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.)