X
Story Stream
recent articles

On this date in U.S. history, a Depression-era photographer working for the Farm Security Administration was loaned by the government to Fortune magazine, which had commissioned one of its best writers to document the poverty among sharecroppers in Alabama. The photographer's name was Walker Evans. The writer was James Agee.

Although Fortune would reject their work, the men turned the project into a 500-page book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," which sold only modestly when published in 1941. But its time would come.

* * *

Late in Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term -- on July 16, 1936, to be exact -- Roy Stryker, who headed the photographic section of the Farm Security Administration, tapped Walker Evans for a summer assignment with Fortune magazine. The deal was that Evans would accompany James Agee to Alabama, but that the photos he took would be the property of the FSA. As it happened, Stryker was less than enamored of the pictures, which turned out to be art and photojournalism, not the pro-FDR propaganda Stryker had in mind during an election year.

He needn't have worried, as Franklin Roosevelt won reelection handily. But when Agee submitted his 30,000-word piece to Fortune, editors there didn't know what to do with it and the story wasn't published.

Left to his own devices, Agee expanded his manuscript, and the resulting text and pictures were turned into a book. "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" is set among three families of sharecroppers in Alabama's Hale County. Although everyone was given a pseudonym and various place names changed, the people and towns were quite real -- as was their poverty.

Never a bestseller to begin with, the book had faded from literary memory by the time Agee died young in 1955. But two years later, when a small new publishing house launched by two writers posthumously published Agee's "A Death in the Family" -- a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize -- "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" got a second look, sold well, and took its place in the pantheon of American letters.

Although the passage of time has changed the fabric of rural living in this country, mostly for the better, there is something timeless about Walker Evans' pictures and James Agee's prose. It's the difference, I suppose, between literature and even the best journalism. (Other writers inspired by Agee thought so, too.) Eighty-two years ago, New York's Museum of Modern Art showcased Evans' work in the gallery's first-ever solo exhibition. In 2012, MoMA reprised an exhibit of his photographs. Agee's long-ago words were also showcased.

"The trip was very hard, and certainly one of the best things I've ever had happen to me," Agee wrote a friend upon returning from Alabama in 1936. "Writing what we found is a different matter. Impossible in any form and length Fortune can use; and I am now so stultified trying to do that, that I'm afraid I've lost the ability to make it right in my own way."

His did find a way to "make it right" -- in book form, at least -- but lost to posterity was the original 30,000-word manuscript. Until recently. That piece turned up in archives at the University of Tennessee and 58 years after Agee's death, it was turned into another book, "Cotton Tenants: Three Families."

That work, published in 2013, is a trove. For those who love "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," it was like finding an original sketch that formed the basis of a painted masterpiece. That very word was used by one critic.

"A masterpiece of the magazine reporter's art," he wrote. "It is lucid, evocative, empathetic, deeply reported, consistently surprising, plainly argued, and illuminated, page after page, with poetic leaps of transcendent clarity." Fittingly, that review ran in Fortune. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Comment
Show comments Hide Comments