Let Us Now Trash Famous Authors

James Agee’s Depression classic still stings the family of its subjects.

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.

“It’s not anything I’m ashamed of,” Dottie says after some thought, “because my family worked hard. They were honest. They lived off what they did.”

What bothers her most is that Agee and Evans didn’t tell her parents that their lives would become a book. “Momma and Daddy didn’t know what they was doing. They was trying to help ’em out. And they just wanted to write about how poor Momma and Daddy was.”

Possibly because Evans had been shooting photos for the Farm Security Administration, the sharecroppers believed the pair worked for the government and assumed that their research would eventually help the families. Some also suspected the well-dressed and well-spoken men were spies, long before Agee metaphorically defined himself as such in the book.

While the Burroughs family worked in the field, Agee and Evans stayed back at the house. The family assumed they were simply lazy, but later learned from the book that the “spies” spent their days poking through drawers to record every spool of thread, scrap of fabric, and clip of newsprint they discovered within. “That was invading their privacy,” Dottie concludes emphatically. “They shouldn’t have done that.”

By now, Dottie has decided that she likes me well enough to let me hang around for a while. PBS made a documentary retrospective about the book in the 1980s, and Dottie wants to show me the interview footage of her mother, Allie Mae, made shortly before she succumbed to colon cancer. But the video player in the living room doesn’t work right, so she asks if I would mind watching it from her bed.

We lie on her flowered quilt, Dottie with a cigarette, I with a pen, and I scribble notes to record her running commentary in response to the PBS narrator reading Agee’s prose. When Agee describes filthy curtains in the Burroughs home: “Why don’t you wash it rather than sitting on your ass and writing about it?” On Agee’s suggestion that Floyd and Allie Mae had noiseless sex while their children slept nearby: “He shouldn’t have even told that.”

Despite Dottie’s insistence that the book causes her no shame, her responses show discomfort with Agee’s detailed exposition of the harsh reality he witnessed. Even if he didn’t condescend, Agee opened the Burroughs home to the peering eyes of countless outsiders, who could be inclined to pass judgment. And he never asked permission before inviting the whole world to witness their struggle.

Agee kept in touch for a number of years after the 1936 visit, even sending the family gifts every Christmas. But his letters never mentioned the book, and the correspondence eventually petered out. Dottie doesn’t recall who told the family about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, or exactly when, but the revelation occurred before her own conscious memory, so it must have preceded the posthumously reissued 1960 edition that earned the book its rightful acclaim.

For many years, Dottie could not understand why anyone would bother making a journey to little Moundville looking for her family. Then, about a decade ago, a young man working on her house remarked on the framed Walker Evans portraits hanging on her wall. “That’s my momma and daddy,” she told him. The man did not believe her. “Why would I be kiddin’ you?” she asked.

In awestruck reverence, the young man, a student from the University of Alabama, told Dottie he’d read about her family in school. “He said it was required reading,” she tells me. “Can you believe that?”