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.