July 14, 2013

"Let Us Now Praise Famous Men": A Fierce and Tender Empathy

All photographs by Walker Evans, from the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

James Agee went to the deep south in 1936 as a journalist on assignment; he came back with a book of passion and beauty, despair and love, of philosophical questioning; an extended prose poem; a modernist classic far from straight reportage. His collaborator, the great photographer Walker Evans, in his forward to a 1960 edition of the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, described Agee as working "in a rush and a rage". The two young men were sent by Fortune magazine, as Agee wrote in his preface, to "prepare...an article on cotton tenantry in the United States, in the form of a photographic and verbal record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers." This article was rejected, but the work finally made it into book form in 1941; a new edition was published in 2001, including the Evans photographs, which I photographed for this blog post. The text is also available online at Google Books. The title comes from a verse in Ecclesiasticus, which you can read here, a celebration of the powerful, but also of those who "have no memorial", "But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten".

Agee writes of the aim of the book as "...an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity." He writes at times in this book as a biblical prophet, an avenging angel, a proud Communist, a self-reflective and doubting man, at other times as a sensitive recorder of what he sees around him. I was in turns deeply moved, exhilarated, frustrated, compelled to keep reading by the lyrical prose and Agee's intensely sympathetic engagement with the lives of three poor tenant farmer families in Alabama.

Walker Evans's photographs present the world of these families in a clear and direct way, without emotion, but so beautifully seen. The people, their dwellings, various aspects of their lives, are shown with the dignity of an honest eye. Agee writes that art should come as close to Nature as possible (p.206) and for this reason, he cares deeply for the camera, for it is "...unlike any other leverage of art, incapable of recording anything but absolute, dry truth". But Evan's truth is never dry, and Agee's prose is a complex and passionate symphony:
...that a house of simple people which stands empty and silent in the vast Southern country morning sunlight, and everything which on this morning in eternal space it by chance contains, all thus left open and defenseless to a reverent and cold-laboring spy, shines quietly forth such grandeur, such sorrowful holiness of its exactitudes in existence, as no human consciousness shall ever rightly perceive, far less impart to another: that there can be more beauty and more deep wonder in the standings and spacings of mute furnishings on a bare floor between the squaring bourns of walls than in any music ever made: that this square home, as it stands in unshadowed earth between the winding years of heaven, is, not to me but of itself, one among the serene and final, uncapturable beauties of existence; that this beauty is made between hurt but invincible nature and the plainest cruelties and needs of human existence in this uncured time, and is inextricable among these, and as impossible without them as a saint born in paradise.  (p. 117)

Agee writes of "The altar", here in prose much more direct and descriptive, as though he is working with Evans to present crisply and clearly an element in the house, attempting to be as truthful as the photograph:
On the mantel against the glowing wall, each about six inches from the ends of the shelf, two small twin vases, very simply blown, of pebble-graained iridescent glass. Exactly at center between them, a fluted saucer, of pressed milky glass, which Louise's mother gave her to call her own and for which she cares more dearly than for anything else she possesses. Pinned all along the edge of this mantel, a broad fringe of white tissue pattern-paper which Mrs. Gudger folded many times on itself and scissored into pierced geometries of lace, and of which she speaks as her last effort to make this house pretty. (p. 143)

...the fireplace wall is crusted deep with attractive pieces of paper into the intricate splendor of a wedding cake or the fan of a white peacock: calendars of snowbound and stag hunting scenes pressed into bas-relief out of white pulp and glittering with a sand of red and blue and green and gold tinsel, and delicately tinted; other calendars and farm magazine covers or advertisements of dog-love; the blessed fireside coziness of the poor; indian virgins watching their breasts in pools or paddling up moonlit aisles of foliage.....(pp. 174-175)
a long description of pictures on a wall; in Evans's photograph the fact of them, the whimsy tempered by the badly worn surroundings.

An image of arrested time, of use, of simplicity. The light is soft, as furniture in the kitchen sink into shadows.
The one static fixture in the hallway is at the rear, just beyond the kitchen door. It is a wooden shelf, waist-high, and on this shelf, a bucket, a dipper, a basin, and usually a bar of soap, and hanging from a nail just above, a towel. The basin is granite-ware, small for a man's hands, with rustmarks in the bottom. The bucket is a regular galvanized two-gallon bucket, a little dented, and smelling and touching a little of a fishy-metallic kind of shine and grease beyond any power of cleaning. (p. 132)

The bed-frame is not tall or at all ornate, as many iron frames are. Its former surface of hard white paint is worn almost entirely away to the bare, blue-brown iron. (p. 141)

