Study Guide

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

by James Agee

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a unique work of literature. It was first conceived as a feature article for Fortune magazine: In the summer of 1936, Agee was sent to Alabama along with photographer Walker Evans to document the lives of tenant farmers. The article they produced, however, was much too passionate and impressionistic for the editors of Fortune, so Agee worked on the project privately and eventually published the “article” as a four-hundred-page book. When it first appeared, only two years after John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, with which it shares certain similarities, the book received bad reviews and sold a mere six hundred copies. It was only after Agee’s death, and especially in the political turbulence and social awareness of the 1960’s, that the book achieved popularity and literary standing.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is as much about Agee’s personal experiences among three poor sharecropping families as it is about their lives per se. For Agee, the two could not be considered separately, and the moral and emotional implications of his and Evans’s presence among their subjects—seeing themselves as spies—are central to any meaningful contemplation of tenant farming during the Depression. Thus, the piece moves back and forth, sometimes overtly in large sections, sometimes momentarily in parentheses, between precisely objective reportage and relentless...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Depression-era photodocumentary masterpiece, originated in 1936 when James Agee, a writer, and Walker Evans, a photographer on leave from the Farm Security Administration, were commissioned by Fortune magazine to do an article on cotton tenantry that would be a photographic and verbal record of “the daily living of three representative white tenant families.” In the summer of 1936, Agee lived with a sharecropping family, intimately experiencing their daily routine, while Evans carried out his photographic assignment with detachment but comparable integrity.

Having familial ties to the South and sympathy for the plight of the tenant farmers, Agee felt a tremendous sense of responsibility for this project. He was aware of various ethical and political conflicts inherent in documentary work. The reporter-photographer team was determined not to put the tenants on display for a curious audience; nor did they want their work to be seen as politically motivated. Agee and Evans were conscious, moreover, of the social and educational differences that separated them from the members of the Gudger, Wood, and Rickett families and understood the suspicion with which the tenants initially regarded them. These issues are woven into the text.

When the article prepared for publication in Fortune was turned down, Agee and Evans envisioned Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, complete in itself, as part of a larger whole to be called Three Tenant Families. The other volumes were never completed. The book’s structure is nonlinear and fragmented. Book 1 is composed of sixty-two captionless, black and white photographs of the tenants and their surroundings. Book 2 has three sections: Section 1 includes three vignettes that recall encounters with local citizens, as well as meditational prose pieces (“On the Porch: 1,” “A Country Letter,” and “Colon”). Section 2 contains, among other items, chapters on “Money,” “Shelter,” “Clothing,” “Education,” and “Work.” Part 3 opens with “Inductions,” a description of Agee and Evans’ awkward initial encounters with the tenant families, includes “Notes and Appendices,” and closes with another lyrical reflection (“On the Porch: 3”).

In this intensely personal book, Agee intends that the sharecroppers be represented “with the whole of consciousness.” Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a hybrid work—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 Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1580 words.)