U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What are we doing?

Ahhhhh, James Agee, you are insightful. Just a reminder that what we aim to do as historians (or journalists, in Agee’s case) has weight, a sometimes scary weight. This is the first section of James Agee and Walker Evan’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which started as an assignment from Fortune Magazine to investigate the lives of sharecroppers during the Depression and turned into a very long text on the meaning of research, as well as some reflections on the lives of tenant farmers.

“I spoke of this piece of work we were doing as ‘curious.’ I had better amplify this.

“It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for th epurpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of ‘honest journalism’ (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money and for a reputation for crusading and for unbias which, when skillfully enough qualified, is exchangeable at any bank for money (and in politics, for votes, job patronage, abelincolnism, etc.*; and that these people could be capable of meditating this prospect without the slightest doubt of their qualifications to do an ‘honest’ piece of work, and with a conscience better than clear, and in the virtual certitue of almost unanimous public approval. It seems curious, further, that the assignment of this work should have fallen to persons having so extremely different a form of respect for the subject, and responsibility toward it, that from the first and inevitably they counted their employers, and that Government likewise to which one of them was bonded, among their most dangerous enemies, acted as spies, guardians, and cheats,** and trusted no judgment, however authoritative it claimed to be, save their own, which in many aspects of the task before them was untrained and uninformed. It seems further cuious that realizing the extreme corruptness and difficulty of the circumstances, and the unlikelihood of achieving in any untainted form what they wished to achieve, they accepted the work in th efirst place. And it seems curious still further that, with all their suspicion of and contempt for every person and thing to do with the situation, save only for the tenants and for themselves, and their own intentions, and with all their realization of the seriousness and mystery of the subject, and of the human responsibility they undertook, they so little questioned or doubted their own qualifications for this work.

“All of this, I repeat, seems to me curious, obscene, terrifying, and unfathomably mysterious.”

* money
** Une chose permise ne peut pas etre pure.
L’illegal me va.

Do you ever feel any of these things about your work?

Picture by David Terry, from here. [sorry for the lack of proper accents in the footnote. I’m not sure how to put them in on blogger]

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very interesting. Agee seems to call into question the very nature of journalism. Can there be integrity in journalism, or is it an enterprise built upon exploitation? Can “honest journalism” exist in a model where the publisher is obligated by the laws of supply and demand to please the consumer?

    Agee’s remarks are so powerful because they call into question an industry upon which we all rely.

    Thank you for bringing to light his eye-opening perspective. I look forward to reading more from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.



  2. JJ, The book is a challenging one, but a worthwhile challenge in every sense. His contemplations about delving into other people’s lives, which we also do as historians, is some of the most profound I’ve ever read.

  3. My own reaction to this sentiment is to say Amen, and to therefore regard the craft of history as keeping alive the memory of the institutions, practices, and individuals who were ultimately responsible for these crimes against humanity (I use the latter term in a nontechnical sense): that is, for the humiliations and abjections of the past. Practically, that means I am interested in men (and women) of power and authority, and in how they wielded this power authority for good and (more often) ill. I wish to make sure that the names of those who committed infamies in the past should live forever, so that their decedents should hang their heads in shame.

  4. Anon,

    Agee isn’t talking about a crime against humanity as much as he’s talking about a normal task of journalism. By what right do journalists invade other people’s lives to tell stories? How are journalists, at a far remove from the lives of the people they are interviewing, able to learn about them? In the end, Agee is asking a question about epistemology–how do we know? how do we come to knowledge about another person? But also, by what right do we invade other people’s lives?

    He lived with tenant farmers for six weeks one summer, so he was massively invading their lives.

  5. Just yesterday I was reading about the famous “Falling Man” image from the 9/11 attacks:


    The article discusses how the photographer had simply happened upon the attacks and began shooting: “There was no terror or confusion at the Associated Press. There was, instead, that feeling of history being manufactured; although the office was as crowded as he’d ever seen it, there was, instead, ‘the wonderful calm that comes into play when people are really doing their jobs.’ So Drew did his.” If journalists yield to their squeamishness, whose interests are served? Whose interests would have been served had Agee walked away from this painful assignment to do something easier like sports reporting? There may be much to criticize about “the media” but ultimately, I think reporters are sometimes downright heroic in their ability to put aside their feelings in order to do their work.

    Ross G.

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