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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

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A landmark work of American photojournalism “renowned for its fusion of social conscience and artistic radicality” (New York Times)


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. Their journey would prove an extraordinary collaboration and a watershed literary event when, in 1941, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was first published to enormous critical acclaim. This unsparing record of place, of the people who shaped the land and the rhythm of their lives, is intensely moving and unrelentingly honest, and today—recognized by the New York Public Library as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century—it stands as a poetic tract of its time. With an elegant new design as well as a sixty-four-page photographic prologue featuring archival reproductions of Evans's classic images, this historic edition offers readers a window into a remarkable slice of American history.

432 pages, Paperback

First published August 1, 1941

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About the author

James Agee

59 books242 followers
An American author, journalist, poet, screenwriter and film critic. In the 1940s, he was one of the most influential film critics in the U.S. His autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957), won the author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, at Highland Avenue and 15th Street (renamed James Agee Street in 1999) to Hugh James Agee and Laura Whitman Tyler. When Agee was six, his father died in an automobile accident. From the age of seven, he and his younger sister, Emma, were educated in boarding schools. The most influential of these was located near his mother's summer cottage two miles from Sewanee, Tennessee. Saint Andrews School for Mountain Boys was run by Episcopal monks affiliated with the Order of the Holy Cross, and it was there that Agee's lifelong friendship with an Episcopal priest, Father James Harold Flye, began in 1919. As Agee's close friend and spiritual confidant, Flye was the recipient of many of Agee's most revealing letters.

Agee went to Knoxville High School for the 1924–1925 school year, then travelled with Father Flye to Europe. On their return, Agee moved to boarding school in New Hampshire, entering the class of 1928 at Phillips Exeter Academy. There, he was president of The Lantern Club and editor of the Monthly where his first short stories, plays, poetry and articles were published. Agee was admitted to Harvard University's class of 1932. He was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Advocate.

In 1951 in Santa Barbara, Agee, a hard drinker and chain-smoker, suffered the first two in a series of heart attacks, which ultimately claimed his life four years later at the age of 45. He was buried on a farm he owned at Hillsdale, New York.

After graduation, he wrote for Fortune and Time magazines, although he is better known for his later film criticism in The Nation. In 1934, he published his only volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage.

In the summer of 1936, Agee spent eight weeks on assignment for Fortune with photographer Walker Evans living among sharecroppers in Alabama. Agee turned the material into a book entitled, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). It sold only 600 copies before being remaindered.

In 1942, Agee became the film critic for Time and, at one point, reviewed up to six films per week. Together, he and friend Whittaker Chambers ran "the back of the book" for Time. He left to become film critic for The Nation. In 1948, however, he quit both magazines to become a freelance writer. One of his assignments was a well-received article for Life Magazine about the great silent movie comedians, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon, which has been credited for reviving Keaton's career. As a freelance in the 1950s, he continued to write magazine articles while working on movie scripts, often with photographer Helen Levitt.

Agee was an ardent champion of Charlie Chaplin's then extremely unpopular film Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which has since become a film classic. He was also a great admirer of Laurence Olivier's Henry V and Hamlet, especially Henry V, for which he actually published three separate reviews, all of which have been printed in the collection Agee on Film.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, ignored on its original publication in 1941, has been placed among the greatest literary works of the 20th Century by the New York School of Journalism and the New York Public Library.

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5 stars
1,556 (42%)
4 stars
1,093 (29%)
3 stars
616 (16%)
2 stars
264 (7%)
1 star
131 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 425 reviews
Profile Image for Howard.
318 reviews223 followers
June 23, 2018
"James Agee makes Faulkner look clear and concise.... He also shares every single thought to cross his mind, whether they have anything to do with the topic at hand or not... For some, this experience - and it is truly an experience - is enlightening, thought provoking, mind blowing. For others it is mind numbing, eye glazing and a total bore. For me, it was all of the above.... You leave feeling thankful for the moments he shared. And annoyed for all the babble it took to get there." -- Molly

I hope Molly will not mind that I quoted from her Goodreads' review. But she wrote exactly what I felt about Agee and his book and she did it so much better than I am capable of doing. (I have included a link below to her review and I encourage anyone who is interested in the book to read it.)

The book became an overnight classic twenty-five years after Agee was given an assignment to write an article for Fortune magazine in 1936, which the magazine subsequently rejected and never published; twenty years after it was finally published as a book; and five years after its author succumbed to a heart attack in a New York taxi on his way to a doctor's appointment.

Agee was just twenty-six, a poet in the guise of a journalist, when he was given the assignment to travel into the Deep South to do a story on cotton sharecroppers. He asked that a friend of his, thirty-two year old photographer Walker Evans, be hired to accompany him. Evans at the time was working for one of the New Deal agencies, the Farm Security Administration, helping to document the Great Depression. Evans was given a leave of absence and he and Agee headed South during the summer of 1936.

They traveled around for a month before they found the subjects they wanted to photograph and write about. They spent three weeks with three families and then went back to New York to finalize the article and present it to the magazine's editor. The magazine did not publish it. It was believed for many years that Agee's unconventional rambling style was the cause for the editor's rejection of the article. However, decades later it was discovered that that was not the case.

"Isn't every human being both a scientist and an artist; and in writing of human experience, isn't a good deal to be said for recognizing that fact and for using both methods?"

At any rate, after the article was rejected, Agee then expanded it into a book and set about to find a publisher. It was five years later that it was published to a resounding sound of silence. It was a miserable failure, partly because the effects of the Great Depression had lessened and because the war in Europe and Asia dominated the news. The book sold only 600 copies the first year and there was no second printing -- not then.

