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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

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In the summer of 1936, Agee and Evans set out on assignment for "Fortune" magazine to explore the daily lives of sharecroppers in the South. Their journey would prove an extraordinary collaboration and a watershed literary event when in 1941 "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" was first published to enormous critical acclaim. This unsparing record of place, of the people who sh In the summer of 1936, Agee and Evans set out on assignment for "Fortune" magazine to explore the daily lives of sharecroppers in the South. Their journey would prove an extraordinary collaboration and a watershed literary event when in 1941 "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" was first published to enormous critical acclaim. This unsparing record of place, of the people who shaped the land, and of the rhythm of their lives today stands as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.


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In the summer of 1936, Agee and Evans set out on assignment for "Fortune" magazine to explore the daily lives of sharecroppers in the South. Their journey would prove an extraordinary collaboration and a watershed literary event when in 1941 "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" was first published to enormous critical acclaim. This unsparing record of place, of the people who sh In the summer of 1936, Agee and Evans set out on assignment for "Fortune" magazine to explore the daily lives of sharecroppers in the South. Their journey would prove an extraordinary collaboration and a watershed literary event when in 1941 "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" was first published to enormous critical acclaim. This unsparing record of place, of the people who shaped the land, and of the rhythm of their lives today stands as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.

30 review for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

  1. 4 out of 5

    Howard

    "James Agee makes Faulkner look clear and concise.... He also shares every single thought to cross his mind, whether they have anything to do with the topic at hand or not... For some, this experience - and it is truly an experience - is enlightening, thought provoking, mind blowing. For others it is mind numbing, eye glazing and a total bore. For me, it was all of the above.... You leave feeling thankful for the moments he shared. And annoyed for all the babble it took to get there." -- Molly I "James Agee makes Faulkner look clear and concise.... He also shares every single thought to cross his mind, whether they have anything to do with the topic at hand or not... For some, this experience - and it is truly an experience - is enlightening, thought provoking, mind blowing. For others it is mind numbing, eye glazing and a total bore. For me, it was all of the above.... You leave feeling thankful for the moments he shared. And annoyed for all the babble it took to get there." -- Molly I hope Molly will not mind that I quoted from her Goodreads' review. But she wrote exactly what I felt about Agee and his book and she did it so much better than I am capable of doing. (I have included a link below to her review and I encourage anyone who is interested in the book to read it.) The book became an overnight classic twenty-five years after Agee was given an assignment to write an article for Fortune magazine in 1936, which the magazine subsequently rejected and never published; twenty years after it was finally published as a book; and five years after its author succumbed to a heart attack in a New York taxi on his way to a doctor's appointment. Agee was just twenty-six, a poet in the guise of a journalist, when he was given the assignment to travel into the Deep South to do a story on cotton sharecroppers. He asked that a friend of his, thirty-two year old photographer Walker Evans, be hired to accompany him. Evans at the time was working for one of the New Deal agencies, the Farm Security Administration, helping to document the Great Depression. Evans was given a leave of absence and he and Agee headed South during the summer of 1936. They traveled around for a month before they found the subjects they wanted to photograph and write about. They spent three weeks with three families and then went back to New York to finalize the article and present it to the magazine's editor. The magazine did not publish it. It was believed for many years that Agee's unconventional rambling style was the cause for the editor's rejection of the article. However, decades later it was discovered that that was not the case. "Isn't every human being both a scientist and an artist; and in writing of human experience, isn't a good deal to be said for recognizing that fact and for using both methods?" At any rate, after the article was rejected, Agee then expanded it into a book and set about to find a publisher. It was five years later that it was published to a resounding sound of silence. It was a miserable failure, partly because the effects of the Great Depression had lessened and because the war in Europe and Asia dominated the news. The book sold only 600 copies the first year and there was no second printing -- not then. "Picking cotton: it is simple and terrible work. Skill will help you; all the endurance you can draw up against it from the roots of your existence will be thoroughly used as fuel to it; but neither skill nor endurance can make it any easier." "...and in each private and silent heart toward that climax of one more year's work which yields so little at best, and nothing so often, and worse to so many hundreds of thousands..." Agee went on to other things; he continued to write poetry; became an influential and highly-respected film critic; and he wrote screenplays for two classic movies: The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. But he was a tormented man who fought off his demons with tobacco and alcohol and the combination helped bring on the heart attack that killed him at age forty-five. At the time of his death he was working on an autobiographical novel. Two years after his death, A Death in the Family was published and a year later it received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Two years after that, because of Agee's untimely death and as a result of the critical acclaim for his novel, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was re-published and became an instant classic, not only due to Agee's narrative, but also because of Evans' haunting black-and-white photographs that appear uncaptioned at the beginning of the book. In 2003, a typescript of Agee's original magazine article was discovered among his papers. It is much different from the book that grew out of the project. It is much more conventional, much more journalistic, and much less poetic. It had not been rejected due to an unconventional writing style after all, but for some other reason or reasons. In 2013, it was published as Cotton Tenants: Three Families, the title of Agee's rejected magazine article. ---------------------------------------------- Here is the link to Molly's review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... And a link to Walker Evans' photographs: https://www.google.com/search?q=let+u...

