Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families
A book co-authored by photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee in 1941 which documented the lives of Alabama sharecroppers during the Great Depression.
In 1936 Fortune Magazine wanted to do a story on the lives of sharecroppers in the South, who had been especially hard hid by the Great Depression. They commissioned James Agee to write it, and he asked that Walker Evans accompany him to Alabama as his photographer.
The article was never written. Both men became so completely involved in the project that it grew and grew until Fortune Magazine no longer wanted it and eventually it became a lengthy book. The manuscript was completed in 1938, but by the time it was published in 1941 New Deal Reforms and WWII had changed the American landscape and sharecroppers were no longer topical. The book was a flop. In the 1960s, however, James Agee's growing cult following and a renewed interest in social justice made the book suddenly popular. It was reprinted and has been considered a classic ever since.
Evans' photographs begin the book. There are over 50 images, usually one photo per page. There are no quotations or captions. James Curtis writes: "Evans believed his photographs were self-explanatory; the presence
of words implied that the image was somehow deficient." Keeping the images separate from Agee's text brought more recognition to the images
themselves, and it was a total break from the trends of photo-journalism, which used images to illustrate text.
The greatest praise of the book, both of the text and the photographs, is that it leaves the subjects of the book with their dignity intact. Unlike other sociologists and journalists of his day, Agee refuses to use patronizing descriptions or blanket generalizations, instead presenting people and events in a more objective and sensitive manner.
For example, in one scene, Agee describes a house:
"rudimentary as a child's drawing, and of a bareness, cleanness, and sobriety which only Doric
architecture . . . can hope to approach."
He could just as easily have said it was crude
, and disgusting
, but this ability to find beauty and dignity even in abject poverty
is what made Agee so beloved of the people he wrote about and the many who love his book.