"Picking cotton: it is simple and terrible work. Skill will help you; all the endurance you can draw up against it from the roots of your existence will be thoroughly used as fuel to it; but neither skill nor endurance can make it any easier."

"...and in each private and silent heart toward that climax of one more year's work which yields so little at best, and nothing so often, and worse to so many hundreds of thousands..."

Agee went on to other things; he continued to write poetry; became an influential and highly-respected film critic; and he wrote screenplays for two classic movies: The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter.

But he was a tormented man who fought off his demons with tobacco and alcohol and the combination helped bring on the heart attack that killed him at age forty-five. At the time of his death he was working on an autobiographical novel. Two years after his death, A Death in the Family was published and a year later it received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Two years after that, because of Agee's untimely death and as a result of the critical acclaim for his novel, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was re-published and became an instant classic, not only due to Agee's narrative, but also because of Evans' haunting black-and-white photographs that appear uncaptioned at the beginning of the book.

In 2003, a typescript of Agee's original magazine article was discovered among his papers. It is much different from the book that grew out of the project. It is much more conventional, much more journalistic, and much less poetic. It had not been rejected due to an unconventional writing style after all, but for some other reason or reasons.

In 2013, it was published as Cotton Tenants: Three Families, the title of Agee's rejected magazine article.

Here is the link to Molly's review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

And a link to Walker Evans' photographs:
Profile Image for Cody.
506 reviews175 followers
December 19, 2017
Very few books can knock me like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Originally commissioned as a report back to the Northern seaboard’s intellectua-lites on the state of Southern affairs, ‘reporter’ Agee did something no one saw coming (including himself): he fell in love. In love with the people he lived with and among, the land, the architecture, crops, roads, bedbugs, clothes, patois, sky; the whole cosmic smear of life lived by fundamentally good people at its absolute barest and most brutal.

Famously, the magazine rejected every word he wrote. All the better. Agee proceeded to spend the next 3-years writing and re-writing to novel length, producing as singular a piece of art as ever I’ve encountered. Abetted by his photographer and friend, Walker Evans, he didn’t just break ground—each keystroke ruptured fault lines in the earth and loam like a million-billion capillary beds fissuring ‘neath America’s pallid, translucent White skin.

Agee bares his fucking soul—wondrous and repulsive, as are all—in some of the best pure writing I’ve ever the pleasure. Some vignettes will move you to tears: his approaching the Black couple too quickly; his goodbye to a doomed Gudger girl he loves with true ardor; his fourth-wall blessings. This is holy writing, friends. This is a man confronted with manifold atrocities and subsuming them into his own heart, wishing only that he could burden them for others. Secular transmissions from the nerve-center of the godhead. His empathy and lack of judgment are equal to Vollmann’s, only he can’t stop the demons from fully consuming him like Bill. There is no distance. He bleeds dirt, secretes boll weevils, and cries cotton puffs.

This is emphatically not reportage—it is a post-Joycean, ecclesiastical bloodscream into the chaotic nebulae of darkest space. Let us now praise James Agee, dead at 45. One can only assume that his heart swelled past bursting and exploded over his beloved Alabamian nightscapes as a starburst so marvelous as to be oft mistaken for Venus to this day.
Profile Image for amanda.
266 reviews6 followers
October 14, 2007
This is the third time that I've attempted this book and I do not lay books down easily. The best way I can describe it is to say that it is like reading the teenage poetry of William Faulkner. There is much about this book that borders on genius, but far more that obscures. Agee tries so hard to get to The Truth that he ends up with a lot of contextual melodrama. As a result, the book is not so much the story of three tenant farming families so much as it is Agee's opinion of how the families came to be and the circumstances surrounding them as reflected in every threadbare quilt, dirty chicken, and abandoned tin cup in their vicinity. These descriptions are never given with cold detachment, but rather with an obsessive regard that borders frequently on almost erotic indulgence.
Profile Image for Meredith.
11 reviews5 followers
November 28, 2008
One of the women who helped raise me was herself the daughter of a Cherokee sharecropper and his African American wife. Nannie did not read or spell very well. She stood six feet tall and had the most beautiful cheekbones I've ever seen on a woman in real life. She taught me the meaning of dignity and the power inherent in having a good and pure soul; she taught me how to properly watch a thunderstorm, which is to say, quietly and with respect.
When I read this book for the first time, in my first year of college in Philadelphia, I was desperately homesick for Nannie, and this book reminded me of her. She had a straightforwardness, a goodness, a trueness, a soul-brightness, that I had taken for granted in the people I grew up with and was having a darn hard time finding among my Ivy League classmates.
James Agee's prose is cumbersome and filling. You should read it like you would read the Koran, or the Bible, or Blake, or any other work that has the potency to give life meaning through words.
Poverty lives among us and likely will for as long as there is humanity. I don't know what to do about it. But I think having read this book a couple of times has given me the heart to see it, and the ache to do something about it. As MF Doom once said, "If you can't understand, then come closer."
Profile Image for Molly.
220 reviews21 followers
July 28, 2010
Let us now praise the fact that I have finished this book! It took me a month of pecking and absorbing and discarding and revisiting to get through it. A long, strange trip it was stylistically and unlike any journey I've taken before. Let me tell you about it.

James Agee makes Faulkner look clear and concise. He loves nothing more than to ramble on and explore every possible tangent his mind's discovery takes him. And he discovered a lot while living among a cluster of tenant farming families in Alabama in 1936. He shares intricate details of his eye's view of their homes, their land, their features, their mannerisms. He shares absolutely beautiful vignettes of what the experience felt like to him as he interacted with folks or observed things from afar. He also shares every single thought to cross his mind, whether they have anything to do with the topic at hand or not.

