Illustration by Michael Willis
Illustration by Michael Willis

In 2013, poverty isn’t hard to find in America -- from decayed inner cities to the camps of agricultural migrant workers. But unless you seek it out, it’s very easy to forget. We always prefer stories of great success - - Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett -- to the much more numerous, if less inspiring or reassuring, stories of failure.

The first task of a writer aiming to bring poverty out of the shadows, then, is simply to remind prosperous Americans that the poor exist -- not in the abstract, as statistics, but in all their humanity. No writer has ever committed himself more fully to this task than James Agee, in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

In 1936, as the Depression stretched on and on, Fortune magazine decided to commission an article about the plight of sharecroppers in the South. Fortune, a sister magazine to Time, was part of the Henry Luce empire, and Luce was known for hiring serious and respected writers (though they often bitterly complained that he did not allow them to do their best work).

For the sharecropping assignment, the magazine chose Agee, a 27-year-old poet, to write the words and Walker Evans to take the pictures. The two men spent about a month in Alabama, getting to know three tenant families, sharing their homes and learning about their way of life. When they returned to New York and Agee filed his article, it was instantly rejected.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Freed from the obligation to Luce, Agee turned his experience in the South into a 500-page book, accompanied by Evans’s photographs, which would become one of the classics of Depression literature.

Romanticizing Poverty

The pictures are classics of documentary photography. Evans captured both the deprivation and the resilience of these poor white farmers. Here are pine shacks, their boards weathered and askew; children wearing filthy smocks and overalls, crouched in the dirt; prematurely aged women, toothless in their late 20s. The photos read like an indictment: All of this is taking place in America in the 20th century, they say.

Reading the book today, however, in the aftermath of our Great Recession, those photos carry less of an immediate charge. In their black-and-white precision, they seem to speak of a long-past era, and so become almost quaint. Looking at them, we may even feel some nostalgia for the way of life they record, which has almost disappeared from America.

Agee himself wasn’t immune to this kind of romanticizing of poverty. Describing the shack in which the Gudger family lived - - Agee used pseudonyms to guard the privacy of the people he met -- he makes clear that it was a wretched place. A single layer of pine board, carelessly hammered together, was all that protected the inhabitants from the weather outside. Of the four rooms, one was uninhabitable due to smoke, and all were infested with lice. Yet Agee can admire the house’s simplicity: “A look of being most earnestly hand-made, as a child’s drawing, a thing created out of need, love, patience, and strained skill in the innocence of a race.”

The key to the strangeness of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” is that Agee was, in fact, love-struck by the people and even the things he discovered in Alabama. He was raised in a pious Christian home, and his adult life was haunted by his struggles with religious belief. But with his hosts in Alabama - - the Gudgers, the Woodses and the Rickettses -- he clearly underwent a kind of religious experience. He was powerfully struck by the luminous reality of these lives, apparently so much worse than his own but nonetheless sacred and unique: “In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger. It is that he exists, in actual being, as you do and as I do.”

Shared Experience

Agee didn’t set himself the goal of reporting on economic conditions, much less to suggest economic solutions. Although he opens with an epigraph from “The Communist Manifesto” -- “Workers of the world, unite and fight. You have nothing to lose but your chains, and a world to win” -- he quickly insists, perhaps disingenuously, that he doesn’t mean these words as a partisan slogan. Rather, he wanted to force the reader to share his up-close experience of impoverished lives:

“If I could do it, 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. ... A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.”

It is the gap between what words can do and the sensory experience Agee wants to provide that makes the book so strange. One might expect that a book about the plight of cotton sharecroppers would contain, say, an analysis of the economics of the cotton industry, or a description of cotton harvesting. “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” does touch on these subjects, but as briefly as possible. We see how every member of a sharecropping family, even a young child, has to help get the crop in, which means dragging 100-pound sacks of cotton in the summer heat. We see how the sharecropping system leaves the farmer permanently in debt to his landlord, making it impossible for him ever to make a profit.

Yet Agee almost prides himself on his lack of interest in the details of these subjects: “Of cotton farming I know almost nothing with my own eyes,” he wrote cavalierly. “I must warn you that the result is sure to be somewhat inaccurate; but it is accurate anyhow to my ignorance, which I would not wish to disguise.”

On the other hand, he is willing to spend dozens of pages describing surfaces, textures, tastes and smells. A long chapter is devoted to an item-by-item inventory of every object in the Gudgers’s house. This isn’t just journalism, but a kind of spiritual exercise, a litany -- as though listing the evidence of this family’s poverty would allow the reader to understand its inner meaning, its essence.

Living Book

And it is that spiritual effort that makes “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” a living book so many years after it was written. The poverty of our age no longer looks the way it did in Alabama in 1936: It is no longer rural, stark and primeval, but urban and shabby. It is the difference between the near-starvation Agee witnessed and the epidemic of obesity and diabetes that plagues the poor today -- diseases of cheap abundance.

But the struggle Agee records is still with us. This is the struggle, not so much political as moral and spiritual: to believe in the value of all human lives -- to accept that all men are brothers. For once that principle is accepted -- not just formally but in our hearts, as Agee wants us to accept it - - then it becomes impossible to close our eyes to suffering and deprivation. To break down our resistance to that idea, Agee produced a book that is ungainly, sentimental, verbose, desperately sincere and unforgettable.

(Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author of “Why Trilling Matters.” This is the third in a four-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.)

To contact the writer of this article: Adam Kirsch at adam.kirsch@hotmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.