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message 1: by Molly (new)

Molly | 283 comments "I know I am making the choice most dangerous to an artist in valuing life above art." - J. Agee

What to make of this book? I am not but halfway through myself. It wears me out. Sometimes I read poetic descriptions of light and sense. Other times I get blow by blow details you would find from a detective crime scene report. Then there are the internal secrets - shared with the reader over a quiet table about chance encounters. There is sharp biting criticism. There are dares. Daring us to read on. Daring us to be capable. Begging us to walk away - only a select few who "get it" shall continue. And then - there are the photos. They speak volumes on their own. His words help to bring them to life. I wish there were more. Is this the internal rambling of someone trying to fit in, grasp a foothold in the world he feels out of touch with? Trying at times to report, but more often than not succumbing to the scene? I tell you - this book wears me out. Like the boards of the homes sheltering the lives of those famous men.


message 2: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Molly: Well said. This is a trying book, for sure. Just when I get really tired of Agee's self-conscious and self-referential rambles, he floors me with an image or a turn of phrase that I don't think any other writer would have come up with in the same situation: unselfish gifts of language and imagination sprinkled throughout the toilsome stuff. Not quite like any other book, I think.


message 3: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Just a wild thought. In the same way that Truman Capote was said to have created a new genre with "In Cold Blood," and Tom Wolfe with "The Right Stuff" and "Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test," I'm wondering if Agee did the same with "Famous Men." Except that, in his case, he was so far ahead of his time that there was nobody to follow his lead.


message 4: by Dottie (new)

Dottie  (oxymoronid) | 1504 comments I had run myself out of time on this library book and it went back for a few days. When Jim picked it up from the hold shelf yesterday, the librarian (a male librarian if that has any relevance, which I don't believe it does) commented "That's a grim book. No joy in that one." When Jim asked me if I agreed with that, I said Yes, that's true but the answer is actually both yes and no." the subject matter and those parts which lay out the finest details of the poverty and the cycle of events which hold the three families in place -- and not only these but generations of these same families -- is unrelentingly grim. And there is deep sorrow in these individuals but also caring, longing. Agee's personal ramblings I read as a human seeing this deep and seemingly unbreakable cycle of poverty and his and others like and above him -- the government behind this study for one major one -- part in it. This to me is the universality of the book and speaks directly to today and our own world. And yet, and yet... well, that's for another post.

I also thought of Capote's In Cold Blood though I believe Capote didn't recognize and avoid the trap of becoming personally involved with the people about whom he was writing as well as Agee managed -- or maybe -- the personal observations are what caused this study to be rejected by the government as unusable? I think from the book that Agee was deeply affected and likely knew that what he was recording in those personl viewpoitn sections would not be accepatble by those who had commissioned the study but that he was intentionally telling those in authority something they didn't want to have "feelings" about -- they wanted the dry facts -- no emotional overlay.


message 5: by Dottie (new)

Dottie  (oxymoronid) | 1504 comments And, Dale, good point that there was no one who followed Agee's lead -- and I would venture to say that much of the work which did get done may fall short of this one.


message 6: by Molly (new)

Molly | 283 comments Dottie wrote: "commented "That's a grim book. No joy in that one." When Jim asked me if I agreed with that, I said Yes, that's true but the answer is actually both yes and no." ..."

I think there is a lot of light in this book actually. Sure - he is sharing details about poverty stricken people stuck in a circle of deprivation. But he also tells stories of their strong faith in their family unit - he shares precious moments of beauty like sounds of the singing performance upon their initial arrival - of the way that the sun shines upon simple objects and turns them into beautiful things. He presents them as people very dear to him because of their kindness - maybe because he feels guilty taking anything when they have nothing. But he tries to show us why they are beautiful. So amidst all the grimness there are lots of moments anyone can relate to - regardless of where they exist economically on this Earth.


message 7: by Dottie (last edited Jul 15, 2010 05:14PM) (new)

Dottie  (oxymoronid) | 1504 comments Molly wrote: "Dottie wrote: "commented "That's a grim book. No joy in that one." When Jim asked me if I agreed with that, I said Yes, that's true but the answer is actually both yes and no." ..."

I think there..."