For some, this experience - and it is truly an experience - is enlightening, thought provoking, mind blowing. For others it is mind numbing, eye glazing and a total bore. For me, it was all of the above. There were times I was sick and tired of listening to Agee's endless diatribes, opinions and strange allegories. There were times I was sucked in to the scenes he brought to life - I could smell, taste, feel his surroundings. Photographer Walker Evans took some striking photos that stand strongly on their own. But Agee's gift in the details is that he enhances these images with his words to the point of almost being able to crawl into them comfortably.

In the end, the reader is rewarded for their diligence and stubborn attitude with beautiful moments of writing. His ramblings show the man inside the account and bring honesty and basis for his overwhelming emotion for the plight of poverty. He focuses on beauty, dignity and the tireless human spirit to survive - even when the circle seems pointless. You don't leave this book feeling pity. You leave feeling thankful for the moments he shared. And annoyed for all the babble it took to get there.
Profile Image for Tony.
214 reviews2 followers
February 26, 2021
Well I managed to finish this, just to say I'd read this so called classic,but the whole thing just annoyed the hell out of me. Talk about obscure writing, this guy was having a laugh.

This, from page 226 of the version that I read:-

"No doubt we overvalue the difference between life and lifelessness, but there is a certain difference, just as, in the situation we are speaking of, a difference is remarkable: the difference between a conjunction of time, place and unconscious consciousness and a conjunction of time,place and conscious consciousness is, so far as we are concerned, the difference between joy and truth and the lack of joy and truth. Unless wonder is nothing in itself,but only a moon which glows only in the mercy of a sense of wonder, and unless the sense of wonder is peculiar to consciousness and is moreover an emotion which, as it matures, consciousness will learn the juvenility of,and discard, or only gratefully refresh itself under the power of as under the power of sleep and the healing vitality of dreams,and all this seems a little more likely than not, the materials which people any intersection of time and place are at all times marvellous, regardless of consciousness........"

Good Grief.
Profile Image for Flora.
199 reviews126 followers
April 13, 2008
Reading this book is like hanging on to the back of someone on roller skates racing top-speed down a steep hill, with no brakes. There are few books that explore with such rigor the impossibility -- and necessary ideal -- of perfect perspective, or have the audacity to admit melancholy as an action (albeit an insufficent one), not just a solipsistic response to the aesthetic sufferings of others. The maddening ambivalence of this book, and its self-consuming doubt and belief in what it is doing, underscores the headlong, megalomanical under-confidence of the (whether you like it or not) inimitable prose. This is the only book I can think of that isn't sure if it's a book at all, and yet is more of one than most. Recently, William T. Vollmann tried with "Poor People" to attempt something similar, and equally improbable, but no matter how sincere his intent, it simply didn't have the nerve to fail. Agee is willing.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,056 reviews683 followers
September 18, 2022
The Book's Origin:
The writing of this book was the result of an assignment from Fortune magazine that sent Agee (writer) and Evans (photographer) into the American South during the summer of 1936 to collect material that could be used in a story about sharecroppers and tenant farmers. This book focuses mainly on three families in Alabama who lived as share cropping tenant farmers with cotton being the primary cash crop. Subsequently the magazine editors rejected the resulting article so Agee and Evan expanded the material into a book and managed to publish it in 1941.

The Book's Reputation:
The first edition sales were a failure. Over the subsequent years acknowledgement of the book's contribution to American literature has grown, and it has become more widely know since the 1960 civil rights era. A followup book published in 1989 titled And their children after them : The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by Maharidge and Williamson, won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.

The Book's Message:
The goal of the book is to convey the message that the people being described, though poor, are human beings deserving respect.

What the Book Communicates:
It is true that reader's who finish this book will come away with a fairly good understanding of the lives of the subjects of this work. However, the reader will also learn a lot about the author, Agee, who narrates in first person and in some ways tells more about himself than the tenant farmers he is describing.

The Book's Style
Many parts of the book are written with poetic elan and beauty. However, the ordering of the stories within this book have nothing to do with the chronology in which they were experienced. Books and chapters of the book range from mundane ("Clothes") to overtly artistic (though Agee emphatically demands early in his narrative that the reader not refer to this rendering of journalism as art). There are parts of the book where Agee simply lists the contents of a sharecropper's shack, and at other times describes the meager articles of clothing they have to wear on Sunday. At other times he writes very descriptively about odors.

Self Awareness and Sensitivity of the Author,
Agee is overtly aware of his privileged position as a writer writing about impoverished and relatively powerless people. He suffers from the thought that his writing about them may contribute to their suffering. In a sense he is questioning the morality of the task he's been assigned.

My Comment:
I recently finished reviews of three segments of Proust's In Search of Lost Time in which I complained about the excessive detail contained in his writing. I found Agee's writing to be as detailed as Proust's, but at least he didn't expand it to seven volumes.
Profile Image for Lily.
15 reviews
August 13, 2007
I wanted to gouge my eyes out many, many times. I can't believe I even gave it 2 stars. Yes, it is a super famous book and has gotten all kinds of acclaim over the past 70 years or so. But James Agee drives me nuts. His writing style gave me a migraine. I did, however, keep the book and may attempt it again one day in the very distant future, once I have forgotten how much it bothered me the first go-round.
Profile Image for Sherri.
364 reviews4 followers
November 11, 2012
Stunned is the only way I can describe my immediate reaction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is not like any other book I have read and not at all what I expected. (And at times funny in ways I'm pretty sure Agee didn't mean it to be.) James Agee was 27 when he wrote it. Unbelievable.

