Sunday, April 7, 2013
107: Agee & Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is, as Bill Stott argues, a beautifully-made 1930s documentary; Evans' photos have long since become iconic, and Agee's prose claims the entire beat generation as its descendants. Agee is also careful to situate himself and Evans as characters within the story of the tenant farmers' lives, so that the reader is clear throughout that the book combines objective reality and normative interpretation. The main argument of the book is encapsulated in the verse that serves as its title: "let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us." The tension here is important: while the famous men lead us in creating history and are thus written down and remembered in history books, they are also responsible for the poverty in which his subjects live; while our fathers' names are never known to the world, they are arguably more important, because without fathers there would be no children, no next generation to pass history down to. Thus he celebrates the particularity of the human life of his subjects even as he critiques the universal structures that create it.