  2. 4 out of 5

    Cody

    Very few books can knock me like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Originally commissioned as a report back to the Northern seaboard’s intellectua-lites on the state of Southern affairs, ‘reporter’ Agee did something no one saw coming (including himself): he fell in love. In love with the people he lived with and among, the land, the architecture, crops, roads, bedbugs, clothes, patois, sky; the whole cosmic smear of life lived by fundamentally good people at its absolute barest and most brutal. Fam Very few books can knock me like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Originally commissioned as a report back to the Northern seaboard’s intellectua-lites on the state of Southern affairs, ‘reporter’ Agee did something no one saw coming (including himself): he fell in love. In love with the people he lived with and among, the land, the architecture, crops, roads, bedbugs, clothes, patois, sky; the whole cosmic smear of life lived by fundamentally good people at its absolute barest and most brutal. Famously, the magazine rejected every word he wrote. All the better. Agee proceeded to spend the next 3-years writing and re-writing to novel length, producing as singular a piece of art as ever I’ve encountered. Abetted by his photographer and friend, Walker Evans, he didn’t just break ground—each keystroke ruptured fault lines in the earth and loam like a million-billion capillary beds fissuring ‘neath America’s pallid, translucent White skin. Agee bares his fucking soul—wondrous and repulsive, as are all—in some of the best pure writing I’ve ever the pleasure. Some vignettes will move you to tears: his approaching the Black couple too quickly; his goodbye to a doomed Gudger girl he loves with true ardor; his fourth-wall blessings. This is holy writing, friends. This is a man confronted with manifold atrocities and subsuming them into his own heart, wishing only that he could burden them for others. Secular transmissions from the nerve-center of the godhead. His empathy and lack of judgment are equal to Vollmann’s, only he can’t stop the demons from fully consuming him like Bill. There is no distance. He bleeds dirt, secretes boll weevils, and cries cotton puffs. This is emphatically not reportage—it is a post-Joycean, ecclesiastical bloodscream into the chaotic nebulae of darkest space. Let us now praise James Agee, dead at 45. One can only assume that his heart swelled past bursting and exploded over his beloved Alabamian nightscapes as a starburst so marvelous as to be oft mistaken for Venus to this day.

  3. 5 out of 5

    amanda

    This is the third time that I've attempted this book and I do not lay books down easily. The best way I can describe it is to say that it is like reading the teenage poetry of William Faulkner. There is much about this book that borders on genius, but far more that obscures. Agee tries so hard to get to The Truth that he ends up with a lot of contextual melodrama. As a result, the book is not so much the story of three tenant farming families so much as it is Agee's opinion of how the families c This is the third time that I've attempted this book and I do not lay books down easily. The best way I can describe it is to say that it is like reading the teenage poetry of William Faulkner. There is much about this book that borders on genius, but far more that obscures. Agee tries so hard to get to The Truth that he ends up with a lot of contextual melodrama. As a result, the book is not so much the story of three tenant farming families so much as it is Agee's opinion of how the families came to be and the circumstances surrounding them as reflected in every threadbare quilt, dirty chicken, and abandoned tin cup in their vicinity. These descriptions are never given with cold detachment, but rather with an obsessive regard that borders frequently on almost erotic indulgence.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Meredith

    One of the women who helped raise me was herself the daughter of a Cherokee sharecropper and his African American wife. Nannie did not read or spell very well. She stood six feet tall and had the most beautiful cheekbones I've ever seen on a woman in real life. She taught me the meaning of dignity and the power inherent in having a good and pure soul; she taught me how to properly watch a thunderstorm, which is to say, quietly and with respect. When I read this book for the first time, in my firs One of the women who helped raise me was herself the daughter of a Cherokee sharecropper and his African American wife. Nannie did not read or spell very well. She stood six feet tall and had the most beautiful cheekbones I've ever seen on a woman in real life. She taught me the meaning of dignity and the power inherent in having a good and pure soul; she taught me how to properly watch a thunderstorm, which is to say, quietly and with respect. When I read this book for the first time, in my first year of college in Philadelphia, I was desperately homesick for Nannie, and this book reminded me of her. She had a straightforwardness, a goodness, a trueness, a soul-brightness, that I had taken for granted in the people I grew up with and was having a darn hard time finding among my Ivy League classmates. James Agee's prose is cumbersome and filling. You should read it like you would read the Koran, or the Bible, or Blake, or any other work that has the potency to give life meaning through words. Poverty lives among us and likely will for as long as there is humanity. I don't know what to do about it. But I think having read this book a couple of times has given me the heart to see it, and the ache to do something about it. As MF Doom once said, "If you can't understand, then come closer."

  5. 5 out of 5

    Hadrian

    This is a story so intense and devoted to its subject, it is almost holy writ. It is a sermon preached by the prophet Jeremiah, who preached while weeping in the streets of Jerusalem. The style is florid and ornate, not a stream but a torrent of consciousness. Some sentences are pages long musings on philosophy and writing and life which might make Faulkner smile with approval. It is an attempt to accurately portray, in words and pictures, the lives of Tenant Farmers in the South in the worst of This is a story so intense and devoted to its subject, it is almost holy writ. It is a sermon preached by the prophet Jeremiah, who preached while weeping in the streets of Jerusalem. The style is florid and ornate, not a stream but a torrent of consciousness. Some sentences are pages long musings on philosophy and writing and life which might make Faulkner smile with approval. It is an attempt to accurately portray, in words and pictures, the lives of Tenant Farmers in the South in the worst of the Great Depression. He has an obsessive streak for description, he grabs your hand and wants you to feel everything, to get the smell ingrained in you, to look in their tired eyes and see their quiet dignity. Evans has an equally astonishing photoset in the very beginning, but Agee's descriptions make them LIVE, and the descriptions and life and humanity within them unfold. Agee scorns the label of their work as Art. Very well then, let us call it Life. "Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies: Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions: Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing: Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations: All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times. There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported." "And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them. But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten. With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant. Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes. Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore. The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will shew forth their praise." Sirach (Apocrypha) 44: 1-15