I gave it five stars not because I loved every minute of reading it but because of the effort and because of the way he gets across the plight and horror of sharecropping without sentimentality (though with a fair amount of self-righteousness and some, mmm, bluster I guess for lack of a better word at hand right now).

It's probably not for everybody since he has whole chapters of digression and a fairly heavy writing style. It also takes a while to get used to the list-like descriptions, which also take up whole chapters.

When you are reading it, it's like swimming a deep, hard-running river. You aren't sure where you are, if you will make it through and if you have the strength. When you finish, you can't believe what a beautiful and amazing river you have just swum across.
Profile Image for Kate Savage.
643 reviews111 followers
January 28, 2018

What is this?

What is this?

Why is it so beautiful?

And then dull?

And then arrogant? And then the most humble thing a Harvard kid has ever written?

Why do I want to make every ethnographer I know read it? Even though it aggravates me?
Profile Image for SCARABOOKS.
272 reviews193 followers
August 27, 2022
Romanzo-reportage, anche fotografico, che è diventato un po’ una leggenda. Una cosa è certa: un po’ ti toglie la pelle. Vollmann nella introduzione a I poveri (un libro che tratta dello stesso argomento con tutt’altra tonalità) scrisse “leggere Sia lode ora a uomini di fama è come prendere uno schiaffo in faccia”. È così. Intanto, perché si capisce ad ogni pagina che la pelle l’ha tolta anche a chi lo scriveva, mentre lo scriveva. E poi, Agee in effetti non perde occasione per prendersi a schiaffi da solo. Per i complessi di colpa dice ancora giustamente Vollmann, ma non solo. Certo, il tema del senso di colpa dell’intellettuale famoso e impotente davanti alla tragedia degli ultimi è importante nel libro. Ma lo è anche Il tema metaletterario del rapporto tra giornalismo e letteratura, tra fedeltà della rappresentazione e creazione artistica, tra dovere della testimonianza e narcisismo.

La cosa migliore è la ricerca della bellezza dell’umano, anche sulle soglie estreme della povertà. Le descrizioni sono ossessivamente minuziose, ma sempre con quello sguardo all’orizzonte lungo delle vite e della condizione generale del vivere. Sempre come fosse davanti a qualcosa che ha del sacro e quindi anche del sublime. Fa pensare alla minuzia devota con cui Melville in Moby Dick parla come se scrivesse un manuale di balene per balenieri. Potrebbe annoiare, ma è in quella punta di noia che si nasconde la percezione del grandioso e non bisogna lasciarsela sfuggire. Lo scova nelle facce, nelle cose, nelle case, nei campi, nelle bestie, nei vestiti, nelle scarpe, nei paesaggio, nello straziante cimitero. Il che, sì, un po’ riscalda il cuore, ma fa anche aumentare la forza dell’effetto che nel lettore fa la tragedia di quel vivere, del vivere. Lo commuove. Lo fa pensare. Nonostante chi scrive lo faccia sempre col ciglio asciutto. Non vuole commuovere anche quando sarebbe umano volerlo e commuoversi. E non vuole nemmeno giustificare, coprire, nascondere la faccia brutta e oscura e degradata di quella umanità.

Poi c’è la cum-passione: la spinta dell’autore, che si percepisce in ogni parola, a condividere e a sottrarre alla solitudine; a riscattare, raccattando in mezzo alla mortificazione della miseria e dello sfruttamento quelle che potrebbero sembrare solo briciole di splendore, di coscienza e di umana nobiltà; e, forse, chissà, persino di speranza. Briciole che sono comunque, alla fine, quanto di più prezioso quegli esseri umani e tutti gli esseri umani, per il semplice fatto di esistere come tali, hanno. È anche questa sensazione di partecipare, questa condivisione a rendere la lettura del libro, alla fine, una semplice, complicata, terribile, accorata consolazione.

