April 9, 2010 When writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans went to Alabama in 1936, their assignment was to come back with an article for Fortune magazine about tenant farmers living in desperate poverty in the Depression-era South. For eight weeks, Agee and Evans lived in Moundville, Alabama, primarily with the Burroughs family. Evans took the famously spare and beautiful photographs that spring to the mind’s eye of every half-educated person in America when the subject of the Depression arises, and Agee wrote an inexpressibly beautiful book that defies all categorization or comparison. Published in 1941, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is more than a unique and inimitable work of creative nonfiction. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men can be fairly said to have invented creative nonfiction—and reinvented the English language along the way. The critic Lionel Trilling called it the “most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation.”
Surviving members of the Burroughs family, it turns out, aren’t so sure about that. Identified in the book by a pseudonym—the Gudgers—they’ve been fending off reporters wishing to follow in Agee’s footsteps almost since they became aware of the book’s publication. This month in The Atlantic, Christina Davidson writes about her own trip to Moundville, where she found some very unhappy Gudgers, resentful of the sneaky disrespect they believe Agee exhibits in one of the most praised works of nonfiction the twentieth century produced. “When Agee describes filthy curtains in the Burroughs home,” Davidson notes, Dottie Burroughs wonders, “Why don’t you wash it rather than sitting on your ass and writing about it?” And when “Frank and Allie Mae had noiseless sex while their children slept nearby,” Dottie remarks, “He shouldn’t have even told that.”
Read the full article, “Let Us Now Trash Famous Authors,” here.
For more updates on Tennessee authors, please visit Chapter 16‘s News & Notes page, here.