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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Paperback – January 11, 1989

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Editorial Reviews Review

Just what kind of book is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men? It contains many things: poems; confessional reveries; disquisitions on the proper way to listen to Beethoven; snippets of dialogue, both real and imagined; a lengthy response to a survey from the Partisan Review; exhaustive catalogs of furniture, clothing, objects, and smells. And then there are Walker Evans's famously stark portraits of depression-era sharecroppers--photographs that both stand apart from and reinforce James Agee's words.

Assigned to do a story for Fortune magazine about sharecroppers in the Deep South, Agee and Evans spent four weeks living with a poor white tenant family, winning the Burroughs's trust and immersing themselves in a sharecropper's daily existence. Given a first draft of the resulting article, the editors at Fortune quite understandably threw up their hands--as did several other editors who subsequently worked with a later book-length manuscript. The writing was contrary. It refused to accommodate itself to the reader, and at times it positively bristled with hostility. (What other book could take Marx as the epigraph and then announce: "These words are quoted here to mislead those who will be misled by them"?) Response to the book was puzzled or unfriendly, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sputtered out of print only a few short years after its publication. It took the 1960s, and a vogue for social justice, to bring Agee's masterwork the audience it deserved.

Yet the book is far more interesting--aesthetically and morally--than the sort of guilty-liberal tract for which it is often mistaken. On an existential level, Agee's text is a deeply felt examination of what it means to suffer, to struggle to live in spite of suffering. On a personal level, it is the painful, beautifully written portrait of one man's obsession. In its collaboration with Evans's photographs, the book is also a groundbreaking experiment in form. In the end, however, it is more than merely the sum of its parts. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is, quite simply, a book unlike any other, simmering with anger and beauty and mystery. --Mary Park

From Library Journal

Agee's textual portraits and Evans's photographic records of three sharecropper families in the South instantly became, when published in 1939, one of the most brutally revealing records of an America that was ignored by society--a class of people whose level of poverty left them as spiritually, mentally, and physically worn as the land on which they toiled. Time has done nothing to decrease this book's power. This handsome edition sports the original text plus 64 new archival photos.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 471 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (January 11, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395488974
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395488973
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,936,464 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

127 of 130 people found the following review helpful By jmm38 on July 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Many people argue about Agee's complex text. The entire body of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is written in a kind of highly emotional euphoria in which Agee combines his own thoughts and perceptions with exhaustive description of the world around him. His intense feeling causes the writing to be, by conventional grammatical standards, virtually unreadable. Once the reader gets past his chapter-long sentences and widely varying themes, however, the book emerges as one of the greatest written accomplishments of the 20th century.
While the nominal subject of the documentary is an in-depth exploration of three tenant farming families during the Great Depression, the real project (and Agee himself admits this in his remarkably confessional prose) is the documentation of his own experience living with those farmers for several weeks--sleeping in their vermin-infested beds, eating their home-cooked food, and interacting with them on a human level. In addition, Agee self-consciously writes the text and explores the act of writing, both during his stay with the farmers and several years later, when he completed the vast majority of the book.
The final product is a patchwork book pieced together from Biblical prayer, Evans's photographs, Agee's flawless descriptions (which, in several cases, may be more accurate than Evans's probably manipulated prints) and meditations on writing, poverty, art, and day-to-day human experience. Two things make this work remarkable: Agee's honesty (he never claims to be objective or non-judgemental) and his innate talent for description. I approached this book with an open mind, and found it to be one of the most thoughtful and rewarding works I have ever read.
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64 of 65 people found the following review helpful By Mike Smith on September 22, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book is an amazing work of art. At times it's baffling, and at times almost impertinent--like when the author decides to describe every object in an entire home, and yet in all these things and in all the conflicting emotions it evokes, it creates a mood and a feeling and a setting that will seep into your skin and fog your brain for months.
The writing is beautiful, the story it tells--of poor, sharecropping, depression-era families--is heartbreaking, and the experience of reading about it all is like a baptism by fire. This book just might re-wire your brain.
I think this is a much better read than Agee's "A Death in the Family," and that one won the Pulitzer Prize. Read this, for sure.
I read it on a bus trip across Guatemala, and the way Agee's descriptions of the old southern poverty fit the poor little towns full of Guatemalan coffee pickers was uncanny.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and let us start with James Agee.

UPDATE: It's years later, and this book has never stopped haunting me. I think of it almost daily. If I were to review it today, I would definitely give it Five Stars.
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42 of 46 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 27, 2000
Format: Paperback
In one of the most edifying ways, James Agee illustrates the life of the Southern tenant sharecropper in the Great Depression. Agee's writings coupled with the eloquent photography of one notable Walker Evans, distinguishes the book in a elite category unparalleled by few if any whatsoever. The circumstances the sharecropper endured during the Depression not only working the land but also at home with family was rigorous and was additionally exposed very thoroughly in Agee's writings. The book is a must read for anyone interested in the History of the Great Depression era/New Dealism. One other book of notable mention for those interested is Larry Nelson's- KING COTTON'S ADVOCATE.
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40 of 46 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 11, 2004
Format: Paperback
James Agee's book on the sharecroppers of the American south during the great depression is a book not to be taken lightly. I read this book for a college english class and I can honestly say that most people in the course including myself are confused by Agee's intent and purpose. Agee's highly lyrical and philosophical tone allows a deep analysis into the question of human existence in the depression south. Yet, the very scope and difficulty of his subject is expressed in his confused, perhaps confusing writing. There are lonely moments of insight stacked alongside pages of seemingly irrelevant and baseless speculation. I say seemingly because each time I re-read the passage I find that Agee's words have quite a bit more meaning than I had originally found. This book is not a novel, not journalism but a puzzle which Agee could not piece together. Only with time and care can the reader hope to understand the frustratingly complex yet real message of Agee's work.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By John Michael Albert on May 24, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Yes, their assignment was to document depression era sharecroppers, but that's not why you should read it. You should read it because James Agee, uniquely in my experience, gets drunk on American language the same way the Delphic sibyl got drunk on methane and babbled worship worthy Greek. I first fell in love with him through Barber's setting of Knoxville, Summer 1915, then I read his posthumous novel (which won him the Pulitzer) A Death in the Family. No other American writer writes like this. It is seductive, it is teasing, it s sometimes so convoluted and knotted it gives Henry James AND William Faulkner a run for their money. But in the end, the poetry blazes with a fierceness and an honest that makes me forget to breathe. Many reviewers refer to what they felt the book was trying to get them to do, as if it were, somehow, coercive. I just hear the great poet and the great poetry of Knoxville, Summer of 1915 coming, twenty years away, with such a deafening roar that I'm glad I'm alive, if only for the privilege of dying in the presence of such American greatness.
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