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And Their Children After Them

This was a hard book to read. Coming on the heels of reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, any shred of hope you had for the dignity of the people portrayed in the book, for them overcoming their situations of desparate poverty and lack of education, is dashed when you read about the next generations. Some people did quite well, a few. Most are sort of middling in the in-between areas, not quite desparate but definitely not someplace where they feel happy and settled. And some people -- most specifically one of the older daughters of one of the tenant farmers, who he took as his wife, confirming decades of bad stereotypes (or possibly starting them) -- are still miserable and wretched, having been passed by, both by advances in technology like plumbing and cost of basic goods, but also by advances in society where there is at least some of a social safety net in place for people who are destitute.

This book is a return to Alabama to see what happened to the 128 descendants of the three tenant families that were portrayed by James Agee and Walker Evans in 1936. We get to learn what they thought of the portrayal of themselves, how being written up in a book affected the lives of their grandparents, parents and themselves. We also get a less dashing view of Agee and Evans, who slickly call themselves spies and instigators in the list of characters in the original book but were really in some ways no more than subculture tourists. Evans spent no more than one or two nigths with the families and seemed to have a distaste for them mostly, while Agee romanticized them in the way writers do where he held them up as noble members of their class, but promptly forgot about them once he left Alabama (though to be fair he was embroiled in his own terrible life at the time).

The most poignant part of the story, though to be sure, there are many poignant parts, is the opening scene of the book where one of the women who was beloved and doted on by Agee when she was a little girl, commits suicide after a long hard life at the age of 54. One could see after reading just this introduction, that new writers nosing around the place might not stir up happy thoughts. It is helpful for people who were interested in the earlier book, to get follow-up on how the people did, what happened to them and how they fared and their childre and children’s children. Ironically Agee himself was the first to die, due to his own set of hard-luck lifestyles and circumstances. For anyone who read and appreciated Let Us Now Praise Famous Men this Pulitzer Prize winning book is necessary follow-up reading.