Revisiting Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” as an Act of Social Change

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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee is a book perhaps best read aloud. At the least, it’s a book the reader is advised to approach with respect, like being quiet as a thunderstorm approaches. The vivid power of this strange classic made this landmark piece of social documentary one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.

The story of how the book came about is as ironic as the book’s title. In the summer of 1936, as part of Fortune magazine’s “Life and Circumstances” series, Agee and photographer Walker Evans were given a month-long assignment to document the wretched lives of white sharecroppers in the deep South during the worst of the Great Depression. They drove to rural Alabama, as distant culturally as one could get from the magazine’s headquarters in the then-new Chrysler Building. They explored the lives of two tenant farmers and a sharecropper, whom Agee called the Rickettses, the Woods, and the Gudgers. Agee stayed with one of the families, while Evans preferred a hotel in a nearby town. Agee turned in about 30,000 words. (Here are the images Evans captured.)

Fortune never published the article, but the work was published as a book in 1941, the final year of the New Deal. About 600 copies of the book were sold before it disappeared from shelves. This book that nevertheless shattered journalistic and literary conventions was reissued in the 1960s, where it found an audience. In his review, Lionel Trilling wrote that the book is “the most realistic and the most important moral effort of our American generation.” Fifty years after Agee’s death, the original 30,000-word report for Fortune was found and published as the short book, “Cotton Tenants: Three Families.”  Read more.

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