In 1936, poet-writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, who had been working with the U.S. Farm Security Administration, were commissioned by the staff of Fortune magazine to develop an article on cotton tenantry that would include photographs. Fortune wanted a visual and verbal record of the daily lives of white sharecroppers. As the two carried out their assignment, they found it developing into a much larger project. Ultimately, they were forced to return to their jobs much sooner than they wished, and the work they had done was refused publication by those who had commissioned it.
By this time, 1941, Agee and Evans had envisioned Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, complete in itself, as part of a larger work to be called “Three Tenant Families.” The other part remained a vision. In its published form, the book consists of sixty-two photographs followed by a lengthy text, partly factual, partly imaginative, all extremely detailed. As a narrative of fact, a regional study, a moving moral document, a lyric meditation on life and art, and an exercise in style, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is one of the most remarkable books of the twentieth century.
First, as in a play script, Agee lists the members of the three families whose lives animate the book; he also includes their ages and relationships. Agee lists himself among the “casts” as a spy traveling as a journalist, and he lists Evans as a counterspy traveling as a photographer. Listed also are William Blake, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Ring Lardner, Jesus Christ, and Sigmund Freud, as unpaid agitators.
Many critics considered the book a structural failure. It has no apparent pattern of development. Agee begins by explaining that the project is corrupt, obscene, terrifying, and mysterious. He realizes painfully that he is spying into the private misery of the sharecroppers, that their lives will thus be exposed as passing entertainment to the curious and casual reader, and that he is being paid for doing this work. Determined to show the sacredness and dignity of each life down to the smallest detail, he approaches his subjects with boundless love and humility.
Agee records three incidents—“Late Sunday Morning,” “At the Forks,” and “Near a Church”—that are so moving to him that they render him almost inarticulate. He somehow manages to write about these incidents simply and vividly. In the first, a white foreman intrudes into the local black community and forces three African Americans to sing for Agee and Evans. In the second, Agee asks directions of a sick young man, his worn wife, and a mentally disabled older man. Near a church that Evans wishes to enter to take photographs, Agee accidentally frightens a young black couple by running up behind them. In each case, he empathizes so strongly with each individual that he feels sympathy and understanding for the foreman even though he humiliates the black singers; he feels sick with joy and gratitude when the wife at the forks shows sufficient confidence in him to smile slightly; he feels the fear of the young couple and the utter impossibility of ever communicating his intentions clearly to them.
A Country Letter, which begins part 1, and which Agee wrote while sitting up late at night, contains some of the most beautiful lyric prose of the entire book. It is unified, developed, and complete in itself. Agee speaks of his tenants specifically, but he places them and their flimsy homes against a backdrop of the earth and the universe so that they and their problems, their joys and sorrows, become representative of all; and the theme running through the piece is of aspirations and ideals dulled and lost, worn down by the hard necessities of living, of the flame of life that sinks down almost to an ember as they ask themselves how they are thus...