Absolutely agree with that aspect, Molly, which is why I qualified the response to Jim's question. There is SO much emotional and spiritual depth to this book which was supposed to be some cut and dried factual, statistical, sociological reportage that it is at times overwhelmingly affective on the reader -- at least it definitely has been for this reader. It demands psychic energy as well as physical time to get through this one, IMO.


message 8: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2034 comments When I started this book, I didn't think I could wade my way through it. Then I got to the descriptions of the families and their houses. If you read the descriptions and refer to the pictures, you will see the image and feel it and smell it. For example, we can see the photo of Mrs. Ricketts in her dirty, worn out, pinned-together dress, but Agee makes us understand what it feels like to wear that dress. We find out that water is scarce and there is not time to do laundry because the whole family has to pick cotton. We also find out that the father doesn't do a good job at picking cotton, but the mother does. I think the mother is beautiful, and she must be strong considering that she has given birth to 15 children.

One reason that the book meant a lot to me is because my father's father was a tenant farmer in Indiana. There were 12 children in the family, but there was food on the table and the children were able to attend school. They were poor but not so impoverished as these people. I really regret that no one in my father's generation is still living. I would love to discuss this book with them and compare the life depicted here to their lives in Indiana in the 20's and 30's.


message 9: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 7472 comments I actually think that my own father was a sharecropper at the beginning of my life. I'll have to call him and ask. His parents were the owners of the farm, though, so we weren't so poor as the folks depicted here. I remember living in an unpainted tiny wooden house and having a bath outside in a tin tub with water warmed by the sun. Most baths were just in basins inside. He hated to hunt, but I remember him shooting squirrels and skinning them for stew. Sorry to talk about my own life instead of the book, but so much of the book connects with parts of my own, far-ago life. Coincidentally, I'm starting to research my family tree, and boy did I have a lot of farmer relatives. Many with ten or more children.


message 10: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Jane: Yes, yes. For the moment, we become Mrs. Ricketts. Ironic, because one of the diseases of that era was called rickets, resulting from malnutrition in infants that caused bone malformation for the rest of their lives. There were huge pockets of poverty and deprivation, everywhere, in those years, but the news media didn't want to get bogged down in their stories. (Now, redux.) God bless Agee and others, for doing so. The fact that there was no "market" for it is not surprising to me.


message 11: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Dottie: Your observation that Agee's "personal ramblings are human" in his situation really strikes home for me. The phrase "culture shock" has become almost a cliche in our time, but I cannot imagine the personal journey that Agee went through in so few years.

He was raised middle-class in Knoxville, TN, but was such a rising star in journalism that he got a plum job at "Fortune" (insert irony) magazine in NYC. At the time he was assigned to this story, his day consisted of doormen and taxis and cocktails after work. To be set down (along with Evans) into a condition of such desperation and want must have scrambled all his conventional ways of looking at the world.


message 12: by Molly (new)

Molly | 283 comments Sherry wrote: "Sorry to talk about my own life instead of the book, but so much of the book connects with parts of my own, far-ago life..."

I see lots of my mother's family's world in descriptions of the homes. They hail from the Blue Ridge Mountain area in western NC and I remember the family homestead - built much finer than the photos shared here but many of the same design styles, wooden stoves, wide and worn planks, dogs and chickens - along with a few snakes finding their way in. My grandmother did lots of canning and preserving for the winter months. They weren't sharecroppers or tenants - employed by timber mills (with a little moonshining throughout the black sheep of the family tree) - but they farmed their land and pinched dusty pennies. True country living.

That's why the book keeps pulling me in to continue reading - the scenes he describes are mini-snapshots into some of the same church buildings, farmland and back country dirt roads I spent time exploring as a little girl and through old family photos.


message 13: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7021 comments My grandparents were from Kentucky. My mother remembered living on the farm. They didn't have a lot of clothes , but she said they always had food on the table and store bought very little.

I have not finished the book. I am waiting for my copy to come in the mail. But I will follow the discussion.


message 14: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Molly: Yes. This book is my grandparents' lives, in a nutshell. My grandfather was a coal miner, and they raised a garden of vegetables at home in their "spare" time. At the exact point when Wall Street crashed, my grandfather was laid off at the mine and they had an infant daughter to raise. No job, no money. He said that he came home that day and plowed more ground to plant on, because "What else could we do?"


message 15: by Dree (new)

Dree | 143 comments I am not even half way through yet.

So far, I find his ramblings somewhat tiring--I itch to skip them and get to the "good part"--yes, I am a trained historian (American and public history at that). But I think his ramblings, at least so far, consist of the guilt he feels at his spying, as he terms it. Spying on people he likes, people he knows are trapped, people he doesn't really know how to help (people he knows he's not supposed to help because of his assignment), people who have let him into their (hard) lives, people with kids who face the same future.

I have never read this book before, but I did read part of the sequel (And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) for a class at some point. I am having a very hard time knowing what I know from that book and reading this one.