  6. 4 out of 5

    Flora

    Reading this book is like hanging on to the back of someone on roller skates racing top-speed down a steep hill, with no brakes. There are few books that explore with such rigor the impossibility -- and necessary ideal -- of perfect perspective, or have the audacity to admit melancholy as an action (albeit an insufficent one), not just a solipsistic response to the aesthetic sufferings of others. The maddening ambivalence of this book, and its self-consuming doubt and belief in what it is doing, Reading this book is like hanging on to the back of someone on roller skates racing top-speed down a steep hill, with no brakes. There are few books that explore with such rigor the impossibility -- and necessary ideal -- of perfect perspective, or have the audacity to admit melancholy as an action (albeit an insufficent one), not just a solipsistic response to the aesthetic sufferings of others. The maddening ambivalence of this book, and its self-consuming doubt and belief in what it is doing, underscores the headlong, megalomanical under-confidence of the (whether you like it or not) inimitable prose. This is the only book I can think of that isn't sure if it's a book at all, and yet is more of one than most. Recently, William T. Vollmann tried with "Poor People" to attempt something similar, and equally improbable, but no matter how sincere his intent, it simply didn't have the nerve to fail. Agee is willing.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Molly

    Let us now praise the fact that I have finished this book! It took me a month of pecking and absorbing and discarding and revisiting to get through it. A long, strange trip it was stylistically and unlike any journey I've taken before. Let me tell you about it. James Agee makes Faulkner look clear and concise. He loves nothing more than to ramble on and explore every possible tangent his mind's discovery takes him. And he discovered a lot while living among a cluster of tenant farming families in Let us now praise the fact that I have finished this book! It took me a month of pecking and absorbing and discarding and revisiting to get through it. A long, strange trip it was stylistically and unlike any journey I've taken before. Let me tell you about it. James Agee makes Faulkner look clear and concise. He loves nothing more than to ramble on and explore every possible tangent his mind's discovery takes him. And he discovered a lot while living among a cluster of tenant farming families in Alabama in 1936. He shares intricate details of his eye's view of their homes, their land, their features, their mannerisms. He shares absolutely beautiful vignettes of what the experience felt like to him as he interacted with folks or observed things from afar. He also shares every single thought to cross his mind, whether they have anything to do with the topic at hand or not. For some, this experience - and it is truly an experience - is enlightening, thought provoking, mind blowing. For others it is mind numbing, eye glazing and a total bore. For me, it was all of the above. There were times I was sick and tired of listening to Agee's endless diatribes, opinions and strange allegories. There were times I was sucked in to the scenes he brought to life - I could smell, taste, feel his surroundings. Photographer Walker Evans took some striking photos that stand strongly on their own. But Agee's gift in the details is that he enhances these images with his words to the point of almost being able to crawl into them comfortably. In the end, the reader is rewarded for their diligence and stubborn attitude with beautiful moments of writing. His ramblings show the man inside the account and bring honesty and basis for his overwhelming emotion for the plight of poverty. He focuses on beauty, dignity and the tireless human spirit to survive - even when the circle seems pointless. You don't leave this book feeling pity. You leave feeling thankful for the moments he shared. And annoyed for all the babble it took to get there.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Tony

    Well I managed to finish this just to say I'd read this so called classic,but the whole thing just annoyed the hell out of me. Talk about obscure writing, this guy was taking the mickey out of his readers. And that's annoying. Very. This from page 226 of the version that I read:- "No doubt we overvalue the difference between life and lifelessness, but there is a certain difference, just as, in the situation we are speaking of, a difference is remarkable: the difference between a conjunction of time Well I managed to finish this just to say I'd read this so called classic,but the whole thing just annoyed the hell out of me. Talk about obscure writing, this guy was taking the mickey out of his readers. And that's annoying. Very. This from page 226 of the version that I read:- "No doubt we overvalue the difference between life and lifelessness, but there is a certain difference, just as, in the situation we are speaking of, a difference is remarkable: the difference between a conjunction of time, place and unconscious consciousness and a conjunction of time,place and conscious consciousness is, so far as we are concerned, the difference between joy and truth and the lack of joy and truth. Unless wonder is nothing in itself,but only a moon which glows only in the mercy of a sense of wonder, and unless the sense of wonder is peculiar to consciousness and is moreover an emotion which, as it matures, consciousness will learn the juvenility of,and discard, or only gratefully refresh itself under the power of as under the power of sleep and the healing vitality of dreams,and all this seems a little more likely than not, the materials which people any intersection of time and place are at all times marvellous, regardless of consciousness........" WHAT???????? Good Grief.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Lily

    I wanted to gouge my eyes out many, many times. I can't believe I even gave it 2 stars. Yes, it is a super famous book and has gotten all kinds of acclaim over the past 70 years or so. But James Agee drives me nuts. His writing style gave me a migraine. I did, however, keep the book and may attempt it again one day in the very distant future, once I have forgotten how much it bothered me the first go-round.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Nick

    A life altering read. The sort that very seldom comes along...

