Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001 - History - 416 pages
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With its signature photographs reshot from archival negatives, an elegant new edition of the "most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation" (Lionel Trilling) Published nearly sixty years ago, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men stands as an undisputed masterpiece of the twentieth century, taking its place alongside works by Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. In a stunning blend of prose and images, this classic offers at once an unforgettable portrait of three tenant families in the Deep South and a larger meditation on human dignity and the American soul. In the summer of 1936, James Agee and Walker Evans set out on assignment for Fortune magazine to explore the daily lives of sharecroppers in the South. There they lived with three different families for a month; the result of their stay was an extraordinary collaboration, an unsparing record of place, the people who shaped the land, and the rhythm of their lives. Upon its first publication, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was called intensely moving, unrelentingly honest. It described a mode of life -- and rural poverty -- that was unthinkably remote and tragic to most Americans, and yet for Agee and Evans, only extreme realism could serve to make the world fully aware of such circumstances. Rejected by Fortune as too unwieldy, it was published for the first time in book form in 1941. Today it stands as a poetic tract for its time, a haunting search for the human and religious meaning in the lives of true Southern heroes: in their waking, sleeping, eating; their work; their houses and children; and their endurance. With an elegant design and a sixty-four-page photographic prologue of Evans's classic images, reshot from archival negatives, the new edition reintroduces the legendary author and photographer to a new generation. Both an invaluable part of the American heritage and a graceful tribute to the vibrant souls whose stories live in these pages, this book has profoundly changed our culture and our consciousness -- and will continue to inspire for generations to come.
 

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Let us now praise famous men: three tenant families

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Houghton's edition of Agee and Evans's classic combo of text and pictures of impoverished Southern sharecroppers was enlarged with 64 new archival photos. This eye-opening 1939 portrait of America's peasantry remains powerful. (Classic Returns, LJ 4/1/00) Read full review

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In the beginning of the book, Agee lays out two themes and says that he is putting the book together with these two themes, much as a musician puts together a musical composition. I immediately thought of Sonata Allegro form, but that proved to be too early a musical analogy. Agee constantly refers to late Beethoven compositions, and so between compositions of that period and early 20th century music, one might gain insight into the manner in which this book was not so much written as composed.
There are sections of the book that make sense to a reader with near proper sentences, grammar, punctuation, paragraphs, and thought development. There are sections of the book that are as detailed and dry as the laws of the Pentateuch and the genealogies of Chronicles. But there are also huge swaths of the book that are run-on sentences or not properly sentences at all, with intentionally inexplicable grammar and intentionally incomprehensible punctuation. Do not be distressed. It is all part of the composition—what I call "nasty 20th century music." It is not supposed to be accessible to the unenlightened audience.
The next clue to understanding the book has to do with the hint that it would be best read out loud at night, that is, after dark. Remember the biblical quote that they loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil? I don't know that Agee intends to say that the three tenant families are particularly evil, but there is an evil that lurks in the heart of Agee and it reveals itself from time to time. Whether that revelation is inadvertant or not I cannot say, but I suspect the answer is that it is not.
Interestingly I learned something about the culture I serve some 75 years later. For that I am grateful.
 

Selected pages

Contents

I
II
III
IV
2
V
17
VI
23
VII
29
VIII
35
XV
150
XVI
156
XVII
161
XVIII
164
XIX
170
XX
177
XXI
186
XXII
227

IX
44
X
82
XI
87
XII
101
XIII
111
XIV
119
XXIII
255
XXIV
281
XXV
288
XXVI
319
XXVII
409
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About the author (2001)

James Agee (1909-1955) was a poet, screenwriter, and journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel A DEATH IN THE FAMILY.

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