Due annotazioni finali.
Il capitolo più esemplare e anche sconvolgente del libro è quello dedicato alla educazione dei bambini, descritta con tanto di argomentazione come pratica criminale di asservimento e come genocidio delle umane potenzialità. E al suo interno sono illuminanti le considerazioni sulla coscienza, sul suo valore salvifico. Ne mette bene in evidenza però anche il risvolto di disperata dannazione che può avere nella vita umana il dono e la sventura di imparare ad essere coscienti.
Il senso più profondo e la parte più bella del libro sta nel capitolo titolato “Due punti”. Che è il suo manifesto, anche poetico, di intenti; ed è quindi una sorta di lirica sinossi del libro. Una quindicina di pagine da leggere assolutamente. E poi, lentamente, da rileggere.
30 reviews2 followers
December 6, 2014
This appears to be one of those books that inspires either love or hate. A good friend, who grew up the next county over from Hale County, and who is more focused on Southern history than I am, was unable to finish the book. I did finish, although I often did not want to continue. The book is ostensibly a journalistic account of the lives of three white sharecropper families. It fails as journalism. Agee inserts his own editorializing again and again. He presents as fact impressions drawn from his own prejudices. His long disquisition on Alabama education, which he prefaces by noting that he visited in the summer when the children were not in school and therefore that he lacks any knowledge of their education, if filled with commentary that seems to derive from his own assumptions and opinions. He simultaneously attempts to show the poverty and nobility of the farmers, but his attempts are at cross purposes. They are ignorant, yet wiser that the rich. Agee's moralizing often falls apart on his indecisiveness. They don't learn about art, but then again it would be worse for them if they did. Agee constantly presents arguments where he is incapable of committing to one side or the other. The large middle of the book is filled with Agee's OCD documenting of the ephemera of the families - the the point of reproducing fragments of text from scraps of newspaper that he finds in a drawer. The writing is incredibly dry and Agee lacks the skills or framework for effectively conveying what he sees. The book would have been immensely more useful if he had better integrated Evans' photos. (If you choose to read the book, go to the Library of Congress website to get a larger set of Evans' photos, labeled with the names of the subjects.) Even when he presents information, he doesn't provide context. That family heirloom - a glass plate - that he says means more than anything to the wife? He doesn't ask the wife why it is so important and he doesn't attempt to explain. Her story is not important and he isn't really interested in her as a person. His focus is on the thing she cares for. The book also lacks organization, skipping around in focus, which is frustrating. Finally, perhaps in fidelity to his commitment to revealing all, Agee shares his own sexual hangups at a number of points, especially his repeated comments about Pearl, a child of eight years, whom he refers to as "erotic" and having "sexy eyes" and the heir to that "sexually loose 'stock'of which most casual country and smalltown whoredom comes." Why did he need to talk about a an imagined three-way? Why did he seem to seriously consider sleeping with one farmer's wife: "a supremely hot and simple nymph, whose eyes go to bed with every man she sees." Why did he have to share his need for "some tail," his imagined sex with a whore he met on the road, or the possibility of “moving in on that piece of head cheese” after she finished with her current customer? Did his obsessive need to catalogue every nail in the home really require him to go through the farmer's closet and sniff his wife's dirty undies? Why is this mess of useless detail, self-aggrandizing commentary, and sexual hangups so revered when it seems to me that Agee 1. did not really get to know his subjects, only his idea of them; 2. treated their living situation as equivalent to their existence; 3. ignored almost all aspects of their lives (hopes, dreams, faith) in favor of his own relentless thesis that they really are the wretched of the earth; 4. made no serious attempt to place them in the larger political, social, and economic situation (although he does provide useful information on the economics of sharecropping); 5. used their situation to go off on tangents of his own; and 6. made all of these grand pronouncements after pending only three weeks in Alabama.
Profile Image for Nick.
129 reviews40 followers
June 11, 2018
A life altering read. The sort that very seldom comes along...
Profile Image for Bobparr.
953 reviews57 followers
August 5, 2017
Difficile commentare un testo che non è *solo* un testo letterario, che non vorrebbe descrivere e narrare per il gusto del farlo, ma per riportare la Bellezza della Vita sulla pagina. Difficile seguire Agee nei lunghi elenchi minuziosi, nei chiarissimi e complicatissimi salti di pensiero emotivo che procedono per pagine e pagine. Difficile non ritornare sempre alle immagini di Evans dell'inizio, per ritrovare in quegli sguardi i nomi, in quelle case le stanze, in quegli occhi l'Alabama del caldo e della miseria. Difficile imbattersi in questo testo a meno che non lo si vada a cercare, come un discepolo che sceglie il maestro. Il libro di Agee ed Evans attende, tra i remainders, occhi e umanità per ritornare a vivere della stessa illuminazione che ha colto due spie, che agendo *nello* scorrere del tempo hanno creato un'opera che rimane al di sopra di esso.
Profile Image for Leonard Pierce.
Author 10 books28 followers
May 23, 2008
It took me forever to get around to reading this, but boy, am I glad I did. It's a moving and incredibly heartfelt look at the suffering of the poor during the Depression (and a rather effective defense of FDR's reaction to it), and one of the most deft blends of fiction and journalism I've ever read.
Profile Image for A. Jesse.
31 reviews24 followers
February 27, 2010
I give up, I can't finish this nor ever will. Walker Evans begins the book with a few dozen photos, most of which are mediocre at best, a handful of which are among the best photos ever taken. Agee's text, too, is a mixed bag, although the avalanche of dross so completely mires the gems that I found myself flipping through ten pages at a time, looking for a paragraph worth reading. Agee goes through convulsions of angst, trying to find some way to tell us about the lives of 3 poor tenant farmers' families without being condescending or romantic. His response is a mountain of maudlin prose, reams of lists of the contents of every shelf and closet, whole chapters of poetic drivel about the divinity of man and the wheeling stars and god knows what else besides. Inside this monstrous book is a brilliant magazine story crying for release: 10 great photos, 20 graceful pages of reporting. I hope some day an unawed editor will produce it.
Profile Image for Richard Thompson.
1,705 reviews82 followers
June 8, 2022
When I started reading this book, my head was spinning. I was expecting a straightforward piece of jounalism about poor tenant farmers in Alabama with a bit of a leftest slant. It was anything but that. Over the course of the book we do learn a lot about the lives, families and work of these desperately poor people, but it's a roundabout journey, and the style of the writing is not normal journalism - it's a high blown style, rich in vocabulary, metaphor and rhetorical flourishes that shows great writing talent but also marks Mr. Agee with his Philips Exeter/Harvard education that puts him on the other side of the universe from his subjects. It took me a beat to figure out that's part of the point. Mr. Agee avoids the sin that today we call cultural appropriation by telling us with his every word that he is looking at these people from the outside, that no matter how much he wants to befriend them, respect them and be accepted by them, he can never really do that. Yes, he's another Southern boy and has seen poverty, but as much as he is a part of the Southern culture in which these people live, Mr. Agee is also alienated from their world in a hundred ways. So the style of his writing becomes a form of honesty, always reminding us of the barely bridgeable distance between writer and subject.

