I found the epigraph for Life in Year One in what I thought was an unusual place, James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I like to pretend Agee thought something similar when he discovered the same epigraph for his book in Frank G. Carpenter’s Around the World with Children, "a third-grade geography textbook belonging to Louise Gudger, aged ten, daughter of a cotton tenant."
Now every one needs food, clothing, and shelter. The lives of most men on earth are spent in getting these things. In our travels we shall wish to learn what our world brothers and world sisters eat, and where their food comes from. We shall wish to see the houses they dwell in and how they are built. We shall wish also to know what clothing they use to protect themselves from the heat and the cold.
Without knowing it as I got my start, these wishes shaped much of what I was up to when writing Life in Year One. I was drawn to Agee and LUNPFM because the lives in that book — those of cotton tenants, their daughters and sons — turn out to look a lot like the lives I set out to write about in my book. Seeing those lives from year one in the way Agee saw the Louise Gudgers of his day was made very difficult by the fact that, while occasionally a Gospel writer gets very close, there were no James Agees back then. I had to rely on the history-by-the-winners perspectives of Josephus and a far-flung Tacitus.
Had there been a reporter living among the tenant farmers I wrote about, though, I’d like to think peasant life would have stirred up in him a “resolute, private rebellion” like the “unquenchable, self-damaging, deeply principled, infinitely costly, and ultimately priceless” one we find in LUNPFM. Agee’s writing about the American South possessed qualities entirely lacking in the perfectly unrebellious histories of Josephus or Tacitus; what Agee produced was, in his own words, an “effort to recognize the stature of unimagined existence … [and] an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”
What this approach to reporting teaches me most of all is that there is some moral bravery in our efforts to imagine the lives of others — the peasants Tacitus refers to as the quiet “common people,” and whom Josephus refers to only when they are, as one historian puts it, “politically menacing.” And since there is little we can know for sure about life in year one, with all this in mind, whatever moral bravery it might take to imagine the predicament of a first-century peasant, it’s all yours.