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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Paperback – January 11, 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
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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Also, read White Trash.
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."
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.
I wanted to suggest two sites that have additional information that readers may enjoy and find valuable:
The first is a 2005 article from Fortune (The Most Famous Story We Never Told) that follows up with Charles Burroughs (Burt Gudger)and Laura Minnie Lee Tengle (Flora Merry Lee Ricketts). It sheds some light on how the families perceived the assignment and book.
The second is the Library of Congress FSA-OWI collection ([...]) from which Evans's photographs are taken. Do a search on Hale County, AL and you'll find several dozen photos of the families including more candids and more smiles.