In Praise of the Almost Famous Man

This is the first long piece in a series of variously-sized literary analyses from the lofty thinker and talented writer Danny Marroquin on James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Since it goes into such exquisite depth, we are spreading this particular piece out over the course of a few days. On Day One, we reveal his introduction and some goodies for the interested reader. From there on out, we will release the whole work in parts. Be sure to tune in tomorrow morning with your daily coffee for more of this heartfelt and inspirational take on Agee and Evans’ epic creation. – Liz

What is this?

An unusual young man named James Agee was once sent by his editors at Fortune magazine to write about living with the tenant farmers hardest hit by the Great Depression. These were people across the nation who found themselves subject to Landlord exploitation, eking out a meager living on a small parcel of land to which they had no legal rights. His experimental, modernist, critical, religious account of what he saw was turned down by the magazine and one publishing house. The book was published five years after it was assigned and it sold very few copies. Yet, over time it has continued to emerge in the imaginations of this country’s finest writers and in the bloodstream of this country’s most impassioned movements: Civil Rights, the New Journalism movement of the ’60s and ’70s, and the memoir craze of today.

This article is a searching tribute to Agee’s efforts, considered by an Oklahoman. Our fair state has roots very similar to the setting of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – in fact, Oklahoma was Agee and Evans’ first choice in their search for farmers. The book now endures as an important expression of the human spirit and American dissent in these times marked by recession economics, a culturally divided country, and widespread inequalities in the standard of living.

I’ve made effort to pay aesthetic tribute to Agee’s peace bomb. This book is alive with dynamite and love, and there are ways to share this beyond print. I’ve made a brief playlist that includes the Agee-approved Beethoven Symphony No. 9, and some of my own contributions for your listening pleasure. As the songs play, you might get a sense, as I have, of the busy veins and ventricles of Agee’s human effort. I’ve also selected a few pictures from Lynn Rostochil, OKC.net’s roving photographer. She snapped some shots of small businesses and homes in south Oklahoma City before these things were cleared away. Houses languish, people abide and the river flows.

For book and film people, I’ve included traces of Agee’s aesthetic into a recommended reading/watching list. This is how his style of seeing and looking has endured. Art leaves the hands of its creator and diffuses into the hands of others; though Agee died quite lonely and comparatively unrecognized by a mass audience, his efforts survive again and again in other works of love. I believe all these works have a common denominator of spirit that I find hard to define, but very palpable, and you I hope you will too as you read.

Suggested music to read by

BEETHOVEN’S NO. 9, PART 1

BEETHOVEN’S NO. 9, PART 2

EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY

Pictures From Roving Photographer Lynne Rostochil

Another note from the editor: This short selection from Lynne Rostochil’s portfolio of work depicts familiar scenes from our fair city. Some of these places were swept away after her pictures were taken. Some of them seem as though they could be our own doorstep or that of our neighbor just down the street. We know these places in one way or another, but the photos remind us of specifics.

On viewing these images, please consider our thoughts on why we share them and examine this statement also in relation to Agee and Evans’ masterpiece –

Photographic representations of poverty, structural decay, and weathered people are important documents for all walks of life; the physical endurance of photos offers us and future generations a chance to understand the reality of the whole human race in a completely wordless language. Rather than approaching these or Walker Evans’ images with a grim, judgmental, or voyeuristic eye, we ask the viewer to reflect on the strength of humanity as it lives on through various conditions. Celebrate with us the beauty of enduring. -Liz

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(c) Danny Marroquin All rights reserved. Photos (c) Lynne Rostochil All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce photos without Lynne’s permission.


Timeline for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

B.C. – In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the phrase “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us…” is used.

1909 – James Rufus Agee born in Knoxville, Tennessee.

1916 – Agee, age six, loses father to car accident. No more Chaplin movies and late-night diners together.

1919 – At St. Andrews Episcopal school he meets first literary/manly role model, Father James Harold Flye.

1928 – Agee is admitted to Harvard, with little help from his mother, who wrote the Dean, “His one enthusiasm is English, and writing, in which he is above average…In all else he is careless…He has always been a very high strung boy, nervously tending much to introspection. At present he is intensely modern in all his thinking and theories in need of better balance.”

1936 – Agee with Walker Evans is sent to Alabama to cover days in the life of struggling tenant farmers. Agee becomes possessed and starts writing on a project he struggles to control.

December 1936 – Fortune magazine drops the story. Agee decides to fashion the material into a book.

May 1939 – Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath published, steals Agee’s readership before his novel is published.

1941 – The book is named Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and published by Houghton Mifflin. The 471-page volume cost $3.50 and contained 62 Walker Evans photos. It sold 600 copies and vanished from the public eye. Used copies sold for 19 cents.

1951 – John Huston and James Agee finish the script for The African Queen.

May 16, 1955 – James Agee dies in a New York taxi cab at age 45.

