Let Us Now Praise Famous Men


Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

"Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" is a book with text by American writer James Agee and photographs by American photographer Walker Evans first published in 1941 in the United States. The title is from a passage in "Ecclesiasticus" that begins, "Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us."

Background

The book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" grew out of an assignment the two men accepted in 1936 to produce a magazine article on the conditions among white sharecropper families in the U.S. South. It was the time of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" programs designed to help the poorest segments of the society. Agee and Evans spent eight weeks that summer researching their assignment, mainly among three white sharecropping families mired in desperate poverty. They returned with Evans' portfolio of stark images—of families with gaunt faces, adults and children huddled in bare shacks before dusty yards in the Depression-era nowhere of the deep south—and Agee's detailed notes.

As he remarks in the book's preface, the original assignment was to produce a "photographic and verbal record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers." However, as the "Literary Encyclopedia" points out, "Agee ultimately conceived of the project as a work of several volumes to be entitled "Three Tenant Families," though only the first volume, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men", was ever written." Agee considered that the larger work, though based in journalism, would be "an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity."

Description

The resulting single book is a critically praised opus that leapt over the traditional forms and limitations of journalism of the time. By combining factual reportage with passages of literary complexity and poetic beauty, Agee presented a complete picture, an accurate, minutely detailed report of what he had seen coupled with insight into his feelings about the experience and the difficulties of capturing it for a broad audience. In doing so, he created an enduring portrait of a nearly invisible segment of the American population.

Although Agee's and Evans' work was never published as the intended magazine article, their work has endured in the form in which it finally emerged, a lengthy, highly original book. Agee's text is part ethnography, part cultural anthropological study, and part novelistic, poetic narrative set in the shacks and fields of Alabama. Evans' black-and-white photographs, starkly real but also matching the grand poetry of the text, are included as a portfolio, without comment, in the book.

Although at its heart a story of the three families, the Gudgers, Woods, and Ricketts (pseudonyms for the Burroughs, Tengles and Fields) the book is also a meditation on reporting and intrusion, on observing and interfering with subjects, sufficient to occupy any student of anthropology, journalism, or, for that matter, revolution.

Agee as a character

Agee appears as a character himself at times in the narrative, as when he agonizes over his role as "spy" and intruder into these humble lives. At other times, as when he simply lists the contents of a sharecropper's shack or the meager articles of clothing they have to wear on Sunday, he is althogether absent. The strange ordering of books and chapters, the titles that range from mundane ("Clothes") to radically artistic (as the "New York Times" put it), the direct appeals by Agee for the reader to see the humanity and grandeur of these horrible lives, and his suffering at the thought that he cannot accomplish his appointed task, or should not, for the additional suffering it inflicts on his subjects, are all part of the book's character.

Impact

Scholars have noted that the book's ambitious scale and rejection of traditional reporting runs parallel with the creative, non-traditional programs of the U.S. government under Roosevelt, which attempted to preserve the dignity of poor families while helping lift them from dirt-poor scrabbling existence, but also risked paternalism and subjugation. In ways both obvious and less so, Agee argues with literary, political, and moral traditions that might mean nothing to his subjects but which are important for the larger audience and the larger context of examining other's lives.

There is little doubt that the length and setting, the unusual language and forms employed by Agee, make "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" a challenging book. Nevertheless, it has won high praise over the years and is routinely studied in U.S. as a source of both journalistic and literary innovation and inspiration.

Pseudonyms

Throughout the book, Agee and Evans use pseudonyms to obscure the identity of the three tenant farmer families. This convention is retained in the follow-up book "And Their Children After Them". However Evans' photos that are archived in the Library of Congress American Memory Project have the original names of the photographic subjects.

* There is disagreement over whether the family name is properly spelled Tengle or Tingle. The Library of Congress's spelling is used here.

External links

* "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" Houghton Mifflin (2001). ISBN 0-618-12749-6
* [http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2005/09/19/8272885/index.htm Fortune Magazine's David Whitford returns to Hale County Alabama]
* [http://www.worldcatlibraries.org/wcpa/top3mset/ae86046d1525f7b6a19afeb4da09e526.html And their children after them : the legacy of Let us now praise famous men] - sequel to the original
* [http://mmiarchivist.blogspot.com/2008/02/grand-lady-and-some-famous-men.html A Grand Lady and Some Famous Men] - Some brief notes on the sequel, with modern-day photographs, by the Marion Military Institute's Archivist


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