“When we say that the artist imitates the poet or the poet the artist, we can mean one of two things: either that the one takes the other’s work as his model, or that both work from the same model and one borrows his manner of presentation from the other.”[i]
“If . . . the poet and the artist must contemplate those objects common to both from the same point of view, the inevitable result is that their representations will correspond to one another in many points without there having been even the slightest imitation or emulation. These points of agreement between contemporaneous artists and poets in regard to things that no longer exist may lead to mutual illumination . . . .”[ii]
Although the above observations were made by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing concerning ancient examples of sculpture and literature they could just as easily apply to a more modern example: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.[iii]
James Agee and Walker Evans were commissioned to produce a series of essays and images documenting rural life in the Southern United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression. After many stops and starts, negotiations with publishers and printers, and a very general concept and structure for this project, they set off touring the South and ultimately living with three sharecropper families. A writer and an artist, sharing their experiences first hand, responding to the people, the landscape, the times, and to each other, Agee and Evans produced one of the most haunting and lyrical portraits of American life.
“We lay on the front porch. The boards were unplaned thick oak, of uneven length, pinned down by twenty-penny nails. A light roof stuck out its tongue above us dark and squarely, sustained at its outward edge by the slippery trunks of four young trees from which the bark had been peeled. There were four steps down, oak two-by-twelves; the fourth, when stepped on, touched the ground. These steps were in the middle of the porch. They led, across the porch, into a roofed doorless hallway, about six feet wide, which ran straight through the house and clove it in half. There was a floor to this hallway, of wide unplaned boards. Laid across beams too wide apart, they sagged beneath a heavy foot. For ten feet toward the rear end they were only an inch from the ground. At the end they lay flush on it.”[iv]
The title for this work seemed to be almost Biblical to me and I tried to search for its source. It turned out to be from the book of Ecclesiasticus in the Apocrypha, not to be confused with Ecclesiastes. So it is not included in modern editions. It does however, recognize and praise the generations of mankind, from all walks of life and throughout time, drawing parallels between the ancient and the modern.
“Let us now sing praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles . . . .”
“Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise.
But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them . . . .
The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation declares their praise.”[v]
The original names of the farmers were Frank Tengle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs. In order to protect and insure the privacy of these farmers and their families the names in the text were changed to Fred Gavin Ricketts, Thomas Gallatin Woods, and George Gudger. The dates of the photographs also vary, from as early as 1936 to as late as 1941. These were probably mix-ups in between the shooting, printing, and publishing times as well as museum and gallery cataloging.
Although I have found examples of Walker Evans’ photographs from several collections including the National Gallery and the Library of Congress, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, they are all copyrighted through the Walker Evans Archives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Below you will find a small portfolio of the photographic images and literary quotations from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. These are paired in such a way as to give a broader picture of this work, however, they are not a substitute for it in its entirety. Only an introduction.
“Its west wall is the front of the house; its north wall, the hallway; its east wall, the partition; its south wall, the side of the house. At the center of the partition wall is a fireplace. At the center of the side wall and of the front wall is an exactly square window, about three feet each way. At the center of the north wall a door leads into the rear bedroom. The doors are very wide vertical planks, not paneled, but crosslaid with planks in a Z. They are held shut by block wood buttons and are kept shut most of the time. . . .”
“. . . The square shutters, hung on sagged and rusted, loud hinges, are less broad verticals. Always at night and nearly always during the day they are drawn shut and secured, one by a leather strap over a nail, the other by a piece of rag over a nail. When they are shut, the room is dark and has a special heat and odor of daylight darkness; but also there is a strong starlight of sunshine with slits and blades and rods of light through the roof and two outward walls and, looking through the floor, the quiet sunless daylighted grain of the earth can be seen, strange to see as at the bottom of a lake; and in this oddly lighted darkness, certain flecks of the room are brilliantly picked out, and every part of it is visible.”[vi]
“They are pronounced overhauls.”
“Try—I cannot write of it here—to imagine and to know, as against other garments, the difference of their feeling against your body; drawn-on, and bibbed on the whole belly and chest, naked from the kidneys up behind, save for crossed straps, and slung by these straps from the shoulders; the slanted pockets on each thigh, the deep square pockets on each buttock; the complex . . .”
“. . . and slanted structures, on the chest, of the pockets shaped for pencils, rulers, and watches; the coldness of sweat when they are young, and their stiffness; their sweetness to the skin and pleasure of sweating when they are old; the thin metal buttons of the fly; the lifting aside of straps and the deep slipping downward in defecation; the belt some men use with them to steady their middles; the swift, simple, and inevitably supine gestures of dressing and of undressing, which, as is less true of any other garment, are those of harnessing and of unharnessing the shoulders of a tired and hard-used animal.”[vii]
“The family exists for work. It exists to keep itself alive. It is a cooperative economic unit. The father does one set of tasks; the mother another; the children still a third, with the sons and daughters serving apprenticeship to their father and mother respectively. A family is called a force, without irony; and children come into the world chiefly that they may help with the work and that through their help the family may increase itself. Their early years are leisurely; a child’s life work begins as play. Among his first imitative gestures are gestures of work; and the whole imitative course of his maturing and biologic envy is a stepladder of learning of physical tasks and skills.
This work solidifies, and becomes steadily more and more, in greater and greater quantity and variety, an integral part of his life.”[viii]
“And Ellen where she rests, in the gigantic light: she, too, is completely at peace, this child, the arms squared back, and palms open loose against the floor, the floursack on her face; the soles of the feet facing: her blown belly swimming its navel, white as flour; and blown full broad with slumbering blood into a circle: so white all the outward flesh, it glows of blue; so dark, the deep hole, a dark red shadow of life blood: this center and source, . . .
. . . for which we have never contrived any worthy name, is as if it were breathing, flowering, soundlessly, a snoring silence of flame; it is as if flame were breathed forth from it and subtly played about it: and here in this breathing and play of flame, a thing so strong, so valiant, so unvanquishable, it is without effort, without emotion, I know it shall at length outshine the sun.”[ix]
[i] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; The Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore and London; 1984; p. 45.
[ii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; pp. 45-46.
[iii] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston and New York; 1941.
[iv] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 201.
[v] Metzger, Bruce M., and Roland E. Murphy, eds.; “Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach,” Chapter 44, Verses 1-15, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books; Oxford University Press; New York, New York; 1991; p. 148.
[vi] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 142.
[vii] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; pp. 240-241.
[viii] Agee, James and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; pp. 291-292.
[ix] Agee, James and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 402.