, and to rediscover the American continent.
(Puckett, p. 2)
The growth in documentary reporting figured into the political debate in 1930s America. Photographs of the plight of tenant farmers were not just journalistic achievements; they were also the concrete evidence of real situations, plights that demanded action and amelioration. From photojournalism, for example, came visual evidence that pellagra, a disease caused by malnutrition, was rife among sharecroppers and their families. Such images and the texts that accompanied them drew national attention to forgotten or ignored segments of American society. Whether in Erskine Caldwell’s and Margaret Bourke-White’s study of southern farmers, You Have Seen Their Faces, or in Richard Wright’s and Edward Rosskam’s 12 Million Black Voices, modern photojournalism both documented and took part in the dialogue of the era.
Let U.S Now Praise Famous Men opens with a set of 64 photographs by Walker Evans (31 in the original 1941 edition). The photos, in black and white, include images of the houses and physical environment in which the families live, as well as snapshots of the three families themselves—sometimes of individual members, sometimes of a whole family. Both revealing and sympathetic, the photos reveal the grim conditions in which the people live, but highlight also their individuality and their defensive dignity.
Part One: A Country Letter.“A Country Letter” is divided into four subsections, each designated with a roman numeral followed by a colon (I:, II:, III:, and IV:); the colon takes on significance later in the chapter. The first subsection is a meditation on the family as the central economic unit of sharecropper life. The reporter thinks of the family as both a defense against loneliness, particularly the isolation of the deserted countryside, and a concentration of loneliness in itself. He imagines the family members, casting himself as a guardian on watch while they sleep: “I know almost the dreams they will not remember, and the soul and body of each of these seven, and all of them together in this room in sleep” (Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, p. 52).
The text then moves into its first real extended narrative, describing the departure of Emma, the 16-year-old daughter of Bud Woods, one of the three tenant farmers at the center of the story. The others are Fred Ricketts and George Gudger; Gudger’s wife, Annie Mae, is a daughter of Bud Woods. Emma is married to an older man who has found work on a farm in another part of the state, and she is leaving to join him after a brief visit with her family. Obviously miserable about leaving, she seems to have had very little choice in the marriage; her husband is both tightfisted when it comes to money and suspicious of her every move. Clearly a warm-hearted young woman, Emma senses that there might be more to life than her marriage at sixteen to a mean-spirited, middle-aged man.
In subsection “I:” we also get the first dialogue between Agee the reporter and his subjects. Emma tells him how at eased they all feel with him and “Mr. Walker.” The reporter is clearly surprised and deeply touched to realize that the Woods family likes having him around. Later that morning, the reporter accompanies some of the family as they drive to a meeting point where Emma has a ride arranged to take her to her husband. The final image is that of Emma in the car heading down the road, not looking back, sharing a traumatic sense of loss and torn emotional fabric with those she is leaving behind.
OUTSIDE THE MAIN NARRATIVE
Interwoven with the text of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a series of three short sections—one at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end—called “On the Porch.” These three “interchapters” echo the more documentary parts of the book in another way, often by imparting a poetic meditation on a theme that has already appeared in a different context. Other kinds of fragments are also interspersed in the main narrative of Famous Men. For example, “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby,” a seemingly unconnected text, reprints a questionnaire sent to a number of American writers by Partisan Review magazine in 1939. The questionnaire sought writers’ ideas about politics, the upcoming world war., and the degree of political commitment in their work. Included are Agee’s responses to the questionnaire, which clarity his feelings about the political dimension of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He sees himself as being sympathetic in a general way to communist ideas, and to Catholic concepts of both spirituality and social justice.
In subsection “II:” the reporter begins to describe the members of the three families. Often, during the course of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the family members and their looks, clothes, gestures and so on, become a spur for the reporter to consider both their individual fates and the social constraints surrounding them. Often, too, the reporter confronts the assumed middle-class sensibility of the reader with an alternative perception of the scene being described:
The house a quarter-mile beyond, just on the right of the road, standing with shade trees, this is the Ricketts’. The bare dirt is more damp in the tempering shade; and damp, tender with rottenness, the ragged wood of the porch… the barn: shines on the perfect air; in the bare yard a twelve foot flowering bush… and within: naked, naked side by side those brothers and sisters, those most beautiful children; and the crazy, clownish, foxy father; and the mother; and the two old daughters; crammed on their stinking beds, are resting the night.
