The Cruel Radiance of What Is: James Agee

  • Gordon O. Taylor


James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s combined narrative and photographic record of certain passages in the lives of three tenant families in rural Alabama was largely disregarded after its appearance in 1941, despite generally favorable reviews. The book’s initial critics were baffled as to its intended genre, and disapproved of Agee’s personal participation in the narrative. Having thus disapproved of the work’s raison d’être, however — its documentary value being utterly inseparable from its author’s self-investment in the subject — these critics praised the volume, in terms conditioned by their uncertainty as to how to classify it, for the ‘honesty’ and ‘originality’ of its prose.1 Declining interest in the system of Southern sharecropping as an object of reformist activity, compounded by Agee’s assault within the text on reigning documentary expectations and reformist pieties, caused Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to go unread, by an American public increasingly preoccupied by the spread of world war.


Intellectual Center Lyric Song Sequence Deal Favorable Review North American Literature 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (New York: Oxford, 1973) pp. 290–1.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich [Harvest], 1970)Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960) pp. xiv-xv.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Howell Raines, ‘Let Us Now Revisit Famous Folk,’ The New York Times Magazine, 25 May 1980, p. 32.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Gordon O. Taylor 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gordon O. Taylor

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