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

This came in response for a request to write on a book that was an essential influence. Thank you, Bob Benjamin, for stuffing it into my hand way back in 1982.
Reprinted with permission.
A suburban boy’s father marks up his English essays, explaining both the wit and weaknesses of leading sentences with gerunds. He tells stories of fierce heroes, word warriors: Broun, who loved the street parade, and Pegler, who sat next to him all those years, despising the common man; Bigart, selfless and understated, or Mencken, who believed in only Mencken. But all of them so gifted, so deft, so able to trick a phrase. Here, says the father, read this transition. Here, look what he does with the second graf…

The father takes the son to a Front Page revival at a D.C. theater. The boy is oversold. He will be a newspaperman, a journalist.

Years later, he is on the metro desk at an old gray rag, Mencken’s old paper, the youngest and last-hired scribbler. He prides himself on needing only minutes to bring fifteen clean column inches on anything, to be fast on rewrite when they put him there, to always talk a desk sergeant out of whatever handful of facts are required. It is all easy and good.

Until an older reporter hands him a book. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

So, thinks the young man, something about celebrity.

He begins to read, bored at first, then confused, then with growing alarm at the delicacy of the reporting, the self-awareness of a thinking journalist as he approaches and attempts to represent the love, fear, and sadness of real lives. My God, Agee is feeling this. Feeling what he is seeing. Feeling what he is writing.

And these people, these poor and unguarded sharecroppers, have opened their lives to the monstrous hegemony of reporting. But the journalist—thank God—he’s utterly aware of the stakes involved, the dignity at risk. He gathers it all with caution and nuance. Page after fucking page of unmistakable proof of the true human condition.

“If I could do it,” Agee declares, “I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game… As it is though, I’ll do what little I can in writing.”

After reading Agee, I knew how callow a young reporter’s ambitions can be, how small my sense of craft, my dry professionalism was. Famous Men is the book that made me ashamed and proud to be a journalist—all in the same instant. Reading it made me grow up. Or at least, it demanded that I begin to grow up.

Whatever honor can be found in using the lives of others to tell tales is there, in the pages of that improbable book. Along with one final lesson as well: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is now, in retrospect, a classic work, an exercise in pure, declarative humanism. It will read true forever.

And yet, at the time of publication, it sold 600 copies.

But Agee knew. He had to know.


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