Published on Wednesday, November 27, 2002 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
A Final Assignment from Prof. Wellstone
by Randy Schubring
On the day before he died, Sen. Paul Wellstone, ever the professor, urged a Reuters reporter who was following him on the campaign trail to read "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," the Depression-era chronicle of poor Alabama tenant farmers.
Hearing of this fateful reading assignment, I hoped that I might discover something of what powered Paul Wellstone's passion in its pages. So I dusted off a copy of this epic volume, written by James Agee and with photographs by Walker Evans, and started to read. I was delighted to hear Paul Wellstone's voice emerge from Agee's text: one part socio-philosophical treatise peppered with fiery calls to arms, one part history lesson folded into long lines of exquisite prose that, as Agee put it, are "meant to be read out loud."
At its heart, "Famous Men" is a testimony on poverty and oppression. Yet it delivers its message not through macro-economic demographics and statistics, but with a mirror-like description of the daily deeds of three tenant farm families in Hobe's Hill, Ala. With fine poetic detail, Agee follows each family member as they plant, nurture and reap their meager harvest of crops. In one memorable passage, Agee compares Annie Mae Gudger's lovingly delicate preparation of a paltry breakfast to that of a morning Mass in the Cumberland Mountains.
What strikes me, and what I am sure touched Paul, is that through Agee's profound text, and even more so with Evans' photographs, we do not feel the pity or shame that so often causes us to turn away from profiles of the poor. By sharing in their daily chores and rituals, we are brought closer and feel a connection. We are left with only the dignity, strength and extraordinary courage of humble people, who, as in the irony of that title, were lifted into history and made "famous."
As with Agee and Evans' journey into the tenant shacks of the Deep South, Paul and Sheila's path also followed the personal stories of the people they met along the way. At every stop, Paul lifted up thousands of common folk and told their stories. Whether in the local VFW hall, school cafeteria or an elegant ballroom, Paul pointed out at least two or three people in the crowd, and whispered, "Sheila and I want you to know about . . . ." It could be Elmer and Bea's heroic effort to hold on to their farm, Harvey's quest for veterans benefits, Carol and Joyce's fight for acceptance from their coworkers, or Joe's search for a warm meal and shelter from Minnesota's bitter cold.
By relating common struggles and celebrating shared traditions, Paul knew, as Agee knew before him, that if we see how we are the same, we are better able to look at our differences with compassion and dignity.
One of my most vivid memories of the Wellstones was when I ran into Sheila last November at St. Paul's Kowalski's Market. We were both shopping for Thanksgiving dinner, and I was hit by that curious feeling of seeing extraordinary people doing ordinary things. Sneaking a peek into her cart filled with carrots, canned pumpkin and Brownberry stuffing mix, my feeling quickly turned to a warm sense of kinship. We are the same: We share the same traditions, we carry out the same daily chores, and sometimes we even serve the same meals.
"Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" was first published in late 1941, at a time when our nation's attention was turning away from the economic troubles of fellow Americans and toward war overseas. It sold a total of 800 copies and was quickly forgotten. Interest was rekindled nearly 20 years later, after Agee's death, when a 1960 reprint appeared in bookstores. This time we, as a nation, were ready to heed its words and message. Soon, dog-eared paperbacks found comfort in the back pockets of civil rights workers and college students fighting the war on poverty throughout the South and Appalachia.
In 1997, Sen. Wellstone set out on his own "poverty tour" echoing a similar trip made by Sen. Robert Kennedy 30 years before. Despite being mocked by the pundits as out of touch with current political trends, Paul offered his voice to the forgotten people living in the ghettoes, barrios and rural shacks in Chicago, Los Angeles, Appalachia and elsewhere.
Paul Wellstone didn't care about the politics of fashion. He knew that his compassion for the extraordinary deeds of ordinary people would not wear out. Just as "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" found its time, so too will the people touched by Paul have their day.
In the meantime, I think I'll toss a few extra packages of stuffing mix and a pumpkin pie into my shopping cart this Thanksgiving for those whom Paul and Sheila Wellstone never forgot.
Randy Schubring, of St. Paul, is a communications consultant and a DFL activist.