In the photo-textbook Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee-Evans tell the very difficult story of tenant families during the time of the Great Depression. In the book, we see some of the issues the author grapples with in documenting some of these painful stories.
One of the things I first noticed when reading this photo-textbook was that it is unlike anything we have read thus far. Agee’s style of writing with its long-winded sentences and sophisticated vocabulary feels hard to follow at times. He paints the story in extreme detail, using prose described as “Elizabethean (2)” in the introduction. This is very different from say Waiting for Nothing, which used a very “matter of fact” style of writing with its short sentences and simple vocabulary.
The photo-textbook also feels different from some previous readings in another way. It does not feel like a catalog of people, and figures about poverty in the United States during the Great Depression. It feels like a story with true humanity behind it. Agee and Evans are not simply out and about documenting as much as they can, or even in search of “honest journalism.” As a matter of fact, Agee states that “[Let Us Now Praise Famous Men] is a book only by necessity (5).” He describes it as “an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is not less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell (5).”
One of the things that struck me the honest is the raw honesty of the author grappling with the difficulty of photographing and journaling the experiences of these people. Writers during this time period traveled around the country in an effort to document the experiences of the poor during the Great Depression. Many of them, however, made their profits from their writings, and never truly addressed the issue with profiting off of the documenting “the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives (11).”
Unlike other authors, he does not pretend to simply be presenting the facts in a journalistic manner, but rather weaves in his personal feelings on the issues he encounters. In the book, Agee states that “In a novel, a house or a person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer.” His acknowledging of the fact that a writer cannot be completely objective no matter how hard he or she tries is very important. By discussing something that many authors pretend does not even exist, he gains credibility with the readers and successfully integrates his own perspective into his own writing.
I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to see so much despair and poverty everywhere you went. The work many of these authors did is admirable, but not acknowledging that their own biases and views cannot be completely separated from their documenting of these stories really took away from some of these stories.