To read James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a disorienting thing. It is a strange beast of a book, a work of non-fiction, a work of journalism, I suppose; experimental, diffuse, and difficult to get through. It does not do what you want a book to do. Despite that, it is rightfully a classic, one that, like Moby-Dick, barely sold, got rediscovered, and has returned to be a perennial; a book that should be required reading, especially if you want a galling, vivid, and transcendent portrayal of the country in all its contradictions and savage beauty.
I came to it after reading Agee’s film criticism and his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family; I knew that he was a beautiful writer, capable of torrents of language about whatever his mind settled on. For me, it was shocking how long it took to slog through Men. I’m a fast reader, but this book just sat in my pile. One section would have Agee listing everything in a tenant family’s one-room shack. In another, Agee would relate how a teenage daughter in the tenant family would totally sleep with him and Walker. His use of semi-colons and colons was egregious — but never say he didn’t have a sense of humor, as one section is called “Colon” — turning sentences into multi-page recitations of the exact quality of the tenant farmers’ houses; telling us, minute by minute, their daily work, and painting a portrait of their lives outside the toil. Outside of that, every so often Agee would give himself 40 lashes, moaning, theatrically, about the impossibility of expressing in words what another person’s life is like.
I hated Agee at times: I made jokes that maybe it was Walker Evans’ photos that told the whole story and were the reason for Men‘s survival all these years. And then it clicked into place, once I was 200 pages into the book: the tedium of Agee’s descriptions of the tenant farmers, the way he inserted himself into the text, the fact that the book was the very opposite of its initial purpose.
A short version of the legend is this: Agee and Evans had traveled down to the South in June of 1936 to write an article for Fortune magazine, which was in a very wonderful, weird stage of magazine-dom when Henry Luce was hiring poets and interesting thinkers to write economic journalism. The result was esoteric and wild, the very stuff that led to New Journalism. Men was a Fortune assignment, and Agee describes it as such:
[H]ave been assigned to do a story on: a sharecropper family (daily & yearly life): and also a study of Farm Economics in the South (impossible for me): and also on the several efforts to help the situation: i.e. Govt. and state work; theories & wishes of Southern liberals; whole story of the 2 Southern Unions. Best break I ever had on Fortune. Feel terrific personal responsibility toward story; considerable doubts of my ability to bring it off; considerable more of Fortune’s ultimate willingness to use it as it seems (in theory) to me.
Fortune didn’t want the manuscript (which was finally published in its 30,000-word entirety in last year’s Cotton Tenants: Three Families by Melville House), so Agee and Evans turned their experience spending times with three families — Ricketts, Gudger, and Woods — into a book. Men sold 600 copies when it was first published in 1941. It was rediscovered in the ’60s and has endured, a recording of what life was like during for rural families in extreme poverty during the Depression.
Why has it endured? I think it’s a combination of the way that the great lies and ethics of journalism are dissected in Agee’s writing, while his notes on the tenant farmers’ life are so obsessive, so detailed, that it’s impossible not to get what their lives were like in the depths of your soul. Agee goes at writing about these families all wrong, at least on a traditional narrative level; instead of providing a skein of story that we can follow, it is poetic, impressionistic — a snapshot of someone’s life. Scenes from the South are intercut with his observations of the mundane. The beds have “rusty and exhausted” bedsprings, “they are morbid with bedbugs, with fleas, and, I believe, with lice,” and from the beds there’s the kitchen, the cows, the farm.
Eventually, Agee admits the futility of his task in “On the porch: 2.” He goes deep into his feelings regarding journalism: he knows that George Gudger “is a man, much like himself,” and to add stories, anecdotes, what-have-you — which could be art — would just be a false application of meaning to this man’s life. Agee wants you to see that truth. He claims that the camera is closer to the truth than his words (of course, Errol Morris at one point went all in on Evans’ photos to show that they were staged… but does that take away their power?). He writes, “The very blood and semen of journalism, on the contrary, is a broad and successful form of lying.” His anger is full and mighty: a Partisan Review Q&A (which had been sent out to many writers of that time) called “Some Questions Which Face American Writers Today” is included in its entirety, with Agee tearing the rhetoric apart in a fit of righteous pique.
It’s indulgent, it’s frustrating, it’s beautiful, it’s beyond what journalism can do on a daily basis. Nearly every writer I’ve talked to this year mentions their love of this book, how its contradictions fuel their own writing, and it inspires beautiful writing from writers like Leslie Jamison and John Jeremiah Sullivan. It’s a book that can make you into a writer, that can stick in your craw and soul and affect how you go about in the heavy, mighty task of trying to replicate the mysteries of human existence to other humans. Or, to let Agee state it:
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 as in my memory and regard they are. If there is anything of value and interest in this work it will have to hang entirely on that fact. Though I may frequently try to make use of art devices and may, at other times, being at least in part an ‘artist,’ be incapable of avoiding their use, I am in this piece of work illimitably more interested in life than art.
To be more interested in life is to produce a strange, haunting work of American literature, and that’s no small feat. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was fighting against itself, a divided heart at war, and yet it’s still a lasting work of art; a mirror that reflects what America is to the people that work in it. It may very well change your life.