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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:


LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN: Three Tenant Families, text by James Agee, photographs by Walker Evans, is the culminating achievement of the Great Depression's documentary art and media and one of the few classics of world journalism. Overlong, self-conscious, and often infuriating, it is also brave, poetic, morally challenging, and for many readers a secular holy book. In August 1936, Agee, twenty-seven years old, and Evans, thirty-two years old, stayed with a white Alabama sharecropper family to prepare an article for Fortune magazine. When Fortune turned the article down, Agee expanded it into a book for Harper and Brothers. In 1939, Harper refused to publish it. The book finally appeared in September 1941, by which time the share-cropper problem was old news, and the nation was trans-fixed by the war in Europe. The first edition sold six hundred copies and disappeared. When Agee's posthumous A Death in the Family won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize, Houghton Mifflin, the original publisher of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, brought out a second edition with an expanded selection of Evans's photographs. The book's anguished inquiry into how those privileged with money and education relate to society's unfortunates made it must reading in the socially conscious 1960s, and it entered the twenty-first century second only to John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) as the most popular literary introduction to the hardships and complexities of the 1930s.


Stott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.


See alsoGreat Depression .

George Gudger is a human being, a man, not like any other human being so much as he is like himself. I could invent incidents, appearances, additions to his character, background, surroundings, future, which might well point up and indicate and clinch things relevant to him which in fact I am sure are true, and important, and which George Gudger unchanged and undecorated would not indicate and perhaps could not even suggest. The result, if I was lucky, could be a work of art. But somehow a much more important, and dignified, and true fact about him than I could conceivably invent, though I were an illimitably better artist than I am, is that fact that he is exactly, down to the last inch and instant, who, what, where, and when and why he is. He is in those terms living, right now, in flesh and blood and breathing, in an actual part of a world in which also, quite as irrelevant to imagination, you and I are living. Granted that beside that fact it is a small thing, and granted also that it is essentially and finally a hopeless one, to try merely to reproduce and communicate his living as nearly as exactly as possible, nevertheless I can think of no worthier and many worse subjects of attempt.

SOURCE: From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, pp. 232– 233.

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