Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:
Agee and Evans’ Great Experiment
Suzanne A. Austgen
It was in 1936 that James Agee and Walker Evans, on assignment for Fortune magazine, drove into rural Alabama and entered the world of three families of white tenant farmers. And it was in this same year that Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to his second term as president, his New Deal having won the resounding support of American voters. Fortune was not unique in its concern for the tenant farmer; Roosevelt himself appointed a Committee on Farm Tenancy to investigate the situation of this segment of the nation’s farming population. The committee’s startling report, issued in February of 1937, revealed that tenant farmers constituted half of the farmers in the South, almost a third of farmers in the North, and a fourth of Western farmers. These figures, accompanied by reports of great suffering and stark poverty, led to the enactment of the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act, which reorganized the Resettlement Administration as the Farm Security Administration, and which included among its purposes assisting enterprising tenants in becoming landowners. Agee and Evans examined the life of the tenant farmer as closely as the president’s committee, but from the perspective of artists, not New Deal politicians or economists. Proposing no economic solutions to the problem of tenant farming, they attempted only to describe the life of the Gudgers, the Woods, and the Ricketts as accurately as possible “in its own terms.” Nevertheless, the result of Agee and Evans’ endeavors, a book entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is, as much as the New Deal itself, a great experiment in addressing the issues of social responsibility and human dignity that faced the United States during the 1930s.
Roosevelt was elected to the presidency in 1932 because he recognized the need for an innovative approach to the U.S. economy. Financial institutions, including the banking system and the stock market, had been thoroughly undermined along with American confidence, and had miserably failed to recover on their own, as Hoover had promised. The methods that had been used to bring the economy out of a slump in the 1920s were simply not working anymore, and the casualties of depression were rapidly mounting in a frightening new world.
As Roosevelt recognized that traditional plans for economic recovery could not end the Depression, so Agee and Evans knew that traditional methods of photography and journalism would not work to convey accurately the hard and simple lives of the tenant farmers. They experimented, attempting to create an approach to art that conveyed a new height of consciousness, yet allowed their subjects to retain their dignity. In its own experimentation, Roosevelt’s administration also faced the challenge of achieving consciousness while preserving dignity. The administration on a massive scale of government relief that was not only economically sound, but allowed people the pride of earning their own living, was not easy.
The dignity which Evans left the Gudgers, the Woods, and the Ricketts stares the reader of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men straight in the eyes. Individuals and families are most commonly captured with a frank, head-on camera angle, and the subjects are obviously posed. Rather, as Agee tells us, they have posed themselves. According to Agee, Evans allowed the mothers to clean up their children, if they desired, before he photographed them. Candid shots were not to be achieved at the cost of shaming the families beyond the shame they already felt. It was for Evans’ honesty with the camera that Agee respected him, and for her photographic tricks that he despised the famous photographer Margaret Bourke-White.
The placement of Evans’ photographs within Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is experimental in itself. They are not labeled, and are all bound together at the front of the book, rather than being dispersed throughout. Yet they are not forgotten as Agee’s story unfolds, for his descriptions of the individuals, the houses they live in, and the land they farm are so vivid as to draw the reader back to the photographs again and again, each time with a new layer of understanding.
Readers uncomfortable with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men‘s refusal to fit into a traditional genre and Agee’s frequent interruption of descriptive detail with streams of his consciousness have criticized the book as self-indulgent. Agee’s transcendence of traditional literary forms is, however, appropriately representative of the Great Depression’s call for innovation, and his self-consciousness reflects the intense humanism inherent in the New Deal’s relief efforts. By overstepping the traditional bounds of genre, Agee allows his subjects to be seen not only as a cause for pity, but as real, complex, three-dimensional people whose lives, like the book itself, are simultaneously a poem, a play, a song, and a distorted social-studies textbook. The Gudger home “is lifted before the approach of darkness as a boat and as a sacrament,” and its partition wall “IS [sic], temporarily, among other things, a great tragic poem.” It is at his most self-indulgent moments that Agee best expresses the hardest and saddest reality of tenant life and the Great Depression: the reduction of human life into a battle for physical survival. Sharing the Roosevelt Administration’s sense of social responsibility and its respect for human dignity, Agee says:
I believe that every human being is potentially capable within his ‘limits’ of fully ‘realizing’ his potentialities; that this, his being cheated and choked of it, is infinitely the ghastliest, commonest, and most inclusive of all the crimes of which the human world can assure itself.
Agee’s self-consciousness also reflects the deep sense of shame and guilt that accompanies the realization that human dignity has been exploited and social responsibility disregarded, “that you are what you are, and that she is what she is, and that you cannot, for one moment exchange places with her, nor by any such hope make expiation for what she has suffered at your hands, and for what you have gained at hers.” This guilt is essentially what President Roosevelt recognized as “a deepening sense of unfairness” when he called on Congress to increase the upper-class tax burden in 1935 The feeling was, however, not shared by all sectors of the population, as shown by the strong anti-Roosevelt and the anti-New Deal sentiment that existed among the upper class and business interests by the mid-1930s.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the attempt of a photographer and a journalist to describe accurately the lives of three families of tenant farmers in rural Alabama in 1936, is, in the same sense as Roosevelt’s New Deal, an experiment addressing the challenges of social responsibility and the salvaging of human dignity in the midst of the Great Depression. Both Agee and Evans’ book and Roosevelt’s New Deal, characterized by a humanist perspective, a willingness to experiment with new structural forms, and a deep self-consciousness of their objectives, invite evaluation. While the degree of success achieved by Agee and Evans can be argued as easily as the success of the New Deal, one thing remains certain: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was the second great experiment to emerge from the 1930s.
1. Arthur S. Link and William A. Link, American Epoch: A HIstory of the United States since 1900, vol 1, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), 309.
2. James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939), 235.
3. Ibid., 220.
4. Ibid., 204.
5. Ibid., 307.
6. Ibid., 321.
7. Link and Link, 303.
8. Frederick Lewis Allen, Since Yesterday (New York: Harper & Row, 1939), 231.
Some of my favorite James Agee quotes:
“As a whole part of ‘psychological education’ it needs to be remembered that a neurosis can be valuable; also that ‘adjustment’ to a sick and insane environment is of itself not “health” but sickness and insanity.”
“Children, taught either years beneath their intelligence or miles wide of relevance to it, or both: their intelligence becomes hopelessly bewildered, drawn off its centers, bored, or atrophied.”
“God doesn’t believe in the easy way.”
“In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again: and in him, too, once more, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility toward human life; toward the utmost idea of goodness, of the horror of terror, and of God.”
“It is a peculiar part of the good photographer’s adventure to know where luck is most likely to lie in the stream, to hook it, and to bring it in without unfair play and without too much subduing it.”