  11. 4 out of 5

    eddie

    This appears to be one of those books that inspires either love or hate. A good friend, who grew up the next county over from Hale County, and who is more focused on Southern history than I am, was unable to finish the book. I did finish, although I often did not want to continue. The book is ostensibly a journalistic account of the lives of three white sharecropper families. It fails as journalism. Agee inserts his own editorializing again and again. He presents as fact impressions drawn from h This appears to be one of those books that inspires either love or hate. A good friend, who grew up the next county over from Hale County, and who is more focused on Southern history than I am, was unable to finish the book. I did finish, although I often did not want to continue. The book is ostensibly a journalistic account of the lives of three white sharecropper families. It fails as journalism. Agee inserts his own editorializing again and again. He presents as fact impressions drawn from his own prejudices. His long disquisition on Alabama education, which he prefaces by noting that he visited in the summer when the children were not in school and therefore that he lacks any knowledge of their education, if filled with commentary that seems to derive from his own assumptions and opinions. He simultaneously attempts to show the poverty and nobility of the farmers, but his attempts are at cross purposes. They are ignorant, yet wiser that the rich. Agee's moralizing often falls apart on his indecisiveness. They don't learn about art, but then again it would be worse for them if they did. Agee constantly presents arguments where he is incapable of committing to one side or the other. The large middle of the book is filled with Agee's OCD documenting of the ephemera of the families - the the point of reproducing fragments of text from scraps of newspaper that he finds in a drawer. The writing is incredibly dry and Agee lacks the skills or framework for effectively conveying what he sees. The book would have been immensely more useful if he had better integrated Evans' photos. (If you choose to read the book, go to the Library of Congress website to get a larger set of Evans' photos, labeled with the names of the subjects.) Even when he presents information, he doesn't provide context. That family heirloom - a glass plate - that he says means more than anything to the wife? He doesn't ask the wife why it is so important and he doesn't attempt to explain. Her story is not important and he isn't really interested in her as a person. His focus is on the thing she cares for. The book also lacks organization, skipping around in focus, which is frustrating. Finally, perhaps in fidelity to his commitment to revealing all, Agee shares his own sexual hangups at a number of points, especially his repeated comments about Pearl, a child of eight years, whom he refers to as "erotic" and having "sexy eyes" and the heir to that "sexually loose 'stock'of which most casual country and smalltown whoredom comes." Why did he need to talk about a an imagined three-way? Why did he seem to seriously consider sleeping with one farmer's wife: "a supremely hot and simple nymph, whose eyes go to bed with every man she sees." Why did he have to share his need for "some tail," his imagined sex with a whore he met on the road, or the possibility of “moving in on that piece of head cheese” after she finished with her current customer? Did his obsessive need to catalogue every nail in the home really require him to go through the farmer's closet and sniff his wife's dirty undies? Why is this mess of useless detail, self-aggrandizing commentary, and sexual hangups so revered when it seems to me that Agee 1. did not really get to know his subjects, only his idea of them; 2. treated their living situation as equivalent to their existence; 3. ignored almost all aspects of their lives (hopes, dreams, faith) in favor of his own relentless thesis that they really are the wretched of the earth; 4. made no serious attempt to place them in the larger political, social, and economic situation (although he does provide useful information on the economics of sharecropping); 5. used their situation to go off on tangents of his own; and 6. made all of these grand pronouncements after pending only three weeks in Alabama.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sherri

    Stunned is the only way I can describe my immediate reaction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is not like any other book I have read and not at all what I expected. (And at times funny in ways I'm pretty sure Agee didn't mean it to be.) James Agee was 27 when he wrote it. Unbelievable. I gave it five stars not because I loved every minute of reading it but because of the effort and because of the way he gets across the plight and horror of sharecropping without sentimentality (though with a fa Stunned is the only way I can describe my immediate reaction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is not like any other book I have read and not at all what I expected. (And at times funny in ways I'm pretty sure Agee didn't mean it to be.) James Agee was 27 when he wrote it. Unbelievable. I gave it five stars not because I loved every minute of reading it but because of the effort and because of the way he gets across the plight and horror of sharecropping without sentimentality (though with a fair amount of self-righteousness and some, mmm, bluster I guess for lack of a better word at hand right now). It's probably not for everybody since he has whole chapters of digression and a fairly heavy writing style. It also takes a while to get used to the list-like descriptions, which also take up whole chapters. When you are reading it, it's like swimming a deep, hard-running river. You aren't sure where you are, if you will make it through and if you have the strength. When you finish, you can't believe what a beautiful and amazing river you have just swum across.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Leonard Pierce

    It took me forever to get around to reading this, but boy, am I glad I did. It's a moving and incredibly heartfelt look at the suffering of the poor during the Depression (and a rather effective defense of FDR's reaction to it), and one of the most deft blends of fiction and journalism I've ever read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Kate Savage

    What? What is this? What is this? Why is it so beautiful? And then dull? And then arrogant? And then the most humble thing a Harvard kid has ever written? Why do I want to make every ethnographer I know read it? Even though it aggravates me?

  15. 5 out of 5

    A. Jesse

    I give up, I can't finish this nor ever will. Walker Evans begins the book with a few dozen photos, most of which are mediocre at best, a handful of which are among the best photos ever taken. Agee's text, too, is a mixed bag, although the avalanche of dross so completely mires the gems that I found myself flipping through ten pages at a time, looking for a paragraph worth reading. Agee goes through convulsions of angst, trying to find some way to tell us about the lives of 3 poor tenant farmers I give up, I can't finish this nor ever will. Walker Evans begins the book with a few dozen photos, most of which are mediocre at best, a handful of which are among the best photos ever taken. Agee's text, too, is a mixed bag, although the avalanche of dross so completely mires the gems that I found myself flipping through ten pages at a time, looking for a paragraph worth reading. Agee goes through convulsions of angst, trying to find some way to tell us about the lives of 3 poor tenant farmers' families without being condescending or romantic. His response is a mountain of maudlin prose, reams of lists of the contents of every shelf and closet, whole chapters of poetic drivel about the divinity of man and the wheeling stars and god knows what else besides. Inside this monstrous book is a brilliant magazine story crying for release: 10 great photos, 20 graceful pages of reporting. I hope some day an unawed editor will produce it.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rachel C.

