Friday, October 24, 2014

Famous and Not-So-Famous Men

By Jeff Burns

In 1936, the United States was still very much in the grip of the Great Depression.  There were some positive signs of economic progress in some sectors, but the American South was still experiencing misery unknown to the rest of the country, to the point that, in many ways, it was more like a separate country.  Fortune  Magazine dispatched two famous men to document southern conditions.  Walker Evans was a famous photographer, known for his work documenting the effects of the Depression for the Farm Security Administration, the same New Deal agency that employed Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White.  James Agee was a critically acclaimed novelist, poet, journalist, and film critic, most famous for writing A Death in the Family.  For eight weeks, the two men travelled and lived among several poor sharecropping families in Alabama, documenting their lives.  Fortune ultimately decided not to publish their work, and it was instead released as a book titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  The book only sold a few hundred copies and seemed destined for oblivion.  However, it has since been recognized as tremendously important work, hailed by the New York Public Library as one of the most influential books of the century.  Agee’s prose and Evans’ photographs combine to present a poignant and enlightening view of men and women whose lives would otherwise have never been noted.  It’s a moving document of southern sharecroppers and their stories, stories that are seldom told.

            In 2013, more photos and a manuscript from that journey were published as a book called Cotton Tenants: Three Families. I didn’t know this book existed until now, but I just ordered it, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

            I first read Famous Men in high school.  I found it in a bookstore’s clearance section.  It immediately struck a chord with me because my mother’s family was a family of sharecroppers and small farmers in South Georgia.  She was born in 1936 on a farm, and she had an aunt and uncle who continued to work as sharecroppers until the 1980s.  In many ways, what I read and saw in the book was the life that my mother, grandparents, aunts,  and uncles had lived.  Some of the few family pictures we have from the 1930s and 1940s would have been right at home in the book.  Later, I found a book of walker Evans’ photos from the same trip called Something Permanent, which even hit closer to home.  On the cover, was a photo of an iron bed, the same model that then sat in my parents’ guest room, and now belongs to my brother.  It was a Sears catalog bed, costing about $10 or less around 1900.  According to family lore, it was the bed on which my grandmother and her 10 siblings had all been born.

            A few years later, I made another discovery in the clearance aisle:  And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.  Maharidge and Williamson recreate the journey taken by Agee and Evans, going to the same locations and meeting some of the original families of Famous Men and their descendants, documenting their lives in the 1980s, long after the demise of King Cotton.  It is an awesome companion piece, and I’ve read both books more than once, a rarity for me.

            If you’re interested in southern history, agricultural history, or the history of the not-so-famous men and women who are too often neglected in history’s pageant, I urge you to read these books and discover Walker Evans’ photographs.

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