- Timefulness and Now75 Years of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Despite or maybe because of its near anonymity upon release in 1941, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee's and Walker Evans's photojournalistic exploration of three Alabama tenant families' lives, has become a securely canonical yet often inscrutable object of study. This chronological point in its existence offers a prodigious opportunity to consider its value in American and southern culture. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men at 75: Anniversary Essays, edited by Michael A. Lofaro, uses the seventy-fifth anniversary of the work's publication to reassess and reconsider its place in literature, culture, and history. True to Famous Men's eclectic nature, the collection covers a wide array of topics, methodologies, and approaches. The contributors offer personal responses to the work while still maintaining productive analytical distance. In addition to the more organic nature of the collection's chapter order, Lofaro provides a table of contents that separates the essays into topical categories: general introduction to the work, its literary and historical antecedents, its cultural contemporaries and progeny, "more views and re-views," and a final coda in which Andrew Crooke travels to and reflects upon a modern sojourn to the real Hobe's Hill. Each of these divisions overlaps and exemplifies the confounding liminality of Agee's prose and Evan's photography even three-quarters of a century after the book's initial publication..
The most interesting efforts in the collection focus on the materials within the original text and their meaning for the different constituencies represented. As Michael Jacobs reminds us in his framing of Agee's commentary as an ancestor of New Journalism, the text's goal is to bridge the gap between the subject and audience, and any progressive success of the work comes through its engagement with the objects and spaces shared with the tenant families. Caroline Blinder delves into the "Shelter" [End Page 203] section of the book to argue for Agee's description of the architecture as worshipful space worthy of holy consideration. This engagement with materials helps to affirm, for Blinder, the humanity of the subjects and their commonality or conflict with the reader. Paul Ashdown utilizes the penumbra surrounding the text's legacy in arguing for the use of irony to illustrate the subjectivity of Gudgers, Woods, and Ricketts even through their assigned pseudonyms. Erik Kline asserts that the pith of Famous Men's often contradictory social hierarchy comes in the freakery of the farming families, a dialectic relationship that distances the reader from them at the same time it establishes a connection. Nearly every contributor to the collection wrestles with the same contradiction of Agee's project in trying to find a means for palpable relationality, and the most valuable chapters study the materials of the text to do so.
Another side to scholarship of Famous Men comes in assessing its place in the literary canon, a problem prevalent in this collection as it continues to divide twenty-first century critics. Its value to southern and American cultural history is well established, yet the issue lies in determining from where that value derives. Part of the indecipherability comes from its transgeographic, cross-generic, and multitemporal nature. While ostensibly photojournalism, the work can at times also be a screenplay, a fictional narrative, and a sociological study. Simultaneously, Agee reaches to the past and well outside the region to find causes for his subjects' position and often looks forward to a hopeful future for the world. Many of the collection's pieces attempt the same and execute their goal. Andrew Crooke and Jesse Graves explore common methodological threads in works dealing with similar subjects in other regions. Brent Walter Cline and David Madden look to Dostoevsky and Melville to find literary influences leading to Agee's composition. James A. Crank explores the causes of and problems with the text's resurgence in the hands of northern civil rights activists of the 1960s. Instead of meaningless and cursory...