    This book contains a treasure trove of sociological data: it's an intimate look at three Alabama sharecropper families. Their possessions, clothes, their speech, education, daily activities, etc., all exhaustively detailed. What makes this book timeless, though, is the prose. Agee clearly felt deeply and passionately about his subjects and had the literary firepower to etch them into history. Maybe a little too much firepower. I believe Agee wrote most of this in his mid-twenties, and indeed it ha This book contains a treasure trove of sociological data: it's an intimate look at three Alabama sharecropper families. Their possessions, clothes, their speech, education, daily activities, etc., all exhaustively detailed. What makes this book timeless, though, is the prose. Agee clearly felt deeply and passionately about his subjects and had the literary firepower to etch them into history. Maybe a little too much firepower. I believe Agee wrote most of this in his mid-twenties, and indeed it has the romanticism of a young man. I sometimes felt that the prose was overly flowery and earnest given the subject matter. Like this paragraph on Woods' shirt: "The shirt is home made out of a fertilizer sack. The cloth, by use and washing, is of a heavy and delicious look: as if pure cream were pressed into a fabric an eighth of an inch thick, and were cut and sewn into a garment." Overkill, no? I also had to dock the book one star for the intermittent leching on the girls and women.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    I know this book is critically acclaimed. It just really didn't work that well for me. The book is about a trip James Agee (Harvard-educated journalist for Forbes at the time) and Walker Evans (photographer) take to backwoods Alabama to see what the lives of sharecroppers are like. I don't think I'm ruining anything if I tell you this-their lives are hard. Harder than most people could imagine. Agee does an amazing job at describing the families he meets with. Evans' pictures are stark but soft. I know this book is critically acclaimed. It just really didn't work that well for me. The book is about a trip James Agee (Harvard-educated journalist for Forbes at the time) and Walker Evans (photographer) take to backwoods Alabama to see what the lives of sharecroppers are like. I don't think I'm ruining anything if I tell you this-their lives are hard. Harder than most people could imagine. Agee does an amazing job at describing the families he meets with. Evans' pictures are stark but soft. What frustrates me is Agee's frequent self-serving rants about his own awkward feelings toward the sharecroppers. I found these segments pretentious. And there's just too many of them for me to say this book was great. Yes, it's an important book with some good writing. But that doesn't make me overlook Agee's frequent navel-gazing.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Dottie

    This info describes the OC Library copy which I'm reading: Cover: mud gray green with the title left margin reconciled like so: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with black lettering except the word Praise which is white -- authors name lower right above Photograpsher Walker Evans name Hardcover; 471 pp Copyrights 1939, 1940 James Agee; 1941 James Agee and Walker Evans; 1969 Walker Evans. Third Printing Riverside Press Cambridge Massachusetts USA

  19. 5 out of 5

    Illiterate

    Agee shouldn’t be blamed for the recent plague of self-indulgent texts by scholars obsessed with their own role as reader/writer and voyeur/sympathizer.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Anders

    First published in 1941, James Agee's study of three Southern sharecropping families during the Great Depression sold a paltry six hundred copies. In the last few decades, however, the book has enjoyed increased interest and to date has been reprinted in a handful of updated editions. The book is packaged with about 30-40 black and white photographs taken by Walker Evans of the families described in the book meant to serve as a companion to the text, and in fact the book gives Evans co-authoring First published in 1941, James Agee's study of three Southern sharecropping families during the Great Depression sold a paltry six hundred copies. In the last few decades, however, the book has enjoyed increased interest and to date has been reprinted in a handful of updated editions. The book is packaged with about 30-40 black and white photographs taken by Walker Evans of the families described in the book meant to serve as a companion to the text, and in fact the book gives Evans co-authoring credit. The book came out of a trip taken by Evans and Agee in 1936, when they traveled to the South in an old car full of photographic equipment to live for a few weeks with sharecroppers, to be able to understand their day-to-day realities. They set out to get the full experience of the people they were studying, to fully immerse themselves in their reality. They slept wherever there was room -- a bedbug-infested lumpy old cot, an old car seat ripped out of a car and moved onto a porch; and they ate what their subjects ate, however gross or tasteless. Their shock at these conditions comes through, rippled with admiration and respect. Agee infuses this respect and admiration into his writing of the book, and seeks to do these people justice by writing about their situation as honestly and accurately as possible. The book straddles many different genres, and the end product can be described as a poetic take on ethnography. Oscillating between highly-detailed personal narrative and impressionistic prose-poem, this book is beguiling and hard-to-follow, to say the least. Agee struggles (to put it mildly) with questions of privilege, truth, empathy, social justice. However, the way he writes this struggle is so overwrought, so labored, that it quickly stumbles into a painful, inaccessible verbosity. Boiled down his thesis would be something like: "these people are so beautiful that it hurts me and literary convention can't possibly contain this pain." Poetry readers may enjoy Agee's knack for rich description: his prose is proto-Beat in its frenzied rush, its mixture of the fantastic and the ordinary, the colorful swirls of compelling personal narrative, his heartbreaking sensitivity to the plight of the people he's studying. Like his contemporary e.e. cummings, Agee also has a knack for reclaiming the rules of syntax and structuring. But a successful prose-poem does not make a successful ethnography, and ultimately, as such, the book is a failure. Seeking to truly understand and render for his audience the experience and character of these three families, Agee is faced with the ethnographer's dilemma of trying to see and present the subject free of the preconceptions and biases of the observer. By and large his approach is too concerned with documenting the physicality of the families, including a chapter where he seeks to describe every object in every room of one of the families' small house. When he does look deeper into the character of his subjects, he does it with highly depersonalized, overly sexualized physical observation. But even then he remains distant from them. He extrapolates their thoughts and concerns as they barely make eye contact with him, at most making stilted efforts at politeness. The difference between them and Agee is so great, yet rather than try to seriously broach this divide, Agee explodes into pages of pastoral descriptions of their farms and clothing. Yet beneath all this intricate detail, it is obvious that his retreat to his (considerable) writing skills is due to his acute frustration at not being able to do more. In this way, Agee neglects ethnography's bread and butter: interpersonal relationships, religious beliefs, community dynamics, shared histories, among others. He mainly shows the people he's studying in terms of their possessions. Discussion about the people themselves is glaringly shallow, and often highly, frustratingly filtered through his idiosyncratic personal lens. P.S. I don't think I'm going to put a number on this one, just because strangely anything between 1 and 5 seems accurate to me.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Dominic

