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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families [Hardcover]

James Agee , Walker Evans
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 1988
Agee's colleague at Time in the 1940s, John Hersey, writes a major evaluation of Agee's work and the Agee legend in a new introduction to this literary classic. 64 pages of photos.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Just what kind of book is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men? It contains many things: poems; confessional reveries; disquisitions on the proper way to listen to Beethoven; snippets of dialogue, both real and imagined; a lengthy response to a survey from the Partisan Review; exhaustive catalogs of furniture, clothing, objects, and smells. And then there are Walker Evans's famously stark portraits of depression-era sharecroppers--photographs that both stand apart from and reinforce James Agee's words.

Assigned to do a story for Fortune magazine about sharecroppers in the Deep South, Agee and Evans spent four weeks living with a poor white tenant family, winning the Burroughs's trust and immersing themselves in a sharecropper's daily existence. 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. --Mary Park --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Agee's textual portraits and Evans's photographic records of three sharecropper families in the South instantly became, when published in 1939, one of the most brutally revealing records of an America that was ignored by society--a class of people whose level of poverty left them as spiritually, mentally, and physically worn as the land on which they toiled. Time has done nothing to decrease this book's power. This handsome edition sports the original text plus 64 new archival photos.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Puzzle to be piece together.... April 11 2004
By A Customer
James Agee's book on the sharecroppers of the American south during the great depression is a book not to be taken lightly. I read this book for a college english class and I can honestly say that most people in the course including myself are confused by Agee's intent and purpose. Agee's highly lyrical and philosophical tone allows a deep analysis into the question of human existence in the depression south. Yet, the very scope and difficulty of his subject is expressed in his confused, perhaps confusing writing. There are lonely moments of insight stacked alongside pages of seemingly irrelevant and baseless speculation. I say seemingly because each time I re-read the passage I find that Agee's words have quite a bit more meaning than I had originally found. This book is not a novel, not journalism but a puzzle which Agee could not piece together. Only with time and care can the reader hope to understand the frustratingly complex yet real message of Agee's work.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Read it? YES --- Praise it? NO Oct. 7 2002
Yes, Agee has an exceptional ability to use language. Yes, this novel is a "must read" for anyone interested in Depression-Era literature. No, it is not a good book, precisely for the same reason it is frequently recommended, namely, it's language.
Agee is understandably distressed by the inability of language to adequately express the plight of the families he portrays. However, he does not merely acknowledge this and move on, he rather writes an entire book about his inability to write. For someone interested in theory this might be interesting, but for someone interested in better understanding tenant farmers in the early 20th century, this is not the place to go. Although his intentions may be good, Agee's angst becomes primary in the text, even to the point of superseding the families' troubles. In the end, Agee is more concerned with how he is affected by his subject than by his subject in and of itself. See Orwell's THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER for a superb treatment of a similar topic.
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4.0 out of 5 stars And now for something completely different Dec 11 2000
What is this thing?!?!? - As John Hersey says in the introduction (page xxviii), "There had never been, and there will never be, anything quite like this book."-On the back cover, a dashing Agee is pictured with a glass of what one presumes to be a shot of the strong stuff in his hand. Appropriately, because the writing resembles nothing so much as an (at times) divinely inspired inebriety. He bounces from one form of writing to the next (poetry, descriptive prose, vituperative essay) without so much as a feint of a segue. There is really no narrative form to speak of. It seems clear (to me at least) that Agee didn't know himself what he was doing at times, and the striking pictures of Evans never seem to connect in the way they should with Agee's prose. It's rather like the characters in James Dickey's Deliverence stumbled out into a swath of impoverished farmland to write a book and take some pictures rather than into a soon-to-be dammed up river to take an ill-advised canoe trip. (One is not surprised, somehow, to learn that Agee was one of Dickey's great literary heroes.) ....And yet, for all the muddle, or perhaps because of it, the book has a disconcerting charm that will not let one be. I don't know where to pinpoint it or how to analyze it. But it's there, like some mischievous elf standing before your eyes who will not leave no matter how many times you open and shut your eyes and shake your head...There is a paragraph in the "On The Porch" section toward the end of the book, describing a girl in the dawning of her sexuality: "A phase so unassailably beyond any meaning of tenderness and of trust, so like the opening of the first living upon the shining of the young earth in its first morning... Read more ›
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4.0 out of 5 stars Finish the book Oct. 19 2000
I can scarcely recall a time when I did not want to read this book. In fact in february of 1996 I read And Their Children After Them, by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, which is a 1989 sequel to Let Us Now Praise, and examines what happened to the people Agee tells us about in this book, and their children. After reading this, I now want to again read what became of the people Let Us Now Praise led us to come to know so intimately. For many pages of this book reading it was a drag, and only my rigid rejection of the "right" of a reader to quit reading a book he has started caused me to continue reading. But in time I became glad I was reading it. The minute listing of every item in a room did not entrance me, but the cumulative effect of the recital of rural poverty accomplished its aim, Agee has his share of nutty ideas, but they do not overly detract from what he is telling us about Alabama in 1936. I am glad I read the book, and I will have to again look at And Their Children After Them.
