In Praise of the Almost Famous Man, Parts One and Two

This is the continuation of Danny Marroquin’s analysis of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  See his introduction here, and Tune In tomorrow for the final installment. – Liz

james_ageeJames Rufus Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee November 27, 1909, the year of our Lord. Like his father, whom he adored and never got over, he lived largely, and died in an automobile under the curse of alcohol. His dad was a worker with a manly tenderness, and James Rufus a born writer with an infinitely open tenderness. His career became one of the most varied in American letters. He brought an uncompromising style and a poetic intensity to each medium he graced. In film criticism for The Nation, he crafted a subjective, piercing and personal sort of film review. In screenwriting, he gave us The African Queen and the spooky-fresh Night of the Hunter (for those who enjoyed True Grit’s soundtrack…go to that film). He wrote an inspired life of Abraham Lincoln for the BBC documentary program Omnibus. He wrote an unfilmable Sci-Fi movie for Charlie Chaplin. He was the kind of excitable reader who would pick up, say, Richard Wright’s Black Boy and declare an entire future of the civil rights movement, a change that was sure to come. He just knew!

Agee and his favorite photographer Walker Evans would often times flee places of respectability to parse through garbage bins in search of the real American voices in discarded correspondence. Many of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’s textural choices have roots in this. He was a romantic and an Episcopalian and as such would usually medicate his own guilt about tasting life (read: infidelities) by banging his head on a brick wall, socking his own ears, and writing openly to his childhood priest. Or drinking. Or finding a party of people to entertain with his voice, which, blessed with Shakespearean silkiness and force, was as fit for narration as his writing.

If one sees past his transgressions, he was someone who believed that human life was as precious and important as human art. From his credo before Famous Men:

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game.

A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.

As a man so fierce of spirit and in complete disregard of his body, he died quite young, at 45, May 16, 1955. Posthumously, his only proper novel, A Death in the Family, won more readers than he had with his farmer book. In 1958 A Death in the Family was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. And in 1960 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men circulated past obscurity to find an audience broader than Agee himself predicted.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is his most vibrant work. In it he lives in the homes of Alabama tenant farmers, and comes away pissed about their living conditions, but also strangely bewildered and inspired. In American Literature, it remains such an anomaly it’s rarely taught. There’s not a lot of finger pointing by way of irony because, frankly, we are all to blame. It’s treatment of his subjects is sincere to a degree that somehow escapes Oscar Wilde’s dictum “all bad poetry is sincere.” It’s anthropology and journalism, but it barely qualifies as reportage–sometimes he seems to be inventing the voices in the characters’ heads.

There’s a How-To listen to Beethoven. Play it full blast with your ear on the cold wood floor next to the speaker. Eventually your body becomes music. “Is what you hear pretty? Or beautiful? Or legal?” he asks. There’s pockets of poetry, often written in the voice of scripture. There’s found objects. At one time we read from the children’s’ Bible story book. There’s confessions by Agee on the moral cost of journalism work. A barroom-fit diatribe about “honest art” is aimed at a literary magazine. As if it were a play, too, there is a Cast-Of Characters. These include the cotton farmers, and an unlikely crew dwelling in Agee’s heightened imaginative state: James Joyce, Celine, William Blake, humorist Ring Lardner, Christ, and Freud.

All of it, when read today, is remarkably strung on strands of Agee’s command and weird inspiration.

He was a precursor. Before Kerouac, Agee was bumming across the U.S.; before Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, Agee quested in search of experiential journalism. Agee lived with these taciturn, massively in-debt and toiling families for much longer than it took to make notes on them. Most of the book was written in the heat of the night in an Alabama shack. It was scrutinized, reworded and revised in the heat of various Greenwich village apartments–and between the marital disputes.

As time passed, the revolutionary tenor of the text filtered into surprising areas of establishment life. When former president Jimmy Carter would hand it to friends, they’d ask what it was. He told them that it was poetry.


Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the super flux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Agee was a Harvard graduate and aspiring poet. He switched to journalism when his college connections bought him a much sought-after editorial job in New York City during the depression. He arrived in Manhattan to see people working extra hours to sell apples on the streets. A pall of poverty stretched over the city. Soup lines extended around block corners. He went to work on the features desk at Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine. He won admirers instantly there, but all the while felt the weirdness of class disparities, himself coming from a modest home in Knoxville, Tennessee. At first he was respectful enough to his colleagues and editors. He pulled his copyboy duties with silence and consistency, unexpectedly diverting his attention from his poetic endeavors.