Then I think that there is another reason for the high style of the writing - it is used to elevate the people he is writing about, to make them heroes of a sort. The initial clue to this is the title. Famous men? Who is famous here? But the sincerity of Mr. Agee's admiration of these people and the beauty he finds in their simple hardscrabble existence ennobles them. It's like Homer, whose beautiful exposition turned a gang of Bronze Age bandits on a mission of murder and rapine into our greatest literary heroes. Mr. Agee's forty page description of a two room tenant house reminded me of the catalog of ships in the Iliad where excruciating detail is used to bring our perception to a different level. Mr. Agee's program of making simple people into heroes also reminded me of Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat, in which the poor and simple Mexican Americans of Monterey become the Knights of the Round Table, but I thought that Mr. Agee did it better.
Profile Image for BookChampions.
1,181 reviews105 followers
January 31, 2011
In summer 1936, James Agee and photographer Walker Evans went to spend a few months in Alabama amongst three tenant farmer families. Their goal was not necessarily to report or even understand these "beautiful" men and women, but to render them on the page in such a way that it does justice to their brillance, their largeness. The result is one of the most sensitive, pained, compassionate, utterly human pieces of writing I've ever read, second maybe only to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, who was one of Agee's literary "fathers."

Agee's prose is full of exhausting labyrinthine sentences and strange punctuation, and it requires patience. The book is an unusual blend of genre that gives no lip service to the "normal" way nonfiction books are written. Agee, who is wrestling with the nature of reality and art and the paradox of "honest journalism," is trying to create a whole new genre. It is probably a failed effort, but it is also quite possibly the most beautiful literary "attempt and failure" ever published.

There is a lot of warning on this site to read Agee in small doses. I can understand this advice, but I must disagree. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is best read in long, extended sittings. Walker Evans, in the 1960 preface, spoke of night as Agee's time, and so he advises to read Famous Men at night. I second his suggestion.

My expectations for this work weren't especially high, but it turns out that Agee and Evans' book is one of the most powerful reading experiences of my life. It is not just the dazzling efforts of a master writer (which it is) nor a painfully close look at a part of history I know very little (which it is as well). Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a document of two young men's quest to give name to the desire of each and every human individual to be acknowledged and to acknowledge, to be recognized and to recognize, to be seen and to see, to be valued and respected, to value and respect. To Agee and Evans, strangers should not stay strange. We must learn how to challenge ourselves to look into the lives of every human being and interact with all in such a way that honors their dignity and inherent beauty.

This book has already changed my life. I urge you all to read it, one day.
Profile Image for Rachel C..
1,804 reviews4 followers
June 11, 2017
This book contains a treasure trove of sociological data: it's an intimate look at three Alabama sharecropper families. Their possessions, clothes, their speech, education, daily activities, etc., all exhaustively detailed.

What makes this book timeless, though, is the prose. Agee clearly felt deeply and passionately about his subjects and had the literary firepower to etch them into history.

Maybe a little too much firepower. I believe Agee wrote most of this in his mid-twenties, and indeed it has the romanticism of a young man. I sometimes felt that the prose was overly flowery and earnest given the subject matter. Like this paragraph on Woods' shirt: "The shirt is home made out of a fertilizer sack. The cloth, by use and washing, is of a heavy and delicious look: as if pure cream were pressed into a fabric an eighth of an inch thick, and were cut and sewn into a garment." Overkill, no?

I also had to dock the book one star for the intermittent leching on the girls and women.
Profile Image for Kate.
288 reviews7 followers
July 25, 2010
I know this book is critically acclaimed. It just really didn't work that well for me. The book is about a trip James Agee (Harvard-educated journalist for Forbes at the time) and Walker Evans (photographer) take to backwoods Alabama to see what the lives of sharecroppers are like. I don't think I'm ruining anything if I tell you this-their lives are hard. Harder than most people could imagine. Agee does an amazing job at describing the families he meets with. Evans' pictures are stark but soft. What frustrates me is Agee's frequent self-serving rants about his own awkward feelings toward the sharecroppers. I found these segments pretentious. And there's just too many of them for me to say this book was great. Yes, it's an important book with some good writing. But that doesn't make me overlook Agee's frequent navel-gazing.
Profile Image for Dottie.
856 reviews33 followers
July 18, 2010
This info describes the OC Library copy which I'm reading:

Cover: mud gray green with the title left margin reconciled like so:

Famous Men

with black lettering except the word Praise which is white -- authors name lower right above Photograpsher Walker Evans name

Hardcover; 471 pp

Copyrights 1939, 1940 James Agee; 1941 James Agee and Walker Evans; 1969 Walker Evans. Third Printing Riverside Press Cambridge Massachusetts USA

Profile Image for James Campbell.
Author 1 book7 followers
November 18, 2012
I absolutely loathe his book.

A 92 page (or some ridiculous number like that) description of a wooden shack.

This is a perfect example of experimental style over substance, and it's basically unreadable. The only redeeming quality is Walker Evans's astounding photography.

Never attempt to read this book.
Profile Image for Mark Palermo.
63 reviews7 followers
November 22, 2018
Beginning on page 123, there’s a forty-seven-page description of a wooden shack. After finishing this section, I was shocked to discover that Agee was about to describe two more wooden shacks.
Profile Image for Julianne.
112 reviews6 followers
October 9, 2009
If this book review were to become so long that I would need chapter- and sub-headings, and if my chapter- and sub-headings turned out to be things like “(On the Porch: 1,” “Colon,” and “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby,” and if I were to set some of them—but not others—off with left parentheses, and punctuate some—again, not others—with colons tending towards nothing but a thereafter empty page, you would think (aside from “Wow, this review is horribly and strangely long”) that I’d completely lost touch with any audience I ever had, right?

