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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Is there a "usable past"? Is there some way to distinguish the history we must leave behind in order to grow from the history which nourishes and supports us?

With All Saints Day a few days back and All Saints Sunday coming tomorrow, that question has pressed in on me all week. It's a question that was posed to a number of writers back in 1939, and James Agee included his answer in the middle of his book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men". Although his book is ostensibly about the life of three families of white sharecroppers in the middle of the Great Depression, his answer to this question about his literary influences is deeply relevant to the book. Years ago, when I first found this book on my parents' shelves, I skimmed through until I found this list of what the "usable past" includes. I was enchanted with his embrace of the sacred and the profane, or rather, his refusal to make that distinction:

"Christ: Blake: Dostoyevsky: Brady's photographs: everybody's letters: family albums: postcards: Whitman: Crane..."

Yesterday, while waiting at the ice rink while Rosa had her lesson, I was leafing through this month's Harvard Divinity Bulletin and came across a breath-taking essay by Kimberley Patton revisiting James Agee and Walker Evans' luminous book. This morning's Writers Almanac told me that today is the birthday of Walker Evans, and so I'm back to thinking about "Famous Men".

I admire Agee and Evans in large part because they found the assignment which sent them to Alabama with their notebooks and cameras completely impossible. They couldn't make the people the were sent to report on into social problems. In just six weeks, they developed such respect for the people they encountered that Agee found it nearly impossible to put into words what he saw within them. So instead, he describes the gleam of the floor boards in their house, the nails that hold the wood together, the simple fireplace, the sound of their conversation as they fall asleep. He notices everything, as does Evans, and the more they notice, the higher their regard for the lives they observe.

In the end, Agee makes a pretty persuasive case. When we are willing to observe--when we can keep our eyes and ears open, even when what we encounter is terrible--we will find that everything is useful, which is to say, everything is valuable. Every human life sheds some light that helps us walk through darkness. The key is to resist the temptation to make people into types, caricatures, saints.

Tomorrow, as we remember and celebrate the saints of our lives, I hope to do so in the spirit of James Agee. I want to remember that God's light shines in the small particularities of our lives, perhaps even more so than in the overarching themes of human history. I want to celebrate the humanness of the saints, which is perhaps the most hopeful thing about them.


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Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

That book was on my parents' shelf too, and though I loved the pictures, I could never get past the introduction. It seemed so weird! Why couldn't they just say what the book's about? Thanks for letting me know what's waiting in the middle, maybe I'll try it again.

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