James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Dialectic of Documentary Representation in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

By Millichap, Joseph | Southern Quarterly, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Dialectic of Documentary Representation in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men


Millichap, Joseph, Southern Quarterly


For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned . . . and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined ... to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.

- James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Like most Americans during the 1930s, including many of his colleagues in Southern letters, James Agee was attracted to photography. In 1 936, a documentary project in rural Alabama with photographer Walker Evans confirmed Agee's interest in this newly pervasive art form. A powerful compilation of his literary depictions and Evans's photographs of tenant farmers at last appeared as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. Southern writers such as Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Erskine Caldwell were involved with similar hybrids, so much so that the photo-book provides a convenient lens for reviewing the connection of photography and literature in the period. Although intriguing examples such as Welty's unpublished "Black Saturday" (1935), Hurston's Tell My Horse (1937), and Wright's 12 Million Black Voices (1941) languished, a similar collaboration by the then better-known Caldwell and Margaret Bourke- White, You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), mounted the best-seller lists. Despite the economic depression, photography burgeoned as a popular pastime during the decade, while it also became a significant influence on the creation and interpretation of both social documentation and modern art.1

In his "Preamble" to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Agee stated flatly that "the camera seems to me . . . the central instrument of our time" (26).2 As if to confirm his claim, Agee's collaboration with Evans has emerged as the most highly regarded of the era's photo-books. This respect is recently exemplified by the selection of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as "The Best Work of Southern Nonfiction of All Time" in a poll of Southern writers and critics conducted by the Oxford American in 2009. The book has become so esteemed, in my view, because its dialectic of visual and verbal art exemplifies the larger issues of cultural representation during the Depression that recent criticism has rediscovered in the efforts of the decade's finest artists and writers. In Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (2009), for example, Morris Dickstein traces "the tension in the 1930s between a resurgent naturalism and a subterranean modernism, between a desire to bear witness to the social fact and an insistence on the individual character of all witness, all perception" (41) through myriad examples in fine art and popular entertainment.3 The visual and verbal texts comprising Let Us Now Praise Famous Men prove both complementary and conflicted; Evans's photographs of the rural South evolve from the realism and naturalism of New Deal documentary toward modern art, while Agee's literary effort to realize the representative individuality of these tenant families reveals the anxious subjectivity of a persistent American modernism.

There are on this hill three such families I would tell you of: the Gudgers, who are sleeping in the next room; and the Woods, whose daughters are Emma and Annie Mae; and besides these, the Ricketts, who live on a way beyond the Woods.

- James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The importance of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in the recent critical reconsideration of the 1930s derives not just from the overall dialectic of documentary and modernism found in its visual and verbal intertextuality, but from the particular characteristics of its subject matter. Agee and Evans gathered their raw material during the summer of 1936 in Hale County, Alabama, a three- week sojourn that now appears as unique as their intertextual reactions to it through the literary and photographic aspects of Depression-era documentary. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men began as an assignment Agee readily accepted as one of his duties as a writer at Fortune, the glossy business magazine launched by Henry Luce just as the previous decade ended. …

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