Great Book: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans

This is the first GB that I've impressed people with. Apparently James Agee isn't your typical airplane reading. It was quite a chore plodding through this condensed, difficult material, especially since I could have been watching HGTV instead (mmmm, JetBlue). But I did it, all for you, my twenty-seven loyal readers (Hi Mom!).

The Depression. Agee and Evans are sent down to Alabama on a magazine assignment. They were to write an article about the life of (white) tenant farmers. They befriended two tenant families and stayed with them for four weeks, taking pictures and notes. The resulting materials took years to wrestle into shape and was utterly unsuitable for publication in article format. Eventually it came out as a book, and achieved no great success until it was taken up by the social revolutionaries who made cult classics out of Stranger in a Strange Land and The Hobbit.

It's challenging material, but very enjoyable as well. Agee excels at evoking the momentary and fleeting sensations that make up the bulk of daily existence; those quiet moments when one extends ones consciousness and feels connected to the future, the past, and above all, the present.

He writes in minute detail about the lives of these families, from the stage settings of clothing, furnishings, housings, and associated squalor, to the unending labor and dirt and ignorance and withered dreams.

He writes with an obvious love for his subjects and doesn't spare himself a turn under the penetrating literary eye. He writes about them with an extraordinary affection, describing without judgment or hypocrisy as well as, I think, any human being will ever be able to achieve.

The surprise was to me that he should write with such pain as well as love. There's a grandeur to his sweeping meditations on the chain of life, etc., but it's inevitably tinged with despair.

They are lost, these tenant farmers, lost beyond redemption, and so was he, and so is everyone.

His writing makes me think he was probably the kind of man who walked around with exposed nerves a lot of the time, and maybe drank a lot to dull the pain.

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