The year is moving right along, and I have finished my first book.
I decided to start with a “challenging” book this year.James Agee and Walker Evans combined stunning words and arresting images to share the lives of cotton tenants in 1936 Alabama. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has been on the shelf for awhile. I was not prepared for the flowing prose and was actually considering putting it aside.
I picked this up because it seemed like a good companion to JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy that I read at the end of 2016. It provides some historical context of the culture that Vance describes.
The prose tumbles along, piling up details and impressions, swirling the story into the midst. Sometimes, it made for daunting reading and I would look ahead for the next break. Other times, I found myself in the flow, not worried so much about exact meaning but absorbing impressions as I rode along the natural energy of the words.
The book is, at its core, the story of three families living as cotton tenants in Alabama in 1936. The book has elements of an ethnography with detailed descriptions of homes, clothing, education and work. But Agee weaves in his own musings about his role in the process and his relationships with the families. And then he seems to leave the path altogether and it may take a moment or two or more for the reader to find herself.
For instance, at one point, he took a break from the main narrative to record his angry responses to a survey from The Partisan Review. An odd distraction. Agee is curmudgeonly towards everyone it seems, except Walker Evans and the three families they profile in the book.
Bruce Jackson in the Winter 1999 edition of Antioch Review wrote:
Some critics write about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as a book out of control, a book that is nearly-great but missed it for this or that reason, a book that suffers from excess. One wrote: “When one first reads Famous Men, many passages may strike one as pretentious, mannered, precious, pompous, pontifical, smug, self-righteous, self-indulgent, willfully obscure, doctrinaire, self-congratulatory, sophomoric, belligerent; even Agee’s self-abnegation, self-loathing, and modesty may offend.”
And there was definitely a Yes, but, for me. I wanted to wade in this book even as there were times when I thought I would just stop. After all, I wasn’t really reading for a climax or the solution to a mystery. I kept going though and am glad I did.