That James Agee stayed up late at the Chrysler Building office, banging out his own work, the wide windows overlooking the lights of Manhattan and the buzz of Wall Street, his Beethoven blasting. As he wrote more feature stories he gained some clout. A piece he wrote as a correspondent from Tennessee became the place his writing skills really emerged – FDR’s New Deal policies were taking effect with The Tennessee Valley Authority, and Agee’s take on the matter was a poetic triumph. Henry Luce valued stories like this, just as he favored hiring poets to write slickly presented copy for America’s reigning CEOs. Luce called the Tennessee river piece the best feature he’d seen, then sent Agee down South again to work on a story about struggling tenant farmers. Agee had much liberty, for the only request was that he find some farmers.

It must be said that Agee, even as a journalist, had something of the “angel headed hipster” about him. Every story he’d write was overlong, over-felt and over-indulged by his massive conceptual ideas. Many temperamental and tortured part-time poets would come and go at Fortune. But Agee would take stories, some on cock fighting, some on railroads. He stayed longer than any of his colleagues–including the poet Archibald Macleish. Agee would remain on the masthead for 9 years on the strength of his writing. Call it Beautiful Mind effect–editors were willing to wait out an Agee tantrum if they sometimes got sentences like this:

The Tennessee River system begins on the worn magnificent crests of the Southern Appalachians, among the earth’s older mountains, and the Tennessee River shapes its valley into the form of a boomerang, bowing to its sweep through seven states…

And the sentence runs for 8 more lines.

To expand further the magazine’s scope, Luce wanted the piece to describe what life was like for farmers hardest hit by the depression. Walker Evans was appointed as a photographer. This was important to Agee because Evans wasn’t Margaret Bourke White, whose photos, he thought, pandered to a bourgeois audience. Agee wrote a gleaming note about the assignment to his childhood priest Father Flye.

Evans and Agee hit Oklahoma first. They found farmers, but not tenant farmers. The Oklahoman tenant farmer migration was already at its peak, and surrounding states would not reach this point until later, and never to the same degree. In Sprott, Alabama they found a promising area, but just as they arrived, Evans found himself watching Agee suffer another crippling attack of self-doubt. So Evans left Agee at the motel and drove downtown to take random pictures. Outside a courthouse, he found a man named Frank Tingle (Fred Ricketts in the book), who led the journalist pair to a tenant farmer named Bud Fields. The farmers on the plot of land Fields led them to turned out to be three families total. They mistook Agee and Evans for New Deal agents. An infrared awareness of such slight deceits were to constitute the form of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, if it was to contain all of life: “The very blood and semen of journalism…is a broad and successful form of lying. Remove that form of lying and you no longer have journalism.”

The pair took a night to snap shots and make notes. Evans, prim and proper and well-tailored, wanted to find a bigger city. He went to Birmingham for developing the pictures. Agee, son of Tennessee and clinging to his southern roots, told Evans the article wasn’t finished, he would need to stay three weeks. Evans wasn’t surprised, but he couldn’t stay. He usually reserved little tolerance for Agee’s whims and outbursts. He knew Agee was on to something more than what his lens could catch. The inner reserve and dignity that Agee admired so much manifested itself in the composed realities in his pictures.

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No one was taking photos like Evans. One of Agee’s personal goals was to trap prose that matched the beauty of the pictures. Evans similarly respected Agee’s gifts, but he was not going to lay anymore in a bug infested bed, or pick cotton in the heat. Agee threw himself into these tasks, however briefly. At night he’d pray and write–which were the same things for him. He took notes on everything: the iron of the beds, the stripes on a girl’s dress, the geometry of the failing fireplace, the isolating proximity of the surrounding pines. The smell of the house clapboards, and the unsavory aromas too.

The reluctant business reporter was particularly sensitive to the moments of unavoidable sadness which directly related to the consumer economy he covered. One thing a struggling family can use to make their house pretty is cheap media. Agee reads their dreams from magazine-cut decorations patched to the fireplace. It reminds one of all the magazines by the cash registers at Wal-Mart, or a teenager’s collage of cut-outs on a cork board … surrounding yourself with the things you can’t have:

…young women bravely and purely facing the gravest problems of life in the shelter of Lysol, portraits of cakes, roast beef, steaming turkeys, and decorated hams, little cards by duplicate and a series depicting incidents in the life of Jesus with appropriate verses beneath, rich landscapes…

These pictures, a sort of uncomfortable blend of piety and purchase, give the families something to look at. But it was the people’s resiliency and hospitality Agee admired. Unsentimentally, he immersed himself, writing down anything they said or any of the gossip around town. He wrote down private woes too. He wanted to feel what wretches feel. The experience drove Agee to a kind of piety– the kind from his adolescent years at St. Andrew’s school, expressed by the words of scripture. At one patch of thought his meditation is a mix of prayer, journalism, stream of consciousness speculation, confession, and agony.