1958 – Agee’s only novel A Death in the Family wins the Pulitzer Prize.

1964 – Civil Rights volunteers trek to Alabama to help with voter registration, copies of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in their bags.

Thanks to John Hersey and Laurence Bergreen for their research work.


Suggested or Related Readings: Appeals to Humanity

Agee on Film (seen at Full Circle’s Library of America section) – Some ecstatic writing here. One can feel Agee taking sanctuary in film, from an era when critics would truly stand behind their picks, unlike modern quasi-intellectual tepid stuff. Includes the Tennessee Valley Authority piece and other journalistic essays.

Larry McMurtry – Horseman, Pass By – McMurtry, a boy wonder, wrote this in his 20s under the influence of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, as he tells us in Walter Benjamin and the Dairy Queen. It’s hard to identify Famous Men‘s influence – his prose is measured in comparison to Agee’s unwieldy structure. His elegiac voice is ever present in this slim gem of a novel about a dissipated family that’s about to lose its cattle.

Charles Chaplin – City Lights (film) – Agee’s favorite screen actor. When the little tramp asks the girl, Do You See? He said as much as Agee did in 400 some pages.

Night of the Hunter – (film, Agee as writer) – Spooky film. Black humor in the writing and Robert Mitchum’s performance. Will recycle itself in Cape Fear. Script re-written by the British director and storyteller Charles Laughton…but you can see the Agee stuff.

Terrence Malick – The Thin Red Line, Badlands, Days of Heaven (all films) – American director that can only film what he wants to film. His pastoral images and southern narrators get to the heart of the mysterious passions that course through middle America. Thin Red Line looks like an Agee novel reads.

John Huston – Wise Blood, African Queen (w/ Agee as writer), The Treasure of Sierra Madre – With The African Queen, we are glad Agee stalked Huston down. His attention to human interactions resulted in career performances from Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot (play) – There are searches for religion here. There are quiet spots that call to mind the friends Beckett lost during WWII. Bravely, he worked for the French Resistance as a translator. Godot’s spontaneous exaltations resemble Agee’s most virtuosic passages. Like Famous Men, it is a result of the hardest kind of living.

Woody Guthrie – I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore (song) – Woody’s words better than anything capture that sense of the “homelessness of the human spirit.”

Rilla Askew – The Mercy Seat – This Pen/Faulkner award nominee now teaches writing at UCO. Her historical novel The Mercy Seat captures that old language, draws from the Old Testament, and finds resilient characters in the wild.

Paul Thomas Anderson – There Will Be Blood (film) – There’s an individualism and ferocity in this film that gurgles, most noticeably when Agee and Daniel Plainview say the phrase “more to the point.” Two crazy plain speakers with two radically different agendas.

David Foster Wallace – The Kenyon College Commencement speech – This is my favorite work of Wallace’s. Like Agee, he liked to release his every thought into print. This speech is a miracle of empathy and seeing the cosmic in the simple. Like the tirades of Famous Men, the speech is a challenge to American liberal orthodoxy. Maybe you’re not better than the hummer driver. Maybe the overweight people in the Wal-Mart line are trying. Maybe not everyday is ecstatic. When will you entertain that there are other possibilities, other stories you’re not considering? Wallace urges us to drop all airs of superiority in favor of looking around and training your eye for details. Which of course Agee did.

David Gordon Green – George Washington (film) – A praise song in the key of rust and the images of calloused hands and sweat on foreheads. This movie is in praise of working men. I don’t know if Green read Agee or not, but he’s clearly doing the same kind of work. Light humor and spontaneous acts of expression swoop in to give Green’s work a fresh aesthetic. Young people made this movie.

Cormac McCarthy – Child of God, Suttree – McCarthy wrote these novels in a farmhouse he refurbished himself. For the fireplace, McCarthy grabbed a few stones from James Agee’s boyhood home in Knoxville, which was being cleared away for Urban renewal.

James Joyce – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – Agee would study photos of Joyce’s head to try to figure out if he too was a genius. He certainly inherited some wings from Joyce’s audacious Portrait.

Hunter S. Thompson- Hell’s Angels – Excellent media critiques, and musings on what it is to cover a different kind of people. Experiential journalism after Agee.

George Orwell – Road to Wigan Pier – Orwell came away from living with coal miners with a sense of awe in their physical strength and the smaller things–like the warmth and unity of their dinner table.

William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying – A masterful performance of the stream-of-conscious techniques Agee uses in the insult-to-prayer passage I highlight above.

Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass – Agee’s very proud mother never fully supported Agee’s work. But she loved to claim being a descendant of Walt. As did James.

Barack Obama – The Arizona Memorial Speech (Jan. 12, 2011) – Barack steps away from heated political rhetoric and hits us with some Old Testament. It takes great care with its words, and understands how powerful they are…

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, ‘When I looked for light, then came darkness’ … Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.

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