All Saints Day

Today is All Saint’s Day. It is also called All Hallows or Hallowmas. Celebrated on November 1, it is preceded by All Hallows Eve or Halloween and is followed on November 2 by All Souls Day otherwise known as the Day of the Dead, a day celebrated with great enthusiasm in most of Mexico. All Soul’s Day is a Roman Catholic day of remembrance for friends and loved ones who have passed away. The living pray on behalf of Christians who are in purgatory, the state in the afterlife where souls are purified before proceeding to heaven. It is a time to pray for their souls that they may be received into heaven.

I found an Episcopal service with suggested readings for All Saints Day and was intrigued by the selection of Ecclesiasticus 44: 1-10, 13-14 as the initial scripture. This begins, “Let us now praise famous men.” This is also the title of a book written by James Agee with a series of photographs supplied by Walker Evans. Agee and Evans went to Alabama in 1935 to write an article for Fortune magazine about poverty in the South during the Depression. The article never materialized, but Agee eventually published his book. It sold only 600 copies until it was re-issued and became a cult classic in the 1960s. The sharecroppers Fields and Burroughs along with their families were hardly famous. Evans photos are some of the most highly regarded documentary photos ever made and are a part of the book.

These are portraits of Floyd Burroughs and his wife Annie Mae made at their cabin in 1935 by Walker Evans.

floydallie maeEach year I teach about this and more and more I come to realize that Floyd Burroughs, his wife Annie Mae, the Tengles, and Bud Fields are the Famous Men (and Women) that Agee wanted to praise. These people and many like them are the unknown saints that we celebrate on All Saints Day. Walker Evans’ photographs catch the humanity and dignity of these humble sharecroppers because he took the time to know them before he photographed them. Once seen and literally lived with for a month or more, it is easy to see how James Agee could say of these simple hard-working people, “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers who begat us.”