Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans
“…this is a book about “sharecroppers,” and is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price; in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats…”
Thus, James Agee presents his theme for this masterpiece of Southern non-fiction. During the 1930s, documentary literature was a popular avenue for a writer to take. Writing of sorrows makes for a better read than happier fare, and there was plenty of sorrow to write about during the decade of the Great Depression.
Agee and photograph Walker Evans stayed a summer with three tenant families in Alabama, and found them hard-working but weighted down with day-to-day endurance, pushed down to Job-like living:
“Why is it things always seem to go against us? Why is it there can’t ever be any pleasure in living? I’m so tired it don’t seem like I ever could get rest enough. I’m as tired when I get up in the morning as I am when I lay down at night. Sometimes it seems like there wouldn’t never be no end to it, nor even a let-up. One year it’ll look like things was going to be pretty good; but you get a little bit of money saved, something always happens.”
The book reads poetically; Agee breaks into verse at times. He was influenced by the modernist lit movement, and particularly Joyce and Faulkner, memorable for that long, drawn-out written thought. At times, I felt I was reading Faulkner; I was just waiting on the word apotheosis to appear:
“and when the women are through, they may or may not come out too, with their dresses wet in front with the dishwashing and their hard hands softened and seamed as if withered with water, and sit a little while with the man or the men: and if they do, it is not for long, for everyone is much too tired, and has been awake and at work since daylight whitened a little behind the trees on the hill, and it is now very close to dark, with daylight scarcely more than a sort of tincture on the air, and this diminishing, and the loudening frogs, and the locusts, the crickets, and the birds of night, tentative, tuning, in that great realm of hazy and drowned dew, who shall so royally embroider the giant night’s fragrant cloud of earthshade…”
The writing continues uninterrupted from paragraph to paragraph. Almost, I wanted to add the second stress and read it as ‘drown-ed’ because the writing reads so much like poetry.
James Agee was tentative of writing of the sharecropper life and its hardships. He was convinced that Walker’s photographs should tell the story:
“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.”
The photographs that Walker Evans recorded for this book are available at the Library of Congress here: