There are many ways to approach Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the majestic, mystical and often maddening book that James Agee and Walker Evans published in 1941.
I’m going to look at it here through the lens of journalism — how it subverts and critiques journalism as practiced in the United States.
It is a book that subverts journalism, even as it reaches — strains achingly — to create a new journalism. It’s journalism as art. But not the sort of art that Agee is at pains to criticize through his book. The art that he is striving to create.
But here, I’m afraid, I’m starting to sound like Agee.
Let me try to be as clear as I can.
I will write here mainly about Agee. The Evans photos are, like his text, majestic, mystical and at times maddening, but that’s another discussion. So too is the interplay between Agee’s words and the images by Evans. Neither exists without the other. Yet, here, I will write mainly about Agee.
In the summer of 1936, Agee and Evans spent eight weeks traveling around the South, working on an assignment from Fortune magazine for a story about sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Their resulting article was rejected by the magazine editors, and they spent several years expanding their material into a book and finding a publisher willing to print it.
The resulting work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men focuses mainly on three families in Alabama: the Gudger, Woods and Ricketts families. (The last names and some of the first names were changed, ostensibly to protect the privacy of the families. However, since their photos were used, it’s hard to know why that minimal effort at confidentiality was attempted.)
So, Agee and Evans were sent out to do a piece of journalism, but Agee’s report explodes just about every expectation that everyday journalism is built on.
Agee puts himself in the story
Normally, reporters don’t exist in their stories. They describe events as if in a Petri dish with the reporter being a sort of transcendental presence looking down from above.
The concept behind this is objectivity. At the heart of the idea of objectivity is a fib. No human being can write about an event or person without being influenced by personal feelings and experiences, including those at the event or in the presence of the person.
Agee says, The hell with this. He puts himself and, to a lesser extent, Evans in the midst of the story he tells. Indeed, the often convoluted and, he admits, confused turnings of Agee’s mind take up probably a majority of the book’s pages.
Agee talks about his own emotions, urgings and lusts in general and in relation to the three families
Nowadays, perhaps in pale attempts to copy Agee, reporters in some periodicals and blogs are more likely to put themselves into their story. But, almost always, they play bit parts. The focus is sharply on the celebrity being interviewed or whatever the focus of the story. They certainly don’t provide glimpses into their psyches.
Here, though, Agee writes about deeply personal things, such as his sex life. And, in that context, he is willing to talk of the women in the families in sexual terms that are startlingly explicit, such as this excerpt from a long description of the Gudger family members sleeping on the other side of the wall.
…and his wife’s beside him, Annie Mae’s [body], slender, and sharpened through with bone, that ten years past must have had such beauty, and now is veined at the breast, and the skin of the breast translucent, delicately shriveled, and blue, and she and her sister Emma are in plain cotton shifts; and the body of Emma, her sister, strong, thick and wide, tall, the breasts set wide and high, shallow and round, and yet those of a full woman, the legs long thick and strong; and [10-year-old] Louise’s green lovely body, the dim breasts faintly blown between wide shoulders, the thighs long, clean and light in their line from hip to knee…
Regarding Emma, who is about to leave for the home her cruel husband has established far away, Agee writes:
Each of us is attractive to Emma, both in sexual immediacy and as symbols or embodiments of a life she wants and know she will never have; and each of us is fond of her, and attracted toward her…There is a tenderness and sweetness and mutual pleasure in such a ‘flirtation’ which one would not for the world restrain or cancel, yet there is also an essential cruelty, about which nothing can be done…
Agee writes about holiness, sin and God
These are religious concepts, and American journalism has never been comfortable with religion in any but the most superficial way.
For instance, Agee writes that the flame of a lamp is “of the dry, silent and famished delicateness of the latest lateness of the night, and of such ultimate, such holiness of silence and peace…”
Or, in another place, Agee describes a baby at his mother’s breast:
…his face is beatific, the face of one at rest in paradise…his body still more profoundly relinquished of itself, and I see how against her body he is so many things in one, the child in the melodies of the womb, the Madonna’s son, human divinity sunken from the cross at rest against his mother…
Agee is constantly describing the beauty of things which are usually perceived by Americans as ugly
Regarding, for instance, an old set of overalls, Agee writes:
The blue is so vastly fainted and withdrawn it is discernable scarcely more as blue than as that most pacific silver which the bone wood of the houses and the visage of genius seem to shed, and is a color and cloth seeming ancient, veteran, composed, and patient to the source of being, as to the sleepings and the drifts of form.
Agee has written a prose poem — perhaps the greatest American poem of the 20th century
Rather than write down to the reader as journalists are trained to do, Agee writes with poetic elan and beauty and lack of restraint and run-on sentences and idiosyncratic punctuation and creative force.
Consider just a few of his figures of speech:
- “…a new set of overalls has among its beauties those of a blueprint; and they are a map of a working man.”
- the existential dread of human life is like “a furious angel nailed to the ground by his wings.”
- In a storm: “the trees lashing and laboring like rooted waves.”
- In a home, the only one awake, the family asleep: The house is like “a little boat in the darkness, floated upon the night, far out on the steadiness of a vacant sea, whose crew slept while I held needless watch.”
There is much else that could be written about how Let Us Now Praise Famous Men turns journalism on its ear.
Agee insults the reader. He admits his own inability to fully tell the story. He talks theory. He writes about odors. (When was the last news or feature story you read that mentioned an odor? And not just mentioned it but went to great lengths to describe it and compare it with other odors present?)
Agee writes that he loves the members of the three families.
This idea could be the subject of an entire book — Did Agee really love these people? What did that mean for him? For them?
For now, though, let me just say that reporters coming back from a story are expected to be “objective.” Not to like or hate, certainly not to love their subjects.
In talking of his love for these people, Agee is doing something that he does in many other ways throughout the book: He is breaking down the wall between the writer and the subject.
These people are not specimens under a microscope. They aren’t there to be “used” to make a point or to make art or to laugh at. (Agee’s inclusion of a vacuous interview with Margaret Bourke-White and her even more vacuous comments about the poor Southerners she photographed is cruel. And needed.)
Agee tries to make the reader see Annie Mae and George and Louise and Bud and all the others that he and Evans spent so much time with as people.
This is not a book about sharecroppers and tenant farmers.
It’s about people.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review is one of six about books describing poverty over a century-long period. The six books are How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, The People of the Abyss by Jack London, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee with photos by Walker Evans, The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell and The American Millstone: An examination of the nation’s permanent underclass by the staff of the Chicago Tribune.