Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Let Us Praise Famous Men

I recently returned to college, 7 years after high school. I am finding difficulty understanding James Agee's Writing in this book.

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Let Us Praise Famous Men is a brilliant compilation of poetry, confessions, musical analogy, dialogue, and a blend of both fiction and non-fiction. It is filled with photographs that tell stories without words, reinforcing what the author has already written of.

Originally contracted to write an article about sharecroppers for a large magazine, the authors spent four weeks with a family of tenant croppers. The family came to trust them during that time, something that allowed the two to truly experience their subject's day to day lives. They compiled so much material in a short time that their editors were overwhelmed; they were also appalled that the two wouldn't bend on the horrific conditions they documented. What they wrote was unprintable; well, at least in that context.

Given a first draft of the resulting article, the editors at Fortune quite understandably threw up their hands--as did several other editors who subsequently worked with a later book-length manuscript. The writing was contrary. It refused to accommodate itself to the reader, and at times it positively bristled with hostility. (What other book could take Marx as the epigraph and then announce: "These words are quoted here to mislead those who will be misled by them"?) Response to the book was puzzled or unfriendly, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sputtered out of print only a few short years after its publication. It took the 1960s, and a vogue for social justice, to bring Agee's masterwork the audience it deserved.

Yet the book is far more interesting--aesthetically and morally--than the sort of guilty-liberal tract for which it is often mistaken. On an existential level, Agee's text is a deeply felt examination of what it means to suffer, to struggle to live in spite of suffering. On a personal level, it is the painful, beautifully written portrait of one man's obsession. In its collaboration with Evans's photographs, the book is also a groundbreaking experiment in form. In the end, however, it is more than merely the sum of its parts. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is, quite simply, a book unlike any other, simmering with anger and beauty and mystery


Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Bottom quote taken from an article by Mary Park.

What hard ship did these three families face?