Paperback Riders: James Agee “Now Let Us Praise Famous Men”

Picador Classics (Paperback), published 1988

A Convoluted Wordy Tale of Hard Times – But is it a Classic?

Paper Back Riders is a new occasional series intended to highlight books that are considered a fundamental backdrop to Americana Music.  There won’t be band bios or tell it all revelations and there will be few biographies or self-written accounts of musical lives.  What we hope to highlight are those books that consider the social or artistic milieu that has influenced artists or, that represent the time(s) in which they live. A number may be written some while ago and some may have been, to a degree, forgotten or ignored, if not at the time then more likely so in the present. We hope they will be of interest.

This first book for consideration meets a good number of these provisos. James Agee’s, ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’, was written between 1936 and 1941 when it was eventually published for the first time – to some critical acclaim and public indifference.  It has sat on my shelf for a number of years waiting to be read and is the paperback ‘Picador Classics’ edition printed in 1988 so any page references relate to that printing. The cover illustration above is from a different edition.

Author Agee (a self-confessed communist by, ‘sympathy and conviction’ ) and photographer Walker Evans were commissioned by Fortune magazine to write an article about share-croppers in the southern states.  It was never published in the magazine though eventually did appear as a book.  The title is a quotation from the Wisdom of Sirach (44:1) a more complete copy of which is on page 445. The time frame places the book in the Great Depression and well into Roosevelt’s New Deal, which, imaginative as it was, did not relieve the crisis in full. It was only really the setting of the American economy on a wartime footing that provided a more complete solution.

Agee’s prose is complemented by the photographs of Evans which were numerous although with only a selection included in the book.  It’s instructive to compare the spare black and white images with the prose on offer, which attempts a wordy quasi-poetic stream of consciousness that delights and infuriates readers in equal measure.  It’s no surprise that Agee references the works of William Faulkner and Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe.

As he remarks in the book’s preface, the original assignment was to produce a, ‘Photographic and verbal record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers’. However, as the Literary Encyclopaedia points outAgee ultimately conceived of the project as a work of several volumes to be entitled, Three Tenant Families, though only the first volume, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was ever written .

Agee considered that the larger work, though based in journalism, would be, ‘An independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity“. ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’, is now apparently studied in the U.S. as a source of both journalistic and literary innovation.

The three families involved are the Gudgers, the Ricketts and the Woods although most attention seems to be paid to the Gudgers. In fact, these names are pseudonyms for the Burroughs, Tengle and Fields families respectively. The book is set in Alabama and key areas are Mill Hill, Moundville, Greensboro and Tuscaloosa  – though these too are disguised.  It’s notable that the voices of those concerned are rarely heard and it is arguable that whilst Agee casts his thoughts and opinions around like confetti little is heard directly from the protagonists. Agee seems convinced that he makes a real connection with his subjects, something about which the reader will form their own view.

The ‘Good Reads’ website features a considerable amount of reader feedback and the reviews and comments on the book are well worth a look – they are, some of them, hilarious. They are also very acute and to the point. Here is one view that, for me, sums the book up perfectly.

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.”

Here’s a more succinct and less balanced view. I absolutely loathe this book. If you want more, and I would recommend looking, then here’s the link.

There are moments when Agee’s descriptive style works well – for example when he describes the challenge of driving in the mud.  Similarly, when he describes the work that the farmers undertake or the night he spends at the Gudger household in constant battle with all manner of tormenting insect life (p224 and the only really funny episode as he tries in vain to cover his whole body). The sections about money, shelter, clothing, education and work, under the general title of, ‘Part two – some findings and comments’, generally work well  The explanation of how money works between tenant and landlord is informative, better written, easier to read. He explains well the dilemma of parenthood – unproductive mouths to feed when they are young – more useful when they can work or eventually look after aged parents. On page 382 he describes entering the eating house ‘Gaffneys Lunch, in one of his best pieces, that unfortunately moves (or descends) into yet another reverie of sexual desire.

There are though other occasions when Agee’s prose – with no clear subject in mind other than his own musings and flights of fancy – becomes tedious and unreadable.  As I drifted off into some better place my thought was that it was a gross failure of editing. The 440 pages could easily be reduced to half that or less and make a much more readable and concise book.

