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Vol. LXI, No. 14
 
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
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Book Review

Let Us Now Read James Agee

Stuart Mitchner

When James Agee applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship in October 1937, he listed and described almost 50 projects he claimed either to be working on, interested in trying, or planning to return to, including a cabaret ("cheap drinks, hard jazz, floor show"); a movie theatre ("42nd Street west of Times Square, open all night. Totally anti-arty"); "re-analyses of the nature and meaning of love"; a new type of sex book ("everything seen heard learned or suspected on the subject"); and "City Streets. Hotel Rooms. Cities." He titled a project about people who betray themselves in print, "Hung with Their Own Rope"; another was headed "Extension in writing; ramification in suspension; Schubert 2-cello quintet" ("Experiments mostly in the form of the lifted and maximum-suspended periodic sentence"). Among his other proposals: a show about motherhood; a true account of a jazz band; "two forms of the history of movies"; and "conjectures on how to get 'art' back on a plane of organic human necessity."

Are you surprised to hear he didn't receive a Guggenheim? But then he was already well into the writing of a massive work in which he put many of his wildly wide-ranging ideas miraculously into play, including sex, jazz, movies, love, self-betrayal, human necessity, and, not the least (and then some), "maximum-suspended periodic sentences" stitched together by the Cinderella of punctuation marks: the hitherto unappreciated colon: to which he was so obsessively attached that he ended by naming a chapter of the book after it.

I wonder what the Guggenheim jurors thought four years later in 1941 when Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published. If they managed to get all the way through it, which is doubtful (it surely wasn't easy getting through the application), they most likely would have leaned either in the direction of the New York Times ("arrogant, mannered, precious, gross") or Time ("the most distinguished failure of the season").

The Library of America

My only problem with the two volumes of Agee's writing assembled for the Library of America by film critic Michael Sragow is the absence of that voluminous application. It's like leaving out the man's DNA. If you do read the work that evolved from it, as I have just done, you'll find that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is every bit as ambitious and conflicted as that tangled patchwork preview would lead you to believe, and here it is in 2007 packed into one volume along with his posthumous, Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family, and other, shorter fiction.

The second of the two volumes includes all his film reviews, collected and uncollected; his scenario for The Night of the Hunter; and a selection of journalism and book reviews, including one of William Faulkner's The Hamlet where, after ranking the author with Shakespeare, he concludes: "In passages incandescent with undeniable genius, there is nevertheless not one sentence without its share of amateurishness, its stain of inexcusable cheapness." The critical sensibility at work in Agee's best movie reviews follows a similar pattern. Writing about Dragon Seed (1944), he devotes two paragraphs to its virtues, which he describes in human terms ("It is good to hear a man … It is good to be shown … It is good to watch a man … Or to hear a young man …), before he gets to the point: "Such matters aside, however, this is an almost unimaginably bad movie." The paragraphs elaborating on his verdict, while showing no mercy, go about the business so amusingly (with "the extraordinary wit and felicity" W.H. Auden famously admired in a letter to The Nation), that even his victims may have felt flattered in spite of themselves. For pictures he likes, he expands the pattern. After describing at length what sounds like a flawless masterpiece, he will then discourse brilliantly on its defects. Compared to most reviewers, past or present, Agee transcends the babble of pan and praise. He delivers judgments, and whether or not you agree with them, if anyone deserves to be the chief justice on the film critics' Supreme Court, it's Agee.

Words and Pictures

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men went out of print after selling several hundred copies. By the time it resurfaced in 1960, five years after the hard-drinking, hard-living, chain-smoking, movie-star-handsome (think a mixture of Robert Ryan/Russell Crowe and better looking than either) author's early death, the book had become something of a legend.

I've been living with the 1960 edition since college but until now I'd never been able to do more than read around in it. What mainly put me off was the subject; it was not easy to settle down with a devious, densely written tome about three tenant farmer familes in Alabama, even with the haunting Walker Evans photographs; chapter titles that suggested a 20th-century Walden; and a list of "unpaid agitators" featuring Blake, Celine, Freud, Jesus Christ, and Lonnie Johnson.

Rather than urging you to rush out and buy a $35 book that demands almost saintly levels of forebearance from its readers, I should mention that Agee's magnum opus is available at the Princeton Public Library in both the Library of America and 1960 editions. Since this is the sort of book you can imagine true believers reading aloud in parks and on street corners or whispering prayerfully to themselves in lonely rooms, maybe the only way to do justice to it would be to spend the rest of my space quoting Agee's mind-bending, word-drunk prose, but some of the richest passages go on for pages. I'd need the equivalent of five columns.

One way to appreciate Agee's range is to compare what his preface calls the "nominal subject" (the three tenant farmers, their families, and their surroundings) with the statement of purpose that follows it: "More essentially, this is an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity." The phrasing is vintage James Agee, as good as a signature or a fingerprint, and when you find yourself going back to the front of the volume to check his depictions of "human divinity" against Walker Evan's classic images of the reality (now in the pantheon of American photography), you may recall the old adage about the superiority of the image to the word and wonder why you should enter this dense forest of rhetoric when the pictures up front are so eloquent, lucid, and undemanding.

