One of the strange things about reading this book is that you become increasingly both enamored with the cultural moment and confused as to what it meant. It was a raucous lapse in traditional Southern conservatism, but also largely a branding strategy. This is partly why “progressive country” always sounded like an oxymoron, but then, if anything, the paradox is what gave it its power.
The genesis of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is well-known. In the summer of 1936, James Agee and Walker Evans completed an assignment, given to them by Fortune, to interview and photograph tenant farmers in Alabama, but the story was killed. This was the best outcome: Agee turned his notes from the trip into something else entirely.