That is what it is like to read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee and Walker Evans (yes, that Walker Evans of Depression-era photographic fame) were sent, in 1936, by Fortune magazine to investigate the lives of white tenant farmers in the Deep South. The result was intended—by Fortune and possibly initially by Agee and Evans—to be a series of documentary articles accompanied by photographs of appropriately pitiable people. But Agee and Evans were reluctant to write that kind of article (the kind that Fortune and its readers felt they had a right to expect?) and their submissions were declined for publication in the magazine. Only in 1941 were Agee’s vastly expanded manuscript and Evans’s accompanying photographs finally published in book form by Houghton Mifflin (thank you, New England), as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Good title, I thought, upon first reading it. Unusual. Arresting. Perhaps ironic, given the subject matter of the book? To me, it connoted a seeming paean of praise that was really a denunciation. I took it for granted that the “famous men” referred to in the title were the independent, wealthy landowners keeping the tenant farmers and sharecroppers profiled in the book in a never-ending cycle of poverty and debt. After all, tenant farmers were not, were never, could never be, famous. (Whether Fortune chose to publish articles about them or not.) And exploitative white men with all the money and guns and prestige one Alabama county could furnish in that era wouldn’t have been praised by men like Agee and Evans. Not with a straight face, anyway. I began reading the book expecting in-depth exposition of the tenant system of farming, expecting Agee to eventually level an accusatory finger directly in the landowners’ direction. I expected a tone of snide mockery. I expected simmering righteous indignation.

Instead what I read (after first poring over Evans’s stark and evocative photographs) was a register of “Persons and Places” in which William Blake, Ring Lardner, and Jesus Christ (among others) were listed as “unpaid agitators.” Hmm. Then a “Design of Book Two” that read like a trial outline for a book not yet written. I could imagine James Agee sitting down to write a first draft amongst the notes he had made during his weeks of living with the tenant families—notes on old wrapping paper, notes on envelopes—and writing exactly the “Design” that was published, down to the last left parenthesis. Though Let Us Now… was originally intended to be the first of three volumes in a larger work entitled “Three Tenant Families,” Agee never got around to writing volumes two and three, which I can’t say really surprises.

Indeed, part of me wishes Agee had had just a slightly tighter grip on his hosses. Because while Let Us Now… is certainly striking in its unvarnished authenticity, it could be more intelligibly structured…more “user-friendly,” so to speak. Agee writes in a footnote on p. 281, “I am dangerously and mistakenly much against compromise: ‘my kind never gets anything done.’” And though in this case “dangerously” and “mistakenly” are certainly offered ironically, I do believe that Agee really was averse to compromise, perhaps even to cooperation, or, any cooperation that didn’t directly further his individual aims. In fact, I think this personality trait (see “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby”) is perhaps one contributing factor to why Let Us Now sold fewer than 600 copies. Perhaps readers would have been more inclined to read this unconventional book if it had at least used conventional punctuation.

Be that as it may, Agee and Evans have, between them, created a substantial, moving, and finely crafted piece of work. I hesitate to call it “groundbreaking,” because it actually seems unique among works of its kind, having more in common with Thoreau’s Walden or Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek than with documentary journalism—in the end, it is more distinct as itself than similar to anything. In a chapter entitled “On the Porch: 2,” Agee writes: “I will be trying here to write nothing whatever which did not in physical actuality or in the mind happen or appear; and my most serious effort will be, not to use these ‘materials’ for art, far less for journalism, but to give them as they were and as in my memory and regard they are” (p. 218, italics Agee’s). Agee seems at least equally concerned with the perception and transmission of reality as with the shape of life for the tenant farmers with whom he temporarily sheltered. Let Us Now…’s very best passages deal with both:

“The [lamp ‘oil’ is not at all oleaginous, but thin, brittle, rusty feeling, and sharp; taken and rubbed between forefinger and thumb, it so cleanses their grain that it sharpens their mutual touch to a new coin edge” (p. 47).

“Late in August the fields begin to whiten more rarely with late bloom and more frequently with cotton and then still thicker with cotton, a sparkling ground starlight of it, steadily bursting into more and more millions of points, all the leaves seeming shrunken smaller; quite as at night the whole frontage of the universe is more and more thoroughly printed in the increasing darkness…” (p. 304).

“It was as hot as all the days of the week piled one on top of another, or as if they were a series of burning-glasses…” (p. 344).

At bottom, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is far more subversive than an in-depth investigation of tenant farming, more subversive than an accusing finger leveled at the landlords, more subversive than snide mockery or even righteous indignation. Far from declaring that the tenant system has essentially committed crimes against these and other tenant families and that as a result, it should be reformed or abolished, Agee seems to be declaring a harsher truth: that such wrongs cannot be righted by any human effort. At times, he seems to imply that the tenants he profiles will never escape what in 1936 were their ‘present’ circumstances. Agee imagines the tenants he meets to be asking in the silence of their hearts, “In what way were we trapped? where, our mistake? what, where, how, when, what way, might all these things have been different, if only we had done otherwise?” ( p. 74). Later, he divides all humanity into two groups, the Prolific and the Devouring and writes, “…the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer as a sea received the excess of his delights….These two classes of men are always upon earth, and they should be enemies. Whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence” (p. 418).

