The Great Depression, beginning in 1929 and continuing throughout the next decade, was a time of extreme economic decline, devastating people of nearly every social class, race, age, and geographic region. Millions of unemployed Americans everywhere suffered the burdens of poverty, homelessness, and crime. While vast numbers of citizens lined up in long bread lines, waiting for hours for the small amount of free food offered by government relief agencies; many others, outraged by their living conditions, took to the streets to protest, sometimes violently, demanding that the government take immediate action to alleviate their suffering. It is these images of such widespread trouble, distress, and social and political upheaval, that sparked the attention of literary writers everywhere.
As literary writers assessed these new situations brought on by the Great Depression, one group in particular, the South, piqued the interests of many writers. Economic as well as environmental factors, such as drought and the Dust Bowl, adversely affected the South's economic dependence on agriculture; forcing many farmers into poverty, and driving thousands from their homes elsewhere in search of better opportunities. It is these immense economic adversities as well as vast human suffering experienced by the South that drew interest from many literary writers, making the South the subject of many famous and important works of literature, and thereby securing for the Southern regions an important historic niche in the history of the Great Depression in America. By examining the literary depictions of Southern life during the Great Depression, of works such as The Grapes of Wrath, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Tobacco Road, we gain essential insights into the cultures, lifestyles, and sentiments of those Americans hardest hit by the Great Depression; farmers and sharecroppers in the American south.
Among those works of literature depicting the Great Depression is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written by James Agee with photography by Walker Evans. Written at the height of the Great Depression in 1936 as an assignment for Fortune magazine, and later published in 1941 as a novel, this lengthy four hundred page text is a work of non-fiction that sets out to document the often harsh conditions of white Southern sharecroppers in rural Alabama by spending time with and even lodging with three actual sharecropping families known in the novel as: the Gudgers, the Ricketts, and the Woods for a period of several weeks.
In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, passages of extraordinary description and poetic beauty describe the various settings in which the novel takes place. Agee describes in great detail the homes of the farmers, the work they do, how the people looked, what they ate, how they spoke, their possessions and the surrounding land in order to paint an accurate picture of the living conditions as well as the plight of the sharecroppers. As Humphries points out, although Agee urges his reader not to view the novel as “high art” Agee's ability to convey beauty even in those things not typically viewed as beautiful makes the artistic value of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men quite clear.
Equally as powerful as the elaborate visual images Agee so skillfully conjures within the reader and the poetic beauty of these images, is the appeal to sensation Agee conveys in his description. Agee in seeking to fully and accurately convey the experiences of Southern sharecroppers, utilizes sensation to attempt to make the reader feel what it is like to be a sharecropper, the physical pain caused by bending of the back, the sensations of cramping in the hand, and the feel of sweat dripping down the body all combine to allow the reader to feel what it is like to be a sharecropper (Quinn). It is through these depictions of sensations that Agee hoped to make the sharecroppers "so real to you who read of it, that...