(Famous Men, p. 68)
Assuming that the standard response to such a scene would be one of sympathy, perhaps even pity, the reporter invokes poetic language to complicate and upset any such reaction. The children’s unselfconscious nudity becomes a moment of celebration and beauty, echoing the “bare dirt” and “bare yard,” making bareness itself a quality to admire, rather than simply a report on the absence of covering. The reporter refuses to treat the Ricketts family as if they were nothing more than exotic welfare cases. His wording suggests that perhaps they even have some things in their lives that we, the readers, have lost. The chapter ends with a series of comments from neighbors. They dismiss the Ricketts family as “a bad lot” and make snide jokes about the Gudgers’ hospitality: “And how do you like the food they give you? Yeah, aheh-heh-heh-heh, how do you like that fine home cookin’?” (Famous Men, p. 70)
In subsections “III:” and “IV:” the households awake at dawn, and the narrator describes how the silent intensity of eating breakfast so early is a result of everyone’s feeling the pressure of the upcoming day’s work. Especially during harvest time, much labor must be done before the sun gets too hot to bear. Now the narrative skips from family to family, as if it were a TV documentary in which a split-screen technique is showing various people doing different things at the same time.
In the final subsection—“Colon: Curtain Speech”—the reporter engages in an intense, philosophical meditation on the nature of human beings and if one can ever identify or describe the individual in a way that does not devalue him or her. Language that is too specific, describing by type or status (tenant farmer, poor rural working class, father, wife) causes the reader to objectify a person or group, but the refusal to specify, making the families a symbol of universal human desire or need, also betrays them. Agee the reporter sees dangers in both alternatives—sociological study and artistic portrayal. The image and use of the colon suggests a signal that something will follow, as an explanation or inventory follows a colon in standard English writing. In this case, the text and photos follow to bring the families alive in all their complexity.
Part Two: Some Findings and Comments. This chapter is the central documentary segment of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Devoted to “Money,” “Shelter,” “Clothing,” “Education,” and “Work,” the reporter’s approach changes to a more objective style, zooming in for a series of close-ups on the three families’ lives. This approach, in contrast to that of the other sections, is almost coldly scientific. Pathetic details of the accommodations and possessions of the Gudgers, the Woods, and the Ricketts are laid bare for all to see, as in the case of the Ricketts’ kitchen:
The odor of the eating table, in the kitchen, is a thing in itself: for here the oilcloth is rotted away into scarcely more than a black net, and the cloth and the wood have stored up smoke and rancid grease and pork and corn and meat to a degree which extends a six-foot globe of almost uncombatable nausea thick and filming as sprayed oil.
(Famous Men, p. 174)
This description abandons the celebratory tone found earlier in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. No longer are the conditions of rural poverty poetically transformed into a sense of unembarrassed physical closeness, freedom from middle-class inhibitions, and the like. The account becomes a grim, almost nightmarish vision of economic deprivation and humiliation.
Inductions. The final section of the book draws back from the microscopic study of the families. The reporter becomes the more circumspect narrator once again, interacting with the people in social settings, delving more deeply into himself than anyone else in this part of the book. Returning to the earliest days of his visit, he describes how he gets to know the three families, and his concern that he, as a comparatively well-off, educated outsider, is intruding on them. The wives, in particular, seem to be hiding some feelings of anger and unhappiness at having their families’ inner lives exposed to outsiders. The reporter describes the country graveyard nearby, and quotes the Lord’s Prayer in such a way as to make it seem like a call to remember the forgotten dead. He remembers Mrs. Gudger with her smallest child, her son, on her lap and Ellen Woods asleep on the porch of her house. Reaching for words that do the women justice, he portrays them as vessels of strength and vitality that can withstand any force leveled against them—“a thing so strong, so valiant, so unvanquishable, it is without effort, without emotion, I know it shall at length outshine the sun” (Famous Men, p. 390). At the end of this last section is a passage from the Holy Book of Sirach, Chapter 44, the source of the reporter’s title for his account: “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us” (Famous Men, p. 393). The passage conjures the duty to remember those who live and die without public fame, who are born and do their work and have children and pass away. None of these lives is of interest to the outside world; yet none is worth any less than anyone else’s life. These people deserve more, Famous Men says, much more, but this does not make what they are now despicable.
Conclusion. After a brief collection of random fragments compiled into “Notes and Appendices,” the account ends with a meditation inspired by the sound of two unidentified creatures calling or singing to each other in the southern rural darkness. The sound is insistent, beautiful, but impossible to identify. Art, the reporter suggests, is like an attempt to represent such a sound, to understand its meaning. It must be undertaken even though success is not guaranteed. After the calling stops, the reporter and his friend, the photographer, drift off into silence, thinking of “matters of the present and of that immediate past which was a part of the present; and each of these matters had in that time the extreme clearness, and edge, and honor; which I shall now try to give you; until at length we too fell asleep” (Famous Men, p. 416).
