Agee’s main purpose in writing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the other volumes in his series (Three Tenant Families) was to create a comprehensive and immersive narrative of the human existence experienced by white cotton farmers in Alabama. This was incredibly marketable, it was previously unimaginable to most readers of the New York magazine from which he had received funding for the study in the first place. Apart from the narrative, what was unique about Agee’s piece was his exploration of the proper technique to critique and analyze communication and livelihoods and argue in defense of different statures of human life in this part of the country.
In his study, Agee acknowledged and addressed several concerns he encountered when formulating the most sensible way to approach the subjects. Firstly, he recognized a vast difference in perspective between himself (the author) and his subjects (tenant farmers) and pondered where his background would limit his understanding of the situation. The first hurdle was to fairly and comprehensively express his observations about the harsh realities of this civilization without demeaning their way of living. He curiously notes that, “…that the assignment of this work should have fallen to persons having so extremely different a form of respect for the subject, and responsibility toward it…” This self-awareness is a crucial aspect of the legitimacy of his work. His solution was to focus on the farming families’ relationships with food, clothing, and shelter (something considered universal human needs) — he focused on the how — how they went about acquiring it, how they valued it, how they defined standards for “good living” given the context of their situation, etc. He also voiced a concern about his ability to honestly capture, whatever that means, the life of white cotton farmers in his narrative. In his four-week immersion and writing period, he gave great consideration to how these farmers and their families viewed themselves, their community, and the realities of their situation. He considered how they might want to be portrayed to lofty New Yorkers as well, a people he knew the tenant farmers regarded with high disgust and ignorance. Did he truly owe it to these people, when they could not extend the same scholarly appreciation for another culture and way of life? This resulted in the emotional, restless, unsettling writing that barely conceals his contempt and anger for the patron-client system he blames for the overtly arduous lifestyle of tenant farmers.
The introduction to the text is important because it gives the reader a deeper understanding of why James Agee wrote this text the way he did– with an active resistance to producing a work that would be considered scientific, political, revolutionary. By no means did he want his work to be interpreted as religious, mystic, or artistic. However, the romantic quality and inexhaustible detail of his prose were the very things that inevitably qualified it as a work of literature. How ironic. Agee compassionately held a strong desire to dignify the living conditions of peasant farmers. His pain is evident in his writing: the entirety of the text seems almost like self-laceration as he examines and searches for meaning in the depressing living conditions of white tenant farmers. Agee attempts to counter the dehumanization of tenant farmers in the feudal-esque system by inspiring an appreciation for the dignity of their work and environment, valuing their lives, livelihoods, and perspectives.
Agee’s work is maybe one of the earliest pieces to recognize the spirit behind what we know today as the principles of participatory, human-centered, community-based social action. I can relate to his anger and his bitter resentment of the system. He dealt with his situation much better than the college-aged girl in coal-town Pennsylvania, that’s for sure.