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By A Customer
Can't quite give it 5 stars because Agee's self-indulgence does get to me (Evans, though is flawless). The indulgence I speak of is not so much the Agee's overdescription of his own mental states, though this can be intrusive and less than profound, but the too frequent willingness to let language and imagination take flight from reality, when reality, ultimately, is what is so compelling here. Imagination and trustworthiness unnecessarily depart ways, as Agee at times prefers the poetic to the truth. Nonetheless, the decision not to hem in those very flights of empathetic understanding that may depart from specific reality surely allowed him to give the essential breath and life to the portraiture. The perhaps more accurate, but much less illuminating, 1989 followup by Maharidge & Williamson (discussed below) is a useful contrast - all facts, rather little life. And one after all knows, reading Agee, that he probably hasn't quite got everything right; despite the book's inescapable flaws, it (and the marvelous photos) achieves the much deeper task of bringing these people to life and making outsiders understand their dignity in the face of poverty, even where that dignity is expressed in perverse ways (though sometimes seeing dignity when further investigation or more honest reporting, as Maharidge found with the Rickets, would have acknowledged more distressing truths).
But just adding a review to point the curious to a 1989 followup, And Their Children After Them, by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, which traces what became of the Gudgers, Woodses, Rickets, and their descendants (they keep the pseudonyms, though the names are elsewhere widely known - Burroughs, Fields, and Tingle (or Tengle)).
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Detailed and moving
Starts out with a long discourse that is not easy to read, but soon becomes a detailed and moving description of three tenant famer families. Depressing, but valuable. Read more
Published on April 10 2004 by J. Jacobs
2.0 out of 5 stars Deeply Flawed Work; Don't Be Seduced by the Language
This book is indeed a landmark in the (rather young) field of American ethnography; it is a one-of-a-kind work, and a very brave effort by two immensely talented, well-intentioned... Read more
Published on March 13 2002 by SRK
5.0 out of 5 stars Painfully Good Photos and Essays That Sing
I would recommend this book for highschool kids who can handle more difficult phrasing and literary styles.. Read more
Published on July 30 2001 by "k8books"
5.0 out of 5 stars Thick prose & amazing photographs.
I'm surprised that no one has yet to write a negative review of this novel. I personally love it, but it would seem like an easy one to hate. Read more
Published on Sept. 30 2000 by Tyler Massey
5.0 out of 5 stars The Famous Men Revisited: and other comments on James Agee
In one of the most edifying ways, James Agee illustrates the life of the Southern tenant sharecropper in the Great Depression. Read more
Published on Jan. 27 2000
4.0 out of 5 stars Amazing book.
I don't agree that the writing is fantastic. I think that at times it bogs down and can be very boring. Read more
Published on Dec 12 1999 by Lynette Canepa
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful!
Living only 3 miles from the site where this book was born, I can easily still see the horrors of what Agee and Evans witnessed. Read more
Published on Aug. 4 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars WOW!!!!! a literary event
a remarkable use of the english language. agee takes you places you thought impossible through his astounding use of language. the prose is exhilirating and mind expanding. Read more
Published on July 29 1999 by Christopher M. Shearer
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