A Brief History of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and James Agee

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Seeing as today is the birthday of American author and critic James Agee, I thought it might be nice to kick off a new feature here at Truths and Edits: A Brief History of.

You may not know of James Agee, and I say this because I didn’t either until my graduate school days when I happened to read Jacques Ranciere’s work Aisthesis. I won’t get too far into Ranciere here (it’s a relatively confusing and also enlightening piece of criticism on art and aesthetics) except to say his text features a chapter on the James Agee book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which is what initially sparked my interest.

Agee is best known as a reporter and film critic for Time and Fortune magazines, yet during the Great Depression he spent eight weeks in Alabama with photographer Walker Evans living among impoverished sharecroppers. The result was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: a strange, unique book of photographs and self-conscious narration that is now widely considered an innovation in literature and journalism. 

Agee and Evans thoroughly document the poverty found in the Deep South during the Great Depression as they detail the lives of three families. However, they also make sure to dignify their lives and demonstrate the beauty still to be found despite dire circumstances. It is this that Ranciere praises in Aisthesis, and we can see the value given to the sharecroppers even within the title Agee and Evans gave to their narrative. 

Agee later went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, which details the impact of his own father’s death in an automobile accident when he was a young child. Yet I would argue his legacy lies predominantly with his earlier text and the manner by which he and Evans respect the lives of some of the poorest Americans. 

I find many reporters struggle to cover poverty without descending slightly into a level of exploitation and it is this that makes Let Us Now Praise Famous Men so remarkable. If you’re interested in the Great Depression or a different sort of reporting or even techniques of photojournalism, I’d certainly recommend giving it a read.