What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Let Us Now Praise
Famous Men

by James Agee

Field-Tested by Kevin Guilfoile

in South Padre Island, Texas

That March, about twelve of us crammed ourselves into a pair of vans. Not the comfortable mini vans of today with DVD players and reclining seats, but the windowless panel kind into which a Thomas Harris villain might drag his victims after clubbing them over the head with his fake cast. The condo we had rented on South Padre Island for spring break was somewhat nicer, but just as crowded — as I recall, we took turns sleeping in the tub. What I remember most about the week, however, is Agee's moving, poetic book about the crushing poverty of southern sharecroppers in the 1930s, and Walker Evans stunning accompaniment of photographs. That, and a nuclear sunburn peeling my back and shoulders after I walked six miles across blazing sand to watch Stevie Ray Vaughn play on the other end of the island.

I was assigned it for a class on creative nonfiction, and I'm sure the irony of reading this detailed accounting of the tragedy of real poverty — and an ode to the courage it takes to live under its weight — on a private school holiday, surrounded on the beach by kids as privileged, or more so, than me, never came up. It does now, however, as the memory of that week's revelry has nearly faded completely, while my reaction to the book grows more acute. But Agee was a graduate of Exeter and Harvard, and researched the book on assignment from Fortune magazine of all places, so maybe the experience wasn't so ironic after all. Maybe that was exactly the kind of juxtaposition he intended.

Kevin Guilfoile is the author of Cast of Shadows and co-author of My First Presidentiary: A Scrapbook by George W. Bush. He can be found at his website.

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