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...
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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.