With its signature photographs reshot from archival negatives, an elegant new edition of the "most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation" (Lionel Trilling) Published nearly sixty years ago, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men stands as an undisputed masterpiece of the twentieth century, taking its place alongside works by Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. In a stunning blend of prose and images, this classic offers at once an unforgettable portrait of three tenant families in the Deep South and a larger meditation on human dignity and the American soul. In the summer of 1936, James Agee and Walker Evans set out on assignment for Fortune magazine to explore the daily lives of sharecroppers in the South. There they lived with three different families for a month; the result of their stay was an extraordinary collaboration, an unsparing record of place, the people who shaped the land, and the rhythm of their lives. Upon its first publication, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was called intensely moving, unrelentingly honest. It described a mode of life -- and rural poverty -- that was unthinkably remote and tragic to most Americans, and yet for Agee and Evans, only extreme realism could serve to make the world fully aware of such circumstances. Rejected by Fortune as too unwieldy, it was published for the first time in book form in 1941. Today it stands as a poetic tract for its time, a haunting search for the human and religious meaning in the lives of true Southern heroes: in their waking, sleeping, eating; their work; their houses and children; and their endurance. With an elegant design and a sixty-four-page photographic prologue of Evans's classic images, reshot from archival negatives, the new edition reintroduces the legendary author and photographer to a new generation. Both an invaluable part of the American heritage and a graceful tribute to the vibrant souls whose stories live in these pages, this book has profoundly changed our culture and our consciousness -- and will continue to inspire for generations to come.
Just what kind of book is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
? It contains
many things: poems; confessional reveries; disquisitions on the proper way to listen to Beethoven; snippets of dialogue, both real and imagined; a lengthy response to a survey from the Partisan Review
; exhaustive catalogs of furniture, clothing, objects, and smells. And then there are Walker Evans's famously stark portraits of depression-era sharecroppers--photographs that both stand apart from and reinforce James Agee's words.
Assigned to do a story for Fortune magazine about sharecroppers in the Deep South, Agee and Evans spent four weeks living with a poor white tenant family, winning the Burroughs's trust and immersing themselves in a sharecropper's daily existence. Given a first draft of the resulting article, the editors at Fortune quite understandably threw up their hands--as did several other editors who subsequently worked with a later book-length manuscript. The writing was contrary. It refused to accommodate itself to the reader, and at times it positively bristled with hostility. (What other book could take Marx as the epigraph and then announce: "These words are quoted here to mislead those who will be misled by them"?) Response to the book was puzzled or unfriendly, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sputtered out of print only a few short years after its publication. It took the 1960s, and a vogue for social justice, to bring Agee's masterwork the audience it deserved.
Yet the book is far more interesting--aesthetically and morally--than the sort of guilty-liberal tract for which it is often mistaken. On an existential level, Agee's text is a deeply felt examination of what it means to suffer, to struggle to live in spite of suffering. On a personal level, it is the painful, beautifully written portrait of one man's obsession. In its collaboration with Evans's photographs, the book is also a groundbreaking experiment in form. In the end, however, it is more than merely the sum of its parts. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is, quite simply, a book unlike any other, simmering with anger and beauty and mystery. --Mary Park