I appreciate hearing how others relate to this book re: their own family history. My dad's family are city people--his grandparents came to this country to escape the divided-into-tiny-bits-between-all-the-kids-and-too-small-to-survive-on family farms in Italy. Now my mom's family--her great-grandfather sold the farm after the Civil War because of leg and eye injuries he suffered, and he couldn't physically work the farm (11 kids born after the war, 6 of 7 boys went to Chicago); her mom's family were all farm laborers in England (even the 7 year olds!), and were small town truck farmers in the US (who reveled in owning land, though they were dirt poor cash-wise). The last farm (her grandfather's) in her direct line was lost in 1924 in Indiana--and a debt-related suicide. Not a lot of love for farming on either side of my family.


message 16: by Molly (new)

Molly | 283 comments I think we all spring from farms - in some way. That's why the book can touch even city folk.

Dree - I feel the same that you do - it is an effort to move through certain pieces. But I have found more words that draw me in than turn me away lately - I'm halfway through too. I think I would be very interested in the follow-up story that you mentioned. My mother mentioned to me that she heard/saw an interview somewhere where they tracked down the kids/family of the original subjects of this book and found Walker's photos hanging prominently in the home - though they did express shame over the way Agee portrayed much of their world/lives. I wonder if this was from that Legacy book?


message 17: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7021 comments Sorry to hear they were ashamed of their ancestors hard scrabble life. Those were difficult times. Even more so for farmers . I know my great-grandfather was from Arkansas. His mother moved to Kentucky to remarry . During the depression he worked on the railroad. He was trained as a teacher, but could not feed his family.

He was a half breed which was even worse.


message 18: by Dree (new)

Dree | 143 comments Molly, in the follow-up book, the authors did follow up with the same families (or at least one of them, I have only read a part of it). I am sure that book relates to what your mom heard/saw.


message 19: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Trivia fact: Agee wrote the screenplay for John Huston's "The African Queen," and worked for several years as a film critic for The Nation. There's a neat two-volume set called AGEE ON FILM; one volume is his reviews, the other is his un-produced screenplays. The reviews are great reading. You can dip in any place and enjoy his immense intelligence and biting wit. Also, Agee's novel A DEATH IN THE FAMILY is one of my favorite books ever.


message 20: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Here's an essay by professor Harvey H. Jackson III that's an overview of Alabama history. It's the intro to the book, "The WPA Guide to 1930s Alabama."

http://www.amazon.com/WPA-Guide-1930s...


message 21: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2034 comments One of the sections that I found very disturbing and Agee did, too, was toward the beginning of the book. Agee and Walker had just arrived in the area and were looking at what they called a "Negro" Church. They wanted to see the inside so Agee took off running after a young African American couple who were petrified. Of course, they would be with a white man chasing them down the road. Agee didn't even consider that he might have frightened them when he started after them. I thought he did a great job of describing what the young couple must be feeling.


message 22: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7021 comments We went to Georgia in 1960. We were from Ohio. My dad got lost and pulled to the side of the road along side a young negro man, you could see the fear in his eyes, and that was in 1960. As I was reading passage the memory came back to me . At the time we were sorry to cause the young man distress, but we thought nothing of asking for directions. We were very cautious and considerate after that.


message 23: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Carol: The 1960s were in many ways the height of racial tension in the South. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed in 1963, four girls killed. I remember people in my rural neighborhood who commuted to work in Birmingham being concerned that there might be riots there the next day.

Flashback: In 1989 I was riding a cab in Cardiff, Wales, and the upbeat driver asked me where I was from. "Birmingham, Alabama," I told him, and his expression went grim. "That's where they kilt the little girls," he replied, and didn't have much to say to me for the rest of the ride.


message 24: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2034 comments That is sad, Dale, that he associated you with that horrible event.


message 25: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7021 comments It is sad that we associate innocent people with the actions of others; Be it race, religion or politics. That is unfortunately the nature of the beast.


message 26: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Yep, just human nature. I'm sure I've done it myself. My Facebook quote today is from Deborah Tannen: "We all know we are unique individuals, but we tend to see others as representatives of groups."


message 27: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments There are so many passages like this that leave me in awe. A visionary writer working at the top of the top of his form:

The great wings of the roof are spread open and sweep downward either side in darkening, to come to rest at length along the upward edges of this squared wooden pit: and where these walls are risen and clasped, their square surfaces face one another two and two and make an inward square, a chamber, and all the four rooms of this house where the Gudgers live are here at once each in its space and each in balance of each other in a chord: and it is the full bodily recognition of this chord that I speak of particularly, which can so arrest the heart: and of how all these furnishings and objects, within these rooms, are squared and enchanted as in amber...


message 28: by Leslie (new)

Leslie (LeslieHealey) from Dottie: "the librarian commented "That's a grim book. No joy in that one."

