What is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men?
In the summer of 1936 Evans was given leave from his government
job for a project not initiated by the FSA but in full accord
with its program. Fortune, the magazine that would
employ Evans for two decades, planned a story on the lives of
sharecroppers in the South. The sharecroppers, who were obliged
to turn over most of their crops as rent, were particularly hard
hit by the Depression. They were one of the target groups for FSA
projects; a report on their situation in such a renowned magazine
seemed to merit support. Evans' leave was linked to the condition
that the results of his work--the negatives--would be given to the FSA
Fortune commissioned the writer
James Rufus Agee to write the text. Agee requested that Evans
accompany him as photographer, and both set out for Alabama.
Both men became completely involved in the project; what was to be a brief
journalistic essay never came to be. The venture assumed proportions
no longer in accord with Fortune's intentions and resulted
in the lengthy book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the manuscript
being completed by Agee in 1938. The book was published in 1941, yet the
sharecroppers were no longer topical, partly due to the New Deal reforms
and also because of the war.
With largely unenthusiastic reviews, the book was initially a flop.
Not until the new edition in 1960 did it become the cult book
of a generation searching for alternatives to the values
of an aggressive consumer society. The growing cult around James Agee
who died in 1955, also contributed to the late recognition of the book.