Book Title: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Author: James Agee & Walker Evans
Original Publication Date: 1941
Edition Read: Mariner Books (2001)
Total Pages: 432
Genre: Classic Non-Fiction
Reason Read: Group read online
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“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.”
Let us now praise the fact that I 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 on a magazine assignment. The assignment was scrapped, but he turned it into the first of what he planned to be a trilogy of books on the families he met. Only this, the first, was ever completed. 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.