Let Us Now Question History

Margo M. Lambert

James Agee and Walker Evans collaborated, with words and photographs, respectively, to create Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.[1] The book begins with Evans' black-and-white photos, and continues with Agee's perceptions of three Alabama tenant families living during the Depression in 1936. Often Agee intrudes with his own beliefs, quick to apologize, and quicker yet to tell the reader he is going to proceed regardless, wherever his mind leads him. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men's significance comes from its striving for objectivity and its emphasis on the human dignity of the common people, echoing the ambitions of two earlier historians, Herodotus and Walt Whitman.

The ancient Greek Herodotus is usually considered the first historian. His Histories,[2] however, differ greatly from present day expectations of history. His facts depended upon others' memories and orally preserved stories. As a result, many questioned his accuracy. Herodotus often inserted moral judgements into his histories, lecturing his fellow Greeks on proper behavior.[3] Historians today would have little patience for Herodotus' platitudes and shady facts. However, historians appreciate Herodotus' works because he preserved a great deal of ancient history, attempting to the best of his abilities to ascertain the truth. Herodotus' research was extensive and diligent, as he tried to remain as objective as possible.

Walt Whitman became a historian of his time during the American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865. During his service in military hospitals, Whitman observed and wrote a great deal about his experiences. One of his essays about the war, entitled "The Real War Will Never Get in the Books," discussed the rank and file participants of the war. "Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors."[4] He continued:

As so much of a race depends on how it faces death, and how it stands personal anguish and sickness. As, in the glints of emotions under emergencies, and the indirect trait and asides in Plutarch, we get far profounder clues to the antique world than all its more formal history.[5]

Whitman concluded his essay, declaring that "[the real war] will never be written--perhaps must not and should not be."[6] For Whitman, the real war consisted of the individuals and their personal sagas--the unsung heroes--the unnamed participants of the horrors of the Civil War. Whitman believed that it was important to record ordinary people's actions because their experiences showed the dignity inherent in each human.

Herodotus and Whitman illustrated Agee's historical significance. Agee combined Herodotus' obsession with objectivity in his works and Whitman's belief that the ordinary people should not be forgotten. Agee attempted to capture every detail of the tenant farmers' lives. He also wrote of the real war; he wrote about the individuals; he wrote the story of the unknown participants in the Great Depression.

Throughout Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee explicitly defended his method of study, stating that his purpose was to describe "those things which, like human beings and their creations and the entire state of nature, merely are, the truth."[7] Agee mentioned George Gudger, a father of a tenant family, and how "the one deeply exciting thing . . . about Gudger is that he is actual, he is living . . . he is a human being";[8] Agee's role was to portray the human being as truthfully as possible. To achieve the truth, Agee detailed each stick of furniture the tenant farmers owned, each article of clothing they wore, and even obscure sayings the family had written above their fire place. Evans' photographs further indicate Agee's objectivity, because Agee's descriptions of such things as rooms could be easily matched with Evans' pictures created by indiscriminating black and white film. Thus, Agee's work achieved accuracy as objectively and truthfully as possible.

Agee's writing also celebrated the dignity of the common people. Agee realized he was meant "to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family."[9] His prying uncovered many sides of the tenant families. Upon first meeting the tenant families, Agee wrote:

There was in their eyes so quiet and ultimate a quality of hatred, and contempt, and anger, toward every creature in existence beyond themselves, and toward the damages they sustained, as shown scarcely short of a state of beatitude; nor did this at any time modify itself.[10]

Agee showed how the dignity of ordinary people could exist amid ugliness and despair. Evans' sparse and subtle photographs mirrored this portrayal. Both men, through words and pictures, showed that despite their harsh, painful lives, the tenant farmers kept their dignity and strength and created at times beauty through their spirit in spite of ugliness. Agee wrote of this dignity, claiming:

We lay thinking of the unprecedented and unrecorded beauty, and sorrow and honor in the existence of, a child who lay sleeping in the room not far from us, and of the family up the road, and of the other family that lived near them.[11]

Agee captured the hopes, fears, sorrows, and few joys of the tenant farmers, celebrating each person for his or her importance as an individual. He wrote of Fred Ricketts' insecurity and Louise Gudger's childish prescience;[12] he wrote about their clothing, houses, and bed lice. He revealed every aspect of the tenants' lives, reclaiming their experience from silence.

Agee and Evans' work remains historically significant, as exemplified by Herodotus' objectivity and Whitman's belief in the importance of the dignity of the common people. Agee's words and Evans' photographs sought to recreate as objectively as possible the everyday lives of tenant farmers during the Depression Era. Both men celebrated the common people, showing how their dignity enabled them to create some beauty in their harsh lives. Agee made certain that the real war was published, and that the casualties of the common people were known.


1. Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Houghton, Boston: 1939).
2. Herodotus, The Histories. Trans. Aubrey de Selincourt (New York: Penguin, 1972). Herodotus was born approximately between 490 and 480 B. C.
3. Herodotus voiced his likes and dislikes vociferously. He applauded simple pleasures, life in moderation, strength, and wisdom, but he scorned conceit, arrogance, and greed. He also strongly advocated democracy, believing that men could only realize their potential if they were left governing themselves.
4. Michael Perman, ed. Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1991), 321-322. This quote is taken from Walt Whitman The Viking Portable Library: Walt Whitman (NY: Viking Penguin, 1945), 587-588.
5. Whitman, The Viking Portable Library, 587-588.
6. Ibid.
7. Agee and Evans, Let us Now Praise, 238.
8. Ibid., 240.
9. Ibid., 7.
10. Ibid., 33.
11. Ibid., 253.
12. Ibid., 361.