Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a collaborative effort between writer James Agree and photographer Walker Evans. Ostensibly a documentary-like prose account of a visit to rural Alabama in the summer of 1936 by the writer and photographer, the work expands beyond that limited scope through the essays of Agee to touch upon a host of social concerns at play in the world of Depression-era America.
Published in 1941, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was an experiment that took Agee from his traditional reportorial style of criticism and fiction into spheres of creative experimentation with both form and substance. The result is a collection of observations that tie together to serve as a far more impressionistic statement of the state of the union than a mere expressionistic documentation of facts.
The original 1941 edition opened with 31 images captured by Evans with subsequent editions expanding to 64 photographs. These images are all shot in stark black & white and covers family members and the homes of Alabama sharecroppers. These are all images that point out in uncompromising clarity the unrelentingly grim circumstances under which the people lived. The bulk of Agee’s text describes the lives being led these people. Interspersed within the straightforward narrative are chapters that question the fundamental ability of a writer to get to the truth when a subject knows they are being covered as well as accounts less directed toward directing the narrative and more attuned to the artistic licenses. (For instance, one chapter seems to be a completely unrelated survey from the Partisan Review sent to a number of writers asking for their views on a number of world issues. While at first this inclusion seems to have nothing directly to do with the stories of Alabama sharecroppers struggling with economic deprivation and poverty, it soon becomes clear that Agee’s responses are very much related to his reasons for undertaking this assignment as he assigns the role of the journalist and the writer the responsibility of revealing to the world the fundamental failures of capitalist economics and democratic politics.
Each of the participants in the book were assign false names in order to protect their privacy although their real names are attached to the photos which are now archived in the Library of Congress.