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LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN Photographs reproduced through the cour- tesy of Farm Security Administration, United States Department of Agriculture. LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN THREE TENANT FAMILIES LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN JAMES AGEE W A L K E R EVANS !t H O U G H T O N MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON Qfie Xibereibe @tees Camfiribge AGEE COPYRIGHT, 1939 AND 1 9 4 0 , BY JAMES AGEEAND WALKER COPYRIGHT, 1 9 4 1 , BY JAMES EVANS COPYRIGHT @ 19t30 BY WALKER EVANS LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGCARDNUMBER: 41-13770 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED INCLUDING THE RIGHT TO REPRODUCE THIS BOOK OR PARTS THEREOF IN ANY FORM PASSAGES FROXI THIS BOOK HA\'E AL'l'EAREU I X C ~ I I I I Sense, ~ I O ~1Vew Directio~zs, . A Y U T h e Atlantic i2lontlzly aije Bibereibe $re$$ CAMBRIDGE . MASSACHUSETTS PRINTED IN THE U.S.A. To those of whom the record is made. In gratefulness and in love. J. A. W. E. FOREWORD JAMES AGEE I N 1936 by Walker Evans A T THE TIME, Agee was a youthful-looking twenty- seven. I think he felt he was elaborately masked, but what you saw right away - alas for conspiracy - was a faint rubbing of Harvard and Exeter, a hint of family gentility, and a trace of romantic idealism. He could be taken for a likable American young man, an above-average product of the Great Democracy from any part of the country. He didn't look much like a poet, an intellectual, an artist, or a Christian, each of which he was. Nor was there outward sign of his paralyzing, self-lacerating anger. His voice was pronouncedly quiet and low-pitched, though not of "culti- vated" tone. It gave the impression of diffidence, but never of weakness. His accent was more or less unplaceable and it was somewhat variable. For instance, in Alabama it veered towards country-southern, and I may say he got away with this to the farm families and to himself. His clothes were deliberately cheap, not only because he was poor but because he wanted to be able to forget them. He would work a suit into fitting him perfectly by the simple method of not taking it off much. In due time the cloth would mold itself to his frame. Cleaning and pressing would have undone this beautiful process. I exaggerate, but it did seem sometimes that wind, rain, work, and mockery were his tailors. O n another score, he felt that wearing good, expensive clothes involved him in some sort of claim to superiority of the social kind. Here he occasionally confused his purpose, and fell over into a knowingly comical inverted dandyism. He got more delight out of factory-seconds sneakers and a sleazy cap than a straight dandy does from waxed calf Peal shoes and a brushed Lock & Co. bowler. Physically Agee was quite powerful, in the deceptive way of uninsistent large men. I n movement he was rather grace- less. His hands were large, long, bony, light, and uncared for. His gestures were one of the memorable things about him. He seemed to model, fight, and stroke his phrases as he talked. The talk, in the end, was his great distinguishing feature. He talked his prose, Agee prose. I t was hardly a twentieth century style; it had Elizabethan colors. Yet it had extraor- dinarily knowledgeable contemporary content. It rolled just as it reads; but he made it sound natural - something just there in the air like any other part of the world. How he did this no one knows. You would have blinked, gaped, and very likely run from this same talk delivered without his mysterious ability. I t wasn't a matter of show, and it wasn't necessarily bottle-inspired. Sheer energy of imagina- tion was what lay behind it. This he matched with physical energy. Many a man or woman has fallen exhausted to sleep at four in the morning bang in the middle of a remarkable Agee performance, and later learned that the man had continued it somewhere else until six. Like many born writers who are floating in the illusory amplitude of their youth, Agee did a great deal of writing in the air. Often you had the impulse to gag him and tie a pen to his hand. That wasn't necessary; he was an exception among talking writers. H e wrote - devotedly and incessantly. Night was his time. In Alabama he worked I don't know how late. Some parts of Let U s Now Praise Famous Men read as though they were written on the spot at night. Later, in a small house in Frenchtown, New Jersey, the work, I think, was largely night-written. Literally the result shows this; some of the sections read best at night, far in the night. The first passage of A Country Letter (p. 49), is particularly night-permeated. Agee worked in what looked like a rush and a rage. In Alabama he was po

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