I have read this book three times: it is impossible not to be shocked and horrified by the senseless pain in the lives Agee depicted. But I have come back because of the beauty of the book. Too often we like beauty to be prettiness, but this book reminds me that beauty is powerful, awesome, not necessarily pleasant. It demands a response.


message 29: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Leslie writes, "Too often we like beauty to be prettiness." Gosh, I wish I'd said that. So true.


message 30: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments I know that poverty is poverty wherever in the world one is, but there are particular circumstances in the American South in the years Agee writes of. The region's infrastructure and economy were basically destroyed during the Civil War. What followed was decades of an old-boy political system that worked to make the poor even poorer. Then, on top of it all, comes the Great Depression. It was a triple whammy whose scars we've never thrown off, and maybe never will.

I asked my grandfather once how he found the will-power to keep going each day, unemployed and with an infant daughter. He said, "The only reason we stood it was because we didn't have anything to compare it to."


message 31: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7021 comments I am not to sure about what share cropping means. Is it a form of land leasing on the basis of crop yield. I received my own personal copy in the mail today so I will get to finish the book. The other book had too much missing from it. I was struck by a passage about the children on pg78in my paperback copy.

"These children,still in the tenderness of their lives,who will draw their future remembrances, and their future sorrow, from this place."

Someone said the descendants felt shame about how their forebears lived, this passage brought it home to me.


Another thing that small town living brings about is the extent in which personal lives and business is open discussion for everyone. From the ability to farm to sexual behavior. My mother had a an aunt in particular that liked to stir up the pot and keep it going with gossip, no one was off limits to her. Needless to say when we went to visit our lips were sealed, because boy did the story grow by leaps and bounds out of her mouth.


message 32: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Carol: Wiki says these are the three main forms of sharecropping (aka tenant farming) arrangements: (1) Workers can rent plots of land from the owner for a certain sum and keep the whole crop; (2) Workers work on the land and earn a fixed wage from the land owner but keep some of the crop; (3) No money changes hands but the worker and land owner each keep a share of the crop.

Amen, as to people in small towns knowing everybody's business. It could (and can) be very smothering.


message 33: by Molly (new)

Molly | 283 comments Carol - he goes into detailed description of the different types of arrangements these men worked under within the book. I don't have it with me to refer the pages to you. But essentially depending upon what you brought to the table (your own equipment, your own mule, etc.) you leased the land from the owner, paying them back with interest through a share of your crop's profits. However, most of them had nothing and the conditions for farming were so poor that they rarely made enough to keep themselves fed through the winter months and had to borrow even more from the land owners, putting them forever in debt.


message 34: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments "Saint Peter, don't you call me / 'Cause I can't go / I owe my soul to the company store..." -- Tennessee Ernie Ford


message 35: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7021 comments Was that the only way for them to live or make a living for their families. In our family of farmers it was different. Of course that was in Kentucky and my great grandfather owned a tobacco farm. Farms were passed down to generations. They found coal on the farm in the 50's so life got better for them after that.


message 36: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments People who owned some land still had a hard life, but a little more control over their destiny than sharecroppers. It was a given, in my grandparents' youth, that the younger generation would work on the farm and then inherit it. This was such a point of pride for farmers that for a member of the family to take a job in the city was seen as a step downward. It was called "going off to the public works."


message 37: by Molly (new)

Molly | 283 comments They were trapped. No one had any money or food or clothing or shelter. They were homeless and starving without this arrangement. Many of them took jobs at mills or cutting timber and even odd jobs from their landlords to supplement the meager income their crops provided just to keep their heads above water. But there were too many people and not enough jobs. For all of Agee's personal tangents and rambling ways, he does make these points painfully clear. That's why I keep reading. As well as for his beautiful moments of description, one of which Dale highlighted above to describe their home.


message 38: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments The reason tenant farming became so widespread after the Civil War was that land-owners became what they called "land poor," because they had no money to pay workers. Only way to stay afloat was to lease the land.

The arrangement most common where I grew up was what my grandfather called "Farming on the halves." The tenant family and the owner would split the bill for buying seed, fertilizer, etc., and then at harvest time would split the yield 50-50.


message 39: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7021 comments That seems a more productive arrangement, but still left a lot to be desired. At least the landlord shared in the loss correct? But many others it was a way for the landowners to victimize the poor in my opinion. Especially if they had to buy everything from the company store. I need to get reading I was only half way into the book. signing off for now.

