Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 281

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by journalist James Agee and photographer Walker Evans is a documentary of the way tenant farmers lived during the 1930s, but it is also a commentary on lives that are what Agee calls "normal predicaments of human dignity" (x). In other words, Agee and Evans are documenting people living in poverty and despair, but they try to do so while preserving their dignity and commenting on larger themes related to the human condition.

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The narrative itself is fragmented and defies classification. The jumbled and poetic nature of the writing conveys the theme of dislocation, as the families that Agee writes about (and that Evans photographs) live in a state of despair and poverty. At the same time, the poetry in the narrative supports the idea that these families are worthy of the reader's esteem and respect. The photographs document houses that are simple and ramshackle but clean and kept as well as possible, showing that the families care about their belongings and maintain their dignity in spite of being poor.

Another of Agee's themes is the way that he interjects himself into the families' lives. He uses the first person in his writing, inserting himself into the story. He writes that although he tries to record the lives around him, "nor may this be lightly undertaken: not lightly, not easily by any means: nor by any hope 'successfully'" (87). He establishes himself as a respectful but to some degree unreliable narrator and states that it is impossible to totally convey another person's life with any degree of reliability. Therefore, the question about how to observe others and record their lives is another theme of this book.

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