Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Help Me Teach James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

I'm teaching James Agee's and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to my undergraduate students in my "intermediate" literary journalism class at Dartmouth College tomorrow. My problem: Too many of them loathe this masterpiece. Or, rather, they think they do. That's where I want your help.

A colleague of mine teaches Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in a course on American prose. Students encountering the book as an object of critical inquiry are exhilarated by it. But I've discovered that students here at Dartmouth, at least, encountering the book in a creative writing course, are quick to dismiss it. Every critique they level at it -- overwrought, grandiose, "unreadable," self-absorbed -- is dead on, of course. But there's more, too, so much more.

This is my second time teaching the book. The first time their contempt for it caught me by surprise. This time, I'm planning all kinds of strategies to help them open their minds to it.

This one is crass: I'd like to hear from other writers what Let Us Now Praise Famous Men means or meant to them. I want to highlight for my students the discrepancy between their certainty that this book is "bad" or somehow simply "wrong" and its ripple effect among writers.

So if the book matters to you, or mattered to you, will you comment below or send me a note about how or why at jeff dot sharlet at gmail dot com?