As one reader points out, after suffering an exhaustive account of every type and hue of pine plank imaginable, A 92 page (or some ridiculous number like that) description of a wooden shack.

It has to be carefully said, but it is odd that Agee has written a book that in all likelihood will be totally incomprehensible to the participants. It comes dangerously close to condescension and particularly so given how personal some of his comments are. There are some that feel he writes with a humble frame of mind, something he talks about – but talking and doing are in this instance not the same. One reader comments that he falls, 

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.

Look at the tight-lipped unsmiling rather blank stares of the two adults in the 18th and 19th of the first set of unnumbered pictures. It might seem that it is not so lovable to suffer such privations as a way of life, rather than as a tourist during a matter of weeks.

However, when Agee’s love stretches further, concerns are raised about his, ‘Obsessive regard that borders frequently on almost erotic indulgence’. Or as is put elsewhere, something that comes close to paedophilia, when Agee describes,

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 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?

This sexual tone hangs around the book like a bad smell time and again and though some pick up on it others who should know better don’t. A review in the Guardian refers to him as the, ‘Vermeer of Deprivation’. Neatly, possibly even accurately put, but in an article written in 2001 not one reference to this distasteful sexual pre-occupation that feels, put into print as it was, a total betrayal.  Did I say distasteful – actually it feels quite disgusting at times.

One thing the Guardian article does pick up on is the fact that, The black presence in the book’s landscape is marginal (neighbours pelted away from a water source or a soft-boned couple in their best clothes scared by Agee’s footfall)’.

Agee does indeed capture the fear that an approach from an unknown white man can engender but the lives of black people are given scant thought despite the fact that they are clearly in the area, and referenced on a number of occasions. To be fair, Agee does highlight the very poor provision for the education of black children and in a page of artistic suggestions does point to the tracks listed below as a reference point – all black artists. Perhaps he felt his brief lay elsewhere?

The next to last picture in my copy is of the simplest of graves and the last but one descriptive piece is of a graveyard wherein thankfully Agee makes simple straightforward observations. This is an image that sums up much of what he is trying to convey – how little someone can have at the end of it all. It seems clear he makes a better fist of it when he doesn’t try too hard and dispenses with the philosophising and florid wrting.

And Their Children After Them,’ by Dale Maharidge And Michael Williamson was published in 1989 and reveals what the participants, then and now, felt and feel about Agee and Evans’ book. Some felt it had told the truth about their lives, some that their parents had been deceived by Agee and Evans, even made to appear like yokels. Some of the children would not be interviewed.  Clearly and not unexpectedly a wide range of responses, similar to those of the readers in general.

In an article in the New York Times in 1989, Robert Mitgang reports that nothing has changed,

The photographs by Mr Williamson in ”And Their Children After Them” are eloquent: broken-down shacks with rusting automobiles in the backyard, toothless elders, country churches in better shape than schoolhouses, shoeless children, abandoned cotton gins, beautiful young faces destined to inherit little but hard-scrabble lives in a poverty-rooted, off-the-highway rural society that few Americans, in Washington or elsewhere, ever see. 

The latest iteration of this unresolved social nightmare is, of course, ‘Hill-billy Elegy’, by JD Vance, now in film and book form – and also it seems the subject of some rebuttals.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has now apparently sold half a million copies. If anyone sends me an address they can have mine.

About Gordon Sharpe 64 Articles
Retired music fan longing to get back to the Lakes and hoping to visit Scotland before much longer - somehow South Cheshire just doesn't cut it. Still seeking the grail in terms of a convincing description of what Americana really is but really enjoying the search. And still wondering when Kenny Rogers will get his just deserts

2 Comments

  1. Coincidentally I read this about a month ago and GS deserves kudos for taking on what is a fiendishly difficult work to review given how diverse and disjointed much of the content is. He does a very lively and insightful job of doing so.

  2. Thanks for the comment David – I won’t deny it was hard work. Its a real pity – I think there is a much better shorter book hidden in there. ‘Fienishly difficult’ sums it up really well. Always a gamble as to how a new series might go down so reallly glad you seemed to enjoy it

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