After days of pounding through historians, sociologists, and geographers, poring over the iconic images and arresting prose of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men makes me feel alive again. (Hey, I was an English major for a reason!)
Nominally, James Agee and Walker Evans’ book is a study of three (white) sharecropping families in rural Alabama in summer 1936, the Ricketts, the Gudgers, and the Woods. But as James Agee argues in the book’s opening pages, it is much, much more than that. It is a full, thorough, truthful account of their subjects in both narrative and photographic form; a conversation, albeit limited by the asynchronous nature of their chosen medium, among the families, the writer and photographer, and the reader; an indictment of the capitalist system that abuses those lowest in its hierarchy; a study of the humanity of the poor; and – let’s be honest – a way to make a little money for Agee and Evans, too.
Both photos and narrative touch on all of these themes in depth, but the most central one, I think, is the humanity – both unique to them and common to all people – of the tenant families themselves. And, possibly because they lived with George and Annie Mae Gudger for the four weeks of their study, or because this couple was closest to their own age but occupying such a different part of the socioeconomic hierarchy, both Agee and Evans express this theme best with respect to George Gudger.
Since Evans’ image of Gudger comes first in the book, he gets to speak first here.
I’m not the best at reading images, but I will say this: from the distance of nearly 80 years, this image is very much the image of the depression: the gritty black-and-white exposure, the half-clean shirt and overalls, the rough background, the eyes looking directly into the camera in a mixture of strength, frustration, and despair. It is the stuff that American ideology is made of: the depression may have beaten America down, but the people are determined, and we will win! But there are so many different emotions playing out at once in Gudger’s face, and the tight framing of the photo accentuates not the poverty of his surroundings, but him: in creating this portrait, Evans has allowed a single man to express the way he feels about how his life is turning out, and simultaneously created something that speaks to many, many people who’ve been there.
Agee, no less poetic, describes Gudger in this way:
George Gudger is a human being, a man, not like any other human being so much as he is like himself…. [S]omehow a much more important, and dignified, and true fact about him than I could conceivably invent, though I were an illimitably better artist than I am, is that fact that he is exactly, down to the last inch and instant, who, what, were, when and why he is. He is in those terms living, right now, in flesh and blood and breathing, in an actual part of a world in which also, quite as irrelevant to imagination, you and I are living. Granted that beside that fact it is a small thing, and granted also that it is essentially and finally a hopeless one, to try merely to reproduce and communicate his living as nearly exactly as possible, nevertheless I can think of no worthier and many worse subjects of attempt.
Like Evans, Agee describes Gudger as both a “human being, a man” and “himself;” he belongs simultaneously to his own day to day life and to the world of “you and I;” he is at once irreplicable and reproducible.
This theme, by the way, ties in nicely with the title of the book; the second half of the verse that begins “let us now praise famous men,” which Agee intentionally leaves out, only to append at the end, is “and our fathers that begat us” – irreplicable but reproducible men in their own right.