    In summer 1936, James Agee and photographer Walker Evans went to spend a few months in Alabama amongst three tenant farmer families. Their goal was not necessarily to report or even understand these "beautiful" men and women, but to render them on the page in such a way that it does justice to their brillance, their largeness. The result is one of the most sensitive, pained, compassionate, utterly human pieces of writing I've ever read, second maybe only to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, who wa In summer 1936, James Agee and photographer Walker Evans went to spend a few months in Alabama amongst three tenant farmer families. Their goal was not necessarily to report or even understand these "beautiful" men and women, but to render them on the page in such a way that it does justice to their brillance, their largeness. The result is one of the most sensitive, pained, compassionate, utterly human pieces of writing I've ever read, second maybe only to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, who was one of Agee's literary "fathers." Agee's prose is full of exhausting labyrinthine sentences and strange punctuation, and it requires patience. The book is an unusual blend of genre that gives no lip service to the "normal" way nonfiction books are written. Agee, who is wrestling with the nature of reality and art and the paradox of "honest journalism," is trying to create a whole new genre. It is probably a failed effort, but it is also quite possibly the most beautiful literary "attempt and failure" ever published. There is a lot of warning on this site to read Agee in small doses. I can understand this advice, but I must disagree. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is best read in long, extended sittings. Walker Evans, in the 1960 preface, spoke of night as Agee's time, and so he advises to read Famous Men at night. I second his suggestion. My expectations for this work weren't especially high, but it turns out that Agee and Evans' book is one of the most powerful reading experiences of my life. It is not just the dazzling efforts of a master writer (which it is) nor a painfully close look at a part of history I know very little (which it is as well). Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a document of two young men's quest to give name to the desire of each and every human individual to be acknowledged and to acknowledge, to be recognized and to recognize, to be seen and to see, to be valued and respected, to value and respect. To Agee and Evans, strangers should not stay strange. We must learn how to challenge ourselves to look into the lives of every human being and interact with all in such a way that honors their dignity and inherent beauty. This book has already changed my life. I urge you all to read it, one day.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kati

    This book is the musings of James Agee about a short period of time he spend wandering Alabama and living with three tenant families there. It is complemented by some wonderful, compassionate and compelling photographs taken by Walker Evans. I must say that I had a difficult time getting through this book. It was one of the slower reads I've had in a long time. I kept getting lost in the language. Agee uses lots of colons and very little other punctuation; also he speaks in a highly descriptive This book is the musings of James Agee about a short period of time he spend wandering Alabama and living with three tenant families there. It is complemented by some wonderful, compassionate and compelling photographs taken by Walker Evans. I must say that I had a difficult time getting through this book. It was one of the slower reads I've had in a long time. I kept getting lost in the language. Agee uses lots of colons and very little other punctuation; also he speaks in a highly descriptive poetic fashion. I would lose the subject by the time I got to the verb, that kind of thing. Nevertheless this book was written with a militant love for the tenant farmers described. Agee sees the good of the world in them, but does not wish to saint them in any way... just resist their societal demonization. You'll need some time and some good strong coffee... it's best not to read when tired, but it is a strong book and good in different ways then novels are good.

  23. 5 out of 5

    James Campbell

    I absolutely loathe his book. A 92 page (or some ridiculous number like that) description of a wooden shack. This is a perfect example of experimental style over substance, and it's basically unreadable. The only redeeming quality is Walker Evans's astounding photography. Never attempt to read this book.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Julianne

