This point is so obvious as to demand restatement:
"Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" is an elitist expression of egalitarian longings. The tragic tension between its goal and its means contributes substantially to its greatness. Its Communist sympathies, expressed, I am sad to say, in the midst of the Stalinist show trials, exposes its naivete, without which that greatness would not exist; for despite its fierce intellectualism it is essentially an outcry of childlike love, the love which impels a child to embrace a stranger’s legs. What can the stranger do,k but smilingly stroke the child’s head? Few of its subjects could have read, let alone written it. James Agee sought to know them, to experience, however modestly, what they did; his heart went out to them, and he fought with all his crafty, hopelessly unrequitable passion to make our hearts do the same. This explains the necessity for Walker Evan’s accompanying photographs, which record the poverty of those sharecropper families calmly,m undeniably, heartbreakingly, inescapably. Their project falls repeatedly on its sword. It is a success because it fails. It fails because it consists of two rich men observing the lives of the poor. The stranger’s leg may be approachable, but the stranger himself in his immensity stands too tall and far off in poverty to be ascertained in the easy way that our observers can see each other. Had t his easiness existed in the portrayal of the book’s subject, it would have been patronizing. Accordingly, Agee carries his sincerity to the point of self-loathing, and Evans escapes into the tell-all taciturnity of photography. A picture is worth a thousand words, no doubt, but which thousand? Is your caption the same as mine? A poor man stares out at you from a page. You will never meet him. Is he grim, threatening, sad, repulsive, determined, worn down, unbowed, proud, all of the above? What can you truly come to know about him from his face? as for the photographer, he need not commit himself.
Agee does commit himself. He wants us to feel and smell everything that his subjects have to, and comes as close to accomplishing this as it is possible to do using the sole means of an alphabet; so he fails, despising himself and us that it must be so, apologizing to the families in an abstruse gorgeousness of abasement that only the rich will have time to understand—and of these, how many possess the desire? For to read “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” is to be slapped in the face.
-William T. Vollman, “Poor People”