Immersion for the reader is the ultimate result of this stylistic amalgamation. Agee unleashes a series of insults that he heard spoken about the families. He includes the inner doubts of the young girl who lusts after a man and feels guilty. He enters their inner complaints about the living conditions. Sentence follows sentence in perfect rhythm, and just when the reader feels like they can’t hear this suffering anymore, Agee’s stringing quotations switch to paraphrased prayer:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for there’s is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

The beauty of aesthetics (or of insanity perhaps) is that you can jump on a telephone line of voice more fluid, personal and reasonable or perhaps pretty than the incessant voices that seek to define everything (here those voices label the poor, the whore, the meager of means). Indeed these voices seek to define everything but themselves. The agony comes when you can’t put your finger on where those words come from. But they are everywhere–they have made you and in some measure have guided you. That such small thoughts band together to form a gelatinous-sticky and teeming public impression is of course the tragedy that the aesthete deals with every day–the good ones with endurance, imagination and good humor. Today with our sophisticated communication devices it becomes reflex-easy for the voice of slander and rumor to become not just a piece of talk, but half of our day. Words are spelled wrong and they are hardly delivered with the force of the thing our heart means to say–if we are still blessed with articulate hearts. If for no other reason, we should turn to an imperfect, ragged book of moral outrage such as Agee’s so we can gain sight again and remember that there are things people should not do to each other. There’s something youthful and instinctively worthy in watching the young Agee get so mad, and rage at the realities of words. Why wouldn’t he? To him words are everything.

More relevant does the rage artist look in times when it gets harder to hear our neighbors amid distractions and headphones and hums. The skill of Agee’s prose, here, is a human skill of recognizing the way those voices seem to exist outside of us and as one vicious stream inside our worried strains of thought. The calm of his prayer is delivered to the stricken and to himself, and the prayer silences the voices. He won’t master his passions completely in his lifetime–he’ll hardly try–but there are moments when serenity is reached, when the artist finds a quiet place to bless those he’s seen, heard, and remembered.

Agee doesn’t seem to be doing the work as a journalist or novelist in this moment, but rather as a sort of secular priest. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr certainly wouldn’t call Agee’s use of prayer in a piece of modern literature ridiculous. He might see it as a standard example of the “homelessness of the human spirit,” a phrase he uses that matches the solemnity of Agee’s religious feelings here. Niebuhr defines the quality of spirit as the rational person’s ability to survey the world. But to make sense of the world, he cannot look exclusively to the world; that is where the prayer comes in. All the gossip and degradation are rationalized by stepping outside the flow of their original delivery, and what Agee has gleaned is not enough to sustain sustain him as a human being or artist; he must rely on his spirit to restore dignity to the families. James Joyce, one of Agee’s heroes, used the language of scripture in his prose because it was drilled into him in his youth; that language was how he came to understand language in general. But not even he employed it in a way that Agee uses it here: a blessing as a sort of tool. Niebuhr believed the person must stand outside himself and outside of the world to see himself as an instrument of God’s will:

To understand himself truly means to begin with a faith that he is understood from beyond himself, that he is known and loved of God and must find himself in terms of obedience to the divine will. This relation of the divine to the human will makes it possible for man to relate himself to God without pretending to be God.

This is to say Agee isn’t playing God, but trying to function in a spiritual task that’s been asked of him. A disappearance happens in Agee’s passage–remarkable for such an anxious writer. His highly individual style makes us suspicious of his humble religiousness. But here it manages to blend into God’s wishes for mankind. The prayer serves to spiritually liberate the oppressed in Agee’s eyes. It also includes a higher will into the vehicle of a very willful book.

His lifetime confidant Father Flye wrote to him and said the book was a deeply religious book. Agee believed, with the profanity and language indulged in the book, that he’d strayed, and he brushed the comment off. One wishes he hadn’t.

(c) Danny Marroquin All rights reserved.

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