LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN


I first read “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” when I was just out of high school.  My father was an ardent Socialist, Union Organizer, free thinker, blue collar philosopher, lover of “real people,” etc.  You get the picture.

I browsed the public library then as if it were a buffet table and I was starving.  It was not unusual for me to be in there from opening to closing.  My parents never had to worry about my whereabouts.  The library is where I could always be found. After library hours, I was in my room, reading.
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I found the book by chance, sat down at a table and began to read.  I checked that book out more times than anyone the library had ever seen.  I bought it for myself, finally, when I was 20 years old and married.
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What I saw in those pages was the assurance that no one, anywhere, understands anything until they’ve lived it.  Poverty, hunger, lack of education, lack of choices, abuse—all of it, any of it—it is not understood until it is experienced.
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I learned from that book that my suspicions that my peers didn’t understand my life were well-founded.  My mother HAD to sew my clothes.  My father was often on strike, sometimes injured in picket lines, always worked like a slave in the steel mill for every cent and, only through the union were his efforts rewarded.
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I learned in those pages that the government lies.  It lies to cover up its willingness to ignore the poor and uneducated.  It lies to keep the poverty-stricken poverty stricken and the uneducated uneducated.  It lies so that the general populace can feel good about itself.  It lies so that it can build its capitalist sties on the backs of working people and will hire writers and photographers to further those lies..
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James Agee and Walker Evans were like my father. They refused to lie.

Those pages gave me pride in my own father’s work ethic, his truth, his unwillingness to ever be anything more or less than he was.  It made me ashamed to sit back and not try to help the impoverished.  It made me want to shake the world out of its drowsy complacency, wring its neck a little.
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I could not, in those early years, think of what to do, so I began to write.  And that is still what I do. Besides the little money I can give, aside from the little help I can offer as an individual, I can write what I see.  So I do.
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I have gone back to that book a hundred times.  No exaggeration. I’ve read it at least that many times.  It changes me with each reading. At this time of year especially, I urge anyone to buy this book, see what it does to you, to anyone who is fortunate enough to read it.
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