    If this book review were to become so long that I would need chapter- and sub-headings, and if my chapter- and sub-headings turned out to be things like “(On the Porch: 1,” “Colon,” and “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby,” and if I were to set some of them—but not others—off with left parentheses, and punctuate some—again, not others—with colons tending towards nothing but a thereafter empty page, you would think (aside from “Wow, this review is horribly and strangely long”) that I’d compl If this book review were to become so long that I would need chapter- and sub-headings, and if my chapter- and sub-headings turned out to be things like “(On the Porch: 1,” “Colon,” and “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby,” and if I were to set some of them—but not others—off with left parentheses, and punctuate some—again, not others—with colons tending towards nothing but a thereafter empty page, you would think (aside from “Wow, this review is horribly and strangely long”) that I’d completely lost touch with any audience I ever had, right? That is what it is like to read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee and Walker Evans (yes, that Walker Evans of Depression-era photographic fame) were sent, in 1936, by Fortune magazine to investigate the lives of white tenant farmers in the Deep South. The result was intended—by Fortune and possibly initially by Agee and Evans—to be a series of documentary articles accompanied by photographs of appropriately pitiable people. But Agee and Evans were reluctant to write that kind of article (the kind that Fortune and its readers felt they had a right to expect?) and their submissions were declined for publication in the magazine. Only in 1941 were Agee’s vastly expanded manuscript and Evans’s accompanying photographs finally published in book form by Houghton Mifflin (thank you, New England), as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Good title, I thought, upon first reading it. Unusual. Arresting. Perhaps ironic, given the subject matter of the book? To me, it connoted a seeming paean of praise that was really a denunciation. I took it for granted that the “famous men” referred to in the title were the independent, wealthy landowners keeping the tenant farmers and sharecroppers profiled in the book in a never-ending cycle of poverty and debt. After all, tenant farmers were not, were never, could never be, famous. (Whether Fortune chose to publish articles about them or not.) And exploitative white men with all the money and guns and prestige one Alabama county could furnish in that era wouldn’t have been praised by men like Agee and Evans. Not with a straight face, anyway. I began reading the book expecting in-depth exposition of the tenant system of farming, expecting Agee to eventually level an accusatory finger directly in the landowners’ direction. I expected a tone of snide mockery. I expected simmering righteous indignation. Instead what I read (after first poring over Evans’s stark and evocative photographs) was a register of “Persons and Places” in which William Blake, Ring Lardner, and Jesus Christ (among others) were listed as “unpaid agitators.” Hmm. Then a “Design of Book Two” that read like a trial outline for a book not yet written. I could imagine James Agee sitting down to write a first draft amongst the notes he had made during his weeks of living with the tenant families—notes on old wrapping paper, notes on envelopes—and writing exactly the “Design” that was published, down to the last left parenthesis. Though Let Us Now… was originally intended to be the first of three volumes in a larger work entitled “Three Tenant Families,” Agee never got around to writing volumes two and three, which I can’t say really surprises. Indeed, part of me wishes Agee had had just a slightly tighter grip on his hosses. Because while Let Us Now… is certainly striking in its unvarnished authenticity, it could be more intelligibly structured…more “user-friendly,” so to speak. Agee writes in a footnote on p. 281, “I am dangerously and mistakenly much against compromise: ‘my kind never gets anything done.’” And though in this case “dangerously” and “mistakenly” are certainly offered ironically, I do believe that Agee really was averse to compromise, perhaps even to cooperation, or, any cooperation that didn’t directly further his individual aims. In fact, I think this personality trait (see “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby”) is perhaps one contributing factor to why Let Us Now sold fewer than 600 copies. Perhaps readers would have been more inclined to read this unconventional book if it had at least used conventional punctuation. Be that as it may, Agee and Evans have, between them, created a substantial, moving, and finely crafted piece of work. I hesitate to call it “groundbreaking,” because it actually seems unique among works of its kind, having more in common with Thoreau’s Walden or Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek than with documentary journalism—in the end, it is more distinct as itself than similar to anything. In a chapter entitled “On the Porch: 2,” Agee writes: “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 and as in my memory and regard they are” (p. 218, italics Agee’s). Agee seems at least equally concerned with the perception and transmission of reality as with the shape of life for the tenant farmers with whom he temporarily sheltered. Let Us Now…’s very best passages deal with both: “The [lamp ‘oil’ is not at all oleaginous, but thin, brittle, rusty feeling, and sharp; taken and rubbed between forefinger and thumb, it so cleanses their grain that it sharpens their mutual touch to a new coin edge” (p. 47). “Late in August the fields begin to whiten more rarely with late bloom and more frequently with cotton and then still thicker with cotton, a sparkling ground starlight of it, steadily bursting into more and more millions of points, all the leaves seeming shrunken smaller; quite as at night the whole frontage of the universe is more and more thoroughly printed in the increasing darkness…” (p. 304). “It was as hot as all the days of the week piled one on top of another, or as if they were a series of burning-glasses…” (p. 344). At bottom, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is far more subversive than an in-depth investigation of tenant farming, more subversive than an accusing finger leveled at the landlords, more subversive than snide mockery or even righteous indignation. Far from declaring that the tenant system has essentially committed crimes against these and other tenant families and that as a result, it should be reformed or abolished, Agee seems to be declaring a harsher truth: that such wrongs cannot be righted by any human effort. At times, he seems to imply that the tenants he profiles will never escape what in 1936 were their ‘present’ circumstances. Agee imagines the tenants he meets to be asking in the silence of their hearts, “In what way were we trapped? where, our mistake? what, where, how, when, what way, might all these things have been different, if only we had done otherwise?” ( p. 74). Later, he divides all humanity into two groups, the Prolific and the Devouring and writes, “…the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer as a sea received the excess of his delights….These two classes of men are always upon earth, and they should be enemies. Whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence” (p. 418). Far from betraying some deep-seated snobbery or fatalism, I would argue these passages indicate a desire on the part of Agee to short-circuit any impression that the tenant families he meets and profiles are merely examples of a “social problem” (inside front cover). The term “social problem” implies something temporary and curable, something which does not exact the lives of human beings as a kind of tribute. However, Agee seems to take his assignment more seriously than Fortune ever intended him to; instead of simply describing and decrying what he found in Alabama, he seems to think he owes it to the tenant families in question to present them as more than arbitrary victims of an unjust human system. Though they may seem to be merely the temporary and ‘present’ losers in an age-old struggle between the “haves” and “have-nots” (Marx is quoted on p. xvi.), Agee seems to be trying to illustrate how permanent are the tolls exacted by what others think of as temporary disadvantages. Cotton tenantry in the Deep South of the United States of America in 1936 is just one example of what you may call a “social problem,” if you like: humankind’s continued inhumanity to humankind. How comes it to be that though the Earth provides more than enough to satisfy every human need, some humans’ needs are ignored in favor of other humans’ mere wants and desires? How comes it to be that we do not care more for each other, refusing to trade in other people’s misery, for money? Though Agee may or may not have honored these tenants’ lives in a way they would understand or approve of, he, in his own way, seems genuinely to seek to honor them: “…by bland chance alone is my life so softened and sophisticated in the years of my defenselessness [that] I am robbed of a royalty I can not only never claim, but never properly much desire or regret” (p. 377).

  25. 4 out of 5

    Easton Smith

    There is no part of this book that deserves 4-stars. It's all fives or threes, the occasional two. 4-stars is a reduction, an average. Agee is either describing the world and its people with the poetic exactitude and finesse of Whitman, or he is pontificating in philosophical digressions that feel both dated and overwrought. In light of how much I detest the later, the 4-star rating is a testament to the former. In short, it's worth it (maybe just use this as as rule: if you are getting bored, j There is no part of this book that deserves 4-stars. It's all fives or threes, the occasional two. 4-stars is a reduction, an average. Agee is either describing the world and its people with the poetic exactitude and finesse of Whitman, or he is pontificating in philosophical digressions that feel both dated and overwrought. In light of how much I detest the later, the 4-star rating is a testament to the former. In short, it's worth it (maybe just use this as as rule: if you are getting bored, just skip a few pages and you will find yourself again in a scene of sparse beauty and fiercely loyal narrative).