Far from betraying some deep-seated snobbery or fatalism, I would argue these passages indicate a desire on the part of Agee to short-circuit any impression that the tenant families he meets and profiles are merely examples of a “social problem” (inside front cover). The term “social problem” implies something temporary and curable, something which does not exact the lives of human beings as a kind of tribute. However, Agee seems to take his assignment more seriously than Fortune ever intended him to; instead of simply describing and decrying what he found in Alabama, he seems to think he owes it to the tenant families in question to present them as more than arbitrary victims of an unjust human system. Though they may seem to be merely the temporary and ‘present’ losers in an age-old struggle between the “haves” and “have-nots” (Marx is quoted on p. xvi.), Agee seems to be trying to illustrate how permanent are the tolls exacted by what others think of as temporary disadvantages. Cotton tenantry in the Deep South of the United States of America in 1936 is just one example of what you may call a “social problem,” if you like: humankind’s continued inhumanity to humankind. How comes it to be that though the Earth provides more than enough to satisfy every human need, some humans’ needs are ignored in favor of other humans’ mere wants and desires? How comes it to be that we do not care more for each other, refusing to trade in other people’s misery, for money? Though Agee may or may not have honored these tenants’ lives in a way they would understand or approve of, he, in his own way, seems genuinely to seek to honor them: “…by bland chance alone is my life so softened and sophisticated in the years of my defenselessness [that] I am robbed of a royalty I can not only never claim, but never properly much desire or regret” (p. 377).
Profile Image for Luna.
86 reviews20 followers
May 4, 2020
This book was SO LONG that I honestly can’t rate it. It was sooooo winding and sooo beautiful. I am really stuck on the ethics of telling other people’s stories, Agee is so obsessed with the fact that he can’t give a full picture of the sharecroppers’ lives he ends up reducing them to just his characterizations.
Profile Image for Illiterate.
1,641 reviews28 followers
April 26, 2019
Agee shouldn’t be blamed for the recent plague of self-indulgent texts by scholars obsessed with their own role as reader/writer and voyeur/sympathizer.
Profile Image for Rojitas Oliva.
45 reviews2 followers
December 17, 2020
hale county does something to folks. its beauty and tragedy pulling you into a desperate need to render the world around you & at the same moment the fulness of its life forcing you to confront the needs own impossibility. everything somehow ending up a sort of impressionistic collage of experience, all narrative just hopelessly splitting at the seems. i noticed this first in all the bad art I was making while living there & infinitely more tenderly in RaMell Ross's stunning 'hale county this morning, this evening.'

this strange book here then an attempt to render everything sacred, holy, to “perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is,” to reach the absolute heartbreaking limits of human subjectivity with all its predictable transcendent beauty and sickly narcissism. Split the difference between a 1 & a 5.
Profile Image for Anders.
84 reviews21 followers
March 26, 2008
First published in 1941, James Agee's study of three Southern sharecropping families during the Great Depression sold a paltry six hundred copies. In the last few decades, however, the book has enjoyed increased interest and to date has been reprinted in a handful of updated editions. The book is packaged with about 30-40 black and white photographs taken by Walker Evans of the families described in the book meant to serve as a companion to the text, and in fact the book gives Evans co-authoring credit. The book came out of a trip taken by Evans and Agee in 1936, when they traveled to the South in an old car full of photographic equipment to live for a few weeks with sharecroppers, to be able to understand their day-to-day realities. They set out to get the full experience of the people they were studying, to fully immerse themselves in their reality. They slept wherever there was room -- a bedbug-infested lumpy old cot, an old car seat ripped out of a car and moved onto a porch; and they ate what their subjects ate, however gross or tasteless. Their shock at these conditions comes through, rippled with admiration and respect. Agee infuses this respect and admiration into his writing of the book, and seeks to do these people justice by writing about their situation as honestly and accurately as possible.

The book straddles many different genres, and the end product can be described as a poetic take on ethnography. Oscillating between highly-detailed personal narrative and impressionistic prose-poem, this book is beguiling and hard-to-follow, to say the least. Agee struggles (to put it mildly) with questions of privilege, truth, empathy, social justice. However, the way he writes this struggle is so overwrought, so labored, that it quickly stumbles into a painful, inaccessible verbosity. Boiled down his thesis would be something like: "these people are so beautiful that it hurts me and literary convention can't possibly contain this pain."

Poetry readers may enjoy Agee's knack for rich description: his prose is proto-Beat in its frenzied rush, its mixture of the fantastic and the ordinary, the colorful swirls of compelling personal narrative, his heartbreaking sensitivity to the plight of the people he's studying. Like his contemporary e.e. cummings, Agee also has a knack for reclaiming the rules of syntax and structuring. But a successful prose-poem does not make a successful ethnography, and ultimately, as such, the book is a failure.

Seeking to truly understand and render for his audience the experience and character of these three families, Agee is faced with the ethnographer's dilemma of trying to see and present the subject free of the preconceptions and biases of the observer. By and large his approach is too concerned with documenting the physicality of the families, including a chapter where he seeks to describe every object in every room of one of the families' small house. When he does look deeper into the character of his subjects, he does it with highly depersonalized, overly sexualized physical observation. But even then he remains distant from them. He extrapolates their thoughts and concerns as they barely make eye contact with him, at most making stilted efforts at politeness. The difference between them and Agee is so great, yet rather than try to seriously broach this divide, Agee explodes into pages of pastoral descriptions of their farms and clothing. Yet beneath all this intricate detail, it is obvious that his retreat to his (considerable) writing skills is due to his acute frustration at not being able to do more.

In this way, Agee neglects ethnography's bread and butter: interpersonal relationships, religious beliefs, community dynamics, shared histories, among others. He mainly shows the people he's studying in terms of their possessions. Discussion about the people themselves is glaringly shallow, and often highly, frustratingly filtered through his idiosyncratic personal lens.

P.S. I don't think I'm going to put a number on this one, just because strangely anything between 1 and 5 seems accurate to me.
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