on July 12, 2003
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.
on September 22, 2005
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.
on January 27, 2000
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.
on April 11, 2004
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.
on May 24, 2010
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.
on August 4, 1999
Living only 3 miles from the site where this book was born, I can easily still see the horrors of what Agee and Evans witnessed. Rual Hale County, Alabama is still a place slow to develope, but with still as much pride and hope as was seen in the Depression years. The book is, at times, unequelled because of the direct accurancy describing the people, smells, conditions, and lifestyles of the three families. It is simply a work of art. The families are still around, and PBS even shot a piece on the book; however, the reminders of what was can still pierce the souls of all who live in our area. We have come a long way, but there are "miles to go." It is a work of art. Powerful! It needs to be followed up- yet I doubt that there could ever be such a quality work to follow that of Agee's.
on September 15, 2006
Let us Now Praise Famous Men, in all its poetry and prose, reminds me of an epic, like the Hindu Mahabharata or Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. The lyrical narrative reveals just as much, if not more about Agee, than his subjects. His writing style excludes his subjects as readers.
His prose, which tends to be lofty and cerebral, is also beautiful and brilliant. But, I often wondered, who he was
writing for? The New Yorker audience? The distance in his observations often left me feeling cold. I imagine these hardworking sharecroppers exhibiting some joy, some evidence of warmth, of hope. But I had difficulty finding it in Agee's voice.
The length of Agee's sentences and paragraphs were long, each containing an entire scene, and I labored through them, hoping sleep would not steal me from a passage I might not finish. It was as though Agee too, was afraid sleep would come and steal him from his mission, and so kept hacking away at each sentence, adding commas and colons and semi-colons, lingering his thoughts across the page.
Whatever level of consciousness Agee existed, I could not hang with him for any more than a couple of sentences, as I would fall off the page and have to find my way back into the scene. Where was I? You get the picture...
Agee also uses parenthesis and colons, often not giving his parenthesis a mate: (This struck me as rather unusual and often, cold and detached--more like a voyeur. Did he fabricate his own method of communication using punctuation or was this being done elsewhere at the time? I felt left out of his thoughts when he did this, like when two people are communicating via sign language and you can't make out a word they're saying. Was he doing this in a way to urge us to "think," to stretch beyond the ordinary conventions and try something on that is foreign and unfamiliar, like his subjects and their hardship?
on August 12, 2010
When I was in university in the 1960s for about year I carried this book around in my back pocket, being whimsically obnoxious to my friends by pulling it out and reading from it. For me these reviews are about the confusion about the place of this book in literature (a confusion which is correctly noted by these thoughtful reviewers) but I think they will make more sense if we quote Agee himself on his book:
"It is simply an effort to use words in such a way that they will tell as much as I want to and can make them tell of a thing which has happened and which, of course, you have no other way of knowing. It is in some degree worth your knowing what you can, not because you have any interest in me but simply as the small part it is of human experience in general. It is one way of telling the truth: the only way possible of telling the kind of truth I am here most interested to tell."
Like Finnegans Wake, this book is a never ending adventure in itself.
on April 8, 2015
The photos by Walker Evans in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" are, in my judgment, American classics. They enable the families of three tenant farmers in the deep south of this nation to plead for our understanding. In the midst of America's emerging industrialization in the 1930s and early '40s, the tenant families are left behind. The photos convey that, with an earnestness and sense of hope-in-spite- of-hopelessness that evokes our hope for a country that will hear their plea, and respond. The photos are not illustrative. They accompany the text as a full partner -- indeed as "coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative," as James Agee himself puts it in the book's Preface.
The great 19th Century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer pointed out that our sight is an active, our hearing a passive sense. Walker Evans' photographs call us into an active involvement with three tenant families, engaging us in a deep perception of how life actually was for a large segment of our country. We are challenged "to understand" what Walker Evans is perceiving so well.
James Agee, in the written text itself, makes a unique contribution to American literature. One sentence in Part One: A Country Letter demonstrates that: "All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and in mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe."
on October 28, 2014
Let Us All Now Praise Famous Men begins with Walker Evan’s scalpel sharp photographs of three Alabama sharecropper families and their rented cabins, and is followed by James Agee’s explosive, unrestrained description of a life that horrifies and enraptures him. At times it seems we are reading Thomas Wolf, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Proust, or Faulkner or James Joyce. Agee doesn’t want to miss a heartbeat and sends up so many words that he sometimes obliterates his subjects with his prose. Nevertheless, he makes the lives of the 1,000,000 American sharecroppers across the Cotton Belt in 1936 beautiful and terrifying in a deeply moral and religious sense through these three families. More than that, by the time he quotes Ecclesiasticus 44 on the last page, he has sanctified them. The contemporary writer would probably lay out their lives on a slide stained with Freudian analysis; Agee does it with precision and empathy and love.