THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN by James Agee and Walker Evans

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men became an overnight classic twenty-five years after Agee was given an assignment to write an article for Fortune magazine in 1936, which the magazine subsequently rejected and never published; twenty years after it was finally published as a book; and five years after its author succumbed to a heart attack in a New York taxi on his way to a doctor's appointment.

Agee was just twenty-six, a poet in the guise of a journalist, when he was given the assignment to travel into the Deep South to do a story on cotton sharecroppers. He asked that a friend of his, thirty-two year old photographer Walker Evans, be hired to accompany him. Evans at the time was working for one of the New Deal agencies, the Farm Security Administration, helping to document the Great Depression. Evans was given a leave of absence and he and Agee headed South during the summer of 1936.

They traveled around for a month before they found the subjects they wanted to photograph and write about. They spent three weeks with three families and then went back to New York to finalize the article and present it to the magazine's editor. The magazine did not publish it. It was believed for many years that Agee's unconventional rambling style was the cause for the editor's rejection of the article. However, decades later it was discovered that that was not the case.

"Isn't every human being both a scientist and an artist; and in writing of human experience, isn't a good deal to be said for recognizing that fact and for using both methods?"

At any rate, after the article was rejected, Agee then expanded it into a book and set about to find a publisher. It was five years later that it was published to a resounding sound of silence. It was a miserable failure, partly because the effects of the Great Depression had lessened and because the war in Europe and Asia dominated the news. The book sold only 600 copies the first year and there was no second printing -- not then.

"Picking cotton: it is simple and terrible work. Skill will help you; all the endurance you can draw up against it from the roots of your existence will be thoroughly used as fuel to it; but neither skill nor endurance can make it any easier."

"...and in each private and silent heart toward that climax of one more year's work which yields so little at best, and nothing so often, and worse to so many hundreds of thousands..."

Agee went on to other things; he continued to write poetry; became an influential and highly-respected film critic; and he wrote screenplays for two classic movies: THE AFRICAN QUEEN and THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.

But he was a tormented man who fought off his demons with tobacco and alcohol and the combination helped bring on the heart attack that killed him at age forty-five. At the time of his death he was working on an autobiographical novel. Two years after his death, A Death in the Family was published and a year later it received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Two years after that, because of Agee's untimely death and as a result of the critical acclaim for his novel, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was re-published and became an instant classic, not only due to Agee's narrative, but also because of Evans' haunting black-and-white photographs that appear uncaptioned at the beginning of the book.

In 2003, a typescript of Agee's original magazine article was discovered among his papers. It is much different from the book that grew out of the project. It is much more conventional, much more journalistic, and much less poetic. It had not been rejected due to an unconventional writing style after all, but for some other reason or reasons.

In 2013, it was published as Cotton Tenants: Three Families, the title of Agee's rejected magazine article.


The link will take you to Walker Evan's photographs:

James Agee
Walker Evans

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