Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

James Agee & Walker Evans

Words could, I believe, be made to do or to tell anything within human conceit. That is more than can be said of the instruments of any other art. But it must be added of words that they are the most inevitably inaccurate of all mediums of record and communication, and that they come at many of the things which they alone can do by such a Rube Goldberg articulation of frauds, compromises, artful dodges and tenth removes as would fatten any other art into apoplexy if the art were not first shamed out of existence…

Agee and Evans originally traveled to Alabama on assignment for Fortune magazine; Fortune declined to publish the result, and their documentation of three white tenant families on cotton farms became this book instead. Walker’s photographs are presented before the text without context, and Agee’s writing style is often experimental but at times just seems haphazardly edited. He devotes significant space to making his intentions clear — he goes so far as to say, if he could, he would trace the lives of the three families since the beginning of all time. Instead he earnestly describes in minute detail the families’ lives, from their houses and every last item inside to all the clothing he ever saw them wearing. Around these chronicles, Agee explores his own state of mind during the time, from the first night he stays at the Gudgers’s house to the more poetic, “On the Porch” sections involving moments like listening to fox calls across the countryside.

In 1960, Walker Evans wrote a foreword where he describes Agee during this time in a similar fashion, talking about how he dressed (he “fell over into a knowingly comical inverted dandyism”) and the late nights writing during and after their time in Alabama to create this unsparing record. Fortune did a follow-up article in 2005, tracking down the remaining family members, titled “The Most Famous Story We Never Told,” to find out their reactions to the book and see how the families had evolved after a couple of generations.