James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The Shadow Over America

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University of Tennessee Press


In 1932, after he graduated from Harvard, James Agee began working for Fortune magazine, writing articles on strawberries, baldness, cock-fighting, illuminated manuscripts; jewels, and orchids. Besides pieces on these esoteric topics, on which he always did an extraordinary amount ofresearch, there were others that dealt more specifically with the American landscape: an article on the American roadside, detailing the burgeoning profits to be gathered from an America-on-wheels; a graphic article on the drought of 1934; an authoritative exploration of the Tennessee Valley project; and even an expose of what has since become a more urgent problem, air pollution.

Such articles manifest a growing concern on Agee's part over the economic and social problems of the depression years. He was not alone; this was the age of the socially committed artist. His realization of the inability of America to care adequately and humanly for its citizens eventually prompted, as it did for other writers in the thirties, a flirtation with communism. If he never became a card-carrying member, his attraction toward communism does betray his disappointment with Roosevelt's social programs, with their failure, in a profit-oriented society, to create a milieu in which people like the Alabama sharecroppers, whom he came to know in the summer of 1936, could live proudly as human beings.

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