Notes on James Agee, Part I
James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, Shorter Fiction. Library of America.
James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism. Library of America.
I. The Voice of Obsession
The journalist, critic and novelist James Agee lived the life of a Romantic poet -- restless, reckless, sensual, Christ-haunted, and over just like that -- and he wrote like one, in rich, rhapsodic sentences buoyed by the drunk-on-itself conviction that all truths are internal. He was as preoccupied by what he saw as in gauging his own response to it, and just about all of his legacy is on display in these two volumes published late last year by the Library of America.
I've spent some quality time with both over the past year and with any luck I can perhaps put some of my thoughts down in coherent form.
Agee was a man of extremes, and they are apparent from the first page of his Depression-era classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which began as a projected story for Fortune magazine. The original idea was simple enough: Agee would pair up with his friend, the great photographer Walker Evans, to document the lives of three related families of Alabama sharecroppers. The result was turned down, and the book that nonetheless resulted sold only about 600 copies in its first year. Neither rejection is hard to fathom. Not only is the book the opposite of straight, mass-market journalism, it wages war on it.
Most people know of the book as a classic of Depression-era realism, thanks largely to Evans' great pictures. The hard, careworn faces of these families, their makeshift homes, and their children in torn and dirty clothes have all become as iconic of their time as the work of Dorothea Lange. Agee's words are very much in competition with Evans' images, but they go for a more elusive, impressionistic, and self-reflective sort of journalism. It's a fussy, obsessive, soul-searching, and punishingly personal work that hungers and thirsts after the whole idea of what it means to tell the truth and to create a lasting work of art -- despite Agee's constant protestations that art isn't his aim at all. The three families are visible only in glimpses; the main character is Agee, and the main drama is his own struggle to get both the story and his own churning anguish on paper. Long before New Journalists like Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson were flinging themselves into their stories, before Truman Capote was erasing the distance between observer and participant, before Janet Malcolm was questioning the whole strange morality of journalism, Agee laid out his deeply divided feelings unprocessed, wet and dripping -- one of the rare writers since Montaigne to really let you see him think.
What is he thinking about? First, that maybe this book is a lousy idea. There's something obscene, he tells us up front, to "pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings," and then parade them before the public to sell magazines. The key word is "undefended," not only against the forces that control the lives of people who are illiterate and poor, but against Agee's effort to define them. Agee's job is to tell the world who these families are, and there isn't a whole lot they can do in response -- they can't object because they can barely write, and even if they could they couldn't write as well as he does. This is a cross he bears throughout the entire book; he's smarter, he has the power, and his subjects are as vulnerable before him as they are before Evans's camera, which he calls "a weapon, a stealer of images and souls, a gun, an evil eye." He feels the burden of a hypersensitive soul over his own power to destroy.
Because he has a gift and advantages his subjects cannot share, engagement is limited. He feels his distance from them and pities them, even as he knows at the same time how crippling pity can be. Because it is so easy to patronize them and make them less than they are, the book becomes a page by page struggle, often a losing one, to harness his flood tide of impressions and to keep from turning these families into cliches.
He gives it his all. Agee doesn't just report, he absorbs everything from lost buttons to scraps of yard trash, then observes his observations. He wants to get to the soul of this world, to inhabit these homes like a ghost, and -- with weirdly transcendentalist echoes from Emerson and Thoreau -- to give that ghost a voice. He writes in rhapsodic, truly Proustian sentences where words are marshalled together in some unified hunt for the essential meaning, swelling with so much thought and obsessive detail that his trademark colons -- often taking the place of periods and commas -- can barely contain them. The book is awash in its own stream of consciousness, full of poems, prayers, newspaper clippings, and quirky personal asides about the role of the artist (a subject that increasingly torments Agee as the book goes along.)
Agee struggles to assume authority by immersing himself in the worlds of the three families at every level. Many of the details are perfectly telling. A drawer has "pieces of wrapping paper, each folded separately and very carefully to make no new creases than is necessary." A porch is littered with "lard tins, muleshoes, broken pieces of machinery and tools, all such things as cannot properly be called junk because they are here in the idea that a use will be found for them." A woman's coarse cotton dress bears "a grievous resemblance to newspaper drawings of timid men in barrels labeled John Q. Public." A baby has "the comic and foolish look of a dog who has been dressed up by children."
This is only the surface; he wants to get to the texture. He wants to bear witness to these lives by way of cataloguing everything. He doesn't just smell the odor of a home; he breaks it down into parts: sweat, food, dirt, wood-grain. He wants to feel the dirt of this place beneath his nails, to absorb himself in it; he picks away at every stray artifact as if it had some deep runic significance.
Every thought or observation leads to another, each colon becomes a signpost of darker, more internal paths ahead. It taxes a reader's patience, and at the same time it challenges ordinary sentimental feeling, just as he is challenging his own. It becomes less about poor families than universal domestic life, what life means when it is boiled down to its basic elements.
