November 28, 2011 From the beginning, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men–the masterpiece of poetry, photography, and reporting by Knoxville-born writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans–was controversial. During the summer of 1936, the two men book spent four weeks with three families of tenant farmers in Hale County, Alabama, researching and photographing their subsistence-level scramble to survive the Great Depression. The result ought to have been a magazine article in Fortune, but Agee’s tender, extravagant, drunk-on-language depiction of the families, of both their desperate struggle and their heartbreaking dignity, not even to mention his dense, poetic prose, didn’t suit his editor, and the article was never published. When it finally appeared as a doorstop of a book in 1941, the great critic Lionel Trilling called it “the most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation,” but it sold only 600 copies before falling out of print.
Yesterday, in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Lawrence Downes describes his own visit to Hale County decades after Agee and Evans spent time with the families Agee pseudonymously called Gudger, Ricketts, and Woods. He was not greeted with open arms: “To people in parts of Hale County, Ala., it isn’t ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,’ it’s ‘that book,’ the one everyone knows, even those who haven’t read it. The one that even now can stir the descendants of the families in it to feelings of irritation, weariness and sometimes seething anger,” he writes. Downes loves the book, but he understands why the descendants of the real-life Gudgers would not:
Evans allowed his subjects to compose themselves for their portraits, the way rich people would, and his photos of the interiors of their shacks, even of their worn-out boots, have the formal balance and beauty of Dutch paintings. And yet their faces show they were clearly and utterly defenseless. The book imposed a strange and unwanted fame on Hale County, where many saw its unflinching depiction of poverty as exploitative and cruel. That is what makes the descendants there still so angry, quick to vent their frustration on the occasional reporter who arrives asking for names and directions.
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