Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a non-fiction account of the life of three tenant farmer families in Alabama during the great depression. It is written by James Agee, and accompanied by black and white photographs taken by Walker Evans. Walker Evans had been photographing the lives of tenant...
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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a non-fiction account of the life of three tenant farmer families in Alabama during the great depression. It is written by James Agee, and accompanied by black and white photographs taken by Walker Evans. Walker Evans had been photographing the lives of tenant farmers as part of a project funded by the government's Farm Security Administration. This project was then combined with Agee's writing, initially meant to be an article, to form the book.
This work is considered non-fiction but also has qualities of a memoir, as Agee does not shy away from discussing his own role and the feelings he has as he tries to get to know these tenant farmers; he and Evans were concerned that they will be viewed as spies, and as outsiders who could never totally understand the desperation these farmers face in their daily lives.
The farmers that Agee and Evans focus on were all living and farming in Alabama in the towns of Mills Hill, Greensboro, Tuscaloosa, and Moundville. The names of specific locations as well as the names of the families have been changed.
The perspective of the book swings between stories being told from the viewpoint of the farmers and their families, and then Agee's feelings about being viewed as an outsider who has come to profit from the misery of the people he is working with.
Evans's photographs are placed in the book without captions and serve to highlight the plight of the farmers.These powerful photographs show their gaunt faces and the moving physical evidence of their constant battle against starvation. Both Agee and Evans avoided politicizing their work and focused strictly on the families and Agee's feelings about the work they were doing.
The book focuses on the routines and the really mundane aspects of these farmer's lives and in doing so presents an indelible picture of the difficulty and unrelenting struggle these farmers faced. Their communities are also pictured and described in order to convey the widespread nature of their poverty.
The book is divided into three sections. The first consists entirely of Walker's photographs, without captions, giving the reader an opportunity to walk through these towns and lives without comment from the author.
The second section contains Agee's writing as well as photographs as he describes the towns and their inhabitants. He then writes several sections titled "Money," "Shelter," and "Food" that are focused on these aspects of the tenant farmers lives. They paint a picture of uncertainty as each morning brings with it the possibility that they will have none of those things at the end of that day.
The last section is called "Inductions" and it serves to break up the sense of voyeurism that a reader might feel and that Agee and Walker both struggled with, as well. The description of how the two were able to form relationships with the people they worked with forms a powerful counterweight to the photographs presented at the beginning of the book.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600
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 self-examination.
The structure of the book reflects the care that Agee obviously invested in it. The composition is divided into various sections, and movements at times seem nearly spontaneous or improvised. Agee uses a series of prefatory pieces to create a sense of false beginnings that nullifies any expectations the reader may have and establishes the book’s painstaking pace. Then, sections are introduced with titles, labels, and enumerations that reflect no overall pattern but rather mirror the complexity of the material they cover. They are not placed in chronological order, order of composition, or any order sequence of logical development. Each new section may be a new beginning, marked by an epigram, a poem, a list, or a dramatic shift in tone. Transitions are often sudden and connections unclear. Such an unorthodox structure, far from being a gratuitous game devised to baffle, derives from the earnest effort to make sense of the experience of observing, interacting with, and living among sharecroppers.
In spite of this complexity, Agee is rigorously direct with the reader as to his purposes in the book and his awareness of the limitations its form places on him. He asks for no suspension of disbelief—the book is admittedly only paper—and makes no claims to extraordinary powers of insight or expression. He simply trusts in words. This trust and the earnest effort to be truthful, like so many attributes of the work, are relentless, and therein lies their emotional and philosophical power.
Within this context of moral and literary anxiety, Agee documents, with the help of Evans’s photographs (which precede and are to be considered coequal with sections of the text), the poverty, aspirations, and pathos of the people he encounters. The Gudger, Ricketts, and Woods families live in poverty: Agee exhaustively details their surroundings, their clothing, their daily activities, their conversations, their work, their educations, their diets, their health, and any other aspect of their lives he can attempt to portray. He also depicts his own interactions with them and the relationships that result. He contemplates the social and political implications of their lives for society as a whole and, through the intense and relentless examination of their existence, poses practical and philosophical questions of universal relevance.