People sleep in a single room, and they don't have outhouses. They are illiterates, for the most part, and in their neck of hell education isn't neccessarily seen as an advantage; "there is nothing to read, no reason to write, and no recourse against being cheated even if one is able to do sums." They may have a sense of curiousity, "but these intellects died before they were born; they hang behind their eyes like fetuses in alcohol." Life and what passes for education make these people "into hopeless and helpless cripples, capable exactly and no more of doing exactly and no more of doing exactly what will keep them alive: by no means so well-equipped as domestic and free animals: and that is what their children are being made into, more and more incurably, in every year, and every day."
Their lives are so terrible, in fact, that they barely notice it, which is also why other people don't notice it either. "As for the anesthesia: it seems to me a little more unfortunate, if possible, to be unconscious of an ill than to be conscious of it; though the deepest and most honest and incontrovertible rationalization of the middle class Southerner is that they are `used' to it."
The children, particularly, upset him, because the cycle of their life is set; they will inherit the drudgery of their parents. He's aware of it and so are they: "...we have begun this looking-at-each-other of which I am later to become so conscious I am liable to trembling when I am in the same room with you."
Occasionally, he seems to be trying to make up for the occasional cruelty of his portraiture by digging deeply into himself -- to his own hangups, his fears, his lust for the occasional fetching family member, his cowardice, his night with a whore and his crumbling marriage. It's as if he's thinking "I can only tell you so much about these people; there are limits; I'm going to compensate by being even more brutal about myself."
When Agee loses a car to the mud, he finds his way to the Gudger home late at night, where they take him in and feed him. He hates their food, which is why he wolfs down more than he has to. He doesn't want the family to "continue to believe I am what they assume I must be: `superior' to them or their food, eating only so much as I need to be `polite'; and I see that they are, in fact, quietly surprised and gratified by my appetite."
In going after the concreteness of these lives, Agee stumbles into the abstract and uncertain -- whether any writer can really know a life other than his own, which is why his own thoughts and feelings take up so much of the narrative.
"I must say to you," he declares, "this is not a work of art or entertainment, nor will I assume the obligations of the artist and entertainer, but is a human effort which requires human cooperation."
By art, Agee apparently means something fake and pretentious. As he imagines telling his subjects, "art, as all of you would understand if you had my advantages, has nothing to do with Life, or no more to do with it than is thoroughly convenient at a given time, a sort of fair-weather friendship, or gentleman's agreement, or practical idealism, well understood by both parties and by all readers." It is, he says, "their texture that I want to represent, not betray, not pretty up into art." He writes of one of his subjects, the farmer Gudger, that he "is not some artist's or journalist's or propagandist's invention: he is a human being: and to what degree I am able it is my business to reproduce him as the human being he is; not just to amalgamate him into some invented, literary imitation of a human being."
When Agee decides to employ the language of his subjects, he offers this caveat: "I must warn you that the result is sure to be somewhat inaccurate: but it is accurate anyhow to my ignorance, which I would not wish to disguise."
At the same time, Agee dwells on the limits of words and his use of them, how observations are relative and memories are faulty: "...the `truest' thing about the experience is now neither that it was from hour to hour thus and so; nor is it my fairly accurate `memory' of how it was from hour to hour in chronological progression; but is rather as it turns up in recall, in no such order, casting its lights and associations forward and backward upon the then past and the then future, across that expanse of experience."
While he doesn't want to write a work of art, Agee defiantly sees himself as an artist who is committed to telling the raw truth and isn't beholden to any group, even that of leftist intellectuals like his friends Dwight MacDonald and Diana Trilling, who were offended by his refusal to kowtow to the play-nice politics of a pro-Soviet Hollywood puffball like Mission to Moscow. "A good artist," he writes, "is a deadly enemy of society; and the most dangerous thing that can happen to an enemy, no matter how cynical, is to become a beneficiary. No society, no matter how good, could be mature enough to support a real artist without mortal danger to that artist."
When he is alone in one of the homes, he becomes deeply conscious of knowing too much; the empty house he has walked around in has laid bare their lives too starkly. He feels, watching the family return, as if he has betrayed them -- "In some bewilderment, they yet love me, and I, how dearly, them; and trust me, despite hurt and mystery, deep beyond making of such a world as trust. It is not going to be easy to look into their eyes."
Sometimes he overreaches his bounds. The prose gets ethereal and obscure. He falls into bizarre pathetic fallacies. The Gudger family farm is a workroom without walls, a "water spider whose feet print but do not break the gliding water membrane," a "wrung breast of one family's need and of an owner's taking, yielding blood and semen in it's thin blue milk, and the house, the concentration of living and taking, is the cracked nipple..." The Gudger's front bedroom is a "great tragic poem."
Also, as Agee's constant second-guessing of his perceptions make the book gratingly self-involved. You can't help but be moved by Agee's devotion, and you can't help but get angry, too; frustrated by both his patronizing attitude and by his constant awareness of just how patronizing he is. He is constantly aware of his inability to get to the raw essence of these lives, so much so that you wish he'd do something more about it than just observe the fact, that he would give his subjects more of the story, that he'd get off the damn stage.
The book is an odd hybrid between social document and artistic obsessiveness. He wants more than anything to create something that lasts, that is both art and anti-art, and he wants you, as a reader, to get with the program, too. He implores you to work with him, to perceive these lives by way of your own sympathetic imagination. As he himself knows so painfully well, that's the only way you can grasp these lives at all, short of living them.