- Paperback: 471 pages
- Publisher: Mariner Books; First Thus edition (February 1989)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0395488974
- ISBN-13: 978-0395488973
- Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 92 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,945,698 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families Paperback – February, 1989
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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
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Anyway, to me this book is brave and profound. The brave part is the author's refusal to cash in on this experience by writing what he thinks we (or his bosses) want to hear. But then again he pretty much betrays his trusting hosts by snooping through their stuff and writing real personal stuff surely without their permission. The profoundness to me is the effective relaying of dignity amid the tragedy of a truly trapped situation.
If you have ever over-romanticized the south of old, or poor farm life, this book should cure you for good. It's not all perfect, but parts of it are. I would say its definitely worth the trip . . . just be ready for some detours.
Reader be prepared for the author's projection of how he views the world and at times not so much about the subjects in his observations.
I think his advantage is being a New Yorker allowing him to see a world that is so foreign to him. Whereas a Southerner as myself would view more as not being odd or abnormal.
While the book explores the day to day lives of some of the poorest to come out of extreme rural Alabama, the presentation is rather depth of content is what keeps me reading. Agee's words manage to mix more perception and mental connection than a journalistic account of what he and Walker experience. If you pace your reading and reference the photos as they are featured in the text (because they are grouped together in the middle, or at least they were in the edition I have), then it provides insight into Agee's level of perception...almost like when you ask someone if you can borrow their prescription glasses.
I can't recommend this enough. I can't assure you will enjoy it, because it is a lot more than what it looks and reads like at first...but it is certainly in no way a waste of your time and money to experience.