A QUESTION OF COLOR?
That the three families profiled in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men are white seems to have much to do with the fact that the reporters themselves are white. At the opening of the book, a sequence of passages forms a kind of preface to Part One. One of these, “Late Sunday Morning,” recounts the events of a day shortly after Agee’s and Evans’s arrival in northern Alabama. They meet a contact who shows them the nearby black neighborhoods. Agee’s and Evans feel uneasy, particularly when a landlord calls upon a few inhabitants to sins for them. Another brief section, “Near a Church,” describes an African American religious service photographed by Evans and a misunderstanding with a young black couple whom Agee scares by chasing after them. All he wants is to talk. This he and Evans find they are more able to do with the white families who become the subject of their book.
Elements such as this questionnaire and the meditative “inter chapters” are part of the totality of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The reporter brings together various external and internal registers of the day to completely portray the people and places he visits.
The observer and the observed
An account such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men poses the problem of the reporter’s impact on his subjects, something Agee struggles with in his book. First there is the question of how to get to know the subjects of study, whom in this case the reporter sees as innocents. Then there is the question of what to do with all the information unearthed about them. Is the reporter violating the trust of these families when he and Evans use that knowledge for their business advantage?
In the book’s final section, Agee recalls meeting the Ricketts family for the first time. He remembers how Mrs. Ricketts felt angry and ashamed at her family being photographed by Evans, but did not want to say anything in front of her husband. Hurriedly she washed the children’s faces for the photo. Her discomfort troubles Agee. After investigating the family’s lives in painstaking detail, he struggles with thoughts of how open they were and how vulnerable they are to being exploited. Certainly Agee was not the only investigator facing this issue at the time.
The burgeoning interest in anthropology and folklore studies in the early twentieth century had led to many new studies of groups and societies both in America and overseas. The development of American anthropology began by devoting itself to the study of American Indian cultures. Meanwhile, folklore studies concentrated on the collection of stories and songs from Americans of European origin. Both these strands started to converge, particularly in the examination of African American culture and folklore. Zora Neale Hurston, a black writer and scholar who had studied at Columbia University under the leading anthropologist Franz Boas, would make a name for herself in the early 1900s with both her scholarly folklore researches and her fictional works based on this material. (See Their Eyes Were Watching God , and “Spunk” and “Sweat,” also in Literature and Its Times.)
A problem that presented itself to the ethnologist doing field work, however, was the difficulty of reporting on the life of, for example, a small village, without impacting that life just by being there. People might say and do things—or stop doing them—as a result of the presence of a visitor or guest. In her anthropological writings, Hurston seems to have functioned at times as an invisible presence, sometimes as a player in the situation. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the reporter, Agee, functions as a visible presence to the people he is writing about. The issue is whether he has brought about responses or actions on the part of the families that would not have happened had he not been there, an eventuality that would interfere with gaining an impartial understanding of them. Agee seems to struggle with this issue, fluctuating between impartial and subjective reporting, incorporating both to do justice to his subjects.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is clearly haunted by the reporter’s sense of loyalty to his subjects. “He had lived with these Alabama people and found that he loved them,” observed one reviewer (Trilling, p. 395). Agee’s desire to understand not only the physical and environmental details of these people’s lives but also their inner experience makes him anxious about exposing them to an audience interested mainly in literary writing, or an audience that would look at them solely as “poor people”—social welfare cases to be pitied.
In one of the best examples of this anxiety, Agee’s portrayal of Mrs. Ricketts when he first meets her and her family becomes a self-accusation pointing back at the reporter and photographer:
[I]t was as if you and your children and your husband and those others were stood there naked in front of the cold absorption of the camera in all your shame and pitiableness to be pried into and laughed at; and your eyes were wild with fury and shame and fear, and the tendons of your little neck were tight, the whole time, and one hand continually twitched and tore in the rotted folds of your skirt like the hand of a little girl who must recite before adults, and there was not a thing you could do, nothing, not a word or remonstrance you could make.
(Famous Men, p. 321)
Agee cannot escape the fact that his own presence must unavoidably affect the people he meets. They put him and Walker Evans up in their houses, talk to him, let Evans photograph them, share their food. How can he write about them and their poverty in such a way as to leave them some pride, some integrity as fellow Americans? The amalgam that is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—the mix of objective reporting, impressionistic reaction, vivid photography—stands as his answer.
Sources and literary context
Commissioned in 1936 by Fortune magazine, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was originally meant to be a series of articles on the conditions of the tenant farmers in the cotton belt of the South. As it turned out, what Agee wrote about his experiences in Alabama could not be shaped to fit the magazine’s requirements. According to historian David Kennedy, Fortune found his text and Evans’s photos of the suffering “too harrowing to publish,” which led to their creating the book published four years later; Kennedy would deem it “one of the most sobering artistic achievements of the decade” (Kennedy, p. 208).
