A black Chevy Suburban pulls up as I snap photos of the empty storefronts lining the main drag in Moundville, Alabama. The woman in the passenger seat holds up James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, asking if I know where to find any information or historical markers commemorating the town’s role in the literary classic, which chronicles the lives of three sharecropping families during the Depression. Having just asked seven locals the same question, I shake my head, telling the like-minded tourists that I have yet to meet anyone who has even heard of the book.
Stopping at a Petro station on my way out of town, I try one more time. “Oh sure, that’s my kin,” Pat, the station attendant, replies when I show her the book. Stunned, I don’t quite know what to say. “Or actually my husband’s kin,” she clarifies, pointing at the cover. It features Walker Evans’s iconic portrait of her husband’s grandfather, Floyd Burroughs—identified pseudonymously in the book as “George Gudger.”
Video: The author narrates a collection of Walker Evans's iconic photos.
Explaining that her husband, Doug, is unlikely to want to talk about the book and his family, Pat nonetheless calls him and hands me the phone. “That book,” Doug says, caused “a lot of bad blood” in his family. “That writer, Jimmy what’s-his-name,” never told the family he was writing a book, “exploited” them for profit, and “humiliated” them by laying bare the difficult reality of their lives.
Doug is not swayed when I tell him the book sprang from a never-published magazine article and generated significant sales only after Agee’s premature death. But despite his rigid stance against answering prying questions from another writer, Doug calls Pat back several times to relay suggestions about who in the family might be more open to a visit.
Doug’s sister Diane turns out to be quite a talker. In a number of phone conversations, she regales me with stories about her family and upbringing. Confirming the widespread resentment engendered in her family by the unwanted public attention, Diane believes the 1989 publication of And Their Children After Them—a Pulitzer Prize–winning follow-up by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson—revived the feelings of exploitation and maltreatment that had just begun to fade 50 years after the release of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Their aunt Dottie, the youngest child of Floyd and Allie Mae Burroughs, didn’t cooperate on what the family refers to simply as “the second book.” By the time Maharidge and Williamson came around, Dottie had tired of journalists, researchers, and filmmakers turning up in Moundville looking for “Gudgers.” Her family seemed to have become a big business from which only strangers ever profited.
Dottie tells me all of this to explain, in the politest manner possible, why she’d rather not talk to me. I’m finally sitting in her living room after nearly a week of failed attempts to meet. Her tone strongly suggests that she’d prefer I go, but I don’t feel that I can leave just yet.
In a flood of words and emotion, I tell her how Let Us Now Praise Famous Men inspired my own “Recession Roadtrip” to document the lives of ordinary people struggling under extraordinary circumstances; how what I remember most about Agee’s portrayal of her parents was their dedication to family, their remarkable strength, endurance, and work ethic, their kindness and generosity, their grace and dignity in the face of almost unimaginable hardship; how what began as neighborly sensitivity to her family’s embarrassment caused the local community to turn its back on its own history (the tattered paperback copy in the library hasn’t been checked out in a decade); how younger generations of her family seem unaware that their ancestors feature in the most significant historical documentation of Depression-era sharecropping and one of the great American literary masterpieces of the 20th century (Diane’s grandkids scarcely believe that the portrait in their social-sciences textbook depicts her granddad); and how timeless and powerful is Agee’s principal theme that material poverty holds no inherent shame—a man’s worth is defined by things infinitely more important than the quality of cloth worn to cover his nakedness, the size of his house, or the number of his possessions.