In his detailed inventory of the sharecropper household where Evans and Agee lived, sleeping on the porch, for a month in the summer of 1936, Agee appears to follow the documentary line, titling one chapter "The Front Bedroom" and dividing it into parts such as "The placement of furniture" and "The furniture." He's not doing much more than writing glorified captions to Evans's photographs — until he begins describing the bureau. Even then, the writing suggests little beyond the "nominal subject" ("the veneer has split and leafed loose in many places" and "the handles of the three drawers are nearly all deranged").

Then you come to the mirror:

"The mirror is so far corrupted that it is rashed with gray, iridescent in parts, and in all its reflections a deeply sad thin zinc-to-platinum, giving to its framings an almost incalculably ancient, sweet, frail, and piteous beauty, such as may be seen in tintypes of family groups among studio furnishings or heard in nearly exhausted jazz records made by very young, insane, devout men who were soon to destroy themselves, in New Orleans, in the early nineteen twenties."

The actual mirror is not to be found in any of Evans's photographs, which is just as well. How could any picture be worth as much as the 80 or so words Agee used to make what he made of that mirror? With nothing but a distempered surface to work with, he comes close to what Faulkner had in mind when he spoke of "putting the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin." And he does it over and over again.

Shining Through

Writing in December 2005 in The Nation, Philip Lopate calls Let Us Now Praise Famous Men one of those "unread and unreadable classics ... that educated people would rather compliment than suffer through." The difficulty, as he perceives it, is the "thick fog of lyrical rhetoric" and the "total lack of forward momentum." No doubt about it, the prose creates a fog of sorts, but it's also charged and compelling enough to shine through the haze, and Agee's angry resistance to the idea of wasting his words on "educated people" is among the tensions holding the book together, as is his way of challenging literary artifice even as he's putting it to work. His conflicted feelings about a hypothetical audience has him occasionally heaping scorn on the sort of enlightened, politically correct reader who might actually have bought or read his book in the early 1940s. You assume he's writing for the Left or the communists when he uses "Workers of the world unite and fight" as an epigraph — until you gaze down at the note telling you that the words are quoted "to mislead those who will be misled by them"; he then adds that "neither these words nor the author's are the property of any political party, faith, or faction."

It's sad to think of all the readers who must have bailed out before reaching the climactic sequence Agee titles "Inductions." What kept me reading, among many other things, was the energy of an author performing a massively extended soliloquy that creates its own momentum, building and accumulating force toward a consummation as dramatic as the equivalent denoument of a novel or fifth-act crisis of a play. "Inductions" begins as informally as a sentence on a post card: "I remember so well the first night I spent under one of those roofs." At this point, after 300-plus pages, we have already been thoroughly submerged in the human/animal life and material reality under those roofs. We have been given minutely detailed knowledge of the people and their possessions. We have also met them in the Walker Evans photographs. Yet all the while Agee has been keeping his distance, even as he speaks of his love for these families, even as he makes excuses for them (with their "off-hand, and deliberated cruelty, in relation toward extra-human life and toward negroes, terrible enough to freeze your blood or to break your heart or to propel you toward murder"), even as he eloquently regrets intruding on their lives and abusing their privacy. Now, finally, he describes his actual, original entrance into their lives, and the dramatic turning point of his book becomes the moment when he himself actively engages with the people and the environment.

Agee's first night with the family he calls the Gudgers (their real name was Burroughs) takes on the aspect of divine intervention because of the crude, chaotic, self-mocking descent into blind lust and cursing rage that precedes it. As never before in this wild ride of a book, Agee's style radically changes (think pulp fiction or James M. Cain) in order to portray himself at loose ends, his mind spinning, no purpose, no theme, no subject, nothing. But his mission is about to be revealed. The account of that first night spent under the same roof with the Gudgers may be the most sustained piece of great writing in a book teeming with it. He arrives at his revelation in a storm so fierce that were this a novel, you'd assume he must have fabricated it for effect. The moment he begins to comprehend the presence of the family in the dark room, with the rain pounding and thunder booming outside, is as close to making a movie in words as he gets; again, the room he's walked into is one we saw hundreds of pages ago in daylit detail, and we've also already seen wife, husband and children; we know about their work, their schooling, their habits. Except now everything's dark and strange, as on an unlit stage set with all the characters present; as he sits down in a chair by the fireplace and George Gudger lights a candle, he begins to make it out:

"I see there are on the bed and floor a woman and children, none of whom makes a sound or says a word, nor can I yet make out their faces or their eyes; George is scratching a match; it glints and dies; another; dead wet pulp; another, flares; he guards it in his palm, he touches the wick; the dark flame climbs shapeless in braiding of oleaginous smoke; he sets the chimney round it, brings it trim, the flame pales, takes shape, brightens and swells to level, and stands there in glass; I look around me: the sobriety of its fragrant light is spread not quite to the two far walls but on all surfaces of wood more near, details of furniture, bed iron, bodies, faces."

But I'm out of space, and I haven't even mentioned the three sections titled "On the Porch" that were written 70 years ago this summer in a small frame house in Frenchtown, N.J., and which are the heart and soul of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And I haven't spoken of the "the predicaments of human divinity" to be found in A Death in the Family. And I haven't said that Agee himself might have admired the compactness of the Library of America volumes, how handily they contain him, how supple they are, how pliable, and how you can read him aloud while holding the book in one hand, like a churchgoer holding a hymnal.

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