Inspiration to collect the material that became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men came from a new interest in two areas of study: in examining the real lives of Americans (particularly those outside the mainstream who had been previously ignored) and in exploring social behavior in general. Both scholarly and popular works in psychology, sociology, and anthropology were produced in the 1920s and 1930s to satisfy a wide readership: Dale Carnegie’s 1936 self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, Robert and Helen Lynd’s second study of Muncie, Indiana, Middletown in Transition (1937), and Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934). The success of such books (often greater than many of the novels that would become classics of the ear) testifies to a desire on the part of Americans of that time for a deeper understanding of themselves on their neighbors.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men“represents,” as Warren I. Susman has suggested, “much of what was characteristic of the thirties’ finest contributions” (Susman, p. 217). The characteristic traits that Susman is talking about appeared in fiction as well as nonfiction. Two examples are forerunners to Agee and Evans’s book: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939; also in Literature and Its Times), about the migration of Oklahoma farming families from the dust-ridden Midwest to California, and Margaret Bourke-White’s 1937 photographic study of migrant farmers (with text by the novelist Erskine Cald-well), You Have Seen Their Faces. Like Agee’s and Evans’s account, both of these works focus on the bottom rung of the U.S. economic ladder. In Agee’s view, the lyrical, poetic, evocative qualities of these earlier works constitute a kind of betrayal of the humanity of the people portrayed; he wishes to avoid this trap with his fragmentary style and unpredictable shifts in perspective. So while Let Us Now Praise Famous Men falls into line with other 1930s documentary-style reporting, it takes a definitive step outside that tradition.
Although the initial critical response to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was generally positive (or recognized the unique character of the book), the accolades did not translate into commercial success. Sales remained low for years, despite the fact that a wide range of reviewers praised the account when it first appeared: the Nation called the book extraordinary”; the New Yorker described it as “superior, highly original accurately poetic writing”; and the New Republic as “a rich, many-eyed book” (James and Brown, pp. 6–7). Yet the account languished on the shelves, almost dropping out of contemporary consciousness. The posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Agee drew attention to his other work, however, and in 1960 Houghton Miffling republished Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with a new biographical sketch of Agee by Evans as well as 30 extra photos from Evans’s files. In the 1960s, people suddenly wanted to find out about the Great Depression of the 1930s, possibly because it seemed to represent a forerunner of the attention paid to the dispossessed in this later, civil rights decade.
TRAVEL AND CURIOSITY
In many ways, the contemporary era of Let’s Go California. The Rough Guide to New York, and dozens of similar publications began in the 1930s. People were not only interested in culture in an abstract sense, but they also became curious about the individual qualities and even eccentricities of different regions of the United States. As one of the smaller but more memorable New Deal programs, the Federal Writers Project (FWP) commissioned and funded the States’ Guides, a series of informational and travel books on various states of the Union. The Alabama state guide appeared in 1941, the same year as Agee’s account. These guides were very comprehensive, encompassing history, geology, local arts and cultures, and social and demographic data in an attempt to produce as accurate a picture of the region as possible. Many unemployed writers found work with the FWP, and although Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was not an FWP project, its passionate interest in the reality of life in one of the more remote parts of the United States makes it a part of this broad effort.
Reviewing the book in 1942 and then again in 1960, Lionel Trilling identified it as a major achievement both times. He stressed its greatness even more clearly in 1960, pinpointing a quality of the book that continues to impress readers today. Agee’s vision of the tenant farming families is so pure, so unmarred by a perception of any flaws or bad traits, that the book seems more a declaration of love, or a prayer, than a work of documentary reporting. To its credit, the account delivers more than neutral reporting. It makes a broader statement about what kind of country America was in the 1930s, and what kind of country it ought to be. Perhaps most telling is Trilling’s by now familiar phrase about the extraordinary account—“the most important moral effort of our American Generation” (Trilling, p. 379).
Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Brogan, Hugh. The Penguin History of the United States of America. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1990.
James, Mertice M., and Dorothy Brown, eds. Book Review Digest. Vol. 37. New York: H. W. Wilrown, eds.
Kennedy, David M. Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. New York: Times Books, 1984.
Nash, Gary B., et al, eds. The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
Susman, Warren I. “The Thirties.” In The Development of an American Culture. Ed. Stanley Coben and Lorman Ratner. Englewood Cliff, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
Trilling, Lionel. “An American Classic.” In Speaking of Literature and Society. Ed. Diana Trilling. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.