Lawrence Downes: Of Poor Farmers and ‘Famous Men’

Roundup: Talking About History

Lawrence Downes writes for the New York Times.

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.

Seventy-five years ago, in the summer of 1936, James Agee and Walker Evans went to Alabama to find subjects for an article about tenant farmers for Fortune magazine. They found three families living on Mills Hill, south of Tuscaloosa between Moundville and Greensboro, and spent weeks listening, watching and taking notes and pictures. Agee’s article, brilliant yet bloated with guilt and literary grandeur, was rejected by the magazine, which had been expecting something readable. So it became a book in 1941 — a classic of Depression documentary, thanks to Evans’s haunting photos and Agee’s writing, which turned reporting into literature years before that method had a label.

I’m not sure who still reads it, but I suspect it still has a grip on people who admire the near-deranged ambition of Agee’s words, who wrestle with his tortured questions about poverty, dignity and “honest journalism.”

I’m one. In 1993, smitten with the book, I went to Hale County. I met an old farmer who had known the families as a boy. He drove an old Saab and spit tobacco juice into a Spam can, and talked with great fondness of F.D.R....

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