Coupled with American photographer Walker Evans, James Agee traveled the Alabama clay highways. In “Let us now praise famous men,” they illustrate the life of the Southern tenant sharecroppers during the Great Depression. The book was initially planned as an article for the Fortune magazine about poor white cotton farmers in the American South. But after months in the South, Agee wrote something that is less of a magazine column but became a work of art and one of the most influential Depression-era social documentary.
“Let us now praise famous men” is differentiated from most of the other reportages of the same period, and is considered by many a masterpiece, because of Agee’s long-winded prose-like beautiful texts. His narrative of the poor Depression-era families is lyrical. It is descriptive, but it’s hard to say that it reads like an entirely objective documentary. (The Guardian) We can sense Agee’s emotions, thoughts and perceptions infused into his exhaustive description of the world around him. It almost looks like Agee was experimenting a style that combines reportage and modern art (and maybe some biblical seriousness/purpose, discussed below). Considering that it was quite early in his career when he wrote the book, maybe he was experimenting a style. Either way, the incredibly detailed and vivid descriptions stand out: “she has first straightened her dress, her hair, her ribbon” “I ate a tomato sandwich as slowly as I possibly could and then another and drank three coca-colas fast and one slow and smoke three cigarettes.” They are so exhaustive that I could imagine living in those scenes by reading them. In a way, even though Walker’s photos don’t have captions, Agee’s prose-like sentences could be used as captions. For example, he wrote “Walker made a picture of this … there you all are, the mother as before a firing squad, the children standing like columns of an exquisite temple, their eyes straying, and behind …” (Agee, p368)
Moreover, the language is more than just being beautiful. Reading even just the first pages, I somehow think Agee’s poetic language almost resembles something biblical. (Magazine of the Endowment for the Humanities) He wrote a prose about God on the second page: “I will go unto the altar of God…”. Also, the overall writing style seems to create a strong sense of solidarity. For example, the repeated “you” “us” “we” throughout the entire piece; “not to fear us, not to hate us, that we are your friends” create a slight taste of solidarity or comradery. Perhaps the biblical theme is one dominant theme that Agee intended to carry us through, because according to the Magazine of National Endowment of the Humanities, the title “Let us now praise famous men” comes from a passage in the Apocrypha, an ancient group of texts excluded from the Bible.
Another point I noticed is the contrast in style of Agee’s texts and Walker’s photos. Unlike the poetic style Agee uses, Walker let his subjects pose themselves in a very formal way. The photos are so formal that they look too plain. Besides the differences in personal style, another reason, if I have to guess, might be that Walker paid his subjects — the poor families – enough respect, so he let them pose as if they are taking serious portraits that the rich people usually do. Regardless, it is reasonable to say that both Agee and Walker had good relationships with the families – from Agee’s diction, and from the rather defenseless faces in the phones. Furthermore, the fact that Agee and Walker never used the families’ real name and locations in their work to protect privacy reminds me of Dorothea Lange – quite in the contrary, however, Lange and her partner not only used real names but also added inflammatory details to their stories. It makes me wonder what is the scope of “documentary”? How far should the journalists go to convey their ideas and educate the readers? Are the people in the photos and articles merely “subjects” for a document or an artwork, or are they the other essential half of the collaboration?
Magazine of the Endowment for the Humanities Gillis, Anna Maria, Kevin Mahnken, Danny Heitman, and John R. Gillis. “Let Us Now Praise James Agee.” National Endowment for the Humanities. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Dec. 2016.
The Guardian “Review: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2001. Web. 23 Dec. 2016.