C


message 40: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Yeah, better than nothing, but like all systems it was prone to abuse, and there was a lot. Largely via tenants borrowing money from the owner to tide them over till harvest, and the tenants--many having very little schooling--not necessarily knowing how to calculate interest rates. A little bit like today's payday-loan racket.


message 41: by Sherry, Doyenne (last edited Jul 21, 2010 12:24PM) (new)

Sherry | 7472 comments I talked to my dad and yes, he was a sharecropper for the first part of my life. I think about that fact, and I realize how lucky I've been. I read the part in Agee's book about Louise being real smart, and then the part about education. I disagree with him on education, but it was a very different time. I could have been Louise, forever trapped on the land. My father realized that he would never get ahead and became a truck driver. Those first jobs of his were pretty hard, but eventually he got a good job with a car-carrier company. We moved to Baltimore when I was 16, and I was happy to go. Here's a picture of my father and two mules (Old Gray #1 and Old Gray #2) taken when I was about three, I think:
http://gallery.me.com/shkell#100584


message 42: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments What a beautiful picture. And what an elegant stance your dad had.


message 43: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7021 comments Every time I open the book time stops for me . I go back to the times we visited the farm, the roosters crowing at morning light ,the cows lowing and pigs grunting. How I hated those pigs. The pigs would chase us.

Agee wrote we are born in circumstances, our children are raised in circumstances, How did they find the strength to change those circumstances. That to me is worthy of praise. These men and women suffered from political depression ,to mental depression. Education is one way out and the desire to be something more.

Is share cropping still an industry in Alabama, or do more people work in the cities ,because like the mid-west farms are all bought out by big conglomerates?


message 44: by Molly (new)

Molly | 283 comments I couldn't say with any basis in fact, but my assumption is that sharecropping/tenant farming is minimal now due to the machination of so much of the farm's labor these days.


message 45: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7021 comments I am back from the past to ruminate on what I have just read. This is a book to ingest slowly. There is far to much to miss. Their lives are not any different than others in rural areas. What one man deems as rags another it is cherished memories. The small concessions of domesticity really clings to my mind. Such as the little ceramic statues and the vases, the dishcloth to precious to use as a towel but used as a table covering instead. Powerful visuals. It helps to have the photos also.


message 46: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7021 comments On page 235 Agee says"The very blood and semen of journalism, on the contrary, is a broad and successful form of lying. Remove that form of lying and you no longer have journalism."

Do you agree with that statement or is it just goobledy goop to use up space?

What impact did the publication of this book have on the tenant farmers? Did it change the way landlords controlled the profits ? Did the government step up and help the farmers? I know it was published in 1941.

What did every one think about the photos. Could we have benefited from the subjects being identified?


message 47: by Molly (new)

Molly | 283 comments I don't think any of it was gobble-dee-guck to Agee. I think he was very resentful of the world he was earning a living in when he was "embedded" in stark reality and wanted to tell it the way it was, only to have the assignment that made such an impact on him not be approved to see the light of day.

I do not believe it had any impact on the situation since the article/series was not published at the time of biggest need and when he did find a way to get it out there in the form of a book, very few people read it. Which is incredibly sad.

I think, as Agee mentions several times himself, that the photos capture everything he has tried so hard to represent factually. Alone they are impressive. But in conjunction with his detailed words and unique way of painting them with beauty instead of pity, they take on another level. I honestly think he improved the photos that he held up as the only true form. And once I got far enough along in the words and description within the book, I found that I didn't need identifying info. for each photo. The text along the way made each of them come alive.


message 48: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7021 comments Thank you for answering Molly. I still have a ways to go, it is like unlocking a treasure box. I don't think the photos would have the same impact if they were in color. To me black and white photos are so expressive. I have not had trouble identify each phots, Agee's narrative and description of what was going on is enough.


message 49: by Dale (new)

Dale Short (Daleinala) | 625 comments Biggest industries, today, in south Alabama: Gambling casinos and catfish farming.

http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2010/07/g...


message 50: by Kenneth (new)

Kenneth Weene (KenWeene) | 208 comments Leslie wrote: "from Dottie: "the librarian commented "That's a grim book. No joy in that one."

I have read this book three times: it is impossible not to be shocked and horrified by the senseless pain in the li..."


Sadly the word awful has come to mean bad. This is a book that fills us with awe - awe for its writing and awe for the perseverance and dignity of man.

http://www.authorkenweene.com


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Books mentioned in this topic

In Cold Blood (other topics)
And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South (other topics)
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (other topics)