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mara

    I'm so conflicted about this book... on the one hand, I am here for a very post-modern take on a journalistic story. The writing style is poetic, to be sure, and I can see why people love this book. That being said, I just have misgivings over the author making this so much about him. I get that it's the project... but I'm just not that into that project. I also found the style to be somewhat alienating for non-fiction. Yeah, just mixed feelings all around and so I'll split the difference and ca I'm so conflicted about this book... on the one hand, I am here for a very post-modern take on a journalistic story. The writing style is poetic, to be sure, and I can see why people love this book. That being said, I just have misgivings over the author making this so much about him. I get that it's the project... but I'm just not that into that project. I also found the style to be somewhat alienating for non-fiction. Yeah, just mixed feelings all around and so I'll split the difference and call it a 3 star. I'd be interested to see what this voice is like in fiction, so I still am curious to try A Death in the Family

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    Not really what I was expecting - a portrait of three sharecropper families during the depression. It was more a practice in descriptive writing (there were entire chapters on what bedrooms looked like). It's a great display of Agee's writing, but I'd prefer his fiction.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mark Palermo

    Beginning on page 123, there’s a forty-seven-page description of a wooden shack. After finishing this section, I was shocked to discover that Agee was about to describe two more wooden shacks.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Melanie Hilliard

    My rating: 4.25 stars Long after I have forgotten how I spent my days scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, I will remember this book. How the heartbreak of unending work that leads nowhere leaves the lives of men and women in ruin, without even a shred of hope. Meanness and anger and sadness in its wake. A treatise on art, on poverty, on life – this book will shake you to your core. But I would be remiss if I did not mention the subject of race relations. It is unfathomable to my educated ey My rating: 4.25 stars Long after I have forgotten how I spent my days scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, I will remember this book. How the heartbreak of unending work that leads nowhere leaves the lives of men and women in ruin, without even a shred of hope. Meanness and anger and sadness in its wake. A treatise on art, on poverty, on life – this book will shake you to your core. But I would be remiss if I did not mention the subject of race relations. It is unfathomable to my educated eyes how poor Southern whites have continued to decry their black brethren when they have so much more in common than they have in difference. It’s the American dupe of the century, or even centuries. And maybe the ultimate sadness, the pity I cannot see beyond, is that the words being used to savage human beings, robbing people of their dignity simply because they are poor, words being used more than 80 years ago, are the very same ones being used today. How my friends, do we move beyond? How do we restore dignity to those whose dignity has been stolen, generation after generation?

  30. 4 out of 5

    Lisa N

    This is unquestionably one of the most unique books I have read. In 1936, Agee and Evans were assigned to report on tenant families in the cotton belt. They traveled to Alabama and lived with three sharecropper families for about a month. Evans’ now iconic Depression-era photographs were shocking, revealing “a mode of life—in our rural slums—that was unthinkably remote and tragic.” Agee used an experimental writing style, combining complex literary passages, journalism, and poetry: “I must say t This is unquestionably one of the most unique books I have read. In 1936, Agee and Evans were assigned to report on tenant families in the cotton belt. They traveled to Alabama and lived with three sharecropper families for about a month. Evans’ now iconic Depression-era photographs were shocking, revealing “a mode of life—in our rural slums—that was unthinkably remote and tragic.” Agee used an experimental writing style, combining complex literary passages, journalism, and poetry: “I must say to you, this is not a work of art or of entertainment.” I don’t understand exactly what he was trying to do. He says, “This is a book about ‘sharecroppers’ and is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance.” One thing I got out of reading this is the power of words to convey images beyond anything in a photograph. Agee tries to capture the feelings, the odors, the lack of sanitation, the desperation, the hopelessness. Verbal imagery really has an effect on me. Some of the imagery was downright repulsive—like the vivid descriptions of sores on the animals and the vermin with which they live. But other passages struck a chord—describing the bed—“It is unmade and is flung over with a wrecked quilt nearly dead-gray with dirt, the dark, crudded cotton leaking from its wounds.” “Near the corner opposite the table is a large, very old, nearly unmanageable, and almost inconceivably foul stove, stacked with unwashed pans; and next this is a broken table whose unpainted wood surface is coal black and on which the biscuit dough is made.” “They live in a steady shame and insult of discomforts, insecurities, and inferiorities, piecing these together into whatever semblance of comfortable living they can, and the whole of it is a stark nakedness of makeshifts and the lack of means: yet they are also, of course, profoundly anesthetized.” He spends literally pages describing their scant, primitive clothing—corn-shuck hats, fertilizer sack dresses—with exhaustive detail—one ‘dress’ was “held together with a snarl of shoelace.” Agee says, “The Beethoven piano concerto #4 IS importantly, among other things, a ‘blind’ work of ‘nature,’ of the world and of the human race; and the partition wall of the Gudgers’ front bedroom IS importantly, among other things, a great tragic poem.” I have pondered this passage more than any other. In one section he describes their shelter as a scab on a diseased community. While I can conceive of certain passages (like the crudded cotton leaking from the wounds of the quilt above) as being tragic and poetic, there is far too much realism in poverty for me to think of it as poetic in any sense. Agee probes into every inch of their meager, shabby existence, even down to inventorying the contents of their drawers and rubbish. I found this very disturbing and exploitive and feel it displays a deep irreverence for human dignity. Whatever his intent, the work as a whole comes across to me as brutal and cruel. The tediousness became unbearable, and I was only able to read about 320+ of the 471 pages. I will be happy to send this book back to the library.

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