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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"

The other night I started reading the book of the above title for the fourth or fifth time over a period of many years.   Lately most of my reading has been about people caught in desperate situations while cast away at sea or while on polar expeditions, and the conditions in this book, while not as extreme, are certainly more extreme than anybody would want.

In the middle 1930's, in, as they say, the depths of the Great Depression, James Agee, a young writer, and Walker Evans, a somewhat older photographer, were enlisted by a magazine to take a look at “white” tenant farmers or sharecroppers in the Deep South. I don't know if the contract said that they were to go into it in so much detail, but they quickly came up with an article and then a book that became an instant classic, and though that kind of agriculture and lifestyle may or may not!) be long gone, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" is just as powerful and relevant today as it was in 1940.

They chose Alabama, and they drove through its back roads looking for tenant families who were willing to let them come into their homes, such as they were, and live with them for several weeks, as invisible but constant observers while the families went about their daily business as if the two weren't there.

Having seen a little of how people are, in equal doses of urban and rural life, I would really like to know what Agee and Walker said to the three families that agreed and that Walker and Agee chose as being what they wanted, but my reading today or in yesteryear has never revealed anything that Agee tells us about that.

So Walker took his great shots, of which about fifty make up the first part of the book, while Agee waited for the farmers and their wives and children to go on off into their scattered fields to plow, chop cotton, and do stuff like that all day long, while he snooped around their homes from top to bottom and from the shingles to under the floors, even to the point of opening the little chests where they kept their most treasured, tiny possessions. And he took detailed notes on everything he saw, and also he touched and even smelled them, while at the same time he made close architectural observations of just how the essentially ramshackle tenant houses were built and the deficiencies and the strenghts and the poetry thereof.

The book has many poetic incantations that I am sure compare favorably with Agee's contemporaries -- T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and everybody else -- but the parts that keep bringing me back have always been those pages and pages of what amount to spy catalogs (Agee called himself a spy) on everything that the Gudgers, the Ricketts, and the Woods-- the three families that tolerated their presence -- possessed and ate and wore and used that may or may not have been highly precious to them, no matter how ordinary or cheap or what kind of condition anything was in.

What does this say about someone who would be so interested in that? That he enjoyed being drawn into Agee's kind of intellectual voyeurism? Or was it that it doesn't matter whether this was about the inner sanctums of some “white” tenant families (naturally I wonder what the homes of the “black” sharecroppers were like, though I have the feeling that they were almost the same) who lived in the most abject poverty, subject to the will of landlords and engaged in back-breaking work and enduring living conditions that devastated them in every respect before they had even gotten into their mid-20's? Was it just the sheer veracity in the way Walker and especially Agee were able to present a way of life and some families with what must have been close to perfect truth?

After having seen too many movies, in which people doing what Agee did are usually caught, I also wonder what would have happened if one of those fatigued mothers or fathers had come back home early one afternoon and found him poking through all their stuff and closely noting things that they had long since stopped noticing?  (That latter-cited behavior can bother people as quick as anything else, you know.)

Surely the Gudgers, Ricketts, and Woods, who are most likely all long gone now, maybe along with most of their children, so desperate were their living conditions, could not have known that the two strangers would bestow on them, in the form of the printed word and photos, an immortality that in its completeness as conveyed by the representations and descriptions of their rented tenant houses and their very modest possessions, was actually a gift that has been given to very few others on any level of affluence.

But maybe there were things about Walker and Agee that these families were able to recognize and value, so that maybe they did know, and that was why they went along with it.

Or maybe they were always so exhausted and dazed by what was happening and not happening in their lives that they just didn't care one way or another, and essentially Walker and Agee were as invisible to them as the spider webs built each night across the paths that they used to trudge to yet another day of their unending labors, concerns, and dissatisfactions.


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