Between these attentively and lovingly described passages are philosophic musings on art, on life, on beauty. Agee writes that "...there is as considerable a value (to say nothing of joy) in the attempt to see or to convey even some single thing as nearly as possible as that thing itself." On beauty he writes:
...are things 'beautiful' which are not intended as such, but which are created in convergences of chance, need, innocence or ignorance, and for entirely irrelevant purposes? I can only answer flatly here: first, that intended beauty is far more a matter of chance and need than the power of intention, and that 'chance' beauty or 'irrelevances' is deeply formed by instincts and needs popularly held to be the property of 'art' alone; second, that matter of 'chance' and 'nonintention' can be and are 'beautiful' and are a whole universe to themselves. Or: the Beethoven piano concerto #4 IS importantly, among other things, a 'blind' work of 'nature', of the world and of the human race; and the partition wall of the Gudgers' front bedroom IS importantly, among other things, a great tragic poem. (pp. 178-179)
Oh, I am so stunned by this writing. It's been some time since I read this book and as I write this blog post, long with quotations which I cannot seem to cut short, I am enamored again.

Although I have focused on the things––which are so eloquent in their mute presence––the book is also about the people of three families, their characters, their struggle to simply survive. Agee's empathic, emotional descriptions, in poetic prose, of their lives, carries the reader into this thankfully lost world of depression era farming. For the tenant farmer, cotton was his cash crop, cotton was what kept him and his family in life and in debt; Agee's description of the tyranny of cotton is overwhelming (pp. 288-289). Here he writes about picking season:
Over the right shoulder you have slung a long white sack whose half length trails the ground behind. Your work with both hands as fast and as steadily as you can. The trick is to get the cotton between your fingertips at its very roots in the burr in all three or four or five gores at once so that it is brought out clean in one pluck. It is easy enough in one burr in perhaps ten.....You would have to try hard, to break your flesh on any one burr, whether on its sharp points or its edges; and a single raindrop is only scarcely instrumental in ironing a mountain flat; but in each plucking of the hand the fingers are searched deep in along these several sharp, hard edges. In two hours' picking the hands are just well limbered up. At the end of a week you are favoring your fingers, still in the obligation of speed. The later of the three to five times over the field, the last long weeks of the season, you might be happy if it were possible to exchange them for boils. (p. 299)

Walker Evans, Negro Church, South Carolina, 1936. 
Image from the Florence Griswold Museum.

Although this book is about white farmers, there is one short chapter, "Near a Church", which you can read here, in which Agee describes his encounter with a young black couple. In it, in impossibly wrenching detail, we see a vivid demonstration of the deep history of fear and misunderstanding in this country between Black and White. It was an encounter after which Agee felt "[I] wished to God I was dead". Please read it; it is especially relevant in light of the Florida verdict. 

Throughout this remarkable book, there is such a passion for justice, for fairness, such a cry against the punishing weight of poverty and how it debases the spirit. I will end this long post with more musing from Agee, where he wonders, as he often does, at the impossibility of truly expressing the reality he has seen and lived through, and tried to understand. It is a lament for the limits of art, but his book is an expression of art at its most powerful. 
But somehow I have lost hold of the reality of all this, I scarcely can understand how; a loss of the reality of simple actions upon the specific surface of the earth. This country, these roads, these odors and noises, the action of walking the dark in mud, the approach, just what a slow succession of certain trees past your walking can implant in you, can mean to you, ....the look of us in the lamplight in the presence of the walls of the house and of the country night, the beauty and stress of our tiredness, how we held quietness, gentleness, and care toward one another like three mild lanterns held each at the met heads of strangers in darkness: such things, and these are just a few, I have not managed to give their truth in words, which are a soft, plain-featured, and noble music, each part in the experience of it and in the memory so cleanly and so simply defined in its own terms, striking so many chords and relationships at once, which I can but have blurred in the telling at all.


  1. thank you for posting this Altoon. it is new to me and very beautiful. I'm going to get a copy

    1. I'm so glad you liked the writing, Maureen. The book is not an easy read, but so much of it is worth the effort.

  2. The other night I tried watching a 90 minute program with Bill Moyers about two Milwaukee families (one white, one black) and how the economy and sending jobs offshore has affected them over a number of years. After 45 minutes, I was so depressed and angry at the impossible difficulties that had been needlessly thrown in their way, that I had to turn the TV off. Even more depressing given the actions of our Governor and the Congress. Seems like little has changed for the better for so many people since I read Agee's book many years ago.

    1. As bad as things are for too many in this country, it was much much worse during the depression. This was before there was any support, as inadequate as it still is––no unemployment insurance, which the farmers could have used during the months between crops; no SNAP; no Medicaid; no nothing.