The Historical Significance of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Matt Coogle

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men provides considerable insight into the historic events of 1930s America through its examination of Southern sharecroppers. In addition to illuminating concrete historical phenomena, the work illuminates fundamental attitude changes. Notably, James Agee and Walker Evans' method of handling their subject matter shows both a rejection of Victorian and Progressive values, and the adoption of a fundamentally different approach to addressing social issues. Unlike many who wrote before them, Agee and Evans did not criticize and berate the tenants' lifestyles. Rather, they respected the dignity of the families they profiled while sensitively presenting the hardships each family faced. Likewise, the author and photographer did not present the subject matter in the context of a perfectly ordered world that could be easily understood. Instead, Agee and Evans present a confusing world where judgments about dignity and the way humans should live are not easily made.

The manner in which Let Us Now Praise Famous Men reflects attitude changes is made lucid by comparing it with earlier assessments of social issues. One work that can be compared to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives. Though the latter work was published fifty years before the former, the pieces share some important qualities. For example, both were written by journalists about the poor. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and How the Other Half Lives address issues such as housing, work, and education while chronicling the lives of poor people. Thus, the works are similar in their basic objectives and formats.

Despite these structural similarities the two works are strikingly different in their manner of presentation. These differences in style serve as a reflection of the historical changes that occurred between 1890 and 1940. Essentially, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men issue a firm rejection of the Victorian notion of the ordered world. The 1940 work embraces a notion of the world as complex and confusing. To understand how Let Us Now Praise Famous Men asserts a modern world view, it is necessary to understand the ways in which How the Other Half Lives asserts Victorian values. First, the contemporary reader will notice the condescending attitude of Riis. Throughout the work, Riis passes judgment on the impoverished immigrants he examines. Riis labels virtually every immigrant group he encounters. For example, he describes Chinese as "neat" but untrustworthy and sneaky, and the Jewish as thrifty.[1] Furthermore, Riis uss strong language throughout his work to illustrate his disgust for the way these people lived. This is reflected even in Riis' choice of chapter headings such as "a Raid on the Stale Beer Dives" and "the Cheap Lodging Houses." Riis often talks of the stench and filth of the places where these immigrants live.

These clear-cut presentations of the lifestyles of the poor reflect broader Victorian values. Riis clearly viewed these people in an ordered and understandable Victorian context. The flaws of these people were completely clear. It was indisputable to Riis and his middle-class Victorian readers that slum-dwellers were inferior--at least in the way they lived their lives. Woven into Riis' work was the contention that Victorians had discovered the right way to live. Riis' Victorian readers saw themselves at the top of an evolutionary ladder while the poor remained on lower rungs with their inferior lifestyles. In the Victorian tradition, Riis was not concerned about presenting the poor as possessors of inherent human dignity. Rather, the most crucial problem was that immigrants were not living according to the Victorian image. This reflects the Victorians' confidence that they understood the right way to live and that it was appropriate to label and patronize those who did not live according to their vision.

Unlike Riis, Agee and Evans made a concerted effort to avoid labeling and patronizing. Though the Alabama tenants were as poor and down-trodden as the immigrants examined by Riis, Agee and Evans present their subjects quite differently. A chapter which Riis might have labeled "the Filthy Shack of the Alabama Tenant," Agee titles with the neutral term "Shelter." Furthermore, Agee's vivid and extensive descriptions of tenant dwellings are amazingly free of patronizing descriptions. For example, Agee describes the Gudger house as "rudimentary as a child's drawing, and of a bareness, cleanness, and sobriety which only Doric architecture . . . can hope to approach."[2] Agee could have described the Gudger house as crude, uninhabitable, and disgusting. However, the author opted to give the dwelling its own sort of dignity and beauty.

Similar attempts to show the human dignity of the tenants appear throughout the work. For example, when Agee describes the educational levels of the tenants, he avoids blanket characterizations of Alabama tenants as uneducated and ignorant. Instead, he assumes a more objective posture, mentioning the amount of formal education each character has received and the mental capabilities of each character. Agee explains that Pearl Woods "[uses] her mind and her senses much more subtly than is ever indicated or taught in school."[3] This same effort to respect the human dignity of these tenants is reflected in the photographs of Walker Evans. Though Evans makes no attempt to make the tenants look like a middle-class family, they still exude an inherent human dignity. The efforts of Agee and Evans to present their subjects with dignity is indicative of a new way of looking at the world. Unlike Riis, Agee and Evans reject the notion that standards of dignity could be clearly delineated. By 1940, the factors which constituted dignity or anything else could not be so easily defined. Riis' ordered vision of the world had given way to a modern notion of a more complex, less easily understood world.

This image of a complex world is furthered by Agee's examination of the Alabama education system. Agee is careful not to criticize the Alabama schools and laws that allow children to attend school sporadically. For example, Agee writes that "it would seem to me mistaken to decry the Alabama schools . . . or to be particularly wholehearted in the regret that these tenants are subjected only to a few years of education."[4] Agee continues by suggesting that tenants would be at a disadvantage if they had more education, at a disadvantage if they had less education, and at a disadvantage in the little education they have. Essentially, Agee does not understand the issue of educating the sharecropper as a clearly defined problem with clearly defined solutions. However, Victorians such as Riis would have confidently defined the flaws in the Alabama system of public education and then advocated reforms.

Essentially, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with its concern for respecting human dignity and its view of the world as complex and confusing, serves as a striking contrast to earlier notions. Agee and Evans reject any vision of the world as clearly understandable and ordered. While rejections of Victorian attitudes in literature surfaced years earlier, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men not only rejects Victorianism, but also grapples with a new way of understanding the world. That the book was written at all is evidence that the authors felt it worthwhile to attempt to understand a confusing world. Granted, not all people during this period would employ the approach of Agee and Evans. Nonetheless, Agee and Evans are not particularly unusual in their approach; others share their intellectual persuasions. Furthermore, fundamental attitudes apparent in the book were manifest in various social programs. For example, the Works Progress Administration's employment of individuals with a broad range of skills reflects the notion that dignity can be found through innumerable pursuits. These considerations suggest that Agee and Evans' manner of presentation was not merely an arbitrary, stylistic choice. Rather, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men illustrates changes in the fundamental notions which determine human thought and behavior.


1. Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (New York: Garrett Press, 1970), 96 and 106.
2. James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939), 144.
3. Ibid., 302.
4. Ibid., 290.