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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

It took me a long time to get ready to write a review of this book, mostly because it stayed with me in all sorts of ways, and also because I’m reading a follow-up to it (And Their Children After Them) which has been thought-provoking. In short, in 1936 WPA photographer Walker Evans and NY writer James Agee went to the South to try to find some sharecropper/tenant famers to write about and photograph. They wound up spending the Summer with three separate families. Walker’s photographs are in the book as the first 30 or so pages. And Agee, well Agee sort of goes off, all throughout the book in an almost stream of consciousness style describing both the nature of these people’s lives and his many thoughts about the nature of poverty and oppression in America.

Agee is a big of a fop and anyone who is familiar with the East Village New York style of anthropology of the non-hip will recognize some of this. He’s also a really great writeer and so you actually hang on while he describes in detail the contents of one of the clothing chests at the homes of one off the fmailies. These people have nothing, a point illuminated by Evans' photos and driven home by Agee’s descriptions of their day-to-day lives as cotton farmers on land owned by someone else for which they must pay a heavy rent. It’s appalling to read when Agee gets to specifics, which is not often. Sometimes he is just driving down the road in the hot Alabama Sumemr talking abot how he needs to get laid. He talks a lot about need and hunger and these sorts of ideas, ascribing to the families emotions that are likely too esoteric for them in their quest for survival. It’s a little tough to read, both because of the abject misery these people live in, but also Agee’s bizarre abstraction from it as if he could live among them and not change them, or be changed. There’s a level of naivete that he has as a writer on assigment that makes the story even more poignant than it might otherwise be.